Your Anytime Writing Retreat

Your Anytime Writing Retreat

Ruth E. Walker

Shortly after our most recent retreat, Turning Leaves, I heard from a writer who wasn’t able to attend. She was disappointed to have missed the retreat and, of course, we missed having her there. But it started the kernel of an idea for me.

What to do when you can’t get away to write but you really need that getaway?

Do it yourself

A self-directed retreat can give you the boost you and your writing need. There are two basic ingredients necessary to create your own writing retreat.

  • permission — allow yourself this gift — whether it’s for 30 minutes or 33 days, gift yourself and your muse with writing time
  • difference — as simple as facing your laptop in a new direction or as drastic as getting in the car and driving west without a destination in mind, a different writing space will loosen your perspective

The “where” doesn’t matter as much as the “okay” you need to give yourself. Once you commit to accepting the gift of time to write, the rest will fall into place. So, you’ve said okay to a retreat? Now to focus on the “where.” Many writers don’t have to even head out the front door.

Retreat at Home:

Begin by creating the right space that will give you the retreat vibe. Turn off the TV. Log off the WiFi. Unplug the phone. Eliminate distractions — if you need to, hire a babysitter or dog walker. Maybe light a candle or incense.

Take your journal or laptop into a room you don’t normally write in. Stand at a window you don’t usually look through. Sit on your apartment balcony or the backyard deck. If you’re a morning writer, keep your jammies on before you start to write. If you tend to write later in the day, start out with a walk in your neighbourhood, but travel in a new direction.

Do a little fuel prep in advance of your self-curated home retreat. Put together meals and snacks in advance. I don’t mean potato chips and dip…treat yourself so this feels special. Crudité. Antipasto. Shrimp cocktail. Whatever will raise the bar for you to a place of being pampered.

Retreat away from Home:

If a retreat at home would never work (i.e., noisy neighbourhood, roommates, cramped quarters) consider where you might escape to. I know writers who write at their local library. They turn off their phones, squirrel away in a quiet corner and spend the day writing. And with so many libraries loosening up those old rules of no food or coffee, bringing your lunch and favourite munchies along is less of a barrier. You can’t sit there in your jammies but there’s nothing that says you can’t wear your old sweatshirt and kick off your shoes to get comfy. My local library has an upscale coffee shop onsite where you can write your book and eat your cake, too.

Another option is to book yourself into an inn or B&B to write for a couple of days. Book for the off season to get lower rates. A friend and Writescape alumnus, Ingrid Ruthig, is an award-winning poet and accomplished artist. She creates her own writing retreats by booking a room in a B&B and staying for a few days. She’s disciplined enough to keep her focus on why she’s there and uses the new space as inspiration for her work. And she notes that the breakfasts make for a stellar start to her day.

Be creative. Head to a coffee shop to write. How about the local museum? Do the kids have a backyard treehouse? Retreating away from home doesn’t need to be an overnight excursion. The main point is finding a place that is different; it is difference that can inspire creativity.

Look for artist residencies

An artist residence can offer time and space to writers. Some residencies involve a large financial commitment. But some are provided free of charge or have scholarships or bursaries to offset the cost. And some pay you to attend.

There are dozens and dozens of residencies in Canada, the U.S. and abroad. The Write Life has a list of 27 Amazing Writing Residencies. I’ll admit to being intrigued by the winery retreats — Writing between the Vines will give you a week-long, no charge residency in either California or B.C. You have to get there and you need to bring your own food but my goodness, imagine a cabin tucked away among the cabernet sauvignon in the Sonoma Valley!

Closer to my home in Ontario, the A-Frame Residency in Ameliasburg offers writers the use of poet Al Purdy’s iconic Prince Edward County home. $650 paid to writers weekly for a no-fee 4-week stay is a remarkable gift. Not to mention the hope that some of the Governor-General Award-winner’s creative spirit could rub off on you as you work. Applications re-open fall 2019.

Heather O’Connor, who’s attended many of Writescape’s retreats, wrote about her artist-in-residence experience at Quetico Provincial Park, west of Thunder Bay and bordering Minnesota. In that post, she shares how she also funded the travel expenses to get her to Quetico, which gives us a nice transition to the next topic.

Fund Your Retreat

Apply for writing grants to help cover the cost of any writing retreat, either self-directed or carefully curated by others. Local, regional, provincial and national organizations offer grants to help support you in this journey. We’ve written a few blog posts about grants and how to get them, including this story of a breadmaker’s grant. And Heather O’Connor, arguably one of the most successful writing grant applicants we’ve ever known, offered some sage advice in this 2016 blog post.

So, whether you hunker down at home or leave the country, there are many ways to create your own writing retreat. Whatever it takes to charge your batteries and keep the words flowing, we wish you well. May the muse be ever-present and the writing, sublime!

Writescape’s next retreat

Registration for Spring Thaw, our annual creative getaway at Elmhirst’s Resort, doesn’t officially open until December 1. But for our retreat alumni and subscribers to our Top Drawer blog, we’re giving you a bit of a head start.

Spring Thaw, April 26 to 28, 2019, is an all-inclusive writing retreat in cozy cottages on the shores of Rice Lake in the Kawarthas. We create an intimate and safe space in which writers can explore ideas and stretch their creative energy. At Spring Thaw, you’ll have:

  • editorial review on 10 manuscript pages
  • private feedback consultations
  • creativity sessions to inspire your muse each morning
  • private room in shared, fully equipped lakeside cottages
  • optional evening activities
  • full access to resort amenities: WiFi, indoor pool, whirlpool & sauna, trails

Writers can keep the energy going with our Extend-Your-Pen option, April 28 to 30, two more days devoted just to working on your writing.

Retreat alumni and members of writing organizations can take advantage of our special discounts. Spring Thaw is a wonderful escape to let you imagine, reflect and write.

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.

Plotter + Pantser = Plantser

Plotter + Pantser = Plantser

Ruth E. Walker

Some writers are plotters. They develop outlines and character sketches. Spend time in archives researching long before putting words on the page. When they sit to write, they are prepared. They have a plot in mind.

Some writers are pantsers. The follow the shiny object of an idea, a snippet of overheard conversation, the allure of an intriguing character. When they sit to write, they are happily adventuring into the unknown.

Which one is right?

Pantsing

If you had asked me earlier in my writing career, I’d be all for pansters. Write by the seat of my pants, that was my motto. I’ve done some fine work that way, writing I’m quite proud of. And it is my way of getting to the page, of discovering the story, the layers of personalities in emotions, actions and reactions. I’m excited to follow their journey. If I had it all mapped out, it would deflate some of the energy that feeds me in the writing.

 

Plotting

After a retreat weekend with author Andrew Pyper, I’m thinking maybe my pantser approach led me to too many half-baked novels that languish in my drawers. Sure they are full of wonderful, quirky characters and great beginnings and even some exciting endings. Yet the middles are not so clear. In fact, that early excitement that led me to the page seems to have led to some deadends. And maybe if I’d had some plot in mind, the story of each might have been different.

But I’m not ready to declare an all-out allegiance to plotting my novels. Instead, I’ve come up with a kind of hybrid. A Frankenstein-ish patchwork that continues to serve my artistic needs as a writer. This method also offers satisfaction to my less-confident left brain approach to writing a novel. I end up with a plot that gives a solid foundation to my characters and themes.

How plotting marries pantsing

It starts with the midpoint of a novel. As the author of 10 successful novels, Andrew knows a thing or two about plotting a novel. He’s clear that the midpoint comes pretty much in the middle of the novel and that getting it right is crucial to the rest of the work. In fact, if the midpoint isn’t smack dab in the middle of the book, well, you’ve likely either not correctly identified your midpoint or put it in the wrong place.

The midpoint needs to do important work with your characters, especially your main character. It’s the place in which you need to deepen your characters or change them. A place of revelation or challenge. A spot where threat rises, opportunities present themselves or choices have to be made.

It also needs to be where the story moves forward or, at least sets up the forward movement. The midpoint can also be the starting point for a writer, with the beginning and end to come to the writer later on.

No write or wrong about it

Working with a midpoint is not prescriptive and this is where the pantser in me gets excited. I can write as a pantser with an awareness of the midpoint. I don’t need to have a detailed outline or even a firm sense of where the story/character is going. I just need to know that at some point in the process, I have to stop to consider where my midpoint is. And then consider if it is strong enough, if it carries the weight the novel needs to pull the reader along as well as pull me along.

You know those half-baked novels in the drawer? Well, I think I have an idea about how I might get them out of the drawer for a second chance. Maybe they will get sent back to the Island of Unwanted Manuscripts. And maybe not. But it won’t be because I didn’t know what to look for.

 

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.

 

 

Flesh Out Characters with a Sketch

Flesh Out Characters with a Sketch

Ruth E. Walker

As a character-driven writer, I love discovering the deeper layers of the people I create. Usually, I already have a strong sense of what makes my characters tick—it’s what draws me to the page to explore their lives. But not always. Sometimes, even a “character-driven writer” needs to develop a character sketch to have a better understanding or handle on one or more of the people in a story.

A sketch can be like a quick line drawing or caricature that fleshes character out when you fill in some blanks:

  1. the basics: age, gender, height, weight, hair colour, shoe size…
  2. add a sense of place, both physical and social: home location, job, education…
  3. toss in a bit of “flavour” with likes/dislikes, idiosyncrasies…
  4. go even deeper: fears, longings, secrets (shhhhh!)…
  5. get a clue to motivations: what happened to them before the story starts?

It can be far more detailed, using shadow and light to reveal facets of personality (key for reaction and interaction), motivation (key for tension-building) and subconscious desires (key for thematic development.)

For example, starting with an idea of a character, a person for a story:

Bob is a 47-year-old truck driver for a long distance hauling company. He’s overweight but not obese and his hairline is receding. He drinks Gatorade to stay awake when he drives overnight. Bob likes old movies, baseball and wine gums.

Bob’s name, age, gender, appearance are sketched in. I tossed in a bit about Bob and his likes. A just-the-facts-ma’am approach is fine to start. If you want more than “good enough”, dive deeper. Everyone has a story. Even our imaginary “Bob” has more than one reason for what he does…or doesn’t…do.

A character sketch can offer a writer more than just an outline of the people in a story. In fact, the act of developing a sketch of a character might serve as a springboard of ideas for plot, setting or themes:

Bob, a 47-year-old truck driver has been hauling long distance rigs across the country for over twenty years. These days, even climbing up into the cab is chore; he knows he should drop a few pounds but it’s hard when he keeps getting the inter-province routes and shorter and shorter deadlines. Some guys pop pills to stay away on night runs but he keeps to power drinks, even if it means he has to piss in a bottle to avoid stopping. Besides, even when he does stop these days, sleep won’t come or at least not for long. Even pulling out the tablet and firing up a few old movies doesn’t do it for him anymore. Two Turner Classics and his eyes are still wide open, and then he’s chewing on wine gums for breakfast and pulling on his Blue Jays cap to get back on the road. His cap doesn’t really hide his thinning hair but still, it’s the Jays so that’s gotta count for something. That’s what his dad always said to him. Life, Bob—it’s gotta count for something. That is, until the day his dad hung himself from the barn rafters.

With genre fiction, there are certain types of characters we expect to show up. A cozy mystery needs an amateur, or even reluctant, sleuth. A fantasy should have supernatural or magical characters. A horror works best with a terrifying and evil villain. Etcetera. Of course, a wise writer takes those expectations and plays with them so that the reader gets some surprises. Like villains who turn into heroes or heroes with murderous hearts. And it’s those character surprises that open up tired plots and overused themes and can take your story on a whole new track.

Drawing out personality

There’s another kind of sketch that may prove helpful in understanding your character. In my workshops, I’ve used photos of people to inspire writers to discover new, unexpected characters for their stories. But I have also scoured magazines and photo books looking for faces or expressions that can help me solidify a character in my mind. A couple of years ago, I was a bit lost working on my science fiction novel. My main character had some “wobbly bits” to the person I thought she should be; in other words, she was a bit fuzzy. Never good for a writer.

I turned to a police sketch program online. After several attempts, I finally came up with her face and that helped me firm her up as I continued to write the latter half of the novel.

The free program I used is no longer available but there are several online services that can do similar work. You need to pay for and then download the program, for example, Flash Face and Portrait Pad. I haven’t tried either one but if you have, let us know in the comment section.

For those of you who use Scrivener for organizing and drafting your work, you probably already know the many uses of this program for sketching out characters, from visual aids to templates to file folders. The Write Practice blog shares some of the Scrivener character sketch features. For those of you not using Scrivener, The Write Practice reminds writers that most of these tools can be adapted for use without any specialized software.

And check out the five links to character worksheets in this All Freelance Writing blog. Writers are offered a range of approaches to finding and developing characters: questionnaires, checklists, guides and charts.

A character sketch is useful at any point in writing. From inspiring a new story to adding extra character touches to a third, or fourth or fifth or…later (!) draft, diving deeper into a character’s life is a tool all writers need in their creativity kit. So go ahead. Get sketching.

 

 

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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

 

 

Back to School: Kids Play?

Back to School: Kids Play?

Ruth E. Walker

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I Learned in School

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

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

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

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

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

Continuing that Education

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

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

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

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

If You Read It, They Will Listen

If You Read It, They Will Listen

Ruth E. Walker

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

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

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

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

Accept criticism

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

      Ruth reads from “Living Underground” in 2012

 

 

Weddings and Writers

Weddings and Writers

Ruth E. Walker

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

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

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

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

Lots to choose from

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

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

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

Not the melody; it’s the lyrics

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who picks these songs, anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.