Tuesday, November 2, 2010

NaNoWriMo: Why I’m sitting on the sidelines

Writer's nook by omoo The plan was to spend the month of November hammering out a novel.

The plan was to have a story and some characters sitting in place, just waiting for me to hit the laptop every day and push out 1600 words.

The plan was to embrace NaNoWriMo – for the first time.

The plan – well, the plan failed.  Here it is, November 2 and I am plotless, characterless, novel-less.  And you know what?  I don’t really mind.

My14-year-old son and I were going to tackle the challenge together this year. He did the Young Writers NaNoWriMo last year and successfully met the 15,000-word target, producing the first draft of a fantasy novel that he’s continued to work on since.

What a great way to share some writing time, we thought.

What an opportunity to shackle ourselves to the writing life for an intensely limited time, we thought.

What fun, we thought.

But the truth is, as October waned and the first of November approached, both of us (without mentioning it to the other) were starting to notice something – something that felt a lot like pressure. Worry. Stress.

One day I finally spoke up.

“You know,” I start, a bit nervous, “I’m just not sure I’ve got what it takes this year.”

He looks up at me.

“I mean, I’m really loaded at work right now, and I have deadlines coming up.”

He’s still looking, but he’s not frowning. He’s looking…hopeful?

“I just can’t help feeling worried every time I think of NaNo,” I blurt out.  “I mean, it’s supposed to be something you look forward to, isn’t it?  Something fun?”

He’s nodding enthusiastically because, smart boy that he is, he’s read my mind.

“Would you mind if I skipped it this year?” I end.

“I feel the same way!” he exclaims.

We bail, and we bail together.  Whew!

NaNoWriMo isn’t for everyone.  It’s a great idea, a useful creative prompt, a unique writing adventure.  But right now, it’s a burden I don’t need.

This Salon article trashes NaNoWriMo as a colossal waste of time.

No, I don’t agree.  NoNoWriMo is not a waste of time. But it’s a project that needs to be embraced wholeheartedly in a spirit of commitment.

I’m cheering you from the sidelines this year, all you NaNoWriMo writers, and I’m perfectly content to be here. Good luck!


Friday, October 15, 2010

Teen Writers Need This Book!

Heather's book I have a teen writer in my house.  He’s written one novel and is planning another.  He’s also won prizes in local writing contests.

When I presented him with Heather Wright’s new book, Writing Fiction: A Hands-On Guide for Teens, he submerged himself in it immediately, surfacing sometime later with this review:

“This. Book. Is. Awesome!!”

And he’s not the only one who thinks so.   Canadian Materials  published a review in its online magazine.  Their response?

“Highly recommended.”

Writing Fiction: A Hands-On Guide for Teens is a must-have book for creative teens or those who work with teen writers – teachers, librarians, parents. With its practical, workbook-style approach, this book provides prompts, inspiration and guidance, all from an author/teacher who knows kids and writing – in short, the whole package.

My teen is using this book to prepare for the upcoming NaNoWriMo challenge – and I think I’ll do the same. 

Check out the book’s website,  and order it from Amazon.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Dundurn’s Ghost Story contest for young writers

Publishing house Dundurn and author Deborah Kerbel have joined forces with What If? magazine to encourage young writers to get scary: ghost story style.

Kerbel is the author of Lure, which is – guess what? – a ghost story set in a Toronto library.

Here’s the contest scoop from the Dundurn website:

Try your hand at a truly scary ghost story!

One winner will receive a story critique from author Deborah Kerbel, a ghostly prize pack of books from Dundurn Press (retail value: $150.00), AND will have their story printed in an upcoming issue of What If? Magazine!

Every entry will be posted on our website. Get your friends and family to read the stories and vote for their favourites here at dundurn.com/ghoststory. The stories with the best votes will be considered by our team of professional judges.

First, read the rules.


Get writing! Now! Go!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Air Lift To L.A.: Canadian authors helping a school library in need

Libraries are in need everywhere, but here's one initiative - the brainchild of Canadian author Helaine Becker - that actually took flight. Three of my novels, including Abby and the Curling Chicks, Wild Dog Summer, and The Toymaker's Son will be among the books finding a home on the shelves of Ralph Bunche Elementary in Los Angeles.

Five authors are making the trek to deliver the books and show support for a school library in need.  Read on for the official press release:


Los Angeles – As part of their ongoing commitment to strengthen inner-city school libraries throughout Los Angeles and beyond, Access Books has joined forces with a team of Canadian authors to help impoverished families gain access to books. The event will take place at Ralph Bunche Elementary (16223 Haskins Lane, Carson, CA 90746-1092) on October 2, 2010 at 9 a.m. This school is one of 25 elementary schools in the Compton Unified School District (CUSD) that is in desperate need of books for its 450 students.

Access Books, "Air Lift to L.A." and a team of volunteers from Bunche will spend October 2nd revitalizing the library by painting murals and cataloging brand new books. In addition to the books, Access Books will provide a reading rug, rocking chair and sofa to create a warm and inviting environment for students. Five authors from Canada will be on hand for the event and to give fun and exciting presentations to the students.

The participating authors are:

Rob Weston, author of Silver Birch award winner Zorgamazoo

Kari-Lynn Winters, author Jeffrey and the Sloth, On My Walk, and other award-winning books.

Jill Murray, YA author of Rhythm and Blues and Break on Through

Wendy Kitts, Freelance Writer, Book Reviewer, and author of a soon-to-be published picture book from Nimbus Press

Helaine Becker, author of more than 40 books for children including Silver Birch award winners Boredom Blasters and Secret Agent Y.O.U.

Sadly, only 48 percent of Bunche's students are scoring "proficient" or "advanced" in English & Language Arts on the California Standards Test. Research has shown that the best predictor of how well a child will learn to read is the number of books to which he or she has access, but 61 percent of economically disadvantaged children don't have age-appropriate books at home. The students of Bunche Elementary fit this profile: 90 percent live at or below the poverty line. According to a 2009 report from the Jumpstart Foundation, communities ranking high in achievement tests share a common denominator: an abundance of books in their libraries.

California's Department of Education recommends 28 library books per student, according to the February 2010 draft of its School Library Standards. Bunche, however, has a mere three books per student. Therefore, Access Books has set a goal: Collect at least 5,000 books for Bunche's library and classrooms. Many of these will be brand new, popular fiction titles – books that have been carefully selected to get students excited about reading.

Access Books' partner for this endeavor, "Air Lift to L.A.," grew wings after Canadian children's author Helaine Becker visited a Long Beach elementary school and saw the empty shelves. Shocked and saddened, she rallied her Canadian colleagues and started a book drive. "The conditions [in Los Angeles] are on par with the worst of the Third World countries," she writes on the "Air Lift to L.A." Facebook page. "Actually, they are worse, because in much of the Third World, people are doing their best to raise their standards, while in Los Angeles, conditions have deteriorated abysmally in the last ten years."

Bunche has just moved its campus library into a new, larger space to afford room for growth, but unfortunately, many of the shelves are bare. The library assistant nicknamed the library "The Dream Shop," but with so few books, its dreams have yet to be realized.

California ranks last in the nation in funding for school libraries, spending less than one dollar per child. Although the 2011 federal budget proposal includes a $400 billion investment in education, there's no mention of federal funds specifically geared toward school libraries. According to Sandra Barnett, head of the American School Library Association, "the budget is proposing to take away the last access to literacy for these kids in high-poverty areas." The American School Library research data clearly shows that students with access to school libraries and good books score higher in state reading scores and are more interested in reading.

"I think the big issue is that we really need to make reading part of school and make reading fun and interesting," said Rebecca Constantino, P.h.D., the founder and executive director of Access Books. "And that starts with having a good library."

About ACCESS BOOKS: Access Books provides quality, high-interest books to Southern California's most impoverished school libraries. Since 1999, they have donated more than a million books to school and community libraries in the greater Los Angeles area. Access Books has been featured in USA Today, the L.A. Times, the New York Times and School Library Journal among many other media outlets. Access Books' founder, Rebecca Constantino, is a recipient of Oprah's "Use Your Life" award. She has published over 100 articles and a book in the areas of literacy development, equity in education, urban school and cultural perspectives of language acquisition.

Give a Child a Book, She'll be Happy
Give a Child a Library, She'll be Literate

P.O. Box 64951, Los Angeles, CA 90064

Monday, September 13, 2010

Terry Fallis: A writer shows how to make self-publishing worth the effort

If you haven’t read Terry Fallis’ award-winning – and laugh-out-loud funny – novel The Best Laid Plans, you should run to your local bookstore and get busy. THRNow.  Today.

I make this suggestion because Terry’s second book, The High Road, is now available.  It’s the second installment in his Parliament Hill series featuring political aide Daniel Addison and his charge, Engineering professor-turned-public servant Angus McLintock.

Madcap antics and mayhem ensue on practically every page – what a great read!

I met Terry when he read at the Elora Writers’ Festival in June, and since then he’s been everywhere promoting his book and talking to people about his fun journey from self-published author to Stephen Leacock Award-winning Author. And if you don’t believe me (about the “everywhere” part), just check out the Appearances link on his website. 

 TBLP[1]The Best Laid Plans was chosen by Waterloo Region for its “One Book, One Community” selection this year. With interest so high, I was asked to review The High Road, and did so with trepidation. The words “sophomore jinx” hovered in my mental background, but no fear: the second book in the Addison-McLintock saga holds its own quite nicely, thank you. You can read the review here, posted on Terry’s website.

For me, the most interesting part of Terry’s rise-to-fame story is that he was just another self-published author – until he sent his 10 free copies of The Best Laid Plans (part of the self-publishing package he subscribed to) to the selection committee for the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour. He was a first-time author without a book-publishing history or a literary agent, one of the masses of self-published authors who frequently draw the disdain of “real” writers (i.e. think agents, editors, publishing houses, review in Quill & Quire, etc.). In fact, as Terry tells it, he did approach several agents with his manuscript, but didn’t get any bites.  Self-publishing was the obvious alternative.  He also took it a step further and tapped into the social media scene by podcasting his book and offering audio chapters for free.

But guess what? The Best Laid Plans was short-listed for the the award.  Did that change anything?  Yes – one of those previously-uninterested agents perked up her ears, the book won the Leacock Award and found a publishing home with McClelland & Stewart and – well, the rest is history.

The moral of the story: persevere, writers.  If you’re good enough and creative enough to get your work out there, good things can happen. Terry Fallis is the perfect example of self-publishing as a means to a very happily ever after.


Interested in self-publishing?  If you live in the Waterloo, Ontario, area, Terry  will be part of a panel discussing his journey down this road.  Here’s the scoop from the One Book, One Community blog:

Self-Publishing 101

Monday, September 27 at 6:30 p.m. With Terry Fallis, OBOC Author; Dean Froome, President, Volumes Publishing; Ron Stadnik, Print Collection Development Manager, Library Bound; Sharron Smith, Manager of Readers’ Advisory Services, KPL.

When the doors to traditional publishing houses were locked, One Book One Community author Terry Fallis decided to forge his own key.  He released his first novel on the internet – free – as a chapter-by-chapter podcast, then turned to social marketing for promotion.  Following encouraging feedback, Terry decided to publish his own novel.  Later that year, his novel won the prestigious Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour.  Within a week of his “Leacock shock,” he signed a publishing contract with McClelland & Stewart, a well-established Canadian publishing house.If you are still knocking on closed doors, join our panel for an informative discussion on self-publishing.  Find out what services are available and how to keep the process affordable.  Gather tips on marketing your product and the criteria used to select new books for library collections.

Kitchener Public Library – Country Hills Community Library
1500 Block Line Rd. To register, please call 519-743-0271 519-743-0271  ext.  255.


Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Globe and Mail: “But strong principles, they endure”

This week, the Thomson family announced that they are now hold 85 per cent of the shares in The Globe and Mail,  a result of the sale of CTV to Bell. No more Globemedia: the newspaper stands alone.

The Globe’s Saturday edition includes a compelling and entertaining editorial explaining this transaction and celebrating, deservedly, the newspaper’s new situation. We should all celebrate a nationally distributed news source that operates free of political or corporate involvement.

The editorial includes some wonderful tidbits about the late Roy Thomson, the media mogul whose family is once again solely in charge.  “The Canadian People Deserve A Free and Fearless Press!” read the ad that Mr. Thomson – then the owner of a series of dailies across Canada – took out in The Globe and Mail in 1951. You have to love this.

In fact, I love The Globe.  I’ve been a Globe reader since about 1960 (the year I learned to read). My brothers and I waged fierce battle over the sports section and the comics at the breakfast table. Gradually I learned to appreciate our morning newspaper as a source of not only news, but also opinion and entertainment.

Being published in this newspaper was one of my greatest thrills as a writer.

You know where I’m going with this, don’t you?  I’ve already written about my disappointment in The Globe and Mail’s 2008 change of policy concerning payment for writers of essays published on the Facts & Arguments page, “Why I can’t send my essays to The Globe and Mail and why you shouldn’t either”.

I believe that a basic principle of publishing is being abused. The title of Saturday’s editorial reads: “Editorial autonomy, financial acumen, real media values.”  How do “financial acumen” and “real media values” equal not paying writers for the privilege of using their work?  If the writing deserves to be published, the writer deserves to be paid.

I emailed John Stackhouse, Editor-in-Chief of The Globe and Mail with my concerns, but he didn’t reply. Perhaps now, in light of these positive changes at the newspaper, and as a follow-up to the sentiments expressed (by him?) in Saturday’s editorial, it’s time for Mr. Stackhouse and the Globe powers-that-be to live up to the standards they so publicly celebrate.

“But strong principles, they endure”, Saturday’s editorial proclaims in its final sentence. 

I agree completely.  Please, writers and readers, ask The Globe and Mail  to pay its Facts & Arguments writers. Mr. Stackhouse didn’t listen to my voice, but he and the decision-makers he reports to might listen to ours.


John Stackhouse, Editor-in-Chief  jstackhouse@globeandmail.com

Phillip Crawley, Publisher and Chief Executive Officer

The Globe and Mail

444 Front St. W., Toronto, ON Canada M5V 2S9



Monday, August 23, 2010

Penguin UK (briefly) accepts electronic submissions: Really?

The news is all over Twitter and the blogosphere: from August to October 2010, Penguin UK is accepting unsolicited queries – electronically.

No agent, no SASE, no full manuscript – just a covering message and a synopsis in an email.


Sure enough, there it is on the website:

People frequently ask us how to go about getting published. Our company policy is to not accept unsolicited manuscripts or synopses and we cannot enter into correspondence about unpublished work. However, for a limited three-month period from the beginning of August until the end of October 2010, we will be inviting submissions to be sent in electronically to the following address: submissions@uk.penguingroup.com.

We ask that email submissions comprise a brief covering note and synopsis and not a full manuscripts. Please do not send attachments, please write out your cover note and synopsis in the body of the email. We remain unable to accept hard copy submissions and will not return or be responsible for the safety of any that we do receive, so please do not send any original or hard copy manuscripts to us. We will not contact you with feedback on your submission and will only enter into email correspondence with you if an editor within Penguin is keen to progress your idea.

So here are my three questions for Penguin UK:

1. Will your Inbox overflow and crash?

2. Are you aware of how many unpublished authors will be hitting the Send button in the next few months?

3.  How are your poor acquisition editors going to keep from drowning under the deluge?

And here is a thought for writers considering taking Penguin UK up on its offer:

You’ve planned, written, revised, shed blood and tears over your manuscript. You love it/hate it at the same time. It’s part of you and you want to share it with the world.

How can you win if you don’t have a ticket?

Send, Unpublished Authors, send!

I can’t wait to hear whose pitch makes it to the top of the pile – and how Penguin UK deals with the sudden spike in submissions.

How will this story end?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

It’s Okay To Take A Break: Went to the Yukon and didn’t write a thing

DSC_3590 I did have a plan: go to the Yukon on a much-anticipated family holiday and spend two weeks drinking it all in and writing about it.

The drinking part? No problem.

The writing? Well, that’s another story, which I will illustrate with an anecdote.

A number of years ago, we went to a family wedding. It was a perfect day, and the reception was in full swing, with dancing, visiting and general good cheer all round. I was enjoying myself, certainly, but I was alone.

Why? Because my dear husband was flitting around like a paparazzo on steroids, capturing every wedding guest’s every move on film. The camera was sizzling as he dashed all over the room snapping hundreds of photos to give to the bride and groom later. A lovely thought, but it meant his only view of the event was through the lens of a camera. 

Finally, one of the bridesmaids grabbed him by the arm, pulled him over to the table where I sat watching with amusement, and hollered: “Dance with your wife!”

Sheepishly, he put down the camera and we joined the action.

I thought of this story as we experienced the Yukon’s many spectacular offerings.

DSC_4164 “I should be writing about this!” I nagged myself when a fox unexpectedly planted itself in front of our car, like Mother Nature’s toll keeper, on the way to Bonanza Creek.

“Describe it!” I muttered, mesmerized by the never-ending chain of blue-grey mountains and green hills lining both sides of the Dempster Highway in Tombstone Territorial Park.

It had been my intention all along to write about my trip, even send a few pieces off for possible publication. But once I got there, it was a completely different story. If I had spent my time finding stories to write about or considering markets that might publish my musings, I would have seen it all through the screen on my computer, not through my own two eyes.DSC_4095

So the notebook and computer got a rest. Let’s face it: I got a rest too. Instead of self-imposed deadlines, I enjoyed a relaxing family vacation and an unforgettable experience in one of Canada’s less-travelled territories.

The lesson learned? Writers are allowed to take a break from writing. When the time is right, I’ll put those memories into print. I stopped nagging myself and – like my husband at the wedding – got up on the dance floor to be part of the action.



Monday, June 14, 2010

Facts & Arguments: Why I can’t send my essays to The Globe and Mail, and why you shouldn’t either

F&A titles All last week, The Globe and Mail celebrated 20 years of publishing Facts & Arguments essays. 

I have had five of my essays published on the Facts & Arguments page, and each time, it was a thrill and an honour to see my name in print and know that people across Canada were reading my words, learning something about me.  One of those essays, “The Roots of Her Story”, won a national writing award from the Professional Writers Association of Canada.  And I was paid $100 for each of those pieces, a fairly low fee for 800 words, but a satisfactory arrangement, considering that I could say that my work had appeared in The Globe and Mail.

When The Globe pays a writer for publication, they also pay for the right to sell that piece of writing from their electronic database.  My essays have appeared in all sorts of odd places, some of them, I suspect, not paid for.  But I didn’t fret too much about that because I had, after all, been paid for my work.

But if I were to submit an essay to Facts & Arguments today, that would not be the case. Since 2008 The Globe and Mail no longer pays writers for essays published in Facts & Arguments.

At a writers’ conference a number of years ago, Moira Dann, at that time the editor of the F & A page, suggested to a room full of writers that The Globe didn’t need to pay its essay contributors, that being published in a national newspaper was payment enough.  Apparently her bosses feel the same way.

But the problem is, The Globe and Mail benefits from these essays.  It can boast – or celebrate, as it did last week – about the appeals of the Facts & Arguments page.  It can sell these pieces from its electronic database.  All without paying the writer who supplied the essay. 

I sent a Letter to the Editor, but I didn’t really think it would be published – and I was right.  I wrote:

The art of writing a personal essay is more difficult than readers may think. A great deal of thought, skill and awareness is required in order to create a compelling essay that transforms a self-indulgent story about, for instance, the death of a relative (or pet, or marriage) into a poignant and meaningful piece of writing. I’ve been proud to see five of my essays published on the Facts & Arguments page – but I stopped submitting my work when The Globe and Mail stopped paying F & A writers for the privilege of using their words.  The Facts & Arguments essay was intended by its creator, William Thorsell, to be the “centerpiece of personal writing quite unlike anything else in the newspaper.”  If the writing deserves to be published, the writer deserves to be paid.  

Sadly – and I mean that word in its truest sense, I am sad - I won’t be submitting any more essays to Facts & Arguments until The Globe and Mail pays for the privilege of using my words. I will continue to send Letters to the Editor, and lobby my fellow writers, and email the Publisher of The Globe and Mail.  I don’t really expect anything to change.  Why would it, when so many eager essayists submit their work to the F & A editors every week?  The Globe wins, and I lose.

But I think what they are doing is wrong.

If the writing deserves to be published, the writer deserves to be paid.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Elora Writers’ Festival Young Writers Contest: Celebrating young writers never gets old

Sunday, June 6 was a big day in Elora.  For one thing, it was the day of the Elora Writers’ Festival, a wonderful afternoon of readings from six Canadian authors writing in a variety of styles and voices: Giller Prize winner Linden MacIntyre, Bonnie Burnard, Ray Robertson, poet Barry Dempster, Pasha Malla (“It’s a writer’s festival; will there be rides?”), and Terry Fallis reading from his hilarious political satire. All wonderful.

EWF Winners 2010 But the highlight for me happened a few hours before the Festival, when I had the pleasure of announcing the winners of the Young Writers Contest to a room full of young writers and their parents.  Who knew so many kids would turn up for this specially-organized celebration of young writers?  And who knew so many of the winners would be there to receive their prizes? 

Judges Heather Wright and Kira Vermond spoke to the audienceEWF Judges 2010 about the challenges of choosing one piece of writing over another.  I encouraged the kids to think of themselves as writers and be proud of their efforts, win or lose.

Afterwards, kids and parents came up to say thanks – thanks for running the contest, thanks for hosting this event, thanks for the prizes.

No, kids.  Thank YOU!  Canada’s literary future is in excellent hands – yours!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Pretending to be a Librarian: Five Reasons Why Librarians Have the Best Job in The World

SJK Library The view from my desk, at left.

Today – in fact, all week – I am pretending to be the librarian at my son’s school.  While the professional is away on a week’s vacation, the amateur (moi) is sitting at the desk, checking books in and out, helping with the occasional research request, shelving the returns, reading stories and poems to every class in the lower grades and, basically, providing access.

What a gift!  To be able to spend the whole day surrounded by books.  To be able to read stories to kids (not a relative among them) and hear their responses. To pretend to be a librarian.

So, in honour of my temporary gig, here’s a list of reasons why I believe librarians have the best job in the world.

1. Books. Surrounded by books.  Handling books. The feel, smell, sight, sound of books.  You can have your Kindle, people.  Give me a real book any day. 

2. Readers.  Readers love discussing books with other readers.  Imagine having a job that requires you to interact daily, and in a concrete way, with readers?  Talking about books, authors, stories, illustrations…heaven!

3. Kids. In a school library, kids are the energy that lights the room.  They are hungry for books, information and stories.  And reading a story out loud to a group of attentive children must be at the top of the Fun Things To Do In A Library hit list. 

4. Information.  Tons of it.  Some of it accessed through computers, some of it found by lifting a book off the shelf and leafing through its pages.  The room positively hums with information, all waiting to be discovered. And every source has been searched out, vetted and tested by a librarian.  They are the wizards of research.

5. Oasis. Refuge. Peace. Order.  Like water to a thirsty traveller, a safe haven in stressful times, a quiet corner to escape the chaos of daily life, a place where numbers and letters tell you exactly where to find what you’re looking for…

That’s the world librarians create. Wish I could do this job every day!


Sunday, May 16, 2010

The end of the Writer In Residence adventure: Roots and Wings

Thank you roses WIR Hillfield

When all was said and read, they gave me roses.

Truthfully, I didn’t need any token of thanks – the experience of working with fifteen gifted young writers was thanks enough.  And hearing them present their stories with poise and professionalism in front of an audience of parents, teachers, school administrators and peers was inspiring. 

It had been an eight-month journey which began with a getting-to-know-you afternoon (we called it a “writers’ sweatshop”), continued with one-on-one feedback, lots of emails, and a session devoted to fine-tuning (e.g. “show, don’t tell”) – or nudging and tweaking, as I like to call it.

The final step was our evening of readings.  The study room was transformed into an elegant theatre, with tablecloths, centerpieces, soft lighting and vases of pink roses on every table.  Just like a “real” authors night!  In fact it was a real authors night, and as their companion on this journey, I was so very proud of what we accomplished together.

I believe that education gives us roots; education in the arts gives us wings.  The world needs people who can fly, and my young writers are well on their way to soaring.

And…they gave me roses!

 Jean Mills, Writer

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Workplace Writing: As Easy as 1, 2, 3

If your regular job doesn’t involve working with words, you might think writing is something you studied in high school or college. It’s an academic subject, you say, and only some people are good at it. Right?

Wrong. In fact, you couldn’t be more wrong. Writing skills are just that: skills. If you can learn to create an Excel spreadsheet, run a POS terminal, or accomplish any of the many tasks required to do your job well, then you can learn to write clearly, coherently and effectively in the workplace.

Here are a few strategies to make the writing process easier and to help you avoid some common pitfalls.

Step 1: Beginning, Middle, End

Think of everything you write as having three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Some business writers describe this structure as the what, so what, and now what.

The beginning states the purpose of your message and gives the reader an idea of what you’re writing about. For example, “Here is the agenda for Tuesday’s progress meeting” or “Could you please check into the status of Order Number 12345?” Keep it brief and focused.

The middle is where you give the details, the so what, of your message. For example, “At the meeting, we will address training schedules for the new equipment, as well as discuss some recent problems with customer service.” Or, “The customer called this morning about part number 1234 that was ordered on Monday, May 3 for delivery on May 10. Could you track this order and let me know when the order will be filled?” Include as many details as the reader will need, but don’t overdo it. For instance, if your message is intended to get people out of the building safely in case of fire, a simple “Use the stairs, not the elevator” will be much more effective than a lengthy, technical explanation of the dangers of combining fire, smoke and elevator shafts.

The end is where the reader gets his instructions, the now what. “Call me if you have any problems.” “Please let me know by Friday.” “Thanks for calling, and I will get back to you within three days.” The end is where you close the message, courteously and clearly.

Step 2: Plan, Write, Revise

There’s another threesome you need to be aware of, and this is the one that most time-pressed writers forget. Plan, write, revise: these three steps could make the difference between a clear message that impresses the reader, and a sloppy, disorganized message that reflects badly on you and your business.

Here’s an example of a message that once sat blaring in my inbox:

Thnx for getting in touch i’m looking for help with a website rewrite. We’re in the process of rebranding and have met with all the neccesary people now need u to pull it together. Can we meet Monday, my office. Anytime is ok with me but I am pretty loaded with another big client at the moment so maybe u should call me or i’ll call u to set up a time that works for both us. Thanks for getting in touch and i’ll be in touch.

These are clearly the ramblings of someone who didn’t take the time to think before – or after – writing. There’s nothing wrong with pounding out your thoughts, but once you’ve done that, read your message again. Does she need to know that you’re busy with another big client? Do you need to repeat the first line at the end? If the main point of the message is to set up a meeting, why don’t you just say that? And remember, it’s best to leave the informal MSN-speak for your off-hours, please.

A better message would have been:

Thanks for getting in touch. I’d like to talk with you about the Web site rewrite. Can we meet on Monday at my office at 2:00 p.m.? I will call to confirm the time with you.

Which leads me to my last point:

Step 3: Bigger is NOT Better

Despite what many business writers think, plain English is always best. Use short sentences. Use short, familiar words. Avoid jargon. A tendency towards the utilization of multi-syllabic verbiage will exponentially interfere with the ability of your communication to be interpreted and comprehended by the audience. Translation: Using big words will make it hard for readers to understand your message.

Keeping these strategies in mind when tackling your next writing task will help increase your skill and confidence as writer. Better yet, strong writing skills will increase your value to your organization, and that benefits everyone.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Two Words that Effective Writers Avoid

There is a scourge afflicting even the best writers among us.  There is no excuse for it.  There is, however, a cure.

Okay, let me try that again.

A scourge afflicts even the best writers among us. Forget  making excuses; find the simple cure instead.

Do you see it yet?  

Stated simply, avoid starting your sentences with there is.  Don’t bury your message under a layer of vagueness. 


In paragraph one, above, the word there has no substance, no body, no real meaning.  And the verb to be in all its many forms is necessary (see?)  to the smooth running of the English language, but it shouldn’t be (see, again?) the go-to verb that jumps up every time you’re feeling too lazy to search for a more effective one.

Notice how Version Two displays a directness that Version One lacks.  The noun scourge jumpstarts the sentence.  The verb afflicts propels it along.

A fiction writer friend once reported to me that an editor told her: any story that starts with “It was…”  or “There was…” immediately loses points.  You want to grab the reader’s attention, not slide gingerly across the page.

So, if you want to improve your prose, try stretching your writing muscles. Avoid starting your sentences with wimpy there is,  and, instead, seek out concrete nouns and active verbs - words that work.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Calling all Young Writers: The SJK School for Young Writers offers online courses

I was a writing kid.  I read my brains out.  My desk, bed and floor were strewn with books, and I filled notebook after notebook with my own stories, poems and journals. The only people who knew about my writing ambitions were my English teachers.  That was it. 

Fast forward to 2010.  Kids now read books and fire up their computers to interact with the author’s website.  Skype visits are a possibility (I wrote about Art Slade, here, doing just that.)  I’ve used this blog to communicate with students reading my books. It’s a new world for young readers and writers.

SJK SYW Get ready, because the next step is the virtual writing workshop, which the new  SJK School for Young Writers offers with its slate of 12-week courses, beginning September 2010.  Aspiring young writers can focus on writing fiction, poetry, plays, and personal essays with expert instructors, including award-winning authors Marsha Skrypuch and Vern Thiessen, among others.  Using email and secure blog, young writers can practice their craft, anywhere, anytime. And their “teacher” is, virtually, right beside them.

The School offers partnerships too, with What If? (Canada’s Fiction Magazine for Teens) and the University of Guelph’s CFRU radio show, The Poem Repair Shop.

The SJK School for Young Writers is the inspiration of educator Adrian Hoad-Reddick, who serves as the School’s creative director (and poetry mentor, btw!)  Check out the website.  Send young writers to take a look.   The SJK School for Young Writers has something to offer young writers – anywhere and anytime.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Beginnings and Endings: Where is this story going to end up?

One of the best parts of starting a new writing project is the thrill of excitement you feel as the story starts to take shape.  Even before putting the first words on paper (or screen), the plot reveals itself, and the characters become real with voices of their own. It’s intoxicating!

Also scary. Because that initial euphoria doesn’t last.  And how often has your writing stuttered to a halt as the excitement fades and you lose the thread – and perhaps even the meaning – of the story?

Here’sEnd of the path a trick to try: before you start writing your story, determine where you want it to end up.  Picture the final scene.  Hear your characters’ final words. Imagine it as a film, with the last images flickering into darkness and the credits starting to roll up the screen.

If you know where the story is going, then you’re ready to begin.  You don’t have to know all the details of how you got there, just where you want to end up. 

If you do find yourself stalled along the way, or if you get side-tracked and lost, all you have to do is look down the road towards the story’s conclusion.  You’ll be able to see your way back to the story and get writing again.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Purposeful Writing: More Thee, Less Me

Blog me thee If there’s one thing that irritates me in non-fiction writing, it’s writers who don’t keep their audience in mind.

This is not the same thing as writing for a specific market (a word of warning to I-want-to-be-published writers who think that churning out another Harry Potter clone or vampire romance is going to catch the eye of an acquisitions editor). Writing for a specific publishing market often leads to a mechanical exercise in “what will sell?” rather than a creative expression of that story inside you that needs to be told.

But when you write with a purpose – such as a blog, or a book or movie review – you need to keep an image of your reader perched right in front of you.

Reviews are notorious for being “all me and no thee.” That is, the writing is more about the writer/reviewer than it is about the material.

I read reviews partly because I want a preview of that book or that film. I also read them because reviewing allows a good writer to focus on a small target and comment on it from all sides. Good reviewers create little nuggets of tight, purposeful, nuanced writing, a pleasure to read. But bad reviewers stand out because their voice, their biases, their agenda, and their love of their own voice dominate.

In writing fiction, we’re allowed to forget the reader for a while, turn off our inner editor, and just write. That’s when the magic happens – when the story takes over and drives us on.

But in purposeful writing, the audience plays a role. So, a reminder to writers of reviews and business correspondence and web copy and, yes, even blogs: It’s not about you! Craft your message with your reader in mind.