Quaking Before the Query

Quaking Before the Query

Ruth E. Walker

Next to the synopsis, the query letter is one of the biggest challenges writers face. It comes with loads of baggage because it’s the first thing of yours an agent or acquisitions editor will see. As such, it has specific tasks to accomplish and the pressure to get it right can knock the enthusiasm out of any of us.

According to New York Book Editors blog post: In essence, a query letter is a marketing page that talks up your book, without overselling it.

Simple enough on its face but there is an art to querying agents and publishers. And that art looks darn near impossible when faced with boiling down your 85,000-word manuscript into a single “marketing page.”

It’s as hard for me as it is for you. So, like in my post two weeks ago about the synopsis, I broke my query down into manageable steps.

  • Basics about the book
  • Special about the book
  • About the author
  • Invitation
  • Double-check

Basics

Genre, word count and title are necessary basics.  In my case it’s a science-fiction YA novel at 98,000 words and set on a terraformed world. I tossed in a bit about setting which, for science fiction, is often a key element.

The basics must appear in your query; if not as part of the opening then just before the closing.

You can, and should, add a bit of flavour to your basic stats especially if you have some way to make a connection with the agent/publisher. For example:

  • I took note of your preference for unreliable narrators OR
  • Your client list includes several YA speculative fiction authors who are favourites of mine OR
  • I heard you speak at last year’s AdAstra Convention and noted your interest in YA series books.

In my case, my most recent query is to a U.S. agent with whom I have no connection. But a bit of research clued me in to what caught her attention in other queries, so I flavoured my query with a teaser: As with Defy the Stars and Enemy Mine, my protagonist is naively wrong about who her enemy is. Her challenging journey is painful but necessary for her to recognize that she alone is her world’s enemy…and its hero.

Will it work? I have absolutely no idea, but I believe it’s worth trying. If nothing else, it got me thinking about how to use comp titles AND boil down the overarching issue of my protagonist.

Special

Here’s the “juice” of your query. It’s what makes your book special and the reason the publisher’s eyes widen and your manuscript gets read. This is the hardest part for me to write. I resist the temptation to cram in details, subplots, minor characters and thematic elements that I love in my novel.

Instead, I must share my main character’s wants and needs, and highlight the obstacles and crises that keep her from getting either. Finally, I have to avoid the telling how it all ends (after all, that is the job of the synopsis)

So just like editing anything else, I pare the Special section to less than 200 words and end up with a full query of 380 well chosen words. I think I still have some trimming to do but my query is now in much better shape because I brought focus to it, especially to the “juice” section.

About you

Keep your bio short but include details that resonate with your book. For example, my query always includes a reference to my creative writing workshop at a school board’s art camp (arts kids read YA) and my stint as an artist in residence primarily working with at-risk teens at an alternative high school (inspiration for my strong-willed protagonist.)

If you have some writing award or genre-specific detail to add here, go for it. But there’s no shame in being a debut author and stating that: This is my first completed novel. You can always add in a bit of branding: I am an eclectic writer who follows inspiration, characters and ideas onto the page.

Invite a response

The closing paragraph is a place to show that you actually read their guidelines without saying so. If the agent only wants the first 3 pages of your ms: I’ve attached the first 3 pages of my manuscript… and to show you are ready, you can add…the full ms and synopsis are available upon request.

Inviting the agent or publisher to contact you if they’re interested is simple enough but remember to say thank you. A simple finishing line: Thank you for your time and consideration acknowledges that you understand that reading your query took effort.

Take a second look

Even one little spelling or grammar error can put off an agent. So take it slow and give your query some cooling off time before you send it. Just like the manuscript you spent years on, a query is not a 30-minute process.

What a query is not

Over one page in length — it is a quick scan process so make sure that agent will read beyond the opening paragraph. In short, keep it short.

A major suck-up to the recipient — While it’s fine to offer some sort of connection or understanding of the agent’s/publisher’s preferences, don’t gush how they’re your dream agent or longed-after publisher. It might bring a smile to their faces…just before they click on the “trash” icon.

A place to show off — promote your strengths but summarize — instead of listing all the journals your work has been published in, summarize: …with fiction and poetry in several national journals. Your literary C.V. is for grant applications, not your query letter.

Cast in stone — An agent who only wants two paragraphs about the book and your contact info won’t look at your four-paragraph query. A publisher who wants the synopsis and no query letter…well, you get the drift. Know your audience and revise each approach accordingly.

More context

Jane Friedman

I’ve already given you a link to New York Book Editors. Here’s a few more websites I’ve found helpful in crafting my query. Jane Friedman set me on the right path to break down my query and Writers’ Digest offered several examples of successful queries.

You can never learn too much in this tricky world we write in. I’ll let you know if my query nets more than a polite no — you let us know how the query process goes for you.

p.s. If you need an escape to focus on your synopsis or query letter, there’s still a couple of spots remaining in this year’s Spring Thaw writers’ retreat. And you get a one-on-one consult plus notes from both Gwynn and me on up to 10 manuscript pages. That’s enough for both your query letter and synopsis.

Crybaby for Characters

Crybaby for Characters

Ruth E. Walker

Life of Pi movie still

True Confession: I cry in the sad parts. Tears trickle down with a good book. Louisa May Alcott’s Beth in Little Women, again and again with Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle (alternating with laughter, of course), the tiger at the end of Life of Pi.

So many books have brought me to tears. I’m also a sucker for a well-acted stage production, movie or TV show.

It’s the characters

I invest in characters. I cheer for them and I admonish them and I cry for, or with them. Of course the story matters because that’s where the characters come to life. But the most compelling actors or characters in a story won’t move me if I don’t believe in the truth of their situation.

Captain Picard of the USS Enterprise

Star Trek is a television series I’ve followed since the early days of Captain Kirk. I watched every single television incarnation or reboot. And the movies. I don’t have a room full of Trek memorabilia but until my doggie decided to chew off his leg, I did have a tiny Captain Jean-Luc Picard on my office windowsill.

I’ll admit that some of the stories are not especially well drawn. And especially in the early days of limited FX options, those alien masks were, shall we say, rudimentary?

But it’s always been the characters for me: how they act, react and yes, occasionally, over-act (sorry Bill.) Because I believe, on some level, that they are real and the situation they are facing is founded in reality.

A learning moment

A recent story-time session with my 2-year-old granddaughter Clara reminded me that characters — even non-human ones — can have an emotional impact on readers.

One of her favourite books when she comes to visit me is Snow by P.D. Eastman. It’s an early reader in the Seuss series and frankly, the text could use some work: What is snow? I do not know. I do not know what is snow. and  Do you like it in your face? Oh yes, I like it anyplace. Suffice it to say, while I like repetition for word recognition, encouraging snowballs to the face is problematic. And yes, Grandma does know what is snow and explains it. But I digress.

Clara loves the book, always asks for it and so we read it. Until last weekend.

My granddaughter immerses in books. In the case of Snow, when we reach the pages where they building a snowfort and make snowballs, her fingers are all over the page, gathering imaginary snow to add to the construction.

But then we come to the snowman

At first, everything is fine. Just like every other time, she gathers the snow with the book characters, rolling each one into a three-tiered figure. Adds the glasses, pipe, coal smile and the ubiquitous hat. We turn the page.

The sun comes out.

The snowman melts into a slushy puddle.

And this time, for the first time, her face is stricken. “I don’t like it,” she says, her face now on the verge of tears. “I don’t like it,” she repeats.

What? This never happened before. Not with her. Not with any of my other grandchildren. I shift into hyper-vigilance and flip over the page. Distract her with the kids putting snowballs into the fridge freezer to keep them from melting. Suggest the snowman could go there as well.

Then I say, “We don’t have to read the snowman part again.”

Clara looks up at me, thoughtful. “Okay,” she says. But I’m pretty sure what she means is that we won’t read the book again. Ever.

Mending a broken heart

An illustration on two pages of a simple early reader book came to be absolutely real for her. And she was heartsick for the melting snowman.

It was a beautiful moment for me and a teaching one, at that. I was the learner and she, the instructor. Characters can be beloved even before words on the page are familiar.

I always thought that stories were favourites of very young children because the rhythm of the words and engaging illustrations caught their attention. But I hadn’t thought about a relationship with the characters. I thought that was something that grew as toddlers became more self-aware primary kids.

Pixabay

I also recognize that despite my love and frequent interaction with dozens of very young children over the years (my own, my daycare charges and my grandchildren), I had more to learn about the way story characters impact them. That even toddlers can have sufficiently developed empathy to be moved by characters.

It will be some time before I’ll be introducing Clara to Star Trek. But in the interim, I’ll be looking for additions to my children’s library at home. Suggestions, as always, are welcome.

Copy This – Our work is not free

Copy This – Our work is not free

Ruth E. Walker

At a recent panel discussion at The Writers’ Community of Durham Region, an inevitable topic came up: money. A question from the floor about payment for work triggered an emphatic response that writers, like all other artists, need to remember to ask for—and expect—payment for our work.

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

But not unreasonably, we also need to recognize that income for writers comes from a range of activities, not just putting words to the page. For me, that includes designing and delivering practical writing workshops, and providing a range of coaching and editing services for other writers.

Write for money?

Few authors can live exclusively off our royalties from book sales and big money movie rights. Frankly, if people wrote just for the money, I suspect there’d be many empty spaces on bookshelves. But again, that’s the reality for most artists. It’s a passion that drives us. A dream of creation. A love for the rush of putting the best possible words in the best possible order. A compelling desire to create a connection with readers.

Whatever it is that puts our butts in the chair and fingers on the keyboard, it’s also why some of us don’t stand up and demand reasonable compensation for our work.

(Un)fair deals

In 2012, the Copyright Modernization Act, Bill C-11, created a new set of exceptions for “fair dealing” for “educational purposes.” The Writers’ Union of Canada published an article by lawyer Jeananne Kathol Kirwin in Write magazine that explores those exceptions and the impacts.

Our posts from 2018 and 2019 offer some general background on the legal fight to restore compensation for writers and the negative effect those new exceptions set in motion.

In short, writers’ incomes dropped significantly from an already subsistence-level reality. And it became open season for institutions to copy Canadian writers’ work for free.

Image by Tasy Hong from Pixabay

On December 6, the Copyright Board of Canada issued a ruling that reinstates per-student fees for colleges and universities. It’s an amazing development and it changes everything.

As Access Copyright‘s President and CEO, Roanie Levy said: “The Copyright Board decision serves as the foundation for renewal of the symbiotic relationship that exists between creators and education after almost a decade of uncertainty. Access Copyright looks forward to working with our partners in education to ensure that students continue to have easy and affordable access to content.”

The decision from the Copyright Board of Canada gave postsecondary institutions a deadline of March 9, 2020 to pay the outstanding royalties. Access Copyright would be able to distribute royalty payments to registered authors by the end of 2020. If the institutions fail to meet the March 9th deadline, Access Copyright will have to take further action to ensure they comply.

Open season is closed

So thank you to Access Copyright and The Writers’ Union of Canada for their tireless and consistent work on postsecondary institutions skewed interpretation of what “fair dealing” meant. In short, for institutions it meant educators copying our work, distributing it to students and not paying for it. Payment for education purposes used to mean the institution paid annual fees to Access Copyright. In turn, Access Copyright paid out annual compensation to authors.  

As an author registered with Access Copyright, I receive a cheque each year. It isn’t a lot of money but it is payment for the use of my work in classrooms or businesses that choose to excerpt my writing for their purposes. That cheque dropped significantly once colleges and universities walked away from licensing agreements with Access Copyright.

A future built on the past

Over the years, I’ve let a lot of financial opportunity pass me by. I’m one of those insecure writers, with that negative voice in the back of my brain. The one that whispers that one day I’ll learn that I’m not truly meant to be a writer. That I’ve just been lucky. That any success has nothing to do with talent or vision. That I’m fooling myself. So the annual cheque from Access Copyright has always been a validation that counters my insecurities.

Image by Niek Verlaan from Pixabay

If my publisher hadn’t pushed me to register with Access Copyright, I may not have done it. I’ve watched how Access Copyright fought hard to bring truth to “fair dealing” for all creatives. And my membership in The Writers’ Union of Canada has meant I’ve had a front row seat to the amazing advocacy of Executive Director John Degan, who, along with the Writers’ Union board and dedicated members, helped to bring us to this stage.

The copyright fight is not over. To quote the Writers’ Union press release: “We have rates to work with,” said TWUC Executive Director John Degen, “so that’s good; and we remain confident pending court decisions will clarify that claims of fair dealing have been grossly exaggerated.”

The Copyright Board of Canada’s ruling is a significant step in the right direction. And that small voice in the back of my head is a whole lot quieter.

Power Foods for Writers

Power Foods for Writers

Ruth E. Walker

In a perfect world, we writers would have a service that takes care of meals while we’re busy crafting another genius piece of writing. Someone who preps, cooks and delivers our meals. Someone who understands we’re “in the zone” and not to be disturbed.

As if.

Who among us could hire our own personal chef? Keep dreaming. A relative of mine is a personal chef. He’s provided with a private onsite apartment, prepares all the meals in a fully equipped gourmet kitchen and occasionally travels with his employers when they, ahem, go abroad.

We can only imagine. (Well, yes. We can imagine because we are writers.)

But what to do when our bodies (or our families) call for fuel but we just want to stay in the zone, creating beautiful words on the page? We have to eat, folks. Our brains demand we keep them functioning well as we write. So here are some options to keep fuel stops to a minimum of effort for a maximum of writing time.

Create a basic pantry

If you must cook (and pretty much you have to) make it is as easy on you as possible. Stock your pantry with tinned beans and legumes, a can or two of tuna and/or salmon, pasta, rice, canned tomatoes, boxed stock (beef, chicken or vegetable), onions, garlic, oil and a variety of spices.

Salmon Salad

There are plenty of pantry recipes online. From ifoodreal, I really like this salmon salad recipe. Simple. Quick. And adaptable to change up as you like. Jessica In the Kitchen offers an easy 15-minute Mediterranean chickpea salad that’s likewise quick and easy to change up ingredients.

I prefer to work from print cookbooks to avoid having to scroll through copious advertisements but online is a fast option to get you started.

Plan ahead

Try batch cooking. Pretend you have 10 people to feed and make a massive stew or lasagna or hearty soup. Portion it into containers and freeze it. Defrost when you need it. Toss a side salad and cut a slice of bread, and voila! Dinner is served.

I can recall a time when TV dinners were all the rage. Oh my. Sliced turkey brushed with thick gravy, mashed potatoes, peas and sometimes even dessert (!) in a divided tin foil pan. Simply heat in the oven and serve. They were terrible. And we all marveled at “modern living.”

Frozen meals have come a long way since rubber turkey and instant potatoes. So if you don’t have the time or inclination to batch cook, stock your freezer with a few prepared selections to give you more time to write.

You can always order in

If your budget will allow it, there are plenty of food options out there and not all of them are standard fast foods. Remember to give a nod in the direction of healthy by including salad and/or a side of veggies. And yes, cold pizza for breakfast is not out of the question when the Great Novel awaits.

A different option for ordering in: your weekly grocery shopping. Remember to put items on your list that can nourish without a lot of work: fresh fruit, simple veggies (broccoli, celery, carrots), salad fixings (or even a couple of bagged salads), and basic protein.

Several big chain grocery stores will deliver anything you can find inside their walls–from food to electronics to lawn chairs. Keep it simple with specialized delivery services that can drop off your weekly fruit and vegetable needs such as Mama Earth Organics and Durham Organics.

If you have that basic pantry set up and some basic condiments, along with eggs, cheese or protein alternatives in the fridge, you’ll have no reason to resent mealtime.

Last word

The Harvard Medical School published a summary of what foods we need to include in our diets to keep our brain function at a high level, especially as we get older. As writers, our cognition is vital so start chewing those leafy greens if you don’t already. And hooray! Tea and coffee are included in that summary.

A recent visit to the CBC website inspired me to explore this topic. In their Life section, they have 9 Wonderful Pantry Recipes — meant for anyone who thinks they have nothing to eat for dinner. For the most part, they looked pretty quick and simple. And that, for this writer, was all I needed.

Waiting Room

Waiting Room

Ruth E. Walker

As I write this, I’m at a local hospital playing the Waiting Game. My husband is undergoing surgery, a relatively routine repair of a long-standing issue. And I’m going to sit in this less-than-comfortable chair in a busy waiting room until he’s out of the OR, through recovery and on his way to a bed upstairs or, better yet, home.

So what’s a writer to do when the minute hand ticks by with the speed of a dripping faucet. A very slow dripping faucet.

I could write

There’s lots of ambient noise and I read recently that white noise was an important factor for many writers. My friend Rabindranath Maharaj worked on several of his novels in coffee shops. A Globe & Mail article cites a 2012 paper by researchers at the University of British Columbia describing the creative benefits of working in certain noisy settings. They found that in the buzz of low-level noises, our brains can easily shift into broader thinking, a useful tool for developing concepts or brainstorming.

So, I should be writing. Let all this hubbub and Paging Nurse White and Code Blue 3rd Floor murmur in the background as I map out the Next Great Novel. I should be writing. But I can’t because I worked in a hospital years ago and I know what those announcements mean. Too distracting despite being a useful tool and all that.

I could read

The second-best thing for a writer to do–if you can’t write, well then, you should read. I have a book with me, Louise Penny‘s Still Life. Even though last night I reluctantly put it down to turn out the light, here, in this waiting room, I’ve read the same page three times. Even great writing can’t hold me.

There’s a few well-worn magazines over in the corner. I could put my gloves back on (germs, don’t you know) and pick up a gossip publication and distract myself with movie news about who’s getting divorced, married, a film deal, and so on. But as I said. I’ve worked in a hospital. I know what those announcements mean. I’d just get to the interesting part about how some little-known actor finally gets the part she’s been waiting for and…Code Blue.

I also know what the look on that surgical nurse’s face means, too. She’s delivering difficult news to the couple across from me. It’s not the worst news–they don’t do that in the waiting room, that’s done behind closed doors. But somebody’s surgery is not as routine as they thought. So it puts my dripping faucet timeline into perspective.

I could go for a coffee

The cafeteria is just down the hall and around the corner. But if I leave, I’d miss watching the screen of the Family Tracking monitor showing where patients are in the process. For privacy, each patient is given a number and a rolling scroll of those numbers is colour-coded depending on their progress. I’m watching for the number that is my husband to move from In OR green into the next colour, purple PostOp.

So clearly, I can’t go for a coffee because I’d miss the change. And change is good when the clock ticks like a…well, you know.

Open my eyes

So this writer is going to do the only thing she can: watch. At an Andrew Pyper workshop some years ago, I recall his referring to a useful kind of watching for writers are “reportage” observations. Without emotion, observe. Focus on details but don’t attach those details to motivation. Be specific but don’t speculate.

It’s surprising how tough that actually is for me. I’m naturally a “speculator”, wondering about the possible reasons for any given behaviour that catches my focus. Thinking about second thoughts, hesitations, determinations. It’s what drives a lot of my writing. The ever-nagging why.

But with Pyper’s reportage, it is this…an older woman in a red puffy jacket pushes a large navy blue stroller down the hall toward the cafeteria. The little girl in the stroller is asleep, her round face, closed eyes and wisp of black hair just visible above the side of the stroller. They pass an orderly in pale blue scrubs pushing a stainless steel cart, the wheels squealing as he saunters by in the opposite direction. The little girl wakes and begins to scream.

These descriptions are to be tucked away and pulled out later. Perhaps to add some verisimilitude to a scene, drop in a touch of “the real” to ground a narrative.

Old habits…

Of course, I can’t do that very well either. And it has nothing to do with the colour coding on the Family Tracking monitor. It has everything to do with that little girl’s scream. What horror did that squealing wheel awaken in her? Could she be possessed? Is she reliving a trauma? Did the orderly secretly kick the stroller to waken the baby and distract us all from some nefarious scheme unfolding a few doors away?

It appears perhaps I do need a certain amount of noise to trigger some broad thinking. Especially when my attention is so keenly focussed elsewhere. If nothing else, the clock’s slow progress is forgotten for a few seconds.

And look. There it is. The patient number that means the world to me has moved into a new colour: Recovery Room orange. And the doc says he can come home today, after all.

Be a writer, after all

So, the takeaway for me in all of this? Earlier, I said the only thing I could do is “watch” a la Andrew Pyper’s reportage approach. Well, clearly, I also can write in a distracting environment and the evidence of that is this blog post.

Though truthfully, I’d not want to be sitting here again anytime soon. Instead, I’ll head to a coffee shop or hotel lobby or shopping mall to get my distraction fix.

How about you? Can you write anywhere? Or, like some writers, do you need absolute silence in a pristine setting?

The Spirit of Sharing

The Spirit of Sharing

Ruth E. Walker

As noted in last week’s Top Drawer, Gwynn and I attended the Spirit of the Hills (SOH) Festival of the Arts in Cobourg, and filled our creative wells with workshops on the craft of writing. But there was more energy and inspiration to be found in the community rooms at St. Peter’s Anglican Church.

Ruth at Writescape’s table

Drawing together the arts of all kinds, the festival celebrated visual arts, music, theatre, dance and literature. And in each of those disciplines, there was a myriad of creative expressions. From Flamenco dancing to fabric art to photography to performance poetry, SOH festival attendees were treated to a rich immersion in the arts.

Not only were there feasts for the eyes and ears, there were several opportunities for collaboration and communication between artists.

Gwynn moderated an intriguing panel discussion between four poets, who proved that poetry is not just an economy of words on the page. Ted Amsden, Cobourg’s poet laureate emeritis was joined on the panel by American/Canadian poet Katie Hoogendam, subversive poet Wally Keeler and performance poet Dane Swan. The audience was challenged to consider how each poet approached their craft

A Royal reception

Hon. Elizabeth Dowdeswell

The arts tend to be taken for granted, so when the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, the Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, entered the exhibition hall on Friday afternoon, the excitement meter rose significantly.

She is the Queen’s representative in Ontario, and in her own words, is “Storyteller in Chief.” Her Honour knows the power of words to engage others, and holds close the stories she hears from her travels throughout the province. Gwynn and I were delighted when she stopped by our table for a brief chat.

Reva Nelson & Piers Walker

On Friday evening, we were treated to an evening of music, dance and theatre. As much as I enjoyed all the offerings, one short play held a special joy.

“Mouse”, by Marie-Lynn Hammond, explores how two different commuters — an introverted older woman and an over-active young man — have far more in common than they first realize. Of course, the fact that I had a connection with the young male actor might have influenced my strong preference. Cannot lie: I’m always a proud mother when I watch any of my children do something they love.

Mixing up the arts

The arts were thrown into a different mix of voices when Saturday’s lunchtime panel, moderated by Alan Bland, brought together poet Dane Swan, multi-talented singer-songwriter David Newland, award-winning author K.D. Miller and opera singer turned author and editor, Christopher Cameron. The audience engaged in a free-ranging discussion on the challenges and benefits of sharing across the arts.

Our consensus? There’s a definite richness of thought when artists of various disciplines take the time to talk with and learn about each other.

Marie-Lynn Hammond
& San Murata
Gwynn reading poetry

But the best example of sharing across the arts, for me, was the very cool Words on the Wire, multi-media event on Saturday afternoon. Video poems engaged our eyes and minds, exquisite music and singing rose to the rafters in the chapel setting, pioneer Susanna Moodie addressed the audience, and poetry and prose was shared by diverse voices. Musician and songwriter Marie-Lynn Hammond was joined by acclaimed violinist San Murata. And a personal favourite of mine, Gwynn Scheltema, read two gorgeous poems from her poetry manuscript.

By bringing together a diverse gathering of arts and artists, the Festival attracted the attention of the Queen’s representative, someone who regularly consults with the provincial government and who articulated her belief in the power of grassroots art and volunteer activity to bring people together and enrich their lives. The Festival showcased the work of creative people in a public, accessible place. But more than that, Spirit of the Hills festival organizers created a space in which artists could share ideas, inspiration and art forms with each other.

The Festival of the Arts is held every two years in Northumberland County. I’ll be marking fall 2021 on my calendar to be ready for another immersion in the many creative experiences that will be on offer. In the interim, I’ll be looking at ways I might collaborate with various artists to see what synergy can develop.

Collaboration + creative people = ??? Share in the comments what you think can come out of collaboration across art forms.

Collaboration Opportunity

Applications have just opened for Halls Island Artist Residency in Haliburton County. For summer 2020, organizers are dedicating one 12-day residency for up to four artists who want to collaborate on a project(s).

main cabin

Halls Island is an off-grid, eco-sensitive island on Koshlong Lake. Residencies are available to artists of all disciplines. Other than a $10 non-refundable application fee, residencies are free to successful applicants.

“As an environmental artist and geo-poet, the Island itself was a way to rejuvenate, and become re-inspired in my practice.”


Sophie Edwards, artist residency at Halls Island, 2019

Applications and additional details are available online.

Sum Up The Story

Sum Up The Story

Ruth E. Walker

The manuscript is finished. You’ve edited until you can’t look at the words for one more minute. Your beta readers are all giving you the Thumbs Up. It’s ready to go out.

Then you see it. On the submissions page of the publisher you hope will publish your book. They want a synopsis. (Cue Jaws music.)

Good grief. You’ve perfected your manuscript. Shouldn’t that be enough?

Get over it. They want a synopsis and you have to produce one. So let’s cover the main points to help you pull it together.

Just the important bits

A synopsis is a kind of point-by-point outline of the story, summarizing what happens and who is changed by the end.

A synopsis is not a marketing tool but the first paragraph should offer a touch of a hook or any of the unique elements of the story. It’s not written like your novel yet it should hold a sense of your writing voice…your style…and the genre/style of the book. And just as important, it’s not a jacket blurb so be prepared to reveal the ending.

If a synopsis is interesting enough, agents and publishers will want to read the manuscript despite knowing the ending.

Short is sweet

For a novel, a synopsis can be as short as one page or as long as five pages. I recommend going shorter. Ideally, no more than two pages.  Unlike the manuscript, text is single spaced so you have a fair amount of room in those two pages.

To take full advantage of two pages, keep to the main story and the primary characters. You’re outlining the events but this is not a point-form summary. So your creative self needs to come through in how the synopsis is crafted. You can, for example, lift a slice of description or a touch of dialogue right out of the manuscript to use in your synopsis.

For example:  Mary is distraught by her husband’s perceived betrayal. “I’ve wasted years of trusting you!” Little does she realize that she is the one who betrayed them both.

Motivation + action = story

A synopsis needs to introduce the main characters, a touch of character(s) motivation and reveal conflict right from the beginning.

Don’t be coy—set the stage for the rest of the story:  Mary and Omar are the ideal couple, leaders in their rural community and a successful left-leaning political team. Newly re-elected mayor, Mary is confused when Omar opts to resign his council seat without telling her first. But when she discovers he’s involved with a far-right insurgency, she’s horrified and throws him out of their home. Then terrorists take a bus full of school children hostage and Omar is the only person they’ll negotiate with.

Subplots are not part of a synopsis but you can offer a single line or two if it matters to the main story.

For example: The themes of betrayal and loss are mirrored in a subplot involving school friends. In the same way, background or walk-on characters don’t need to be mentioned unless they are integral to the plot. As with subplots, keep it to one line: When the terrorist spokeswoman hesitates, she’s executed by the leader who then gives police 5 minutes before one of the children will be killed.

Zip up the ending

When you get to the ending, don’t short change your synopsis. Demonstrate how your ending has punch or significance: As Mary holds a dying Omar in her arms, she realizes her refusal to listen to the only man she’s ever loved cost him his life. Whispering into his ear, she promises to raise their unborn child with a true understanding of its father and his beliefs.

Check for basics

 There are several ways to tackle a synopsis. A simple approach builds it from listing the major turning points for your main character, then fleshing out a brief summary of the action at each point. Don’t forget to keep the whole narrative arc in mind as you work:

Inciting incident or the crack in the world of your main character that sets them off.

Rising action or the events that add tension and propel the story forward.

Climax or the point of excitement, ultimate change or Oh My God moment.

Resolution or the place that brings the story to a close.

There’s no perfect way to write your synopsis. But if you keep to these four elements, add in a dash of your writerly style and remember to focus on the main story, you should be well on your way to a compelling two-pager.

The Last Word: more synopsis resources

https://blog.reedsy.com/how-to-write-a-synopsis/ — examples and ideas on building a great synopsis.

https://theeditorsblog.net/2012/07/15/clear-the-dread-from-the-dreaded-synopsis/— a detailed analysis of the how and why of synopsis. A long read but packed with things to consider once you’ve got the basics put together.

Hike to Write

Hike to Write

Ruth E. Walker

For the past two years, I’ve participated in the Hike Haliburton Festival, leading one of the more than 100 hikes held over 4 days each fall. But not just any trek through the woods or up a hillside, my hike is called a Hike and Write: Inspiration Trail.

It all started three or four years ago when Barrie Martin, a curator of outdoors experiences in Haliburton County, invited me to sponsor a hike in the festival. Our back and forth correspondence led to him inviting me to instead lead a hike in 2018.

Me? Lead a hike? At first, I had this picture of some of the challenging trails I’d portaged and hiked over the years. Frankly, I’m past all that.

But Barrie persisted. Told me I could design whatever kind of hike I might like that would include writing.

And that’s the so cool factor that elevates the Hike Haliburton Festival from a series of treks in the bush to hikes that integrate the arts, culture, heritage and foodie experiences.

For example, Hike for Art’s Sake was a wander along quiet roads with a local artist to sketch abandoned buildings from bygone days. And for the mushroom lover, they could take the Fungophile Foray, an easy walk in search of edible fungi. All 115 of the 2019 hikes were free.

After hosting two back-to-back hikes last year, I opted to extend the pen with a single walk in the morning and an afternoon writing at my cottage. Five hikers joined me at Dahl Forest for a hike along the Big Bend Trail Loop. They were ready to walk along, using the senses to make observations to apply to writing opportunities.

Special guest magic

Just before we started, a sixth hiker arrived. A celebrity guest, in fact. The 2019 Writer in Residence for Haliburton, Susanna Kearsley, joined us. The bestselling author of 13 books was generous with her time and attention to the other hikers. Notebook in hand, she explained how paying attention to small details is a vital part of recreating reality in her novels. How the light hits the lichen and moss on a rock, or the power of the damp scent of a pine forest — these are the kinds of things she looks for and records.

Dahl Forest

The weather was perfect. A stunning blue September sky, a light breeze riffling the tall pines and fir trees, and a carpet of moss and pine needles underfoot.

Susanna Kearsley captures a scene

Stopping at a riverside picnic bench, I led the hikers in a freefall writing exercise. The pen starts and doesn’t stop. Writers are encouraged to “follow the energy” and “write what comes up.” There’s more to it but that’s for another time.

It was magical. I was wondering how well the afternoon could go given how perfect the hike and morning had unfolded. Would an afternoon of tea and light refreshments lead to more brilliant writing?

I needed not to worry. The afternoon was just as perfect as the morning had been. Was it spent writing in hushed stillness, against the backdrop of the cottage birdsong and rustling leaves in the breeze?

Not exactly.

Inspiration comes in all forms

It was, instead, a delightful afternoon of discovery. Over tea, coffee, cheeses, fruits and ginger ale, Susanna shared some of her experiences as a writer. She spoke of her research and pleasure in writing. And soon enough, the conversation turned to the importance of story.

I sat to one side, judging just when I’d suggest clearing the table to start to write. I waited for the inevitable lull in the conversation.

But then — oh then — the real magic happened when the topic of films that tell a good story came up. And chief among them, the Marvel movies. It turned out that Susanna and one of our hikers (and a colleague writer of mine), Stephanie, were both big fans of the comic book film series. Drawn to the cinema for the strength of story and characters that carry that story, the two fans exchanged favourite movie titles.

The other hikers were intrigued and soon enough, Susanna and Stephanie were curating the ultimate list of Marvel movies to watch. Titles were broached, discussed, discarded and reordered into a “must see” list, and in what order they should be seen.

I’ll admit relief that Guardians of the Galaxy was included on that list — I’m an old-school Marvel fan but that revised rag-tag band of misfits resonated with me. At this point, I stopped to consider what we were all talking about. Frankly, I was perplexed by how a writing afternoon morphed into an analysis of superhero characters, their origins and challenges.

And then I got it. It’s the story, stupid.

What drove Stephanie and Susanna to get into such animated chatter about the film series was to talk about the power of story to transport us. Story in cinema led to the Marvel movies and the rest, as they say, was our afternoon.

2019 Hike & Write: Inspiration Trail

As the afternoon wound down, the hikers went home elated with their day spent hiking and writing in the morning and exploring ideas of story at my cottage. The curated list of “must see” movies went with them and they were already planning a series of binge movie nights.

Was this a silly thing to end our hike with? Absolutely not. We all crave story in our lives.

From the once-upon-a-times of our childhoods to the complexity of a well-crafted novel, it’s story that nudges our imagination and offers us new ways of seeing our world. It’s why we write. And thankfully, story can be found just about anywhere: on a morning walk through a stunning forest or over tea and biscuits in a rustic cottage.

Lucky us. We get to find those stories and make them our own.

Fall for Workshops

Fall for Workshops

Ruth E. Walker

The autumn season is always a busy time: harvesting the last of the crops and taking in the warmth of daytime sun. We’re all aware winter is waiting in the wings.

For writers, this often means hunkering down into our writing space and getting serious about our projects. Maybe we start a new story or poem, review our plot and character arcs, or ready our works in progress for submission.

Getting serious can also include taking workshops, attending events or signing up for long-term courses. At the very least, getting serious means being open to learning something new about the business or craft of writing. In short, adding to your writer’s toolkit.

The British novelist Matt Haig (How to Stop Time, The Radleys and Reasons to Stay Alive) offers this about courses in creative writing:

To say that creative writing courses are all useless is almost as silly as saying all editors are useless. Writers of all levels can benefit from other instructive voices.

Matt Haig

Of course, you can find quotes from bestselling writers that will say the opposite–that you either have it or your don’t. Workshops won’t make any difference, etc.

But I side with Matt. We all have the ability to write, to shape ideas into words, to blend those words into sentences and put those sentences into a kind of order to say what we want to say. But even natural ability, dogged determination or unique vision will benefit when a writer focuses on the why and how of the craft.

Of course, I have an interest professionally in writers taking courses because I occasionally offer workshops. And I’ve seen first hand the discoveries and breakthroughs many of those participants have made in my workshops. But I also take workshops and attend writers events because I always learn something new. Every. Single. Time.

Ready, set…learn

For the next few weeks, I’ll be involved in several learning opportunities, either as a participant, organizer or instructor. This doesn’t include my biweekly meetings of Critical MS, an intense critique group where we all learn from offering and receiving feedback on our works in progress.

On September 28, I’ll be attending From Inspiration to Publication, a professionals panel of folks with publishing know how. The world of publishing has never been more interesting so I’ll want to understand more about self-publishing, audio books and co-operative approaches. Compare and contrast, as they say.

From Inspiration to Publication Saturday September 28

Located in Minden, Ontario, the morning panel discussion will be instructive with Scott Fraser from Dundurn Press, Shane Joseph from Blue Denim Press, Frances Peck from West Coast Editorial Associates and freelance writer and children’s author, Heather M. O’Connor. Author and journalist Jim Poling Sr. will moderate the panel.

In the afternoon, I take off my participant hat and put on my workshop facilitator hat to offer a hands-on workshop From Inspiration to Publication, running concurrently with the one-on-one sessions participants have booked with the panellists.

I know this will be a fantastic event because I’m also one of the volunteer organizers for the Arts Council Haliburton Highlands, Literary Arts Roundtable. Three hats. One event.

Travelling words

I’ll be back in Durham Region on October 17, meeting with the Sunderland Writers Group at the local library. I’m an invited guest, sharing some exercises along with writing tips and resources to support the launch of this new group.

On October 22, I’ll be offering a creative writing workshop for the Peterborough Library for their Try It Tuesdays program. Try it Tuesdays is meant to be a taster for anyone curious about creative writing. Experienced writers can challenge themselves in this workshop by going deeper with each of the exercises.

Laura Rock Gaughan

On October 23, I’ve organized an evening writing workshop at the Haliburton Library with author Laura Rock Gaughan. Laura was a resident artist at the Halls Island Artist Residency in Haliburton County (another of my volunteer organizations) and this workshop is part of her community project for the residency. As a side note, Laura is also the recently appointed executive director of the Literary Press Group, representing 60 independent publishers in Canada.

October 24 to 26, Gwynn and I will be in Cobourg at the Spirit of the Hills Festival of the Arts. The Festival is a celebration of sharing across the arts, and naturally Writescape will be there as participants and to showcase what we do.

Gwynn has worn several hats for this event too. She was an editor for the anthology Hill Spirits IV that will launch on the Saturday evening; as a co-host of Word on the Hills on Northumberland 89.7FM she has interviewed several of the participants in the festival line-up, and she was the judge for the poetry contest run by the festival. Even my son Piers will be performing in a play that was a winner in the playwrights contest.

Shelley Macbeth

On November 2, I’ll be at the Book Drunkard Festival in Uxbridge, Ontario, offering my half-day workshop, A Recipe for Great Characters. From October 17 to November 3, the Festival — a brainchild of the great Shelley Macbeth of Blue Heron Books — celebrates all things bookish. As the website says: The festival captures the wonderment of the written word and its ability to intoxicate, transport and transform.

When winter comes, spring can’t be far behind…

Once you’re finished with all that hunkering down in winter, you’ll want to dig out and be inspired as nature comes back to colourful life.

Spring Thaw 2019

Join Gwynn and Ruth at Writescape’s Spring Thaw writers’ retreat April 17, 2020. Choose from 3 days, 5 days or 7 days to focus on your writing. The all-inclusive escape includes lakeside accommodation at Elmhirst’s Resort on Rice Lake and all meals, as well as all taxes and gratuities.

One-on-one feedback sessions, daily workshops and group gatherings over the weekend combine with plenty of private time for writing and reflection. $250 deposit secures your spot at Spring Thaw 2020.

A Writer’s Voice

A Writer’s Voice

Ruth E. Walker

In my workshops, I often remind writers that their voice is unlike anyone else’s. No one has their life experience, no one thinks with the same brain or writes with the same heart. Writers may share the same topic or scenario or even characters, but none will produce the same story in the same voice.

The voice with which we write is unique to each of us. It’s found in the types of words we prefer to use, the kinds of sentence structure that fits our imagination, the things we choose to include or exclude, the punctuation, verbs and metaphors. Our writing is full of signposts for readers: This is a story by…Margaret Atwood, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Alice Munro…

At the same time, a writer’s voice is not exactly a static quality. As we experience life, our deepening well of compost combines with new material and alters our perspective and thus, affects our writing. But essentially, the core of our voice—the beating heart of our motivation and the words that flow from that core—that doesn’t change.

So what does that change in perspective bring us if it doesn’t affect our voice?

Tone.

Tone is the mood of our writing

It’s in the email we fire off to a company to complain about a faulty product. My preferred tone in those emails is more like I’m disappointed but giving you a chance to fix it versus You people suck and I’m never buying a thing from you again. We may be using our writer’s voice with word choice and punctuation but a complaint email is not the same tone one uses to invite friends and family to a party, right?

A recent trip to the Stratford Festival in Ontario got me thinking about the difference between a writer’s voice and tone.

Our playbill included a matinee performance of William Shakespeare’s Henry VIII (a history play that should appear on the stage more often, especially if Martha Henry directs it) and an evening spent chortling away during The Merry Wives of Windsor (a comedy both hilarious and uncannily fit for our times.)

Same author (I thought) on the playbill. Same iambic pentameter. Only…I thought Henry VIII‘s prologue sounded off to me. It all seemed a bit “loud” and “instructive” in tone. Same with the epilogue.

Will didn’t write it all!

A bit of research revealed that a collaborator, playwright John Fletcher, worked with Shakespeare on Henry VIII and likely contributed the prologue and epilogue, as well as nearly half of the play. Admittedly, I didn’t notice the change in voice elsewhere, but I think my reaction to the prologue and epilogue relates to how non-Shakespeare they felt.

Is that because I like Shakespeare’s work so much that I noticed when the featured lines didn’t quite deliver The Bard to my ear? I’m not sure. This is not the only play on which he had a collaborator. But it was a revelation to discover that someone else contributed both prologue and epilogue to Henry VIII, along with full scenes including the last four scenes of the final act.

Nonetheless, the production at the Stratford Festival is outstanding: high moments of drama, tender pathos and a healthy dollop of pageantry is expertly delivered.  Of course, Shakespeare’s trademark irony brings occasional smiles, but the tone of the play is serious and reflective, with a shift into pomp and ceremony at the end at the baptism of the infant Princess Elizabeth.

The Merry Wives of Windsor could not be more opposite with “pomp” placed squarely in over-amorous Falstaff’s pompous conceit and “ceremony” delivered through weddings—only one of which was real. Farcical and staged with plenty of visual hilarity, the tone of this play is decidedly different from the serious historical Henry VIII.

And yet. There is an undercurrent that suggests the mistaken conclusions of a jealous husband  could have unhappy consequences. And how very modern to have two women as central characters, devising a plot to shame a lecher. Thrice. (Falstaff is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier.)  And to have a daughter choose her husband, instead of the choices of her parents, is likewise a modern twist in a time when marriages were driven by economics and social standing.

Tone can’t hide voice

Despite the collaboration in Henry VIII, both plays held the trademarks of Shakespeare’s voice: iambic pentameter in free verse, rhyming couplets to emphasize dramatic moments, themes of love, betrayal, confused identities. His metaphors and similes enrich meaning in a language that is almost foreign to contemporary audiences. And his invented words—nouns and verbs—remain in current use.

Critic.

Bandit.

Swagger.

For more on his wordsmithing, See Grammarly’s 15 words invented by Shakespeare.  But more than inventing words, the worlds Shakespeare invented were stories that hold lessons for our world today.

Not born a genius; he worked for it

As he honed his craft, the sometimes stilted structure of Shakespeare’s earlier plays gave way to more natural breaks and punctuation. His characters moved from near-stereotypes to more nuanced humans with flaws that made them shine. Like all of us, he learned to make language work for what he wanted to achieve on the page…and, on the stage. And his voice remained, naturally, his.

Shakespeare’s plays hold different tones: from sombre and heartbreaking tragedies to hilarious near-slapstick antics and imaginings. But they carry the same voice, one that keeps us coming back to productions since the 1590s. And that is a track record any of us would long to have.