Something Wicked is Coming

Something Wicked is Coming

Ruth E. Walker

It’s October, Hallowe’en is coming and as two of my writing idols once wrote: Something Wicked this Way Comes. William Shakespeare gave the line to Macbeth’s witches. Ray Bradbury wrote a novel about an ill wind that blew in devilish characters.

But in today’s parlance, wicked has come to also mean GREAT!

When the universe sends you signals, the wise writer pays attention. I had something totally wicked happen to me and it has fired up my pen once more. I’m about to dive back into an old manuscript and I feel great!

There’s lots of ways a writer can lose the muse with a story. Usually, it’s just a short-lived, middle-of-the-book depression that a chat with a supportive colleague can fix. Sometimes, it’s a bit tougher to get past and a workshop or two can help shed light on the lack of inspiration. Occasionally, it’s much more serious and can lead to an abandoned manuscript.

Not all manuscripts can or should be resurrected. I have a couple in the drawer that I consider to be “training wheels.” But I also had a novel in progress that was a contemporary retelling of an old Breton fairy tale. It was a risky business, taking the magic of the tale and reworking it. But I disliked the so-called happy ending and I knew the main character deserved a much better happy ending.

It was great fun and a huge challenge. I had to make the magic real and the reality, magical…yet grounded. I re-read Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales, Grimm’s deviously delightful fairy tales and William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. I dived back into my cultural studies oral narrative course work, spending time with The Mabinogion and Alice Kane’s The Dreamer Awakes. I let the rhythms fill my bones and added layers of story to the novel. I was on a creative roll.

How I lost my way

I signed up for a week-long writing retreat and symposium. I felt that being far from home with experienced authors, attending workshops and most importantly, one-on-one sessions with a well-published writer, would offer me insights and inspiration.

The escape to a distant location was amazing. Expansive horizons in a rural setting. My own private room and writing space. Far-off coyotes howling and yipping every night. We even had a gorgeous full moon. And somebody else cooked for me. Heaven.

Surrounded by writers at all levels of the writing journey, I enjoyed listening to the enthusiastic and generous teaching faculty. Except for one thing: my mentor writer was less-than-positive about my story.

Not all mentors are meant to be

I arrived at our one-on-one session and when handed back my submission, I saw my retreat mentor had read the 10- or 15-page excerpt. There were plenty of notes scribbled in tiny script on those pages. But I was tough. I figured I could take it.

I left that one-on-one session a total mess.

I was asked if I were writing a story for children. Oh my God, I thought, I’ve been writing a children’s story all along? I was told to read other fairy tale re-workings and learn from those authors. I should have said “I have,” and then named them. I should have asked what the mentor knew about writing for children because I sure knew the difference. I should have asked why my mentor’s tone was so condescending.

I should have asked a lot more questions. Instead, I simply took it all in. My mentor had published books in book stores. My mentor had an agent. My mentor seemed to be “in” with all the other faculty.

I arrived at that retreat excited and enthused. And while I benefitted from the other opportunities the retreat offered, I left feeling confused and that I’d made a mistake.

My mistake was not my mentor’s fault

I didn’t challenge my mentor. I didn’t ask questions. I let the whole thing simmer instead of addressing it on the spot. And I may have missed an opportunity to take in valuable insights from my mentor because I was so distressed.

My mentor did not abandon my story. I did.

It’s been eight years but the universe has conspired to bring me back to Yvon’s tale. This past summer, I needed something to read for a maximum of 7 minutes at a public event. Something “light or humorous and crowd pleasing” the invitation suggested.

Trying to find a short passage was a challenge, and a lot of my work is serious, sometimes edgy stuff. And then I remembered the opening of Yvon’s story. Ironic and satirical and just a little bit magical. So I dusted it off, tweaked it here and there, and read 7 minutes to an appreciative crowd this past summer.

But the clincher of the universe nudging the muse along was a post a colleague writer put on my Facebook page two weeks ago. She was part of a novel-writing group we were in together when I first developed Yvon and his story. She posted a cartoon of Baba Yaga — a witch character who shows up in my manuscript.

Bingo! How could I turn my back on Yvon a second time?

Baba Yaga cartoon credit: cranberrytime

Some mentors are exactly what you need

Two weeks ago, I met with another mentor, author Frances Itani. She is the 2018 Writer in Residence for the Arts Council of Haliburton Highlands where my cottage is located. Frances read a brief excerpt of Yvon’s story and offered excellent advice: practical, encouraging and insightful. She pointed out strengths in the style and areas to tighten. And most importantly, she asked me questions related to the theme and heart of the story. Questions that helped me plan the revision to come.

I’m just finishing the edits on my YA sci/fi novel, getting it ready to go out to agents once more. This time, it won’t be a challenge to let go of The Last Battlewipe because The Perfect Beauty of Yvon Torville is waiting for me to get started again. I’m a lucky writer to have such a busy muse these days. It’s totally wicked what this way comes.

 

 

Writer: Who’s in Your Tribe?

Writer: Who’s in Your Tribe?

Ruth E. Walker

Margaret Laurence, one of Canada’s exceptional writers, spoke of the other Canadian writers — friends, colleagues or just-starting-out — as “the tribe.” It was at a time when writing was a lonely business in Canada. When literary prizes were few (let alone boasting glitzy galas and live broadcasting) and especially for women writers, when there were few achieving success and critical acclaim. So for Laurence, she saw the truth behind the word “tribe”: a community of humans.

In ancient Rome, the root word of tribe, tribus, meant a division within the state. When European settlers began explorations, they used the word “tribe” to describe any and all cultures they came in contact with. I guess it was a handy, one-size-fits-all way to deal with difference and we’re still dealing with the fallout of that conquer-all mindset.

A Tribe of Writers

But back to Margaret Laurence and her use of tribe. It was a term used in a good way, meant to gather together the group of humans who penned words, often without any hope of recognition or acclaim. Her tribe was other Canadians driven by the passion and need to write.

Some years ago, I had a chat with Linwood Barclay, then a Toronto Star columnist and now a hugely popular author of mystery novels. He told me how Laurence was a mentor to him when he was a student at Trent University.  He never forgot her kindness and direct, unerring eye, and the difference it made to his eventual career and international success.

Linwood was in Margaret’s tribe long before he was selling his books in the millions. And Laurence was in his tribe, long before he realized he had a tribe.

Everyone’s Tribe is Unique

My tribe is difficult to capture in words, mostly because it is a loose-knit connection of all kinds of writers. Sometimes I spend more time with some tribe members than others. My intense critique group, Critical ms, where we give written and verbal feedback to each other, meets every other week, alternating between Peterborough and Whitby. The Writers’ Community of Durham Region counts among its membership many writers who I am so happy to call friends as well as colleagues.

Haliburton Writers

My tribe also includes the Canadian Authors’ Association, CANSCAIP, The Writers’ Union of Canada, the Muskoka Authors’ Association and the Muskoka Novel Marathon group (the photo at the top of this post is from 2014, the year I attended the MNM in Huntsville.) I’ve recently expanded my tribe to include members of the Literary Arts Roundtable of the Arts Council, Haliburton Highlands.

  • Do I know everyone in all those organizations? No.
  • Do I support the work they do and volunteer when I can to help them grow and support other writers? Yes.
  • Do I have members of my writing tribe who don’t belong to any of these groups? Yes indeed.
  • And do I have members of my writing tribe who I value beyond the ordinary? You bet.

I have a core group of writers who I might term My Tribe within My Tribe. My go-to people when the rejections arrive and the first ones to know when I’m celebrating. The ones I will drop almost anything for if they need my help. Some have been in my tribe since 1996 when I started this crazy journey of words. And some are more recent core members. They are more than friends and colleagues, and they know it.

Tribe Members Aren’t Always Writers

My tribe also includes people who are not writers. The people who support and encourage my writing — family and friends who turn out for book launches, readings and events I help organize. And I learn from the non-writing members of my tribe. I learn about books I might not have picked up myself to read. I ask research questions and get directed to places and people who can help. I have beta readers who offer feedback and suggestions.

In short, a writers’ tribe benefits you when it’s not an exclusive group.

So who’s in your writers’ tribe? Is it like my ever-expanding circle of contacts or a more intimate group or a combination? Is your tribe online or face-to-face? Is it just Canadians or does it have an international flavour?

One thing is certain: Writing is a solitary act but it doesn’t have to be a lonely one.

Links to writing organizations in my tribe:

The Writers’ Community of Durham Region

The Writers’ Union of Canada

Canadian Authors’ Association

CANSCAIP (Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers)

Muskoka Authors Association

Muskoka Novel Marathon (Facebook page)

Arts Council ~ Haliburton Highlands

 

 

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.

Turning Leaves 2018

Turning Leaves 2018

November 2 – 4, 2018

It’s our tenth anniversary and Writescape is celebrating in style! Our guest author this fall is…

Andrew Pyper: Canada’s answer to Stephen King

Bestselling author Andrew Pyper’s books expertly explore the mysteries of the dark and disturbing. His short stories and novels have thrilled readers in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K.

Among his many prizes, he’s been awarded the Arthur Ellis Award, the International Thriller Writers Award for Best Hardcover Novel, the Grant Allen Award for contributions to Canadian crime and mystery literature, and been listed in The New York Times Notable Books and The Globe & Mail‘s 100 Best Books of the Year.

Andrew is also a dynamic creative writing teacher who routinely sells out his workshops. Enjoy a Friday evening fireside chat with Andrew and a Saturday morning workshop to focus on your skills and move your writing to a whole new level.

Andrew’s latest book is The Only Child:

 Andrew’s most recent novel:…radically reimagines the origins of gothic literature’s founding masterpieces – Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Dracula – in a contemporary novel driven by relentless suspense and surprising emotion. This is the story of a man who may be the world’s one real-life monster, and the only woman who has a chance of finding him.
 
Other books by Andrew Pyper: The Damned, The Demonologist, The Guardian, The Killling Circle, Lost Girls, Kiss Me (stories), The Trade Mission, Wildfire Season

 

TURNING LEAVES 2018 BROCHURE

REGISTRATION IS NOW OPEN

A $250 non-refundable deposit will secure your place in this retreat.

Fall 2018, we’re celebrating our 10th anniversary with a special discount of $100 for anyone who has attended five or more Writescape residential retreats (Turning Leaves or Spring Thaw.)

At Turning Leaves, we build a retreat for the writer and the writing:

  • workshops to fire up your pen
  • creativity and group sessions to inspire you
  • private, uninterrupted writing time in cottage country setting
  • tailor your retreat to suit your needs
Chatting over dinner in the Heritage Dining Room
Chatting over dinner in the Heritage Dining Room

 

Meals and accommodations:

Turning Leaves 2017 with Vicki Delany
  • lakeview dining in the Heritage Dining Room
  • private or shared accommodation in Fern’s Fireside Inn
  • rooms have wood-burning fireplace, fridge, free WiFi
  • Fern Resort is 90 minutes from Toronto in a quiet bay on beautiful Lake Couchiching

Resort amenities:

  • indoor pool, Jacuzzi, steam room, sauna
  • exercise room
  • nature trails, outdoor jogging track
  • spa treatments (by appointment, extra charge)
  • onsite pub (additional charge)

Fees 

  • Lakeview Room Single Occupancy $895
  • Landview Room Single Occupancy $865
  • Landview Room Double Occupancy $795
  • Day Rate $475

Discounts

  • Retreat alumni $30
  • Members of writing organizations $30
  • Anniversary special discount $100

REGISTER NOW A $250 non-refundable deposit will secure your place in Turning Leaves 2018

PLEASE NOTE: When you hit the “Add to Cart” button, the PayPal order will show up at the top of the column to the right. To be taken to the secure PayPal to finish your purchase, click on the yellow PayPal button. You can use a credit card on the PayPal site – you do not have to have a PayPal account.

Questions? info@writescape.ca

Gardening with words

Gardening with words

Gwynn Scheltema

I was out on a walk and practicing the art of noticing, when I was drawn to a garden and stopped to look at it a little more closely. It was functional: a small patio under a huge maple, a swing for the kids hanging from an overhanging branch, herbs growing in an old wheelbarrow, flowers, veg and a patch of lawn.

Given that it’s autumn, the fallen leaves, frosted hostas and general state of waning made it messy and a little sad. But it wasn’t the kind of yard that looked as if it had been delivered from the local big box store: linear and precise, shallow and predictable – in other words: no message, no heart. This garden had soul.

I’m addicted

Whenever I travel, I visit gardens; I seek them out in concrete-jungle cities and have a vast one of my own. My mother and grandmother taught me to create landscapes that worked with nature, not against it. They taught me how to create a green space with soul. And I realized as I looked at this tiny urban gem on my walk, that creating a garden that has a heart is very much like writing.

Let it speak

To create a garden that lives and breathes, a gardener must understand that fine line between control and releasing what is already there. This example on my walk was not about control or even taming the wild. It was about using what was already there, unearthing it and allowing it to blossom. To speak. That maple tree killed the grass but welcomed a small shaded patio sitting area. The overhanging branch was perfect for a swing.

Like writing – don’t control and delineate as you write. Allow your characters to speak as they want to, to do things you could never dream up. Allow the story to unfold. Let the subconscious through.

 Work with what you have

We all have big writing dreams: maybe the next best seller, perhaps an award or earning enough to live on. But on any given day, don’t worry about what seems unattainable. Work with what you have.

This garden made the most of limited space. If you only have limited writing time, write bits that are already in your head, finish something you started, or plan or research or edit. If a novel seems overwhelming, begin with a single scene, or a short story.

If the dialogue you are producing seems flat, or you don’t really know how to punctuate it, write it anyway. You can always read up or take a course on dialogue later. And you can come back to your piece and edit it when your skills improve. But if you are always waiting for the perfect time or the perfect ability or the perfect story, you’ll be waiting a long time. And as Wayne Gretzky famously said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

And keep things manageable. Better to finish small projects or one large one than to have twenty projects that never see the light of day. There’s nothing like being able to write “The End” to motivate you to write some more.

Don’t throw good bits away

Not everything we write is worth keeping, but often you write a really good scene or stanza that just doesn’t fit with the piece or poem you’re working on. It might even be one of your proverbial “darlings.” Keep it. It may well be the start of another piece or fit into another project. Or it may serve as inspiration and impetus for a new piece that—like the wheelbarrow used as an herb garden—is very different from its original intention.

Give to get

I belong to online gardening swap sites, picking up free rhubarb plants and giving away hostas. I scour the roadside ditches for day lilies and black-eyed Susans and give them new homes. As a writer, you need to have a writing community—maybe just a writing buddy, maybe a critique group or membership in several writing organizations, or perhaps all of them.

But you’ll find that you get more out of your writing community when you contribute: give of your time, your expertise and your encouragement and support. We all have high and low times as writers and whether you need someone to help you with a practical plot problem, to celebrate a success or just give you a kick in the pants to submit or get writing, your writing tribe are the best people to do it. But, offer the same to other writers. I know that over the years, I’ve learned more about the craft by talking to fellow writers and giving feedback to others than from any book.

Tend and nurture

Without planning and fertilizing, weeding and maintaining, gardens wither or become something else you have no use for. Your writing, like any art form, is the same. You wouldn’t expect to play the piano well without practising regularly. Writing is no different. Write, write and write some more. Plan writing time into your schedule. Fertilize your craft with workshops, reading and communing with fellow writers. Weed out all your negative attitudes about not being good enough. And fill your creative well often.

Dare to be different

The garden on my walk was different from all the others on that street. Not necessarily better or worse, but different. The gardener (maybe a young mother?) created what was personally important and meaningful to her, created what was within her creative and maintenance capabilities at the time, what was pleasant and functional for her family’s lifestyle. I’m sure she also hoped that others would like it, but I doubt she created it based on what others wanted. She followed her creative path, made a garden that spoke with her voice and embodied her heart and soul.  Let your writing do the same.

DID YOU KNOW

My garden at Glentula reflects my heart and has served as inspiration to many writers. Custom “Just Write” retreats and one-day escapes are offered every summer. Gather your group, pick your date and contact Writescape to put together what you need to get writing and stay writing.

CAA One-on-one Feedback

CAA One-on-one Feedback

November 18, 2017

Gwynn Scheltema and Ruth E. Walker are offering the Canadian Authors’ Association, Niagara Branch, a special extra on November 18. After the 3-hour creative writing workshop (10 a.m. to 1 p.m.), What’s in Your Writer’s Wardrobe?*, this dynamic team of writing instructors and editors will conduct half-hour one-on-one feedback/consultation sessions.

*Workshop details

Contact: Charlotte King at gctoasties@gmail.com to register for this free workshop

Thanks to Canadian Authors Association, Niagara Branch and St. Catharines Public Library for co-sponsoring this event.

One-on-One Sessions include:

  • written feedback from either Gwynn or Ruth on up to 10 manuscript pages [**see below]
  • a one-on-one session with either Gwynn or Ruth to discuss the feedback
  • an opportunity to ask questions, discuss writing plans and potential markets

Interested participants must:

  • email up to 10 manuscript pages in advance to info@writescape.ca
  • provide material and payment no later than November 15.

Gwynn’s and Ruth’s feedback sessions are a featured cornerstone of their annual writers’ retreat, Spring Thaw. Skilled editors, they excel at finding a writer’s strengths and offering insights to specific areas that can benefit from further development. Because they are also writers, they understand that the best feedback needs to be specific and constructive.

Maximum of 6 participants.

Fee: $30 + HST includes written feedback from both Gwynn and Ruth

$30.00 CAA Niagara Feedback

Once you select Add To Cart, your shopping cart appears in the right-hand column of this page. You don’t need a PayPal account to use this secure payment method. You will need a credit card.

$3.90 HST will be added by PayPal at the checkout.

**Standard manuscript page:

  • double spaced
  • 12 point font – Calibri, Arial or Times New Roman
  • minimum 1 inch margins all round
  • paginated
  • name and title in header on each page

 

Beta Readers & You

Beta Readers & You

Ruth E. Walker

The writer in the attic garret, a single candle barely illuminating the page, the scratchscratchscratch of the pen crossing the paper. Is this your idea of the writer’s lonely life?

Well, not this writer. Yes, the act of writing is solitary. And some of us do isolate ourselves for short periods of uninterrupted time. Sometimes, even with a candle or two. But eventually, even the most private of writers needs to surface and find readers. Because, with few exceptions, that is what writers crave: a connection to others through the writing.

At a recent workshop, one writer asked the others if they wrote with an audience in mind. The answers were as varied as the participants. Some start out with an “ideal reader” in their head; some brought in the idea of a reader later on, the second or third edit, for example. But we all agreed that eventually we work with the concept of someone actually looking at our words.

An agent. An editor. Readers.

So you have the final draft of your manuscript. Seeking publication and submitting our work is a challenge at best and often, it borders on terrifying. Surely there’s a simple way to feel more confident when you press the SEND button.

I belong to a fairly intense critique group: Critical ms. That intrepid bunch has saved my writerly bacon many times as they gave feedback on chapters and scenes every few weeks. And over the past summer, they all read my final draft manuscript. I know I’m lucky to have them; critique groups rarely look at the complete work.

So what if you don’t have a Critical ms in your life? You have the manuscript in hand, hoping to catch a publisher’s attention. And you want feedback from readers. Here’s where beta readers come in. They are not copy editors or proofreaders. Instead, they will read that entire manuscript and give you a reader’s response.

How to find beta readers

Beta readers often read your work for no charge. But some charge a fee. Decide in advance how you will ask for the favour or if you will pay experienced beta readers for the service. If you decide on paid readers, make sure you ask for and get recommendations on their past performance.

Connect with beta readers through networking, word-of-mouth opportunities and social media:

  • Workshops and conferences for writers are great places to meet other writers working at the craft, just like you. They can be your beta readers or connect you with their beta readers.
  • Offer to be a beta reader: give and you can receive. Besides, a wise writer learns from reading others’ writing.
  • Tell friends and family members you are looking for beta readers (proceed with caution: feedback from people you know and care about can be more emotionally energized than you realize.)
  • Connect through writing blogs, reader/fan-fiction websites, social media such as Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. You can let others know you want beta readers through these platforms.
  • Be open to readers who are unfamiliar with your genre or topic. They might ask questions and see things that others gloss over when they read your work.

How to treat a beta reader

Once you find a beta reader or two, let them know what you expect. And give them the tools they need to do that.

  1. Don’t offer a rough manuscript to beta readers:
    • A polished manuscript is properly formatted: page numbers, chapter headings/numbers, 2-inch margins, double-spacing and indented paragraphs.
    • Work hard yourself first to ensure few typos, grammar glitches and logic slips
    • Imagine your beta readers talking with others: I just read this really confusing book. I couldn’t make sense of the timelines and the characters were just so flat…
    • Ask yourself: Is this draft complete and ready for readers?
  2. Present your manuscript professionally:
    • Have your polished draft ready in both electronic and hard copy formats.
    • Some want to read it more “book style” — 2 pages per sheet, landscape format; some want it in manuscript format (see point #1)
    • If they want a hard copy, be prepared to print it: don’t expect them to pay for the printing.
    • Ask your reader: How do you want to read this?
  3. Give your readers guidance:
    • Offer at least a cover page, outlining what you are looking for, such as: plot glitches, slow sections, any confusions, characters that don’t connect with the reader, etc.
    • Prepare a checklist if that is simpler for you and your reader, but leave lots of room for comments and questions.
    • Encourage your reader: I welcome any and all criticisms and suggestions, and appreciate your time in reading my book. Don’t worry about hurting my feelings.
  4. Use beta readers to help with your query or marketing:
    • You can include positive comments from your readers in your query letter. But keep it really brief and professional: Beta readers offered excellent feedback that helped refine the final draft.
    • If you’re self-publishing, a snippet of praise on the back cover or inside can help sell your book.
    • Example: A fast-paced and exciting thriller… A timeless love story that kept me reading to the end…
  5. Say thank you:
    • Send a personal note following up after they give you their feedback.
    • When your book is published, it may be appropriate to thank your readers inside.
    • Ask: I’d like to recognize your help. Can I mention your name in my acknowledgement page?

Remember: A beta reader is not there to feed your ego. Don’t take the comments personally. Perhaps you don’t agree; reading is subjective, after all. But always say thank you, nonetheless.

And if you are getting comments or questions from more than one reader on the same topic, perhaps you need to rethink your opinion. This just might save you from having an editor or agent ask you the very same questions.

DID YOU KNOW?
Mark Coker

Mark Coker of Smashwords, the highly successful e-book distributor, has a few things to say about beta readers. He and his wife used a specific process for their novel Boob Tube to ensure their beta readers had the right tools to respond. He shared some great tips in Publishers Weekly online.

Do you use beta readers? Let us know about your experience.

Seeing the Forest AND the Trees

Seeing the Forest AND the Trees

Ruth E. Walker

Jacob took one look at our dying tree and agreed, it had to come down.

As cottagers, we’re always in that delicate balance between celebrating the beauty of nature and needing to keep it manageable. On two acres of riverside property, we have a lovely mix of conifers (majestic white pine, balsam, spruce and fir trees) and deciduous (delicate birch, maples, black cherry, poplar, beech and a few I-Don’t-Know-Whats.) Safety is always a consideration, as in “If that 30′ spruce fell on the cottage, it wouldn’t be pretty.”

So bringing in Jacob Outram and his tree service was the right thing to do. The spruce had to go.

Jacob wasn’t finished. He listened to us and our concerns about another tree. And then, like the certified arborist he is, Jacob walked the property.

“This will need trimming on one side so if it falls, the weight is away from the building.” Check.

“One half of this birch is dead. It’s next to the gazebo. The dead part has to go.” Check.

“Those branches are over the roof. Winter snow weighs them down, right?” Check.

“This one is losing its needles on the lower branches from lack of light. Trim here and it will be fine.” Check.

By the time he was finished, our one dead tree wasn’t the only one slated for removal or trimming. And as he pointed out the issue with each one, I thought how is it he saw so much of what we didn’t? Then one second later, I thought, Jacob is my tree editor!

Trim Trees, Tighten Text

Think about it. We love our forest (manuscript) so much and look at it so often that we failed to notice pressing issues (spelling, grammar, plot, pacing) and future issues (reader expectations, marketability) that Jacob (editor) saw with his fresh eyes and professional experience. His assessment (feedback) gave us insights to our surrounding forest. And while we will pay for his expertise and work, I don’t begrudge a cent of it. We’ll sleep better at night.

A good editor does for your manuscript what a good arborist is doing for my cottage property. We found Jacob through recommendations. But how do you know when an editor is the right one for you?

Expert Advice

I asked professional editor Frances Peck of West Coast Editorial Associates in B.C. about qualities of a good editor.

“For many people, the qualities that first spring to mind are things like meticulousness and perfectionism, being detail-oriented and able to memorize spellings and grammar rules, having the kind of eye that jumps to the error on the page. While those are certainly desirable qualities for the copyeditors and proofreaders of the world, they carry with them the sharp, unpleasant whiff of negativity.

Good editors must recognize the risks of being forever in critique-and-correction mode, and must balance that orientation with healthy doses of understanding, patience, diplomacy and—yes—empathy.

In the Editors Canada document Professional Editorial Standards, the “hard” skills and practices for each level are always accompanied by softer skills related to communication and judgment. All the knowledge and critical skills in the world won’t help an editor who takes an “I’m right and you’re wrong” approach to a project. We must be collaborators, not antagonists.

The editor as midwife has become a favourite metaphor in Canadian editing circles. We are there to advise and prepare, to smooth and reassure, to massage and adjust, so that authors can deliver the healthiest, most nearly perfect offspring that they’re capable of producing.”

Frances gave a Writescape workshop a few years ago on editing and it was a smashing success. It might be a good time to invite her back.

Editing Skills Checklist

Next, I turned to a local colleague and professional editor, Sherry Hinman of The Write Angle, for her opinion on what skills a good editor needs. Sherry works with a variety of writers and corporate clients, and she says:

Editing skills do relate to the kind of job an editor is working on. No matter what the task, there are Seven Must Haves for any editor:

  1. Author/Editor relationship: The connection between you and the editor should feel respectful and collaborative. (This one’s #1 for good reason.)
  2. Knowledge of the process: The editor should have a good understanding of the steps involved in editing your project, and preferably beyond that.
  3. Style guides: The editor should have access to a variety of style guides and know how to use them.
  4. Technology: The editor should be able to explain what program(s) will be used to edit your project (editing is almost always done on screen) and how you will exchange versions of your document.
  5. Types of editing: The editor should be able to speak easily about the different types of editing (though not necessarily offer services in them all) and to describe what each type includes.
  6. Understanding of your needs: The editor should know what type(s) of editing your project requires and either offer to edit your work or suggest you seek an editor that offers that type of editing.
  7. References: The editor should be prepared to provide references, preferably from clients with similar projects.

So writer, now you have some ideas about what to expect from a professional editor and what you need to look for. But have you thought about what you, as the writer, need to offer an editor?

Hold that thought. I’ll be exploring your role in all that next week.

Did You Know?

Writescape’s Ruth E. Walker and Gwynn Scheltema have happily served as editors for both fiction and non-fiction writers. They honed their editing skills as senior editors/writers for the Ontario government and as founding editors for the Canadian literary journal, LICHEN Arts & Letters Preview

It’s been their pleasure to work with writers at all stages of the editing process: from a general reader’s report and feedback to copyediting, and intensive, substantive editing. They are also excellent coaches for writers who need support on their way to a polished manuscript.

Both Gwynn and Ruth benefited from having an excellent editor at various times in their writing lives.

Plotting a Search for Structure

Plotting a Search for Structure

Ruth E. Walker

At my critique group last night, we did a bit of dissection on the plot of a member’s novel in progress. Sounds scary, doesn’t it?

Here’s a bit of background. One of our members has a great story for middle grade readers. It has lots of elements that the age group enjoys:

  • a relatable POV character with a problem to solve
  • some simmering tension with a member of the opposite sex
  • a science fiction backdrop that is fun and fantastical
  • a school full of goofy rules, and
  • a dastardly villain bent on stopping our POV character dead in his tracks

All the right ingredients. But the novel wasn’t quite working the way the writer hoped it would. So he continued to work on the story and recently sent us a revised synopsis.

Our role, as with all submissions, was to look at the synopsis, mark up the copy with questions and notes, and bring it to the session for discussion. Questions and detailed notes are important but the discussion in our critique group is widely considered the true gold of membership.

Our critique group collectively has some wide-ranging skill sets and expertise. This we all bring to the table. But a couple of us (not me!) are exceptional in the plot department. One, in particular, often brings visual aids, related reading and notes from research and workshops.

Last night, I suspect Christopher Vogler’s ears were burning. And the meeting room’s white board was a colourful palette of ideas and plot points.

How it worked for one writer:

Our two-hour session focused on reviewing our colleague’s current plot structure as outlined in his synopsis and getting to the heart of his story.

It was brilliant. Dividing the basic plot into three main acts and then placing the existing story into that structure allowed the writer to consider changes that simplified areas of the story. Some parts were more complex than they needed to be. At least one character needed to be shipped to the Island of Unwanted Characters.  And some goals needed to be adjusted.

The writer had some significant ah-ha! moments. He left the meeting with a renewed sense of where he wanted his story to go. What started out like a last-ditch revision became the groundwork for a new vision and plenty of possiblities.

And, as a side benefit, I found it all immensely helpful in looking at my own work in progress.

The basics of the Three-Act Structure:

Act I sets the stage, introduces the POV character with a problem(s) to overcome and the inciting incident.

Act II is the meat of the matter and has its own moment of crisis in the mid-point. As our colleague explained, “It’s like in the Wizard of Oz where they reach the Wizard, and Dorothy thinks he’ll send her home. But no. First they have to complete this impossible task: kill the Wicked Witch of the West.

So using Dorothy and Wizard, Act II is divided into two sections: Act II a (following the yellow brick road to see the Wizard) and Act II b (kill the witch before she kills Dorothy, Toto and her three companions)

And then, of course, Act III. This final act has the crushing disappointment of learning the wizard is not all-powerful after all, quickly followed by a joyful realization that everyone had what they needed all along, the journey home and most important, the POV character’s completed arc of understanding or change. (There’s no place like home…)

Can this approach work for you?

So, looking at your plot, are there areas in your story that you think could use a bit of tightening up? Could a three-act structure overview give you clues about needed changes? Or does it confirm that you have all the necessary ducks in a row? Good for you if that’s the case!

A word of caution. My critique group example is just a simplified version of one approach to looking at plot. Screenwriter and script consultant, Christopher Vogler, has a popular book The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (which, strangely enough, had a cameo in our session yesterday.) Vogler’s 407-page book is only one of the many great resources for writers on structure and storytelling.

Have you struggled with structure? What did you do to help you get past the challenge of plotting? If you have suggestions, let us know what resources and approaches you recommend for other writers.

In Conversation with…literary agent Hilary McMahon

In Conversation with…literary agent Hilary McMahon

Hilary McMahonToday, we chat with Hilary McMahon, Executive Vice President of Westwood Creative Artists (WCA), one of Canada’s oldest and most respected literary agencies. Hilary maintains an extensive and diverse list of adult and children’s writers. She also represents WCA authors on trips to American and British publishers and the Frankfurt and London Book Fairs. 

Why did you become a literary agent?

I earned a degree in journalism and English, but soon realized that I wanted to read other people’s stories far more than I wanted to write or teach. I’m an obsessive book reader, an extrovert interested in people and relationships, and a tough negotiator with a head for details and numbers. This job allows me to combine all those different skills.                                                                                                    

books-20167_640 (1)Being an agent is a tough job. So what is it that has kept you in the field for more than 20 years?

Nothing compares to the magic of being engrossed in a great book. I love being part of the process that begins with an idea or rough manuscript, and ends with a finished product that can be shared, enjoyed, discussed around the world. And working with writers can certainly be challenging at times, but it’s never dull…

If we were to spend some time in a typical day with Hilary McMahon, what would it look like?letters-286541_640

That’s one of the many wonderful things about this job, there is no typical day! It’s an illusion that I read all day. Today for example, I have reviewed a section of an author’s revised novel and then shared it with an interested publisher, worked on some blurbs for our Frankfurt catalogue, checked a film contract and sent it off to the author, given a non-fiction author feedback on her proposal, spent time crafting a tactful rejection letter, done the deal memo for a middle-grade series I’ve just sold, addressed a picture book writer’s concerns about the illustrations for her new book, and followed up on some projects out on submission. I had hoped to make a dent into my towering pile of submissions but I don’t know if I’ll get to it…

What do you like to see in a query from a writer? And is it different for a fiction versus a non-fiction query?

You’d think it’s obvious, but I need to see excellent writing! A skillful, original, compelling pitch.

For fiction, you need to hook me with a brief description of the work and draw me in with a short sample. It certainly doesn’t hurt if you include some details about places you’ve been published and any relevant awards or education.

For non-fiction, your expertise in the field is going to be important, to me and to publishers – I need to know that you have some authority about your subject. Most simply, I need to be compelled to move from the query to a writing sample.

hand-861275_640What is the one piece of advice you want writers to know once they land that elusive agent?

That just because you have an agent it doesn’t guarantee your work will sell! There’s still a lot of hard work ahead, but at least you aren’t doing it alone.

What are you reading now and how do you feel about it?

I’m reading a really intriguing submission, clever and sparely written and definitely original in story and in the telling.  But I’m still trying to decide if it’s something that I could sell…

If time, place and money are no object, who is the one person or character you’d like to have dinner with…and why?Jane Austen

I’d love to have dinner with Jane Austen, after she’d spent a bit of time in 2016 – I would love to hear her take on this modern world!

Want to get up close and personal with one of Canada’s top literary agents? Come to our fall retreat, Turning Leaves 2016.

Hilary is our special retreat guest, joining us for meals, evening chats and sharing insights and expertise in a Saturday morning workshop on catching and holding an agent’s attention. She’ll also review Turning Leaves 2016 participants’ query letters in advance and hold private one-on-one feedback sessions.