Moving on…grammatically speaking

Moving on…grammatically speaking

Gwynn Scheltema

According to the Global English Monitor, as of January 1, 2019, the English language boasts 1,052,010 words. Apparently, we can thank The Bard for 1700 of those: addiction, assassination, bedazzle, cold-blooded, fashionable and managerare among them. And every 98 minutes another word is added. That’s almost 15 words a day! English is anything but static.

When I was working in communications for the provincial government, we regularly had meetings to discuss what was new and what had gone out of style in accepted grammar and usage. Sometimes, it got quite heated in those meetings, which just proves how strongly professional communicators feel about word usage. A lot of the discussion was around acceptable word choice, like persons with disabilities vs. disabled persons, or First Nations vs. Aboriginal.

But grammar, formatting and punctuation also made it onto the agenda. When proportional spacing became the norm on word processing programs, the double space after a period became a single space (standard now in all ms submissions). When emails were the new thing on the block, we had to refer to them as e-mail messages. Later we dropped the second word and they became e-mails. Still later, we dropped the hyphen and adopted the word email.

So when does a rule start or stop?

For the English language, there is no one body that decides. Our language is a living entity, changing over time. That’s what makes it so rich. While I firmly believe in “correct grammar” for clarity, I accept that sooner or later rules I hold sacred may indeed change. And that’s okay. It’s all a matter of common usage.

The grammar “rule” that I notice most lately is the changing use of the default pronoun.

The old default pronoun

The rule I learned was to use “he/his/him” as a default pronoun when talking in general terms, as in: “A journalist should always guard his sources.”

I like to believe that writers today know the importance of and support a less gender-based, less sexist approach to our language. So it makes sense to stop using “he” as the default pronoun. The question then becomes: what do we replace it with?

Substituting “she/her” is equally sexist. Flipping between “he” and “she” in the same piece of work would be altogether confusing.  “He/she” is cumbersome. “It” loses the human connection. “One” is acceptable, but sounds like an old-fashioned lecture.

Some people prefer to use gender-neutral pronouns created specifically for the purpose, such as ze, sie, hir, co, and ey, but I haven’t seen much evidence of their use.

The new default pronoun

More and more each day “they/them/their” is emerging as the new default even in singular situations: “A journalist should not reveal their sources.”

Now before you get your knickers in a knot over it, using “they” in this way is nothing new. It appears in Old English from 600 years ago. Here’s a line from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, ca. 1400:

And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame,
They wol come up […]”

And if you are interested in the history of the singular “they” through history right from 1375, read this post from the OED website.

I do admit, using a plural pronoun for a singular is something that I still have to get used to, but I see its value, and as imperfect a solution as it may be, it’s the only viable one we have right now.

Is singular “they” really acceptable?

In business situations here in Canada, The AP Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style are generally the go-to authorities. Here is what they have to say:

AP Stylebook (2017 edition)

“They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and/or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy.”

For example, to avoid the specificity of an individual’s gender, this use of their is acceptable: “The employee believed their position was in jeopardy.”

Chicago (17th edition)

 “While this usage [they, them, their, and themselves] is accepted in those spheres [speech and informal writing], it is only lately showing signs of gaining acceptance in formal writing, where Chicago recommends avoiding its use. When referring specifically to a person who does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun, however, they and its forms are often preferred.”

What’s a writer to do?

My first inclination is to structure your sentence so you don’t need to make the choice. Make the whole sentence plural: “A journalist should protect their sources” becomes “Journalists should protect their sources.”

That said, if it is more respectful to do so, use “they” as a singular pronoun. Make sure you match your verbs correctly though: “They are visiting.” Not “They is visiting.”

For business writing, follow your accepted style guide.

For fiction, you have control, but consider your audience and genre. Strive for unobtrusive choices and good flow, and of course, consistency.

Last word

Above all, be aware and don’t fight grammatical change just because you don’t like it or you learned something a different way. Remember, our language lives and breathes and changes all the time. Contractions (don’t; isn’t; can’t; shouldn’t) were once considered uncouth, but now we all use them.

And remember, we can thank writers for opening up the English language to new rules and new words. From Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, Scene I: “Where is our usual manager of mirth? What revels are in hand? Is there no play to ease the anguish of a torturing hour?”

Thanks, Will.

Ready for Intense Critique

Ready for Intense Critique

Ruth E. Walker

Every two weeks, Gwynn and I head to a small meeting room to join with several other writers. We have the same goal for our meeting: to give/receive in-depth critiques.

We call our group Critical MS (CMS). It’s a fun word play on “critiquing” and “manuscript”, but also on the scientific term that refers to the point at which a chain reaction starts in a nuclear explosion. Business has adopted this term too, for the point when a business starts to take off and be successful. We like to think that with the help of the group, our novels will reach that take-off-and-succeed point, too.

But, it’s not for the faint of heart – if you need to only hear lovely things about your writing, CMS (or any similarly intense group) is not for you.

The process

Manuscript excerpts are submitted by email at least one week in advance. A large submission (40 pgs, double-spaced) gets the whole two-hour meeting. Smaller submissions split the meeting time (we keep our critique focus to two pieces maximum each session.) One person maintains the list of who is “up” for the next two or three meetings and members are responsible to make sure submissions are sent on time, ready or not.

Each submission gets remarkable written comments from all the members – edits and comments to take home to review. Even if you can’t make it to the meeting, comments are expected to be emailed, so a serious commitment is definitely needed. But the true gold of CMS is the lively and diverse group discussion about the submission that happens during the meeting.

Frankly, my CMS colleagues have saved my writerly ass many times.

I can’t thank them enough.

The results

Discoveries are made. Plot holes and thematic possibilities debated. Character arcs and structure are dissected, along with murky or confusing settings. POV shifts. Tense shifts. Time shifts. Smoking guns that need resolution… 

CMS members have a range of professional expertise and resources, and they bring all that to the table. We generally don’t do “fixes” but suggestions can be mused upon – and the writer takes notes and speaks only occasionally (if clarification is needed.) It is gruelling and exhilarating because it validates you as a writer.

There’s an added bonus. Analyzing another writer’s work adds to your understanding of the writing process, of the craft, of the basic nitty-gritty of getting words on the page that will matter to readers.

Plus, listening to what others noticed that I didn’t, or had the opposite view to mine — setting, POV, character trait or plot point — well, that’s a real learning opportunity. Maybe they’re right. Maybe not. But it makes me reconsider my notes and my view.

Ultimately, the writer with work on the table has to go home, sift through the marked manuscripts and their meeting notes. They decide what to do with all that input. But again, that’s the true work of the writer: editing choices.

Accountability

Perhaps the greatest bonus for all members is our goal-setting program. It isn’t enough for one or two members to prepare their work to share with the group. Nope. We ALL get to state measurable goals for the next two weeks. Goals are noted and at the end of each meeting, we announce if we’ve met the last two weeks’ goals.

Goal met: applause. Goal not met: $2.00 fine.

Sometimes, we are brilliant and no cash goes to our goal-tender/treasurer. However, it might be interesting to note that our money pot has grown over time so that it once helped support a financially needy student to attend arts camp and recently assisted a far-north school with some needed supplies.

What can I say? We may not always achieve our goals but we do share the wealth of our procrastination. Seriously, the act of setting a goal is, for some of us, priceless. Not that anyone is brow-beaten for not achieving the goal. We all know that life happens. But there is something affirming about others listening to what we hope to achieve, ready to celebrate when we do or commiserate when we don’t.

Toes in the water first

I’ve belonged to other writing groups/circles before CMS and it was wonderful to give and receive feedback and comments – often carefully broached to avoid bruised egos and more loose in structure. I learned from them and became a better writer because of them. But the time came for a greater intensity.

When you are ready, like I was, to receive critiques on the level of a publisher or professional editor, you need to seek out the next level of your feedback process. It is not easy. And you need to commit to offer careful and thoughtful critiques to your colleagues. But it is an important step to let go of the ego and move deeper into the craft of writing.

So. Where are you on the feedback continuum? Is it time to dip your toes in or are you ready to ramp up your level of critique? If you don’t know the answer, maybe it’s time to give the question greater attention.

Last word

Looking for feedback on your writing?

Sign up for Spring Thaw, Writescape’s all-inclusive writers’ retreat April 26. Participants receive written feedback on their work from two professional editors, Gwynn Scheltema and Ruth E. Walker. That feedback is followed with a one-on-one private consultation with either Gwynn or Ruth, and they’re both available for ongoing consultations during the retreat.

Choose from the 3-day or 5-day options. Workshops, group sessions, full resort amenities and fine dining at Elmhirst’s Resort. Stay in your private bedroom in cozy lakeside cottages. For more than 10 years, it’s been a true escape to write…with Writescape.

Editor or Writing Coach?

Editor or Writing Coach?

Ruth E. Walker

It’s been my pleasure to serve as an editor on non-fiction, memoir and novel manuscripts. I’ve offered up my copyediting and proofreading skills to writers wanting a clean manuscript. Some of these manuscripts have gone on to become successful self-published books. And a few have gone on to agents or publishers, finding a home in traditional publishing.

Of course, no writer is perfect (even you, Ms. Atwood) and all books have benefitted from a good editor. However, some writers look for an editor for their manuscript when what they really need is a writing coach.

Whenever I’m asked to quote for an edit, I read an excerpt first. I’m looking for narrative skill (is this a story or a series of knocked-together events?) and a focus on craft (is there active narration, strong character development, solid plot and theme, a structure that fits the genre OR is it flat in several important areas of craft?) I’m also looking to see if my strengths are a good fit with the editing the writer needs. If not, I’ll suggest where the writer might look for editing support.

But if I see the necessary work on a manuscript as significant, I don’t give an editing quote. Instead I suggest the writer works with a writing coach and offer my services. I will still use my editorial skills but there is a big difference to how I apply them.

What is a writing coach?

A writing coach has a focus on your development as a writer. More than offering editorial advice and copyediting skills, a writing coach recognizes important areas that need developing and will work with you to improve them. It’s important to help you understand why something isn’t working well. Just as importantly, a writing coach will try to help you hold onto and use that understanding in your work. In my case, I’m like a cheerleader every time my clients apply what they’ve learned to their manuscript.

Serving as a kind of mentor, a coach spends time talking with you about your project, your intended audience and your overall goals as a writer. Consider a writing coach to be like an athletic trainer, someone who helps the writer focus on the skills needed with the desired goal as a constant beacon. A writing coach keeps you accountable and, even better, can help you approach the page with excitement and energy.

A writing coach is not your friend; instead, the coach is there to encourage and support your journey and to be clear about the steps needed to be successful. You should expect to see examples or suggestions that help your writing develop. If after a couple of sessions, you don’t feel good about the process or your progress, than it’s likely that writing coach is not for you.

Coaching is far more “organic” than editing. For example, I’ve recently worked with a writer on Point of View (POV). Once that writer gained a deeper understanding, I knew it was time for her to experiment with different approaches. My intention is to help her make decisions about writing a novel from one POV,  various POVs or as third-person narration with a limited POV.  Ultimately, it is her decision. But it’s a decision she’ll make with a clear focus on the kind of story she wants to tell and the best narration to achieve that.

Writing Coach on your shoulder

I’m far more interested in seeing the writer’s skill develop than in fixing a manuscript to “okay” level. If the story doesn’t resonate and the characters are flat stereotypes, readers won’t engage even if there are no typos and the grammar is perfect.

Nonetheless, I still make any necessary standard edits such as typos, grammar or textual errors. And I’ll comment on areas to develop: glitches in logic, lack of character development or a plot gone awry. But as a coach, I want my clients to understand what can strengthen their narrative skills. And I want them to apply that new understanding in subsequent work.

While I can’t let go of the editor, as a coach I want to support a writer to develop their storytelling techniques. When writers explore areas of craft that will enrich what they’re trying to share in their work, they reveal abilities they didn’t know they had.

Did you know?

Coaches for writing are also found in business. Clear written communication can be struggle for some people in the corporate world and with the speed of social media, one wrong word can create a huge backlash.

For another take on the role of a writing coach, take a look at author Ryan G. Van Cleave’s post on The Writer online.

Editng…Editing Angst

Editng…Editing Angst

Ruth E. Walker

Have you ever picked up a book, started to read it and stopped? Maybe you put it down, never to pick it up again. Perhaps the subject matter didn’t fit your taste. Maybe the author’s style didn’t speak to you.

Or just maybe you asked yourself, who edited this?

That’s a question that should not be on any reader’s mind. Editors are behind-the-scenes workers. They ask the author questions, offer guidance, note big issues of plot and character, and point out logic, syntax, grammar and spelling errors before that manuscript heads to the printer. They appreciate a quiet acknowledgement in the back.

When something’s missing

A book that hasn’t been edited often shows some of the following: Spelling errors. Logic glitches. Flat characters. Vague references. Passive text. No forward progression. Lack of plot arc. Unnecessary repetition. Stilted dialogue. Lack of action. Lack of transitions…

Any combination—indeed, even if it’s just one of these errors repeated—will kick readers out of the story. If it’s just an error here or there, the kick out is temporary. But readers are not too forgiving and when those editing misses pile up, a reader will abandon the book.

I’ve seen issues even with a traditionally published book, but most often, it’s the self-published books that show a need for editing. Those unsold books end up in boxes in a writer’s basement, or dumped on bargain sales tables. I wish more writers would factor in the cost of editing when they budget to self-publish. So why don’t they?

Five reasons to not hire an editor:

  1. I have family and dear friends who can help me edit my book.
    • That’s great, except none of them are professional editors but “they all read a lot and they love me.” And that means they might notice some things that need work. Or not. Hopefully, they capture everything that needs editing and they agree on everything that needs work.
  2. My printing company provided editing services—they proofread it all.
    • Be careful. Proofreading is not editing; it’s a focus on the final manuscript just before printing. It finds errors with spelling, grammar, syntax, word usage and consistency. Proofreading does not consider pacing, character development, thematic issues and figurative language, plot arcs, subplot(s), effective description, setting clarity, etc. Proofreading will not suggest that your book begins in the middle of chapter 4 and all that comes before is either unnecessary or better placed elsewhere. Proofreading will not ask you questions that help you discover that your main character has almost no motivation. Proofreading is necessary, but only one piece of the editing process.
  3. I love my book and I don’t want to change anything.
    • You are one in a million and should have no trouble making it to all the best-seller lists.
  4. Having an editor scares me. How do they know what I’m trying to accomplish? What if they tell me my book is awful?
    • No editor should scare a writer; if so, that editor is not for you. You’re not looking for a dear friend (see #1) to help you polish your manuscript. You need a professional with whom you feel comfortable enough to trust with your work. So shop around. Ask others about editors they’ve hired to work with. Are there testimonials on the website? Get quotes. Ask questions: Have you edited science fiction before? Have you worked on non-fiction? Do you offer consultation to discuss suggested edits? Do I have to pay in advance? Can I spread out my payments? Ask the questions that are important to you and see what the answers are.
  5. I can’t afford an editor
    • Hire a good editor, and you hire a professional who is objective about your book. Someone who wants you to have good sales. Someone who is motivated to help your book be the best it can be. You’ve invested untold hours in crafting your story. You’re already paying to have it bound with an attractive cover, printed and delivered to your door. You will be spending money and a huge investment of time to promote the book. In an already crammed marketplace, do you want to have a reader pick up your book, scan the first couple of pages and then put it back down?

Even Margaret Atwood appreciates an editor

I work as an editor and have done so for many years. While I’m no Margaret Atwood, I’ve been edited by others and appreciate all their work on my magazine articles, poetry and short stories. But I am immensely grateful to my editor, George Down, for his work on my novel Living Underground. George asked questions. George caught errors. And most importantly, George didn’t shape my novel into George’s book. He helped me see what needed attention and let me craft my baby into its best possible shape.

I blogged about the role of the editor a couple of years ago. Editors Frances Peck and Sherry Hinman offered some great advice in that blog. And I wrote about George and The Book Band in another blog. I continue to follow these editors’ advice and celebrate what they taught me about editing.

Computer Hacks for Writers and Researchers

Computer Hacks for Writers and Researchers

Gwynn Scheltema

If there’s a faster, easier way to do something I’m in. I love life hacks. Here are a few computer hacks I’ve collected  to make writing and researching easier. Try them. And if you have other hacks to share, tell us about them in the comments.

When writing or editing

  • Want to find an opposite, a rhyming word, a word for a phrase? Head to Wordhippo.com. They also have translations and pronunciation help.
  • Paste your finished prose into “Google Translate” and listen to it. Sometimes hearing sentences uncovers clunky bits and mistakes you might not notice by simply looking at it.
  • If you don’t have a grammar program, try Grammerly or Hemmingwayapp.com to help uncover passive voice, identify adverbs (so you can decide if you have overused them) and give you an overall reading level. (especially useful for non-fiction article writers).
  • Looking for a special font? Google.com/fonts is a collection of open source fonts, all optimized for the web.
  • When reviewing, change your font to something you don’t like. It will force you to slow down and read more critically.
Research hacks
  • Is your research article “Too Long Didn’t Read” or TLDR? Add Chrome’s TLDR free plugin to your browser screen to be one-click away from getting a condensed synopsis/summary view of news, blog posts, and other articles online. The plugin analyzes content and creates four different-length summaries.
  • Simple.wikipedia.org will condense the main points of any Wikipedia article
  • Does your Google search turn up too many options? Not sure which are most reliable? Search with scholar.google.com instead for more relevant choices.
  • When you copy from the net, use crtl + shift + V to paste it. This will prevent the text from formatting.
  • If you accidentally close a tab while researching, hit ctrl +shift+ t to reopen it.
  • Use the space bar to scroll down a webpage. Use shift + spacebar to scroll back up.
Keyboard magic
  • Instead of hitting the backspace key multiple times to erase a word., hit crtl + backspace to erase the whole word at once. It works the same for deleting a whole word with crtl + delete.
  • Although you can add symbols (like the copyright symbol ©) to your text using the insert tab, it is worth learning the shortcut keyboard codes for the ones you use most often. Note that these codes work only with a numeric keyboard, but on some laptops adding in the fn key allows them to work too. (e.g. alt + fn + 0169 = ©) You can look up the keyboard codes on the character map (insert tab; symbol; more symbols).
    Here are a few to get you started:
    • © Copyright symbol = alt +0169
    • ™ Trademark sign = alt + 0153
    • ° Degree symbol = alt + 0176
    • ¢ Cent sign = alt + 0162
    • £ English pound = alt + 0163
  • The control key also allows you to keyboard commands without stopping typing. Hold down the control key as you hit the shortcut. The keys themselves are also intuitive as they often stand for what you want to do. S for save. P for print, etc. The ones I use all the time are ctrl + f = find and crtl + z = undo.
    Here’s a full list:

.

There you go. Hack away, writer, and see if all this doesn’t make your writing and researching life easier.

Goodbye Vanity Press Impression

Goodbye Vanity Press Impression

Ruth E. Walker

I recently heard from a teen writer who was puzzled about self-publishing. She explained that she was on a committee looking at books to recommend to the Forest of Reading summer program at Ontario libraries. She was especially excited about a book from a local writer and presented it to her committee colleagues to review.

The committee agreed the book was really good and moved it forward as a recommended read to the Ontario Library Association (OLA). But my friend was disappointed to receive an email explaining that the book could not be included. The OLA has a policy to only include traditionally published works in that summer program. A novel, no matter how compelling, couldn’t be on the list if it was self-published by the author.

No matter how you feel about self-publishing versus traditionally published books, the OLA’s policy is not out of line with many organizations. And there is a good historical reason for it: vanity presses.

Feeding the Vanity Machine

Not so long ago, some printing companies called themselves publishers. Writers were attracted to those companies that would quickly publish their manuscripts without long waits to hear from an editor and no questions asked. Writers were guaranteed their book would be published…for a fee, of course. But the writers were confident of being able to sell their finished product. And all the money would go to them, not to some agent or publisher. Once they put out a lot of money to the “publisher.”

It seemed like a great idea.

Of course, the inevitable happened to most of those writers. Basements and garages filled up with boxes of books that, once family and friends had been tapped out, couldn’t be sold to strangers.

 

 

Not all vanity publications were in vain

There were amazing success stories:  David Chilton’s self-published financial advice book The Wealthy Barber has sold over 2,000,000 copies to date. He even mentored sisters Janet and Greta Podleski, and their Looneyspoons cookbook has sold 850,000 copies to date. Many speakers on the “talk circuits” self-publish companion books that sell very well on the strength of their seminars and workshops.

But they were the exception.

In the past five or so years, the winds have shifted for self-published authors. When Terry Fallis won the 2008 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour forThe Best Laid Plans, and then the 2011 CBC Canada Reads winner, he raised the profile for self-published authors in Canada. Even The Writers’ Union of Canada now accepts memberships from authors of self-published work (applicants must submit their book for review and it must meet professional standards to be accepted.)

It won’t be long before self-published titles are received everywhere with respect.

Make sure your book deserves respect

So you’ve decided to self-publish. Just because you’ve written a great story doesn’t mean it’s ready to go to press. If you truly respect your own work, you need to give it the time and focus it needs and deserves. If you truly respect your reader, ensure that you’re actually giving your reader a great story in great shape. And if you respect yourself as an author, act like you do.

Hire an editor. No, don’t rely on friends or family for this. A professional and skilled editor will help you refine your manuscript to publishable quality: a logical plot, compelling characters and a clean copy for the proofreader. An editor is not concerned with hurting your ego — an editor wants your book to succeed and if that means giving you tough news, well, that’s what will fix this book and make you an even better writer with the next book.

Hire a proofreader. Here you might have friends or family with this skill but understand a proofreader is not just reading your story and looking for oopsies. A proofreader takes a different approach to an editor. A proofreader is looking for transposed numbers. Of chapter headings in slightly different fonts. Of two similar but different spellings of the same name. The things that trick the eye of even the best editor.

Put it into your publishing budget: $800 to $2000 for editing and proofreading.

Things are changing

I’m an assessment volunteer for the Writers’ Union, reading some the self-published books submitted for membership. Some have been pretty darn good.

However, a few have been sadly in need of an editor. And a layout professional. And proofreader. The main criteria for acceptance is “would this book be comparable to a traditionally published book, with evidence of editing and professional appearance/layout?”

More often than not, the answer is yes. And that is heartening.

It means that those vanity presses are not getting as much business. Instead, we see quality book printers who also offer editing services to various levels. We see self-published books from writers who hire editors and proofreaders on their own. We see co-operative publishing ventures, where the cost and profits are shared by the printer and the author, and include editorial supports. That’s a nice balance of respect and a much better business model instead mass printing from unpolished manuscripts.

The publishing world is ever-shifting. How readers access their books is also ever-shifting just as the line between traditional and self-published books is blurring. Ultimately, readers — like my young friend — will set the pace and tone for choosing between those two approaches. And it seems that as long as a book captures a reader’s heart, it won’t matter how it made its way onto the bookshelf.

DID YOU KNOW?

Writescape self-publishes on a regular basis. At our Spring Thaw and Turning Leaves retreats, we prepare a 35-page workbook to support writers on retreat with inspiration, ideas, prompts, tips and helpful information.

When Gwynn and I published Inspiration Station, our “retreat in a paperback” in 2010, we paid for a quality layout and print product. And you can bet that book was edited, proofed and re-proofed before it came off the press.

It’s sold out right now but plans are in the works to bring it out in an electronic version. Stay tuned.

Trusting Your Reader

Trusting Your Reader

Ruth E. Walker

As a writing coach and editor, I often remind writers to trust your reader. This is not reserved for those new to the craft. Even writers with published work under their belt will slip into the world of telling when they should be nudging.

Show vs nudge

We writers hear it all the time: show don’t tell. It’s great advice and it means to write so that you keep readers engaged. Show is all part of a writer’s essential toolkit of Active instead of (ho-hum) passive writing:

  • use active verbs instead of adverbs
  • watch for info-packed sentences and unnecessary description
  • keep characters reacting physically
  • remove repetition (words, phrases, actions) unless it is important to the story/character
  • avoid clichés and stereotypes—surprise your reader (and yourself)

But it’s not exactly what I mean with “nudge.” I mean something even more subtle, more layered. Something that moves your writing up the ladder. Something that echoes subconsciously for readers.

 

For example

Imagine you are writing a book about a teenager who is a soccer star. Alexia has all the usual teen angst of being confident and insecure. Everyone tells her she defends the net like a world cup pro, that The Beautiful Game will be her ticket to success. But Alexia fears that she’s only a soccer star on her high school team and will be revealed as ordinary when she joins the provincial all-stars.

But what is your story really about? The desire to be a soccer star is just what Alexia thinks she wants. What she really wants is for her mother coaching soccer in Europe to come back home and show that her own daughter is more important than her mother’s career.

That deep longing that Alexia won’t even admit to herself is your ticket to “nudge.”

Avoid the Hammer

My Writescape colleague Gwynn often refers to tell as a Hammer (as in, hitting your reader over the head and saying, “Hey reader, are you getting this?”) Like me, she sees missed opportunities for subtle hints or when the supposed hint is as obvious as…well—a hammer to the forehead.

Back to Alexia’s longing. We could have her write in her diary: I miss my mother. I wish she’d come home. Nope. Hammer.

We could have her watch the other mothers cheer for her teammates and wipe wistful tears from her eyes. Nope. Hammer with a Sentimental Whack.

We could have sit with her best friend and talk about it:

“Why are you so upset Alexia?”

“Well Pat, I really miss my mother. With her over in Europe coaching that semi-pro team I just feel so alone here. I don’t have any grandparents or other family except Dad. And he’s busy all the time and really, I think they’re separated and just not telling me. The seasons over there are longer than ours here and I want her to come back before my season ends, to see me play just once.”

Nope. More than a Hammer, this exchange also qualifies as an As You Know Bob moment, where a writer has their character say things the person listening would already know but wants to make sure the reader has all the important information. All. Of. It.

This is a prime example of not trusting the reader to either have already figured it out OR (and this is just as important) have the patience to piece it together as the story moves forward.

Don’t poke your reader in the eye

Let’s go back to Alexia’s longing. Would you give her a mother figure in the new coach of the provincial team? That would be kind of obvious. Besides, Alexia needs to learn about the complications of mothering and find a way to connect with her absent mother.

One way to do this is to make Alexia be a mother-figure. A pet perhaps? Too unlikely. Maybe a new teammate who is even more insecure than Alexia and she nurtures her along? Too obvious and lacking in energy.

What if the provincial team requirement is a certain amount of volunteer work? What if the winter before she leaves for training camp she gets stuck with 6 weeks coaching at an inner city community centre. Despite her initial frustrations and lack of empathy, she forms attachments. And then finally, she has to leave for training camp before “the big game/event” of the community centre. She has to choose between her soccer career and the “support your team” mantra she kept telling her young charges.

Maybe all this helps Alexia see her mother in a different light—the pull between family and career that many women struggle with. Maybe this isn’t the most subtle nudge to keep Alexia’s longing a constant theme. But the point here is that I was nudging you to consider ways in which you can adjust a story—pare it, shape it—and eventually move it into thoughtful territory that nudges readers into deeper engagement with your writing.

It’s actually one of the highest compliments you can give a reader: I trust you to understand what my story is about. And frankly, it’s a lot more interesting to write without a hammer in your back pocket. And, as you know Bob, it’s something I encourage writers to remember.

DID YOU KNOW

Gwynn and Ruth are great writing coaches. It’s been their pleasure to work with writers of all kinds and at all levels. At the next Writescape retreat, Spring Thaw, they get to kick off the retreat with some one-on-one consultation with the writers there. Plus they both provide written feedback for work submitted in advance.

Support. Clear and constructive feedback. And the care and feeding of the writer’s soul that comes at all Writescape retreats. April 20 for 3 days or extend your pen for 5 days.

 

  10 Quick—and effective—Edits

  10 Quick—and effective—Edits

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. To kick off the celebration, we’ve launched 10 on the 10th. This series of monthly resources will bring tips, advice and inspiration directly to your inbox. 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.

Here are your first 10 tips:

 1. Get the action going

Replace passive, weak verbs, especially forms of the verb “to be”

  • Before:      It was a dark and stormy night.
  • After:        The storm raged through the blackness. 

2. Keep things moving forward by reducing the use of “had”

“Had” refers to “completed’ action. It has no forward movement. Use “had” once or twice at the start of a section/paragraph to establish the time period, then revert to simple past tense.

  • Before:      She had been the only one in the house, and had paid the rent faithfully each month. She                                   had taken care of the place and had put up drapes and painted.
  • After:        She had been the only one in the house, and paid the rent faithfully each month. She                                          took care of the place and put up drapes and painted.

3. Keep the action going

Delete empty words like very/somewhat/really. Energize the word being modified instead.

  • Before:      Despite the very hot afternoon….
  • After:        Despite the afternoon’s sweltering heat…

 

 4. Keep your actions strong; beware the “-ly” adverb

Can you replace it with a stronger active verb?

  • Before:      He went quickly
  • After:        He ran – or dashed, charged, bolted…

 

 5. Change up the senses you use in description.

We default to the sense of sight. Try replacing visual details with ones of another sense.

  • Before:      Anita set the gold-rimmed tea cup  on the lace cloth…
  • After:        The tea cup rattled in the saucer as Anita placed it on the lace                             cloth…

 

 6. Take your reader deeper into the world of the story

Look for named emotions (happy, sad) or physical states (fearful, tired) and replace with concrete and sensory detail.

  • Before:       She felt disappointed
  • After:        She sank onto the bench and hugged her knees

 

 7. Keep your writing fresh

Look for tired and overused clichés. (Microsoft Word’s grammar checker notes clichés with green squiggly lines.) Create visuals that add to the story or your character.

  • Before:      His beard was as white as snow
  • After:        His beard was as white as his lab coat

8. Eliminate repetition. Eliminate repetition.

Identify any “writer’s tic” that you know you have. Phrases, descriptions, gestures and so on, rapidly  lose their energy when they are overused or placed too closely together.

Example:

  • How many times do your characters “roll their eyes” or “take a deep breath?”
  • How many times have your told readers it’s “a red car?”

 

9. Keep your tricky words tamed

Are there words you constantly mispell…um…misspell? Are you working with strange names or technical terms? Keep them correct and consistent by adding them to your software’s dictionary or AutoCorrect function.

How to:     Right click on the word. Choose either Add to dictionary or AutoCorrect

 

 10. Know your country

Is it color or colour? Are they good neighbours or good neighbors? Writing for American readers, Australian readers or British readers? Incorrect spelling won’t please your publisher. Make sure your  software is defaulted to the “right” English.

How to:     Most MSWord programs have the language default on the bottom info bar. Left click to select your language.

 

If you found this helpful, let your writing friends know. Share it!

Getting Your Novel Unstuck

Getting Your Novel Unstuck

Guest blogger Stephanie Gibeault is a freelance writer with a passion for fiction for young readers. She recently wrote a post for Writescape about the benefits of writing away at the Highlights Foundation’s Pennsylvania retreat. As she promised in that December post, she’s here to share what she learned about getting a novel unstuck:

Whether you call it writer’s block, an empty tank or say your creative well has run dry, every writer has days or weeks when putting words on the page is a challenge. This past summer, I found myself stuck on my middle grade manuscript.

I created a storyboard (on my closet doors) to help me see the flow of the plot, only to discover there were structural issues I hadn’t noticed before. I could see what the problems were, but had no idea how to fix them. Thankfully, I had already signed up for a workshop dedicated to getting unstuck.

Stop spinning your wheels

In my recent guest post, I wrote about my experience at the Highlights Foundation workshop Getting Your Middle Grade Novel Unstuck. I learned many things at the workshop, but the main focus was how to deal with being stuck.

Beginning, middle or end of your story—there are great techniques that can help move you forward. Instructors Chris Tebbetts and Elise Broach armed me with loads of options. And many of them don’t even involve working directly on your manuscript.

The most valuable piece of advice I took away from the workshop: there’s always something you can be doing even if it’s not writing.

Experiment with play

Sometimes, it feels like anything other than writing a new scene is procrastination. That’s simply not the case.

Anything that moves you forward with your writing, builds your skills, increases your familiarity with your characters or fleshes out your plot is a productive and effective use of your time. That’s incredibly liberating.

Discovering your characters

Successful middle grade writers create characters their readers connect with—and characters the writers know inside and out. Chris and Elise offered lots of suggestions to get to know our characters better. Here’s a really effective one for me:

  1. Create a chart with a column for a character’s self-perception and a column for how they are seen by others.
  2. The two columns are those perceptions that are true or accurate and those that are false. This provides insight into your character’s psyche – what they hide from others and what they hide from themselves.
TRUE/ACCURATE FALSE/INACCURATE
HOW BOB SEES SELF Hilarious

Fun-loving

Always positive

Never afraid

HOW OTHERS SEE BOB Cute but annoying

Makes light of tough situations

Attention-seeking

Over-the-top

Journal as your character. Get at their innermost thoughts, motivations and goals.Other ways of getting in touch with your characters include:

  • Fill out a questionnaire or survey as one of your characters. How do they answer differently than you or another character would?
  • Write about a character’s perfect day. What makes him or her happy?
  • Create a character profile with details like hair colour, favourite movie and best friend. The more details the better.
  • Write a letter to yourself from a character about what you are getting right and wrong about him or her in your manuscript.

Stretch some more!

I learned how writing prompts helped uncover details about our characters and plots. I thought it would be limiting because I’d have to go in a particular direction rather than letting my creativity flow.

I was amazed. Forced to explore areas I might otherwise have ignored, I answered questions not directly related to my story but essential to understanding it. Simple questions like, “What does this character want?” or “Why do I love this story?” gave me a great start.

ReVision to move forward

Editing can be as radical as starting from scratch and rewriting a scene entirely from memory. You’ll likely retain your favourite parts while stumbling onto some new descriptions, dialogue and directions at the same time. With track changes in your word processor, it’s easy to compare the two versions, choosing the best sections to keep.

Or be more conservative and only delete what isn’t completely necessary. Decide what, if any, details need to go back in and what the reader never needed in the first place.

One of my favourite suggestions was when Chris told me to rewrite a section of my manuscript in first person point of view. The purpose was not to rewrite my entire manuscript, (although that is exactly what I will do), but to get me deeper into my main character’s head.

I couldn’t believe the difference it made. No longer hovering over my story, now saw it through my protagonist’s eyes. Changing point of view, or even tense (from past to present, for example), allows you to approach your narrative from a different angle and that can be all you need.

No more excuses

With so many available options, I no longer have any reason to be stuck. Or to use the phrase “writer’s block”. If you’re feeling stuck with a writing project, consider trying some of these suggestions.

Remember to take advantage of workshops and retreats to help propel you forward. My experience at Highlights sure made a difference for me.

Did You Know

Are you stuck? Writescape retreats offer the perfect space to stretch your writing skills, re-imagine your work in new and exciting ways and the safety you need for full-throated expression. Spring Thaw is already half full of eager and focused writers like you, ready to give focus to their work.

Join us for an all-inclusive escape on the shores of Rice Lake. Elmhirst’s Resort boasts cozy fully equipped cottages with fireplaces, private bedrooms and gorgeous sunrise lake views. All you need is your jammies, toothbrush and writing materials; writers at all levels are welcome. Choose either a 3-day or 5-day retreat. April 20-24.

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Power Up Your Dialogue

Power Up Your Dialogue

Ruth E. Walker

Excerpt from “Shooter”, award-winning Young Adult novel by Caroline Pignat:

I meet his eyes. Hold them for a moment. “Thanks…Hogan.” He shrugs it off like it’s no big deal. But it is, for me, it’s huge.
“Okay–but your brother is definitely dead,” Xander blurts at Hogan. “That I know because–.”
“Xander!” Isabelle cuts him off. “Geeze, don’t you have a filter?”
“No.” Confused, he looks down at his camera. “I never use one. I’d rather see things as they really are.”
We sit in awkward silence, looking everywhere but at each other.
“He’s right. It’s true.” Hogan lets out a deep breath. “It’s been two years. I should be able to at least say it.”
But he doesn’t.
Xander tilts his head and stares at Hogan. “But it’s true that you killed him?”

In fiction, well-crafted dialogue like Pignat‘s can take my breath away. But what if your dialogue is so over-written, unrealistic or dull that your reader wants your characters to stop breathing? Or at least, stop talking.

I get to read a lot of dialogue from writers at all stages of their writing career. For example, I read and assess self-published works from potential members of a national writers’ organization. I’m also a coach and editor working closely with writers seeking to polish their manuscripts. And I teach workshops that focus on crafting excellent dialogue in fiction.

I’ve read some fantastic and engaging dialogue. And I’ve read dialogue that felt like listening to someone recite the nutritional contents of a milk carton. Believe me, you want the words your characters speak to be fantastic and engaging. No 19% of vitamin D for you.

Dialogue has work to do

I’m always surprised when writers miss opportunities to make dialogue work for them. Dialogue is not filler, nor is it secondary. It’s a multi-tasking powerhouse and writers would be wise to remember that.

But even more important, there are technical effects that support and enhance your story. The following are just a few examples of the potential for spoken words:

Plot:

  • propel your narrative forward with action: “Get up! They’re swarming the gates.”
  • foreshadow, suggest, nudge: “Are you sure the doors are all locked?”
  • establish setting, time, era: “Mistress, your limbs are showing ‘neath your petticoat!”

Character:

  • convey emotional state: “Every time I look at you, I see her, alive again.”
  • highlight personality/idiosyncrasies: “Beans can’t never touch meat on my plate. I won’t eat it!”
  • establish culture/social background: “Ach lass, will you no’ be getting down from there?”
The art of character-speak

If we wrote dialogue like true, normal conversations, we wouldn’t have readers. Most real life conversations are a jumbled mess, peppered with ums, ers and ahs, interruptions, half-finished sentences and the shorthand of shared experiences.

For readers, dialogue is the illusion of active listening, of looking from person to person as a conversation unfolds. Readers also enjoy an increase in white space to ‘rest’ their eyes. Conversations create the dynamic that excites readers and keeps the story moving forward.

The job of the writer is to put words in the mouths of our characters and make it all sound natural while making sure it does some of that multi-tasking work we want it to produce.

Here are two approaches to consider.

1. Take out words to give a more natural flow. Start with a basic conversation.

“Did you see that cat get run over by the bus?”
“What cat are you talking about?”
“Frank’s old tabby cat, Tibby.”
“I didn’t see a thing. I guess Frank will be a mess.”

By taking out a word here and there, and giving a bit of a tic to one of the speakers, we also get a bit more flesh on the character.

“You see that cat get runned over by the bus?”
“What cat?”
“Frank’s ol’ cat, Tibby.”
“Didn’t see a thing. Guess Frank’ll be a mess.”

2. Use surprise or the unexpected to up the tension. Real life is often surprising when our conversations with a neighbour or colleagues go off to places we didn’t expect. Do the same thing in your dialogue because there is nothing like potential conflict to tempt your reader.

“Hi, Andrea.”
“Janice? It is you.”
“It’s so good to run into you, Andrea. You look amazing.”
“Why did you hide him from me?”

Knowing when to bring in dialogue

If there is a formula for when and where to use dialogue, I’d love to know what it is. I can say this much: When I look over my fiction, I see that I use dialogue most often when I need to raise the stakes or create conflict or tension in the story.

I don’t mean that the “conflict” or “tension” needs to be dramatic verbal combat. There are gradations and shades to tension and conflict, so sometimes that means being subtle in how I construct those conversations between characters.

Brushstrokes can be more effective than a gallon of paint. With those big scenes of a major reveal or emotion, I will often default to dialogue. But I also use dialogue for subtext and quiet discoveries.

Choosing to write scenes primarily through dialogue, action or narrative, is intuitive for most writers. But when looking at your second or third drafts, pay attention to where you’ve made those choices.

It could be that what you’ve shared in a long, explanatory passage of mostly narrative just might be better delivered through conversations between your characters.

Did You Know?

We were recently asked what a writing coach does. A writing coach supports writers at different stages of the creative process. At Writescape, we often work with writers who just want to know if they are on the right track.

Sometimes a writer needs help with specific techniques like Point of View, dialogue or story structure. And sometimes, a discouraged writer just needs someone to prompt or encourage them.

Coaching services should be tailored to your unique needs and timetable. Writescape’s  coaching services combine online, mail and telephone or in-person communications — depending on geographic, time and similar circumstances.

Contact info@writescape.ca for more information on our coaching and editing services for writers.