What are the signs?

In Australia my husband and I adopted a series of abandoned cats. Our vet said there was a mark on our front gatepost that told the animals our house was a good place to find food, shelter, and safety—like the hobo marks of a bygone era.

The internet is that gatepost now. Whatever a person wants to do, the directions are laid out, marks carved or chalked, by those who have passed that way before. Naively, when I set out, I didn’t look for those marks. I thought writing was a solitary journey. It would be an understatement to say I made mistakes—but that’s one way to get an education.

Word count: 481                                                                                                      Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Some of the marks I wish I’d seen earlier in my writing life were these:

  • Be prepared for the long haul. It takes can take years to develop proficiency as a writer. In his book On Writing Stephen King says that commitment is one of the six essential tools in the writer’s toolbox.
  • Writing a novel can seem overwhelming. Concentrate on what is in front of you and move the story forward one paragraph or one page at a time. Or in the words of Anne Lamottone bird at a time
  • When it gets really frustrating, do something else. Agatha Christie said The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes Get away from it—for a while.
  • Don’t try to do it alone. Yes, writing is a solitary occupation but there are benefits to sharing with trusted readers or writing partners. You may not find the right person (or people) to share with immediately but keep kissing those frogs. When the match is right, your work will soar.
  • Become a ruthless self-editor. Put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it. Colette
  • Don’t send work out too soon. Impatience can close doors.
  • Don’t hang on to your work too long. Perfectionism can leave it in limbo.
  • Go to writers’ festivals, book launches, and readings at your local libraries.
  • Read books on the craft of writing. Try to absorb some of the vast wisdom available. It can be your secret—It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way. (Ernest Hemingway)
  • Go into the universe with a friendly, non judgemental soul. It’s easier to observe that way.
  • Get an online presence. It doesn’t have to be flashy but agents and editors want to be able to find you when they put your name in a search engine. They want to see what a reader will find with the same search.


What would the hobo marks look like for the points above? What other reminders should be on this list for writers new and old?

What lies ahead?

Perseverance of a decapitated tree by Wing Chi Poon

Nobody told me there’d be days like this sang John Lennon. When I looked at what lies ahead of me this week, I was reminded, once again, how little I knew about the publishing industry when I started. Here’s a mud map of what may be necessary, after you’ve polished your novel and got it fit for general consumption:

1. Master the art of writing a query letter, which is infinitely more difficult than writing the book itself. Writer’s Digest offers Ten Dos and Don’ts of Writing a Query Letter. Janet Reid’s Query Shark site gives examples of what turns agents off in actual submissions. Then there’s the whole question of whether you should seek an agent or go directly to a publishing house. Di Bates has a good discussion of Literary Agents on her site Writing for Children. One thing is certain, unless you intend to self publish, your query letter will open or close doors for you.

Word count: 474                                                                             Reading time: 1-2 minutes

2. Develop a web presence. Or should you? There’s a question for a search engine! It seems logical that if you want people to be interested in your work, it’s probably best if they can find you. It is sometimes suggested that this step should precede step 1, that agents and publishers are people too.

3. Familiarize yourself with the basics of contract law, or at least develop the tenacity to wade through legal documents. Even if you self publish you need to understand what to expect under the T&C’s (terms and conditions) of your contract.

4. Prepare yourself for editorial input. Allow time for more revision.

5. Before the book is published, assemble a press kit and gear up for what Jill Corcoran calls Book Marketing and Sell-Through.

6. Be prepared for a book launch or even a book tour. Start researching these events well before your launch date. If your publisher doesn't support these events, look for inexpensive ways of hosting your own.

7. Investigate the possibility of a blog tour which is a less physical way of creating buzz for your work but also very time consuming.

8. Between all this – start working on your next novel because if people like your voice, they’ll want more and you’ll want to deliver.

I’m on step four of this list and the road ahead looks exhilarating, to say the least. No one told me it would be so demanding at the outset but I would have soldiered on even if they had. I’m nothing if not perseverant. I’ve had setbacks and false hopes but I keep Winston Churchill’s advice – never never never give up – close to my heart.

What part of the writing journey has surprised you the most? Have you encountered obstacles that you just didn’t anticipate when you started the deceptively simple ambition of telling a story that was burning in your head?


Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Have you found your staircase?

During a dinner  in  the home of statesman Jacques Necker, someone made a comment to philosopher Denis Diderot which left him momentarily speechless. Later he explained, "L’homme  sensible, comme moi, tout entier à ce qu’on lui objecte, perd la tête et ne se retrouve qu’au bas de l’escalier."

Translated: a sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument levelled against him, becomes confused and can only think clearly again [when he reaches] the bottom of the stairs. This expression used in English has been condensed to l’espirit de l’escalier’ or ‘the spirit of the staircase.’

Word count: 512                                                 Reading time: approx. 2 mins

As the junior participant on a recent writers’ panel, I was asked to speak first. I had no idea what the questions would be and no time to compose my answers. When I reached the staircase later, I realized the points I’d missed:

  • I said lay down your work at the feet of editors. A writer who spoke after me suggested that policy might be a bit too accommodating. Very true! If I’d prepped for the question I would've still encouraged writers to set aside their egos. But I would have added: first get a commitment from a publisher and always hold your ground on what’s important to you. Also when an agent or editor says, “We like the book but could you change this for us,” don’t rewrite on a kiss and a promise. You may end up losing months in revision and still be left without a contract.
  • Be friendly and diligent. Writing opportunities pop up when you’re not expecting them. Recently a musician put some of poet Bernice Lever’s work to music, simply because she was in the right poetry café at the right time.
  • The internet, writing groups, and craft books are full of things you must do as a writer. Absorb as much of that as you can. Then pick your favourites from the Rules-of-Writing buffet. No one rule is absolute.
  • I would have encouraged emerging writers not to give up. All the hours, days and years spent writing before publication may seem unproductive but they are not – a lot is happening in the creative part of the brain. It is being exercised and developed. You may not realize it, but you are progressing. Also, as you continue to study, your skill level is improving, layer by layer, like the pearl in an oyster.

Today's blog is my attempt to edit my writers’ panel appearance, to say the things I thought of later. I’m pushing # at the end of a voice mail message and modifying it. I’m recalling the e-mail and adding the bits I left out.

L’esprit de l’escalier is the editing part of writing. It's where we sit down and spend hours finding le mot juste (the right word or expression) to heighten the drama and flair in our stories.

Have you ever submitted or published your work prematurely, before you'd reached the bottom of the staircase? Is there work out there that you wish you could recall and redo? I am guilty as charged, on both accounts.


Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Fisher Fine Arts Gallery, University of Pennsylvania, by Daderot

Did you slip a stitch?

Mistakes are part of the dues one pays for a full life. Sophia Loren.  

Word count: 501       Reading time: 1-2 mins.

On April 20th I’ll be part of a panel at the North Shore Writers’ Festival discussing the road to publication and beyond. Apparently the most frequently asked question at last year's festival was, “How can I get published?”

To be honest, in an effort to get published, it’s easy to make mistakes. If I were to admit every error of mine in this process, I’d have to break my 600-word limit for this blog. So I’ll start with the things I’ve done right so far, the shorter list by far: 

  • I started writing for the simple love of writing. I really didn’t care where the stories went or who liked them. I wrote for fun.
  • Eventually I wanted outside validation so I submitted to local writing competitions and gradually gathered some publication credits and prizes.
  • After six or seven years as an autodidact, I took a writing course and discovered how little I actually knew about what I was doing. Formal study was a turning point; it helped me understand what does and doesn’t work. It also underscored how important meaningful feedback is.
  • I learned to be a ruthless self-editor, silence my ego, and accept that my novels need multiple revisions.  

Everything I’ve learned has made me want to learn more so I’ve also listened to, read the blogs and followed the tweets of publishing professionals. I want to learn not just from my own mistakes – everyone does that – but from other people’s as well.

So here are some of the missteps emerging writers make:

  • Submitting work too soon. 
  • Submitting work that is poorly edited.
  • Using the shotgun approach – sending work to the wrong agent or publisher.
  • Sending a poorly constructed query letter
  • Not knowing your market. (i.e. What are the comparable books in this genre? What is a standard word count? - see Chuck Sambuchino's blog on the latter point.)

As to the actual work: at the Agent Idol session at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference in 2008 and again in 2010, agents were asked what they didn’t like to find in their slush piles. The top answers were:

  • Books that begin with prologues (I didn’t understand this well until I read Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole, pp 43-45. Her book isn’t just about kidlit!)
  • Books that begin with someone looking out the window
  • Books that begin with dream sequences

If you’ve made any of these mistakes, it only proves you’re trying. Only those who are asleep make no mistakes (Ingvar Kamprad). If you really want to avoid common errors and you have a free half hour or so, read JM Tohline’s blog The Biggest Mistakes Writers Make When Querying Agents. You could save yourself some embarrassment.

What mistakes have you made in your efforts to get published so far? Have you failed to immerse yourself in practice and study so that your writing continually improves? Have you rushed to query a manuscript before it was ready?  


Photo from Wikimedia Commons by rmkoske

So what's the big idea?

If you go to writers’ festivals and sit through enough Q&A sessions, it’s likely you’ll hear this question posed to author panels at some time: Where do you get your ideas?

I’ve heard answers that ranged from the vague to the slightly sarcastic, “Ideas 101.”

Word count: 315 Reading time 1-2 minutes

Where do ideas come from? Here are some places:

  • First hand experience
  • Visual images
  • Tactile experiences
  • Music
  • Dreams
  • Conversations overheard
  • Stories in the news (TV and the movie industry tap this resource constantly)

If the above fails you, here are some are fallback techniques to open the mind and spark the creative flow:

  • Retell an old story
  • Write fan fiction (it worked for EL James)
  • Use an idea generator like the Archetype Writing. This helpful site doesn’t just give story prompts, it also offers assistance on developing character depth, and breaking writer’s block.

Lynda Barry reminds us, “In the digital age, don’t forget to use your digits.” We can use our digits along with the rest of our senses not just to infuse a story, but to deliver one.

Seven years ago my senses ganged up on me when I walked into an old farmhouse. The former owner had been moved suddenly to a nursing home and her threadbare socks still hung above the Aga stove. The room smelled of washing powder and neglect. The curling family photographs, the dull afternoon light, and the chilly air stirred something deep inside me. That night I wrote the story Constant Cravings which you can read here.

So I’d like to know – where do you get your inspiration? Do your ideas find and possess you until you’ve captured them on the page? Are you often bombarded with so many ideas that the real challenge is in selecting just one? Or are you like Samuel Johnson, turning over half a library to make one book?


Photo from Wikimedia Commons