Acorns

Acorns

Two-time Governor General Award winner, author of 7 books and our delightful guest author at our 2015 fall retreat, Caroline Pignat shares an epiphany on her creative process. As anyone who was at that retreat can tell you, Caroline was pure inspiration and what she has to say as our guest blogger continues to inspire:

A few years ago, I started collecting acorns on my morning walks. It became a thing to find that perfect seed: that cute little nut capped in its tiny beret. As a kid, I always loved acorns: the look of them, the weight of them, the wonder of holding the promise of an oak in my palm.

Acorns, to me, were like ideas, so full of possibility. I fancied myself some kind of modern mystic (read:  hoarding squirrel) as I collected them in the jar on my desk. They were the perfect metaphor for my creative potential. Still, like most ideas found and treasured as I walked, these little seeds were soon forgotten in the busyness of my days.

Until the maggots

Yes, maggots.

“Umm…why do you have a jar of maggots on your desk?” my young niece asked, in a mix of wonder and disgust. Sure enough, she was right. My poetic potential had become infiltrated with a mass of wriggling, white worms.

Worms!

On my desk!

The horror! I wish I could have given her some inspired response. It’s a science experiment? Novel research? Pets? A snack? Any one of those answers would have been better, I suppose, than admitting that all this time, I did not see what was wriggling before my eyes.

With great dismay and even greater heebie-jeebies, I tossed the lot into the woods behind our house. So much for my profound metaphor.

But now that I think of it, my little acorns taught me another truth. Ideas, like seeds, are not meant to be hoarded. Sure, there is something comforting in filling files and notebooks with ‘what ifs’, plots, and projects. I sure feel productive squirrelling ideas between the covers of my journal.

But then… what?

I have to actually do something with that seed. That creation, invention, process, product, insight, voice — that inspiration — whatever it is, I have to let it go.

Why is that so difficult?

Maybe it’s because I like feeling the weight of its potential in my pocket. I could plant it here. I could plant it there. This could be the next big thing. That sense of could-ness makes me feel all powerful. In seed form, that idea doesn’t have to face the axe of rejection or ridicule. In seed form, perfection is still possible and so I like to hold on to it just a little longer.

But as I learned, nothing good comes from hoarding ideas — and that’s the cold, wriggling truth.

Sowing that idea takes courage. The courage of letting go. The courage to be patient and to trust in hidden growth, when all I see is dirt. Anxiety and doubt threaten to choke all hope, especially during those times when it feels like all I am growing is impatient.

Planting more seeds

And here’s another thing my acorn taught me: I’m an idiot if I think by will or worry I can make it grow any faster or become what it isn’t. I’m finally coming to realize that there is a natural process, cycles and seasons to my creative self. Just as there is a natural process for every seed of an idea.

Of course, I wish each one will sprout into a mighty oak,  but the truth is many will never quite get their moment in the sun. Some will languish in the shadow of someone else’s great idea. And more than I’d like to admit, are just duds destined to rot away.

But, you know what? I’m finally okay with that. I’m starting to realize that even the duds serve a purpose. Often they make the fertile ground for a new premise to flourish.

So to you, maggots, who wriggled your way into my writer’s block and opened my horrified eyes — thank you, I think. Thanks for helping me learn to seek, sow, and let it go knowing there are always more acorns waiting on the path ahead.

About our guest blogger:

Caroline Pignat is a teacher, a two-time Governor General’s Award winner, and a best-selling author of seven novels, including Egghead and Shooter. Known for her lyrical style and varied forms, Pignat explores the cycles and seasons of life through acrostic poems in her latest release and first picture book, Poetree. 

She has written teachers guides for many books including her own novels, EggheadGreener Grass, and The Gospel Truth.  In her upcoming Poetree Activity Guide, Pignat offers resources for nature journalling and poetry with students. Links to these free downloads at  www.carolinepignat.com

Writescape was delighted to host Caroline as our guest author at Turning Leaves 2015. She brought her excellent workshop skills and generous spirit to the writers on retreat with us. This year’s retreat is November 2- 4; there are still a few spots left to join guest author Andrew Pyper and Writescape for another inspiring writers’ weekend.

Photo: Angela Flemming

Back to School: Kids Play?

Back to School: Kids Play?

Ruth E. Walker

Wasn’t it just the other day that all the retail signs announced: Get Ready for Summer!

I just blinked and now what do they say? Get Ready for School!

Once I got over depressing thoughts of our vanishing summer, it got me thinking. Some years back (many years, in fact) I decided it was time to return to school. A high school dropout, I’d left the workforce and a developing career in the human resource profession to stay home with my young family. Getting back into the H.R. game would be tough without a university degree; a sociology or psychology major would be best, I thought.

But I was a bit scared so decided to at least start with something I really liked. English. Books are good. And reading. And talking about books…about reading books…books…

Fast-forward a couple of dozen courses later and somewhat longer years of evening and summer classes at Trent University, Durham Region Campus, and I had my degree. And no, not sociology or psychology.

English. And darn-near a minor in Cultural Studies. Even better: I graduated on the Dean’s List.

What I Learned in School

Study what you enjoy. And be open to stepping beyond what you know you’ll enjoy.

I took an Introduction to Anthropology. In the course catalogue, it all sounded a bit “sciency” but a lot of it focused on the past, so, because I like history, I risked it and I loved it. I even considered changing my major.

During the section with a biology focus, I held a plaster cast finger bone of the famous  “Lucy”, Australopethicus afarensis. Discovered in 1974 in Ethiopia, this hominid’s skeleton is about 3.2 million years old. It blew my mind and created a connection that inspired a thrice-published poem, Lucy’s Bones from Afar.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the next section on archaeology was great grounding for my final course before graduation on Greek and Roman Mythology. And from that course, I found my way to a series of poems and flash fiction, powerful characters and a novel that continues to simmer on the back burner.

Suffice to say that just one course outside of my English Literature comfort zone affected my muse, inspiring characters, poems, themes and plots in much of my future writing. I didn’t stop with Anthropology 101: Cultural Studies, Women’s Studies, Ancient History and yes, even a sociology course or two peppered my learning. By the time I graduated, I’d explored far beyond Shakespeare and sonnets.

Continuing that Education

I’m not suggesting that writers need university courses for success. That choice worked out well for me but not because I started out thinking about a career in literature. And it isn’t the only choice that had a profound impact on my writing.

Over the years, I’ve taken more than one writers’ workshop that inspired new and exciting work from me. I had mentors that gave me new perspectives. And there are many books on writing that took my craft on deep and engaging journeys.

Learning for all of us is on offer from a multitude of options: mentoring, workshops, private retreats, resource books, conferences, and so on. But not all conferences or workshops need to be about “writing.” And not all resource books should follow a familiar or safe path.

Some stretching into the unknown can help you reach new heights. It certainly did for me.

10 Great Books on Writing

10 Great Books on Writing

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

The best advice for writers is to read, and read widely. Dip your toes into styles and genres you don’t normally read and take note of how those writers crafted their work.

But you also need to read books about writing. Writing is a solitary act but it doesn’t have to be an isolated journey. Books that explore the craft and practical considerations of writing are great companions along the writer’s path. This is a list of 10 of the books that helped us at various stages of our writing expeditions.Obviously it is not an exhaustive list, just a toe-dipping exploration.

Writing Down the Bones Natalie Goldberg. Gwynn’s first “writing book”, she’s reread it many times, as well as Goldberg’s other books in a similar vein Wild Mind and The True Secret of Writing. Writing Down the Bones helped Gwynn get her head around being a writer and trusting her muse. Nathalie’s Writing Practice method (like freefall) showed Gwynn how to go deep into her subconscious to find the good stuff.

A Passion for Narrative Jack Hodgins. It’s been around since 1991. And, sure, it’s meant for developing writers. But Ruth won’t ever let it go because it is the book that moved her from writer to WRITER. To quote her: It was like having him on my shoulder, nudging me along as I learned more deeply about the craft with every page I turned.

Bird by Bird Anne Lamott helped Gwynn hone her attitude to writing and gain the confidence she needed to really start getting words on paper. Personal anecdotes give advice on everything from writer’s block to finding your voice and the value of writing “shitty first drafts”.

On Writing Stephen King  Ruth loved this one so much she got the basic book, the CD for listening and the large-print version in case her eyes give out. More than a how-to from a master of storytelling and horror of all levels, this book is a fine companion for any writer who loses their way.

 

Plot versus Character Jeff Gerke. Gwynn writes from setting, then characters, and then tries to fit it all into a plot. This book recognizes both the pantster and plotter and leads them each through processes to a well-balanced novel: memorable characters and a good plot.

The Emotional Craft of Fiction Donald Maass. After taking a workshop with agent and bestselling author, Donald Maas, Ruth was compelled to get his latest book. And it’s a doozy with examples and exercises to sharpen your emotional intelligence as a writer, dig deeper in your scenes and keep readers reading.

The Writer’s Journey Christopher Vogler is Gwynn’s go-to book on story structure. Evolved around the Hero’s journey concept, Vogler adds in what works in story that has come out of myths, fairy tales and movies.

An Introduction to Poetry  X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia, ed. — this is one of Ruth’s go-to’s whenever she’s feeling stuck with a poem. It’s a basic college-level textbook but one that’s filled with poems and the thoughts of poets on poetry and life. These are voices of a rich cultural diversity, from ancient times to modernity, all trying to figure out the world and our place in it.

Fruitflesh Gayle Brandeis. While Gwynn also turns repeatedly to An Introduction to Poetry, she also finds this book of stories, meditations and writing exercises a constant inspiration when writing poetry. Brandeis seems to have the power to inspire, challenge and free the sensual.

The Angela Ackerman/Becca Puglisi series (Negative/Positive Trait Thesaurus, etc.) Ruth has the Negative Trait Thesaurus and Gwynn has the Positive Trait Thesaurus (we share) but we’ve spoken with enough writers to know that each book Ackerman and Puglisi puts out has become a practical resource that goes beyond suggesting appropriate body language or emotional responses. Also great for those moments when you’re stuck and need to surprise yourself with your character’s good or bad behaviour.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t make note of our own writing resource book, Inspiration Station. Published in 2010 with Piquant Press it was packed full of prompts and ideas to keep writers’ pens moving. Our first non-fiction publication proved to be a popular handbook as one way to keep the retreat feeling alive long after writers packed up and headed home. It’s been through two printings and is presently sold out, but Inspiration Station has gone back to the revision table and you can look for a new edition and format next year.

Pinterest for Fiction Writers Part 1

Pinterest for Fiction Writers Part 1

Gwynn Scheltema

My favourite procrastination tool is Pinterest, but unlike my next favourite procrastination tool, Solitaire, it actually serves many useful purposes for a writer.

What is Pinterest?

Think of Pinterest as an infinite digital corkboard. On your “corkboard”, you have visual topic collection files called BOARDS for your PINS. Pins are visual web links that take you to the source of the information you are pinning (magazine article, blog, website, youtube video etc.). If you pin someone else’s pin (greatly encouraged) you are RE-PINNING. A person who has a Pinterest account (it’s free) with a collection of boards is called a PINNER.

Pins don’t have to be only informational text.. You can pin pictures, infographics, videos, photos and all kinds of ideas and inspiration. You can make your board public or secret. You can be social or not as you choose. (I choose not.)

Best of all, you can search by topic and define whether you are looking for a pin, a board, or a person. For example, I can search for all pins on “plot”, or all boards on “writing tips” or all people for “mystery author”.

If you download a “pin button” to your browser search toolbar, you can pin from anywhere you go on the internet including your own photos if they are in the cloud.

Novel vision boards

When beginning a novel, I create a board with my novel’s working title and pin images of possible characters, buildings, period dress, geographic details like birds or plants or places. Later I can add research links, newspaper cuttings, quotes, cover ideas, relevant books to read or anything else that might inspire or inform me.

I can even create sections within my board. For my mystery novel “Pyes and Ivy” I have sections for my characters, my town “Riverton” and the B&B where the action takes place “Ivy Lodge”.I find having the visual helps me keep things consistent.

Novel development boards

Of course, not every aspect of your novel has to be on one board. (You are allowed up to 500 boards and 200,000 pins). So let’s say you are working on your villain. You can create a board just for him/her. Get writing tips on writing villains. Get quotes from or about villains. Get ideas for names, motivations, and personality traits.

Rinse and repeat with other characters or setting or events…..

The craft

And when you have characters, you need an arc for them and a story arc too. Pinterest gives you access to loads of free printable worksheets for every aspect of planning your novel. Ditto for articles on “how to…” and “tips on …”

 

Looking for another way to describe hair colour? Words to use instead of “amazing”. Pinterest has pins for that. Also pins for commonly misused words, when to use what kind of hyphen, and avoiding clichés—including cliché characters.

 

 

Motivation

I have a board called “Words to write by”. It’s full of inspirational and kick-in-the-pants quotes. A quick visit there when I’m feeling like my writing is crap or I’m getting nowhere usually gets me going again. And let’s not forget the hundreds of writing prompts—visual and text; story starters and what ifs.

If you like to be social, you can follow other pinners, join group boards or comment on pins. There are even hilarious “Pinterest Fail” pins.

 

Making money.

Once you have a book to sell there are great ways to sell it on Pinterest. It’s the up and coming social media market place. But that’s a whole other blog. Stay tuned for Pinterest for Fiction Writers Part 2.

 

 

 

If You Read It, They Will Listen

If You Read It, They Will Listen

Ruth E. Walker

A recent invitation to read my work at Tall Pine Tales in Haliburton set me off on a complicated journey. Tall Pine Tales is a collaborative reading series shared by writer organizations in two of Ontario’s cottage communities: Haliburton and Muskoka. Running successfully for the past 5 summers, there are expectations from the audience for this 6th season: plenty of laughter and smiles, along with thoughtful nudges about life’s twists and turns.

For me, an invite to a public reading is an ego-boost (especially useful when my muse opts to dance just out of reach.) It’s an opportunity to share my work with an audience, to feel my words slip among listeners and tempt their interest.

But when I looked at the writing I had on hand, I panicked a bit. I have a rather dark and serious muse, so this was a real challenge. Then I remembered The Perfect Beauty of Yvon Torville, an in-progress manuscript that I plan to return to in 2019.

Choose the right piece
  • think first; read later
    • there’s a big difference between reading your work to a group of colleague writers and reading aloud to an audience that is mostly readers. You need to consider the purpose of the event, the location and the likely audience:
      • indoors or outdoors
      • a library auditorium or a noisy local pub
      • elementary or high school students or adult audience
      • consider the people and the place, then choose: humour, pathos or high-tension drama?
  • pay attention to the tone of the organizers/event
    • I knew that Tall Pine Tales is a charming mix of memoir, humour, children’s authors and local content, so I chose accordingly: Yvon Torville is a revisionist take on an old Breton fairy tale with irony and magic at its heart
Get comfortable
  • practise
    • the more your practise, the more familiar you are with your own work. During readings, you need audience connection…and that means not keeping your eyes fixed firmly on your words. Look up as you read and move your attention throughout the room: help your listeners feel that you are reading to them and not to the podium.
    • the more familiar your are with your reading, the more easily you can govern your pacing. No matter how many times I’ve read publicly, I’m still a bundle of nerves. I channel that nervous energy into my readings and work hard at not rushing through, slowing down and giving emphasis to parts that need it (a lot of character names or unusual settings or a fast-paced scene.)
    • video or record your practice readings to help you hear your intonation, pauses and occasional stumbles. If you don’t want to record yourself, at the least listen carefully as you practise again and again to ensure a smooth and confident delivery
  • reconaissance/research
    • if you aren’t familiar with the location, do what you can to get familiar. Many out-of-town locations can be viewed online (check out the website for the reading event and a list of past readers)
    • ask the organizers: will there be a podium? Does it have a reading light? Is there a microphone? And here’s a really important question: How long do I have to read? (see “Deliver” for more on this one.)
Deliver
  • listen to the other readers
    • not only is it respectful to give your colleagues your full attention, it helps you to gauge the audience. And that helps to prepare you to deliver your work. Even if the audience is not overly receptive, you’ll know you’ll have to step up your game to get their attention.
  • engage your audience
    • if you have practised then you will read clearly and with some variety in your tone and you will be able to at least glance up in their direction. That’s all part of engagement.
  • stick to the time limit.
    • I have been in the audience when readers have gone over their time limit and it’s disrespectful to the organizers, to your colleague writers who keep to their time limit and most especially, to the listeners. No matter how “rivetting” your piece is, don’t do it.
    • At Tall Pine Tales, I cut my reading off at the requested 7-minute mark and then got to hear more than one person call out “No! What happens next?” I won’t have trouble selling them that book, will I?

Accept criticism

  • take stock of success and what still needs work
    • if possible, have someone in the audience you can quietly ask about what worked and what didn’t. At Tall Pine Tales I asked my husband, “So, what do I need to do better next time?” “Nothing,” he replied. But I’m not fooled by that. “C’mon, give it to me.” He let me know that the reading was great but “…next time, give a bit more time to the set up before you read. Tell them a bit about the original fairy tale first.” Bingo. He was right. It was a good reading but would have been even better if they knew why I am compelled to revise this old tale.
    • I like to read my work aloud to an audience, and I’m pretty good at it. But even so, it’s a never-ending journey to refine and improve each time. If I’m lucky, the invitations will continue to arrive and give my muse a kick in the pants just when I need it the most.

      Ruth reads from “Living Underground” in 2012

 

 

Weddings and Writers

Weddings and Writers

Ruth E. Walker

Later this week, I’ll watch my youngest child get married to his beautiful bride. I’ll likely cry a bit — happy tears. And I’ll be relieved that my son is the last one of our children to choose a life partner. That’s it for now, until the grandchildren start the cycle all over again.

Many mothers of the groom will tell you our role has challenges: Will the rehearsal dinner menu be a nice complement to the wedding themes or a mish-mash of wrong choices? Will my dress be appropriate and not clash with the mother of the bride’s chosen colour and style? Will I remember all the names of the large wedding party, their partners and great-aunt whoozits from out West?

For a writer, there are even greater challenges that come with this territory. For example, my husband and I have written speeches together for all the other kids’ weddings. While we rarely write anything together, this one task seems to go quite well. Over four decades of marriage helps with that one. So, no, that’s a challenge but it’s one we manage to pull off. It helps that we love all our kids’ partner choices.

No, this is a different kind of challenge for me. It’s the mother and son song that is making me run around in a conflicted tizzy. I do love to dance. I’m not very good at it and likely show up in a few party videos as the one who doesn’t quite get the beat or the moves but looks happy while she’s messing it up. No. It’s not the dance itself — it’s the song choice that’s so difficult.

Lots to choose from

If you Google “mother and son wedding songs” you’ll get over 8 million hits. And links to hundreds of sites that list the “top” mother and son dances, from country to rock to contemporary to traditional and variations thereof. YouTube is a treasure trove of music videos for this one important dance. One bride website lists 40 Best Mother-Son Dance Songs. So, with so much to choose from, how can this be a problem?

I’m a complete sucker for the sentimental yet charming film, Love, Actually. I tear up at the great airport love-in montage at the end as the Beach Boys sing their hit, “God Only Knows.”

A song about love — all kinds of love. So logical choice, right?

Not the melody; it’s the lyrics

Let’s get real people. I’m a writer. So while I may love the overall sentiment of a song and enjoy a beautiful melody, the words matter. Let’s consider “God Only Knows” — great lines likes God only knows what I’d be without you — so true. Most of the grey hairs on my head can be traced back to life with children, the youngest perhaps accounting for more than all the others put together. But the opening line on that Beach Boys song stopped me cold: I may not always love you.. Nope. Not that song. Because I will always love him.

Surely, with 39 other songs, I will find the perfect song.

“Forever Young” sung by Rod Stewart. Are you going to drop the bomb or not? Bomb? I don’t think so.

“Because You Loved Me” sung by Celine Dion. I’ll be forever thankful baby/You’re the one who held me up/Never let me fall…  Just who are the lyrics meant for — mother or son?

“I Say a Little Prayer” sung by Aretha Franklin. While combing my hair now/And wondering what dress to wear now/I say a little prayer for you… 

As much as I love my son, I don’t stand before the mirror every day and think of him.  Obsessive mama, I’m not.

Who picks these songs, anyway?

Oh the songs I’ve listened to. Some are so sickly sentimental, I need a glass of water to dilute the sugar. Some stretch the boundaries of rhyme and rhythm to excruciating levels. And some make no sense at all. And speaking of “combing my hair and choosing my dress,” exactly what lyrically challenged person thought “Wonderful Tonight” sung by Eric Clapton is an ideal mother-son wedding dance song? How about that last stanza:

It’s time to go home now and I’ve got an aching head
So I give her the car keys and she helps me to bed
And then I tell her, as I turn out the light
I say, “My darling, you were wonderful tonight
Oh my darling, you were wonderful tonight

Good grief. My son’s bride won’t have to worry that Mommy is driving him home after the reception, putting him to bed while he calls me “My darling.” Nope. Not this mama.

So you see my challenge? I can’t tune out the words because they matter. Words mean something. Right now, I’m waffling between two different songs, the sentimental but lyrically true song, The Man You Have Become sung by Molly Pasutti and the sweetly upbeat 93 Million Miles sung by Jason Mraz.

Of course, my son may have some ideas on the song choice. In fact, he’s written a few lovely songs himself. But remember those grey hairs? It will likely be just before the reception before he manages to tell me what those ideas might be. Ah well. I will always love him no matter what song we dance to.

Which brings me to a song I hope we will dance to: “Love is All You Need” by The Beatles. Because, if I had one thing to tell him, it’s this: Love is all you need. Love for yourself. Love for your family. Love for the world and its inhabitants. Remember love my son, especially at times when it is the furthest thing from your mind. It will bring you back to what really matters.

 

What’s a snollygoster?

What’s a snollygoster?

Gwynn Scheltema

I love words. I’m addicted to them. I love words that I can roll around in my mouth and feel them roll off my tongue: lugubrious; predilection; vociferous.  Words that tie my tongue in knots: mnemonic; synesthesia. Words that have strange meanings: enchiridion—a book to be carried in the hand. Words that express things hard to describe: petrichor—the pleasant smell that accompanies the first rains after a spell of dry weather. Words that carry sound and music: tinkle; boom; crash. Words that are fun: higgledy; pollywog and snollygoster.

So what is a snollygoster? It’s a political thing, and I found out about it on a TED talk. Yup, I admit I’m addicted to TED talks as much as I am to words.

Who or what is TED?

TED was launched in 1984 as an invitation-only conference to bring together the innovative power of three fields: Technology, Entertainment and Design. It’s grown from a single conference to an annual open event that now includes scientists, philosophers, musicians, business and religious leaders, philanthropists and many others.

The TED website describes itself as: “a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks… from science to business to global issues…in more than 100 languages… we’re building a clearinghouse of free knowledge from the world’s most inspired thinkers.”

TED also believes “passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and, ultimately, the world.” And I believe the same about words.

So treat yourself to some summer downtime enjoy these TED talks about words (and finally find out what a snollygoster is).

What’s a snollygoster?

Etymologist Mark Forsyth shares entertaining word-origin stories from British and American history.

Go ahead, make up new words!

Lexicographer Erin McKean encourages the creation of new words to better express what we mean and make more ways to understand one another. She shares 6 ways to make new words in English including compounding and verbing.

Beautiful new words to describe obscure emotions

John Koenig loves words that express unarticulated feelings like lachesism —the hunger for disaster, or sonder—the realization that everyone else’s lives are as complex and unknowable as our own.

What makes a word real?

Who decides if new words like hangry, defriend, and adorkable make it into the dictionary? Language historian Anne Curzan takes a look at the people behind dictionaries and the choices they make.

Lets put the “awe” back in awesome.

Which of the following is awesome: your lunch or the Great Pyramid at Giza? Comedian Jill Shargaa calls for us to save the word awesome for things that truly inspire awe.

The joy of lexicography

Lexicographer Erin McKean looks at the ways today’s print dictionary is poised for transformation.

What we learned from 5 million books

Google Labs’ Ngram Viewer is a database of 5 million books from across centuries. Erez Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel show us it works.

Just the beginning

Don’t limit yourself to the talks listed here. TED topics such as author talks, writing, creativity, storytelling and more are waiting to inform, entertain and inspire you. Enjoy!

 

 

When the Agent Says No

When the Agent Says No

Ruth E. Walker

Last December, I put “The End” onto my science fiction/fantasy Young Adult novel I’d been working on for three years. And then I sent it off to an agent* who’d already enthusiastically read a few of the first pages at a writers conference 18 months earlier.

I’ve met a few agents for one-on-ones at conferences and received encouraging words. But this agent, with a large, well-known Canadian literary agency, she and I connected from the start. My latest draft of my novel has been with her since December but I’ll admit by April, I was ready for rejection. To get it over with, I sent an email asking what the status was. And, to my surprise, she wrote back to say that her colleague at the agency was nearly done reading it and then she’d look it over and get back to me soon.

In the Half-life of The Wait

This could now go only one of two ways: an offer of representation or a rejection, and then I’d move on. At least, that’s what I thought. She’d been super enthusiastic both in our initial meet and greet, and subsequently in email correspondence. I was certain we could work well together.

So I dwelt in the half-life of writers who are waiting to hear back on their submission. You know what that means:

  • I burnt a few offerings to the gods of good fortune
  • I played word games on my tablet to avoid checking my emails several times a day
  • I checked my emails several times a day
  • I forced myself not to imagine having an agent
  • I imagined announcing that at last, I had an agent

Yup. I vacillated between positive thoughts and steeling myself for “no”.

The Reply

Last week, I got the email. It was a no.

But wait. Not just any no. This is the kind of no that tortures all writers. It’s a no with an offer of hope. And frankly, even better than the hope, the email was rich in the kind of feedback from the agency reader that some writers would kill for. The agent’s colleague liked a lot about the novel:

This YA fantasy ms has some great strengths, most notably an empowered and compelling female character at the center of this hero’s quest narrative. Garnet’s backstory is complex and her character development is largely convincing.

I was especially invested in feminist leanings and diversity moral that informs this narrative, though therein lies some concern as well…

Oh-oh. I read on and learned that there were areas that kicked this reader out — parts of the story that moved too close to unsurprising. And I failed to make clear some of the central themes from start to finish, dropped a thread or two and, most grievous error of all: failed to make clear the complicated world I had built. In short, I’d left too many dangly bits.

Don’t you just hate dangly bits?

Back to the Beginning

Fortunately, if a writer has some sense of what those dangly bits are, they can be fixed: cut or tied or connected anew. I have options. I sent back an email to the agent that said as much, thanking her and her colleague for the feedback. It’s gold, I wrote — and it is, because it is concrete feedback on strengths and areas to develop.

So, this summer I’ll be focusing on revisions. Deepening characters, enriching the sense of place and pulling apart the cultural norms of my imagined world with two suns and a feral young female who will change everything. And I’ll be doing it with the agent’s words in the background:

If you find that our concerns below hit home, and you decide to revise [your novel], I’d be happy to consider the work again. Either way, I hope to hear from you again in the future, and will be cheering you on from the sidelines in the meantime.

Yup. Just what a writer needs to dive back into a novel that is nearly there. Wish me luck!

*NOTE: I shared this post with Rachel Letofsky of Cooke McDermid Literary Management and she shared it with her colleagues and especially with Kailey Havelock, Agency Assistant who was the reader of my manuscript. They’re happy to be identified as the agent and agency that this blog post is about. And I’m happy to do just that.

DID YOU KNOW?

There are plenty of opportunities to network, workshop & find the agent of your dreams. For sci-fi/fantasy writers, here’s just a taste:

Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Writers gather July 13 to 15, 2018 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada for Ad Astra, a not-for-profit, volunteer-run, weekend-long, science fiction, fantasy and horror event with a focus on authors and other creative professionals.

Fantasy and Horror Writers will travel November 1 to 4, 2018 to Baltimore, Maryland, USA for World Fantasy Convention an annual gathering and reunion of professionals, collectors, and others interested in the field of light and dark fantasy art and literature.

Science Fiction, Fantasy, Gaming, Horror Writers & Good Old Geeks have got together for over 12 years in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada for Sci-Fi on The Rock, a downhome celebration of film, literature, graphic arts and cosplay. We missed this April’s event but that gives you plenty of time to plan for 2019.

Following the Pyper

Following the Pyper

Ruth E. Walker

Over the past few years, it’s been my pleasure to take three workshops with best-selling author Andrew Pyper. And I can tell you that those workshops were incredibly helpful to me in terms of craft and technique.

I first met Andrew in 2000. It was shortly after his first novel, Lost Girls, came out. He was a guest at Words in Whitby, a magical reading series that sadly no longer exists. Fortunately, Andrew’s books last—both on the bookshelves and in the memory. On the bookshelves because they continue to sell. In the memory because they haunt you.

The same can be said about his workshops. But that haunting is a good thing because he offers writers the opportunity to understand elements of the craft in approachable and human terms.

An “Artiste” at work

I’m a pantser. Meaning, I write by the seat of my pants. I follow my characters around like a love-struck puppy. I’m content to let them tell me their stories. I write scene by scene and the hell with what kind of book I’m writing—it’s MY book so leave me alone World.  Of course, all that is in the first flush of creativity—that beautiful first draft that glows in the dark and suggests how perfect it is.

Then I have to turn it into a real book with plot and character arcs, engaging themes and all those scenes in the best possible order. I figured I wrote it scene by scene so why wouldn’t it all be in a good order?

My critique group, on the other hand, often points out things like: Why is there so much backstory in the beginning? And This is not the best place to slow down the pacing. And Are you certain you want this climax so early in the book?

Pshaw. What do they know?

They know a lot. Which is why I value them so much. But still, I fought against the tyranny of plot and the three-act structure. Enter Andrew Pyper and his plot workshops.

What Andrew taught me

Plot is not a four-letter word (even though it technically is.) And any pantser who avoids thinking in terms of plot (like I used to) is not doing themselves any favours.

From Andrew, I learned that analysis of structure is an excellent way to understand plot. Whether you use the standard 3-act structure triangle image of rising action, or a straight line divided into three separate acts, or Post-it Notes on the wall…

…you will come away with a visual picture of the frame on which your gorgeous prose hangs. It took me two different workshops with Andrew before I allowed my tentative plotter into the room.

But once I did, it opened up a whole new vista on actually seeing and, more importantly, understanding the frame that plot offers. Once there, I was ready to tackle the next bit of knowledge Andrew shared: the three-act structure is not just three acts.

Act Two = Two Acts

Imagine all three acts; now, divide Act Two in two. Why? Because the middle is the majority of your book. Consider the novels you love, the ones you cannot put down. Are they all relentless, never-ending races through the middle to get to the climax—the big scene, the moment you were dying to reach, the discovery of who the murderer is, of the at-last togetherness of the gal and the guy, that final battle with the monster…?

No they aren’t. In fact, the great books open up even more questions and several smaller crises in Act II, the middle section. They often let you THINK the monster had met its end only to discover the sacred ring was no longer in the protagonist’s pocket and, oh my god, the monster is still alive and the protagonist is trapped in a place she’ll never escape from.

She’s doomed. They’re all doomed.

That is the middle of Act II. Dividing it into two “mini-acts” makes perfect sense. As Andrew pointed out more than once (I was sometimes slow to catch on to this) Act II is always much longer than Act I (the set up/moment of change) or Act III (what Mark Twain called The burying as in let’s get it done quick.)

If you’re going to keep the reader engaged for that big chunk of your book’s middle, pull out some big guns of crisis. Not the BIG crisis; you still have to save the “ultimate battle” scene for the end.

No point in having Inigo skewer Count Rugen or Westley save Princess Buttercup in the middle of the book. But why not kill Westley in the middle of the book and keep Inigo and Fezzik busy trying to bring him back to life in time to save Princess Buttercup? (Yes. I just finished The Princess Bride and recommend it as a great novel for plot analysis.)

Self-reflection

So pull out your current work in progress. Can you apply a three-act structure? Is your middle Act II nothing but the road to one big crisis, with no rest stops along the way and subsequent crisis to threaten everything?

If so, take the time to look closely at the story and see what you need to add to the middle. Maybe move some of the action in Act III and see if it really belongs in Act II.

If you still resist the call of your inner plotter, pull out some of your favourite books and analyze their plot’s structure. Then think a bit about why you loved reading them. More than just great characters and fantastic scenes; it’s how and when and where those scenes appear and those characters behave. In other words: plot.

DID YOU KNOW?

Registration is now open for Turning Leaves, our annual fall retreat. We’re celebrating our 10th anniversary in 2018 and we are tickled to confirm that Andrew Pyper (yes, that Andrew Pyper) will be joining us for three days of focus on the craft and practicalities of writing fiction.

On November 2 to 4 at Fern Resort near Orillia, Ontario, this all-inclusive retreat includes Friday night fireside chat with Andrew about the writing life and an intense morning workshop. He’s an award-winning writer, a master of dark and disturbing mysteries and fantasy, and excellent workshop facilitator.

Our limit is 20 participants. A $250 non-refundable deposit will guarantee your spot. We expect there will be a waiting list.

 

 

Best Writer’s Birthday Present

Best Writer’s Birthday Present

Guest blog: Lori Twining
   
The gift of getting away to write is captured by Lori Twining on the Ascribe Writers group blog. Gwynn and Ruth are delighted to share her words with our readers. 
   
April 24, 2018: Spring Thaw

Every writer gets to celebrate one birthday every year. If you have a writer in your life, what do you get them?

Sure, writers love things like coffee, pens, highlighters, cake, wine, empty notebooks (cheap ones from the dollar store will do just fine), leather bound notebooks are awesome too (although most writers are afraid to write in them for fear of wrecking them), coffee, wine, dinner out somewhere, cake, coffee, maybe some more wine, definitely some more cake… but seriously, what is the one present a writer could receive, that would make them the happiest writer you know?

What is it?

Well, I am a writer and I give myself a present every year AND I consider it the best present in the world for a writer who works full time for someone else.

The gift of TIME

When I say time, I don’t mean buy them a watch. I mean, buy them a gift of time ALONE, without interruptions.

How do you do that?

Photo: Seana Moorhead, Donna Curtin and Lori Twining

Simple. I’m doing it right now.

I’m alone, well almost. I have two writing buddies from my local writing group, Ascribe Writers, who drove over four hours with me, to arrive at a beautiful lake where spring has already arrived (unlike the piles of snow still sitting at home). Here at Rice Lake, we found an amazing all-inclusive writing retreat at the fabulous Elmhirst’s Resort in Keene, run by Writescape (The Writing Retreat Specialists). Which means, there are over a dozen other writers here too.

It’s also difficult for those same writers who have to feed their families after they are finished working, clean up and do dishes, and then run their children to various sporting events, after-school jobs or to the gym or library. Time disappears too fast, and if there is an hour or two left in the day, writers are usually exhausted and probably couldn’t even write one sentence that made any sense.

So, technically, I’m not always alone. BUT, 87% of the time I am. I’m spending five whole days concentrating on writing my novel and I’m extremely happy to be making progress in huge leaps and bounds. It’s hard for writers that go to a day job for 8-13 hours each day, Monday to Friday, and still want to write for the fun of it.

If you have the opportunity to sign up a writer that you know for a 3 or 5-day writing retreat, GO FOR IT! They will love you. Or perhaps, YOU ARE THE WRITER? Then, feel free to treat yourself to this amazing gift.

Seriously, I’m almost convinced that this place is Heaven for writers. Early morning coffee at 5 a.m. on the deck watching the sunrise as you think about the motives of your characters and why they are doing what they are right now. If you get stuck, there are other writers that will help you brainstorm, giving you ten new ideas you never thought of before. They will help you with your title, your character names, a restaurant or hotel name, and they’ll even help you with motives for murder.

Feed your passion

Perhaps you are a writer that has lost your muse? Maybe you are stuck? Confused? Lost? And want to quit writing? Well don’t do it. Writing retreats are the best medicine for a soul who is passionate about writing.

Ruth E. Walker and Gwynn Scheltema run a daily workshop or two during the writing retreat to get the creative juices flowing or just to stretch your creative mind. They never fail to surprise me, by discussing a topic I thought I already knew about and presenting it in a completely different way. Fascinating approaches to getting into your character’s minds and then allowing us to try it in exercises that you can actually use in your novel.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I hate doing writing exercises. These two ladies have convinced me the writing exercises are a precious gift for my writing projects, and they are definitely NOT a waste of time. It is worth every single penny, just to figure out that aha! moment that fixes everything in your story. I’m so grateful.

We gather with all the writers twice a day to eat lunch and dinner (breakfast is provided in your cabin, helpful if you’d rather sleep through it). While there, we discuss the normal struggles writers face with writing, editing and getting published. We share ideas on how to feed our family quickly and still find time to carve an hour or two out of the day to write. Some of us are early risers and get up before the sun does and others are night owls and double as the nightly neighbourhood watch, while the rest of us sleep.

Feed your body

I should mention the food. Oh my goodness! It is fabulous. Roast beef that melts in your mouth, fresh grilled salmon, luscious pork covered in apple slaw, veggies, pasta, rice, fruit, crepes with fresh fruit, omelettes, BACON and vegetarian options for every single meal. Desserts galore, with so many options, it takes you five minutes to decide what you want to have. You walk away stuffed to the ears, thinking you will never eat another bite for as long as you are at the retreat. Well, I can easily say, that a quick walk along the shoreline, and several hours of pounding a keyboard cures that. So, we eat every 5-6 hours whether we are hungry or not. AND, we love every minute of it.

I could go on and on, describing what a great birthday gift I gave myself this year, but I still have two more days left of writing at this retreat, so I need to get back to writing about murder and mayhem in the big city.

One More Thing

One last thing, while I’m speaking of murder… Writescape has another 3-day writing retreat this fall: Turning Leaves on November 2nd– 4th, 2018. It will be held at Fern Resort on Lake Couchiching in Orillia with special guest Canadian author Andrew Pyper. Registration opens on Wednesday, April 25. If you love psychological thrillers, mysteries or dark fantasy books (a.k.a. horror), you might want to join me at this writing retreat. Of course, all of the discussions and writing exercises are adaptable to all the different genres you are writing. But, if you are writing mysteries or thrillers, you’ll have Andrew on hand to ask questions about the genre or the publishing process, all weekend long. Go to the website to reserve your spot: WRITESCAPE WEBSITE. Limited spaces available.

Okay, wait, this is the LAST, LAST THING, I promise. Look at this picture of a writer sitting on the cabin’s back deck in the warm hot sun, accompanied by a friendly kitty-cat, writing beside a beautiful blue lake, listening to the Loons calling out… “THIS COULD BE YOU!” Think about that for a minute.

 Lori on a 5-Day Writescape Writing Retreat
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, Romance Writers of America, Toronto Romance Writers, Writers’ Community of Simcoe County and Ascribe Writers. She’s a lover of books, sports and bird watching, and a hater of slithering reptiles and beady-eyed rodents. www.lvtwriter.com; Twitter @Lori_Twining.