Understanding Underwriting II

Understanding Underwriting II

Ruth E. Walker

Last week, we looked at underwriting in fiction and focused on underwritten scenes. Scenes are the building blocks of any story and essential for developing forward progression.

As a refresher, if a scene is underwritten, it lacks at least one of three important qualities: a reader’s connection to emotions, sensations and, ultimately, the story.

Most scenes involve the actions and reactions of a story’s characters. And it is here–in how a writer treats character development–that the beating heart of a story is found. Story is what we long for but it is character that embodies that story and leads us through to the end.

More than once, I’ve worked on novels that have underwritten important elements of character development:

  • physical presence (external = movement & abilities)
  • moral centre (internal = reactions & decisions)
  • wants and needs (external vs internal = motivations & goals)

When any one of these is underwritten, writers risk losing vital connections to readers.

The body is alive

The physical presence of your character is much more than describing how they look. How they move is based on their physical capabilities: strengths and weaknesses. And those strengths and weaknesses will change depending on their circumstances.

Big, tall Deshawn has to rescue a buddy trapped in a haunted house. We know he’s afraid of the dark.

Below are three different ways of sharing physical information about Deshawn, from a passive “tell” narrative, to a more active and physically connected narrative, and then finally a physically and emotionally active approach. Consider all three and decide which one is easiest to visualize and believe in the action.

  • Deshawn is a tall man. The room beyond the doorway he passes through is dark and frightening.
  • Deshawn stoops to pass through the doorway and looks around the frightening dark room beyond.
  • Deshawn tucks in his shoulders and lowers his head to pass into the room, his eyes wide and searching for any flicker of movement in the dark.

Unless they’re in a coma, your characters will always have to move their bodies. Those bodies need to act and react as any other body would. They feel the cold. Muscles get tired. Armpits sweat. Stomachs rumble. Eyes strain. Goose bumps appear.

Overwriting would be to have all those physical actions happening at the same time. But underwriting is to not have any of them ever happen to your characters. Using the senses — taste, touch, sound, smell and sight — will help keep readers physically connected to the people in your stories.

Good vs evil vs a little of both

Morality (beliefs, values, principles) is part of what drives your character’s actions and reactions. Characters make choices and firm decisions based on their moral centre. Underwriting happens when writers either don’t know what their character believes in or doesn’t give characters an opportunity to act on or challenge that belief system.

In Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, we gain insight into the moral centre of Aunt Lydia. A disturbing and evil antagonist in the first book, we discover that she is far more complex. We learn about her life before the extreme right-wing, Christian theocracy takes over part of the United States. If she opted to cling to her values and principles, she would be executed. She chooses life and must suppress her moral centre until she finds her way back to embrace it once more.

While I’m not suggesting that all your characters must have deep-seated values and principles, you will create well-rounded, logical and engaging characters if they act within some kind of moral centre. They won’t be underwritten because their actions and reactions will be logical, consistent and recognizable. And just like Atwood’s Aunt Lydia, there is plenty of room to play with the range of morality from which they operate.

Motivation and goals

Just as characters act from a moral centre, what they want and why they want it forms another part of what drives them and the narrative forward. You risk underwriting your character when goals don’t appear until halfway through the novel. Worse yet, if a character has no goal, they have no reason for motivation. And why will a reader worry about their failures and cheer their successes?

A character’s motivation can change, as can goals. What a character wants at the beginning of any story is rarely what a character needs. In terms of plot, readers want to follow an interesting or intriguing story. They don’t want an aimless meandering stroll through narrative that eventually gives them the ah-ha moment. “Oh, her mother’s disappearance is why she won’t commit to any relationship. Would have been good to get a hint of that long before page 107.”

There are plenty of ways to add a brushstroke or two before page 107. Figurative language is one method: metaphor and symbolism, for example.

  • a character’s attachment to a mother figure — a Madonna icon, an activist role for “Mother Earth” OR the reverse — disgust of sacred “mother” icons, a pro-development role that dismisses “tree huggers,” etc.
  • what your character refuses to see — photo album with mom’s pictures removed, flipped over or folded to hide her image. (There’s no need to explain the reason at this point — on page 107, it will support the ah-ha moment that makes the reveal be logical)
  • a character serving in caregiver (mother) role — a house plant, a pet, a neighbour’s child — and not doing it well at all, gives you lots of room to play: a missing neighbour’s pet — that you lost — is not the same as a missing neighbour’s child — who you were babysitting

In the process of editing, revising, rewriting and second-guessing ourselves, it’s easy enough to pare out elements of character development. A simple method to uncover underwriting for characters is to ask yourself the following:

  • Is this character physically present, using their senses, filling their space, moving appropriately?
  • Is this character acting in concert with their beliefs and principles? And if not, is there a reason?
  • Does this character know what they want? Are they working towards it and, if not, why not?
  • And, as the author, do I know what they need? And am I moving them (or the plot) towards that?

Tip of the character iceberg

And this is just the start. Characters, like real human beings, are amazingly complex and this blog is really just touching the surface. There are many good books that explore character and how to enrich yours. The more you know your character and how they should be acting and reacting, the less underwritten your characters will be.

Understanding Underwriting

Understanding Underwriting

Ruth E. Walker

We recently featured a series of posts about overwriting. It got me thinking about the opposite issue: underwriting. Writers often don’t notice underwritten scenes and characters but we editors sure do.

Underwriting can be as specific as a scene or part of a scene doesn’t have the impact you hoped for. Or it can be as broad as missing key plot elements that set up events later in the book.

Underwriting is missed opportunities to connect emotionally with your reader by letting them “witness” the story. Would you rather read a single sentence: Dustin yelled at her in his usual hurtful way to get his way“? Or read the scene of actual dialogue and action that took place, so you can “see” and “hear” the nasty words he used, and her cowering, him looming over her …?

Underwriting has several consequences but the most important one is that it doesn’t engage your readers. Underwriting creates:

  • Emotional disconnect
  • Sensory disconnect
  • Story disconnect

Today, we’ll focus on underwritten scenes and then follow up with a focus on underwritten characters.

Your novel is full of scenes. Some scenes take up a whole chapter and some chapters carry several scenes. But long or short, all scenes have a purpose: keep the reader engaged and push the story forward.

A scene needs geography

We need to be grounded in place — not nailed in place with every detail revealed but enough setting features that readers can visualize what’s happening. Choose elements that matter to the scene and its purpose. Is it important to the plot to know it’s sunset? Let that blazing orb drop behind something that develops the story — a castle in the distance, a massive range of mountains, a line of camels crossing a dune.

Spotlight: Let the reader’s eye take in the quality of the light and how it plays on an object that has significance. Or use the senses to bring something important into focus: colour, shape, and textures — odours faint or strong — distant noises or booming sounds — flavours and temperatures on the tongue — textures and touches. Put that dried fig in someone’s mouth. Run fingertips along the gladiator’s shield. Create a sensory connection for readers.

A scene needs action

Action comes in many forms: movement (large and small) and dialogue (lengthy or brief). But don’t forget the action found in internal thought (a moment of angst, reaction, an internal struggle or making a decision.) The process of coming to a decision, especially in a key area of the plot/character development, is sometimes given little or no air. And that’s a missed opportunity to bring your reader into a character’s emotional life.

Maybe you think internal thought is “tell” instead of “show.” And sometimes, it may very well be “tell” but, in fact, necessary tell that feels just like show. Not everything needs to framed through movement or dialogue in order to feel active and move the plot forward.

For example:

He held the urn in both hands. If he threw it now, all the pain and frustration would be over. So easy. Just drop the thing over the cliff. Watch it smash on the rocks below and then turn and walk away. Let his father’s ashes go and never have to face his mother and sister, or tell them what he’d done, how Dad’s ashes were all that was left. But easy had never been his way. Not then. And not now. He slipped the urn back into the cardboard box and returned to the car. Time to face the family.

A scene needs meaning

If every scene has a job to do, then your role is to make sure it gets that job done. Too often, we see manuscripts where important plot points arrive without any set up. For example, the main character wants forgiveness from her ex-husband but we only discover that halfway through the book. Readers will wonder where that’s coming from. But if you make forgiveness a theme, you can bring in metaphors, images and hints of that want so, for example, the ex-husband element makes sense.

Perhaps early in the story a small transgression is forgiven. Is she a character who often says “sorry” over little things then waits to hear “that’s okay”? Maybe something gets broken and she’s more upset than the owner of the broken item. Maybe a favourite film is “Unforgiven” or a favourite Mark Twain quote is Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.

A useful approach to make sure your scenes are doing their job is to ask yourself: What is the point of this scene? It’s a simple question but an important one. Are you developing character motivation, introducing a new character, raising the stakes, revealing a new plot element, establishing time and place, showing conflict, etc.? When you know the purpose of each scene you can make vital editing decisions:

  • Eliminate or combine/conflate scenes that do the same work
  • Energize flat scenes with action
  • Slow down a scene for emotional impact
  • Reorder scenes for more logical progression

When you analyze the purpose of each scene, you gain a better understanding of your novel. And that makes for a confident writer.

Find the balance

  • Avoid a laundry list of setting description but ground readers in the scene with just the right brushstrokes of important details about place.
  • Avoid too much chatter and physical action but feed the emotional connection with characters by letting readers hear their thoughts at important moments.
  • Avoid packing in too much figurative language but enrich the story with metaphor and subtle hints, especially where it’s missing in a key scene.

A writer is like a movie director, deciding who and what to include in the scene, where to aim the camera, how to light the scene, etc. Fortunately, you don’t have to call in the crew and actors to re-shoot your scene. Instead, you choose whether to trim or embellish on the page. And that’s the beauty of our craft: until it goes into the hands of the publisher, it’s all up to us to make those choices.

Overwriting Part III

Overwriting Part III

Ruth E. Walker

We come to our final installment of some of the most common forms of overwriting. Two weeks ago, we looked at sentimentality and over-the-top emotional writing. Last week, we explored hammers (are you getting it, reader?) And this week, it’s time to recall the times in your reading life when you thought the writer was giving you more than you needed.

Nobody likes a know-it-all

The know-it-all form of overwriting comes when a writer has done considerable research on a topic or they have life experience to share in their story. The author intends to create an immersion in a particular time and/or place by seeding the work with reality.

But what starts out as interesting elements soon become a piling on of images, places, names, distances, amounts and so on that readers must wade through. Keep that image of wading through, waist deep in details that are “true.” So often, writers defend these details by offering “I’m just setting the scene with realistic detail.”

Sure. Be real. But also be realistic. How much detail is necessary? Are you giving your reader breathing room to use their brains, to fill in any gaps with their imaginations?

He was gagged with a rough woolen cloth woven by the executioner’s wife so he could say nothing as he stood on the 12 by 14 wooden scaffolding, eyeing the crowd of more than 250 townspeople and foreigners from across the channel gathered below in the village courtyard. He knew which ones were foreigners as many wore colours and fine cloth reserved for the nobility though clearly they were mere traders. He glanced over at the permanent constructions of wood upon which corpses of others were decomposing. Soon, his body would join the others to be were exhibited after the execution, until he also decomposed. For this purpose, wagon-wheels were attached onto upright poles near the gallows to serve as platforms upon which the beheaded and broken bodies of criminals were laid. 

So let’s find the know-it-all material and revise this to give just enough detail for readers to see the scene.

He was Gagged with a rough woolen cloth woven by the executioner’s wife so he could say nothing as he stood on the 12 by 14 wooden scaffolding, eyeing the crowd of more than 250 townspeople and foreigners from across the channel gathered below in the village courtyard. He knew which ones were foreigners. as Many wore colours and fine cloth reserved for the nobility though clearly they were mere traders. He glanced over at the permanent constructions of upright wood poles supporting the wagon wheels upon which where the corpses of others were decomposing. Soon, his headless body would join them others to be were exhibited after the execution, until he, too, decomposed. For this purpose, wagon-wheels were attached onto poles near the gallows to serve as platforms upon which the beheaded and broken bodies of criminals were laid. 

The fix is in

Tidying up to see how it looks with commas and tweaks made, we have a tighter finished paragraph. Readers of historical fiction love to make discoveries, so the reference to the out-of-towners showing up in off-limits garb is a fun fact from early medieval days: certain finery was restricted to Lords and Ladies.

But it’s medieval times so that scaffolding would be wood, not steel or aluminium. And who needs to know the size of the scaffold? In particular, that last line sounds like it came out of a textbook. But if we take snippets of detail and work them into the paragraph as through the narrator’s eyes, we get enough to set the stage without it feeling like a history lesson.

Gagged with a rough woolen cloth, he stood on the scaffolding, eyeing the crowd gathered in the village courtyard. He knew which ones were foreigners. Many wore colours and fine cloth reserved for the nobility though clearly they were mere traders. He glanced over at the upright poles supporting the wagon wheels where the corpses were decomposing. Soon, his headless body would join them until he, too, rotted away.

Dumping grounds

Two other frequent offenders in the Know-it-all category, are info dumps and the As You Know, Bob dialogue trick, each designed to tell readers important information.

An info dump is fairly straightforward — like the overload of details in the previous example. But they also happen when an author adds details a character can’t possibly know.

For example, it’s important that readers know setting details but consider our main character, Tyson, a bored teenager:

Tyson followed his parents into the late-12th century cathedral. It was a Gothic style building with chevron vault ribs that crossed the high ceiling and echoed as he sang his favourite song, the echo bouncing off the walls peppered with secular and sacred themed stained glass windows and beautiful frescoes painted between the windows.

Chevron vault ribs? Secular and sacred? No way is Tyson going to know — or admit to knowing — the terminology of medieval architecture. The author is intruding here, dumping information into the story. Maybe it’s necessary information but this is Tyson’s story and that information needs to be filtered through his eyes and his brain.

Tyson dragged behind his parents and into another old building full of thousand-year-old knick knacks. He had to admit the acoustics were amazing when he belted a totally lit tune and it echoed like crazy in the super high ceilings. But his dad was totally awks about it, like his song was going to crack one of the fancy coloured glass windows. As if.

If the specific details are crucial to the plot, you can have Dad or a tour guide give Tyson the necessary information.

Similarly, As you know, Bob informs the reader but in a way that is clearly the author informing the reader. One character turns to the other and says: Sir, if we take that route it will lead us directly into the heart of enemy territory where, no doubt, the secret weapon is hidden and where we’re open to ambush.

Um. Can you see the flashing sign: Know-it-all Provides Important Detail? Yes, you can introduce information through dialogue. But for heaven’s sake, be subtle. If unsure whether you dialogue is off, imagine it starting with As you know, Bob. If it fits, you have a problem.

Fix the dialogue by being more subtle and more natural.

“That route is tricky, sir. If they have anything to hide, they’ll be on high alert.”

If readers really need to know the secret weapon is hidden there, find another moment to hint at it.

Info dumps and As you know, Bob moments often come when a writer is impatient to get necessary details injected into a story and then move on. Learn to have patience. You can find ways to introduce specific details without rushing to get it all into one moment. Layer it in and add only what is necessary. Recognize what your character(s) could possibly know and stay within that boundary.

Finally, always remember to leave room for your reader to imagine. It’s a sign of trust. So trust that your reader is smart enough to connect the dots and fill in the blank spaces between the details you provide.

Trust your reader and you’ll get even better at trusting yourself.

Overwriting Revisited

Overwriting Revisited

Ruth E. Walker

Last week’s blog post in The Top Drawer summarized the three deadly sins of overwriting: over-emotional writing (i.e., sentimentality); hammers and know-it-all writing. We kept our focus on sentimentality and over-the-top emotions.

This week, we’re heading to the workshop to focus on those hammers.

Hit that nail, again and again, and again…

My Writescape partner, Gwynn Scheltema, introduced me to the concept of hammers. She used to draw tiny hammers at the side of my text in any spot I “hammered home” a point for my readers. It’s an image I’ve never forgotten and one I imagine every time I come across it in my editing role.

The most common hammer I find is when a writer “shows” something (usually by creating a vivid image or two) and then “tells” it afterwards. As in:

Pay attention reader

Camille dabbed her eyes with a tissue. Her cheeks were wet from the falling tears.

The first sentence is a nice show through character action (dabbing her eyes) that also reveals reaction (crying). Of course her cheeks are wet from the falling tears. It’s like the writer isn’t sure the reader has the whole picture.

Remember, your job is to show enough for readers to envision the scene — the reader’s job is to use their imagination and it’s hard for readers to do when you paint the complete picture.

Similarly, writers hammer home emotions: Camille dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. She was so heartbroken, she’d begun to cry. Again, the action/reaction happens in the first line which shows us the emotion. Don’t water down the power of the action/reaction with an Are you getting this, reader moment.

In dialogue, writers hammer home emotions when they use qualified attributions like:

“Oh my God! You didn’t,” Zhan said with surprise.

Or

“Oh my God! You didn’t,” Zhan said incredulously.

The dialogue’s emotion is clear without adding descriptions to the attributive. Instead, use this opportunity to insert a beat or bit of business to underscore the emotion or enrich the development of your character or the plot.

“Oh my God! You didn’t.” Zhan balled his fists and turned away from his mother.

Just one more tiny nail

Another hammer is more challenging to recognize but no less important to know as you edit your work. This hammer comes when writers set something up and then, at the last moment, tag on a bit more to make sure readers get it. In this case, setting up that a character “paused.”

Releasing him, Daddy placed both his hands on Teddy’s shoulders, holding him at arm’s length, appraising him head to toe as he paused for a moment or two.

If you read over the actions: hands placed on shoulders, holding at arm’s length, appraising head to toe — all that takes a moment or two so that last bit tagged on “as he paused for a moment or two” is unnecessary. Readers have already imagined the pause as they read.

Hammers often show up in early drafts, especially in drafts with an excess of passive writing. When I see a lot of adverbs and too few active verbs, I can expect to see a high number of hammers as well. Look for those “ly” words and see if a verb with energy can be used instead (walked happily: skipped/danced; ran swiftly: raced/rushed/fled; slowly walked up: crept/snuck up/step by step — there are plenty of active verbs out there.)

In our workshops, Gwynn and I often talk about adding new skills and techniques to your writer’s toolkit. But hammers are one tool you want to leave on the workbench and out of your writing.

Next week, we’ll be looking closely at Know-it-all moments, another common form of overwriting.


Trust Your Reader & Yourself

Trust Your Reader & Yourself

Ruth E. Walker

As an editor, I see a great deal of overwriting. Sometimes, it’s just an occasional dip that needs correcting — a moment of unnecessary description or repetition. But when overwriting overtakes the story, it slows pacing, deflects from the story’s core and distracts readers with “window dressing”. My job as an editor is to help writers see when they overwrite and discover ways to fix it.

Overwriting can find its roots in a lack of trust. A writer may not trust that the reader will “get it” and so puts in extra material to ensure complete understanding. Or a writer may not trust themselves– that they’ve created enough detail that the reader will see what is intended.

Three Deadly Sins of Overwriting

Overwriting covers a lot of sins in stories. Three of the most common forms of overwriting are: over-emotional writing, hammers, and know-it-all writing.

Over-emotional writing leads to sentimentality, theatricality and hyperbole. For today’s Top Drawer blog, I’ll focus on this one. But first, a quick summary of the other two. Next week we’ll take a closer view of them.

Hammers are those phrases and sentences that “hammer home” something a writer wants to make sure their reader “gets.” Repetition and over-use of imagery and metaphor can turn into hammers in your work.

Know-it-all writing is similar to hammers but it’s related to research or knowledge that the writer has and adds in to “prove” they know their stuff. Not restricted to historical writers, know-it-all writing can come across like an author “info dump” of details.

Let’s get emotional

Here’s an example of overwriting for emotional impact.

As she sat before her vanity mirror, Camilla lowered her gaze and placed her right hand on her beating heart. If she could, she would squeeze the life out of that heart and fling it to the floor and stomp all over it. He was leaving her without saying goodbye and the sadness filled her very being, her soul. How could she live without him? Her throat constricted with a burning lump of pain and tears welled up from her eyelids and trickled down her cheeks. They fell from her chin and plunked one after the other onto the letter she clutched in her left hand, resting on her lap.

Of course, without having the whole story before us, it’s hard to know what part of this scene is window dressing and what is essential to both plot and character development. But if we look closely at the work each part of this scene is doing, we could decide what to cut, what to tweak and what to leave as is.

So let’s examine:

As she sat before her vanity mirror — is this a reflection scene? Is it, literally, a mirror moment where a character reflects and realizes something about themselves? Is this “scene setting” even necessary? With “As she…” we’re pretty sure that Camilla is already sitting there, the line or two before this likely put her in front of that vanity. Trust your reader to make that connection.

Get right to the moment. Camilla lowered her gaze and placed her right hand on her beating heart. All hearts beat. Does it matter which hand? Cut beating and right. Your reader doesn’t need it.

Be true to your character. If she could, she would squeeze the life out of that heart and fling it to the floor and stomp all over it. He was leaving her without saying goodbye and the sadness filled her very being, her soul. How could she live without him?

Is Camilla a drama queen? Is she petulant, angry or heartbroken? Is she all three at this moment or do her feelings progress? What is the overriding fear? Start with that. He was leaving her without saying goodbye. And then the deeper, primal fear: How could she live without him?

Squeezing her heart, flinging it to the floor and stomping all over it — that’s hyperbole and petulance — in this moment keep us in the sorrow, the grief. And as for sadness filling her very being, her soul — that’s far too cliché and a full on “tell”. Her behaviour — hand to heart, tears falling unchecked — shows us her sadness.

Show me the sorrow

And it’s there, in those last two descriptive sentences that with some careful paring and tweaks, we can move this scene from sentimentality to deep emotion. A simple constriction of the throat — don’t we all know that feeling when sorrow moves up from our aching hearts to tighten our throats? And tears that we can’t stop, coursing down our cheeks and sliding off our chins? Simple short images that call up our own experiences with sorrow –without any window dressing.

Camilla lowered her gaze and placed a hand over her heart. He was leaving her without saying goodbye. How could she live without him? Her throat constricted, and tears welled up and trickled down her cheeks. They fell from her chin onto the letter in her lap.

In any high-emotion scenes, you can double-check your approach and seek out any phrases or sentences that are more than what is necessary to convey the emotion. But also look for what is necessary to stay true to your character and your plot and then decide what can be cut or amended.

Just remember to ask yourself: am I trusting my reader? and am I trusting myself?

Picturing Inspiration

Picturing Inspiration

Ruth E. Walker

A picture is, indeed, “worth a thousand words.” An excellent photograph offers the eye a doorway into imagination and emotion. We often use images in our workshops and retreats as prompts or to underscore an important point.

It’s always a matter of perspective — both the perspective taken in the framing of the photo or painting and the perspective of the viewer. We bring our experience, our baggage and our emotions to how we see what is before us.

Here’s a favourite of mine. The clever overlay of shadow and light draws the eye to the jumble of papers. I suppose it reminds me of my desk, often a sea of papers — mine and those of others I’m working on. The solitary blue pen invites me to pick it up. The touch of green prismed onto the papers is a subtle contrast to the snow outside the window.

So why else does this photograph appeal to me?

There’s a story here. These papers are a mix of note cards, graph paper and full scratch sheets. The different coloured ink and the variety of writing styles suggest that various hands have held these papers. And the script doesn’t look like it’s English on any of the papers.

And of course, the blank lined note card in the bottom left. Ready for…what?


There are secrets here

A group of papers that don’t seem to be someone’s journalling or manuscript could be plans or formulas. There are numbers, lists, notations in the margins.

The room is otherwise unlit with the only light arriving through the window. It begs the question: why take this photograph in particular? Was it a surreptious snapshot taken in the only light available because to turn on the lights otherwise might give away the photographer’s presence? Was the power out?

But for me, the big question is what are the slivers of green light from? We can’t see it. We can only guess at what it is. There’s no shadow of a shelf so it must be hanging there. Or is it hovering? I get lovely shivers thinking of ghosts or aliens.

Follow the questions

For writers, a great visual is one that triggers questions, emotions and ideas. Here’s a couple more to take a look at and see what they trigger for you.


There’s something about black and white photos, as in the one above. The eye needs to interpret a scene without the use of colour and with the use of shadows and light. What might be missed in a colour shot comes into stark relief with the absence of colour.

Immediately, my mind slipped back to my tour last year of the old Kingston Penitentiary. Two things continue strong in my memory from that historic place: the solitary confinement cells and the graffiti on the walls of almost every spot that held prisoners. Prisoner messages were everywhere. Rude. Full of misspelling. Poignant. Denoting territory. Despairing. And often just practical: Don’t plug in the toaster when the microwave is on.

The graffiti in this black and white photo makes me wonder if this is an homage, a snippet of poetry or a threat. Story gold, in my opinion. Message in a photo instead of in a bottle.

Conversely, colour excites other ideas and emotions in the viewer, especially in this photo with the dark twisty tree limbs that layer the forefront. Behind that “barrier” rests a bridge of possibility: red for excitement…or danger? A curved shape makes the first half an effort to climb and the last half an effort to keep from racing down.

See those leaves on the ground and the early yellows of late August or early September in the trees? What does autumn represent? Is this a bridge to “the other side” of life or a way to leave the past behind?

People who need people…are writers

Finally, here’s something just for you, writer. A story found in a face. Spend some time with this photograph and see where it takes you. Can you craft a postcard story (500-word maximum)? Can you see beyond the obvious and look deeper into this image, imagining the past, forecasting the future? Find one detail and follow that thread.

Image: Uki Eiri from Pixa
bay

Deadline: Midnight, Friday, June 5, 2020 (12:00 p.m. EST)

Prize: We’ll publish the best postcard story right here in Writescape’s The Top Drawer weekly blog, along with your bio and a friendly interview on what inspired your entry. Bragging rights!

Judges: Gwynn and Ruth. And we might invite one more judge to join us — someone to balance out the panel.

Open to writers age 16 or up at any stage of the writing process: published, unpublished or in between. Winner and runners up will be announced by June 30, 2020.

SUBMIT: by email to info@writescape.ca with your entry attached as a Word doc and in ms format (double spaced; 12 pt font Times New Roman or similar). Email Subject: Postcard Story Writescape

Just a note that many of our photographs come from pixabay.com with photos and graphics created by artists from all over the world. If you use Pixabay, it’s free of charge. Just remember to “buy a cup of coffee for the creators” by occasionally donating.

Words For Comfort

Words For Comfort

Ruth E. Walker

On Friday evening April 24, like so many others, I watched the televised vigil for the terrible tragedy in Nova Scotia. Music, prayers and tributes were shared to honour the memories of the 22 people killed in a senseless rampage.

Senseless.

That word goes both ways. We are numbed by the loss and we can never understand the motivation. There’s no making sense of it. And no amount of evocative music or heartfelt prayers will remove how powerless we feel.

Words are just words even with the best of intention.

And then Sheree Fitch read a poem. The words came to her after she heard the news of the mass shooting. The poem arrived unbidden, landing on the page in the morning as if already written, ready to give voice to the unspeakable. Some of us writers know what that is like, when a scene or story comes to us and we are lost in the writing, almost on auto-pilot, possessed.

In these days of social distancing, how can anyone find comfort without a hug or handhold or hot cup of tea in a friend’s china cup? Yet I felt comforted by her reading. Her poem spoke of the child in all of us that when the inexplicable happens, we fall back into that child-place, where the world is strange and frightening and we need a voice that tells us our feelings are okay to have.

Sheree kindly gave Writescape permission to share her poem here. It’s a wonderful example of how words can find a way through the dark.

I hope Sheree’s poem brings the same comfort to any one of you, who, like me, is still trying to process how horrors could happen to ordinary people, living ordinary lives, just like ours.

April 20, 2020

Because We Love, We Cry

Sometimes there is no sense to things my child
Sometimes there is no answer to the questions why
Sometimes things beyond all understanding
Sometimes, people die.

When it hurts like this, my child
When you are scared, suffering, confused
Even if we are not together
Together, let us cry

Remember there is so much love
Because we love, we cry.

Sometimes the sadness takes away your breath
Sometimes the pain seems endless, deep
Sometimes you cannot find the sun
Sometimes you wish you were asleep.

When it hurts like this, my child
When you are scared, suffering, confused
Even if we are not together,
Together, let us cry

Remember there is still so much love
Because we love, we cry.

Pray that I had answers, child
Pray this wasn’t so
There are impossible things, child
I cannot bear for you to know.

When it hurts like this, my child
When you are scared, suffering, confused
Even if we are not together
Together, let us cry

Yes, there is still so SO So much love
Because we love, we cry.

Sheree Fitch by Keith Minchin

Sheree Fitch is the award-winning author of over two dozen books for children and adults, as well as a storyteller, poet and book shoppe owner. She lives with her husband, Gilles, and many critters on Happy Doodle Do Hobby farm in River John, Nova Scotia where they run a seasonal book shoppe, Mabel Murple’s Books Shoppe and Dreamery.

Nobody’s Fool

Nobody’s Fool

Ruth E. Walker

On the first day of April, it feels right to consider all the times I’ve been fooled in the past. Despite the pandemic upending our world right now, it is probable that plenty of people had something pulled on them this morning.

Of course, some of the April Fools’ Day jokes I’ve endured have been the usual silliness, like the kids hiding under the bed so I’d think they disappeared. Or a decidedly less-than-brilliant piece of mischief like putting plastic wrap between the bowl and the toilet seat (saw the plastic before I sat down…phew!)

Corporate chuckles…

April Fools jokes even find traction in news media. I recall a front page story in London, Ontario, that confirmed a massive dome would be built to cover the city (just think — no more shovelling snow and one bad-ass form of isolation).

The corporate world has had its fair share of April Fools’ foolery. Ikea once had a recall on its “left-handed Allen key.” Can you imagine all the toolboxes upended to find the faulty item?

But for readers of thrilling fiction, Amazon launched a Twitter ad on April 1, 2018 that goes one step further in terms of “delivering” books. Author Patricia Cornwall jumps off her yatch and scuba dives to California to get her book to an avid fan.

How about that for delivering the goods? It’s a joke, of course. But fun to imagine. I’ve always said I’d do anything for my book, but I guess scuba diving is not on that list after all.

Put funny in your fiction?

I suppose we could all benefit from things to laugh about — especially these days. But also consider the power of humour to capture our imaginations and remind us of our gullible, fallible selves. It’s a useful writers’ tool to keep in your writing workshop: the human condition, warts and all.

We Canadians have a long line of writers whose sense of the absurd finds its understated way into stories and novels, chief among them Margaret Atwood. I once told her that her novel Life Before Man was the first novel that made me laugh out loud. In retrospect, I hope she took that as a compliment.

The great American storyteller, Mark Twain, opined that “there are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind — the humorous.”

Indeed. But it’s not often recognized as such. In a May 1, 1916 Maclean’s magazine article, beloved Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock wrote:

“…ordinary people, quite unconsciously, rate humor very low: I mean, they underestimate the difficulty of “making humor.” It would never occur to them that the thing is hard, meritorious, and dignified. Because the result is gay and light, they think the process must be.”  

While writing humour well is difficult, readers do value the end result. Especially from brilliant writers like Margaret Atwood, as well as in the works of Twain and Leacock. Great storytellers have always understood that to hold difficult truths up to the light, humour in its many forms can keep us reading. And more importantly, it can plant the seeds of changed perspectives.

And that is one powerful tool for any writer.

What funny novels or stories have tickled your funnybone just when you needed it most? What writers made you laugh first and then stop and think? On this April Fool’s Day, share with us in the comments.

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.