Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Google Alerts: Online Research for Dummies...like me!

Does the word "curling" ring a bell?
(Photo Jean Mills)
In my role as online content writer for the Canadian Curling Association, and as a past contributor to The Curling News, I am always on the lookout for stories featuring the people and issues that drive the sport. Yes, believe it or not, curling does have its intriguing celebrities and hot-button issues, and I'm always trolling for something new and interesting.

But you may have noticed this phenomenon: the sport of curling doesn't make it into the headlines - or even on to the sports pages - very often. On the internet, you have to know where to look. That's a lot of research time.

So to facilitate the research and fact-finding process, I subscribe to Google Alerts. It's like having your own electronic clipping service automatically send you links to articles that fit your search criteria. In other words: Online Research for Dummies.

To activate your own Google Alert, go to the Google home page. On the tool bar, select "More". From that list, select "Even More". A page with numerous Search options will appear, with Alerts at the top of the list. Simply click on it and follow the instructions to set up your own robo-researcher.

I have multiple alerts, all of them containing words/phrases that will pick up the stories I need to write my columns and stay on top of the news in the curling world. You might want to set an alert for, say, IT governance, or accounting jobs, or risk management. Or a certain writer or business leader. Or yourself! (But be warned - my classic old-lady name usually results in alerts for obituaries. And there are other Jean Millses out there who write about cool things like Wiccan, and early learning skills in young kids. You might find yourself associated with all sorts of unexpected activities. Just saying...).

Sometimes you end up with obscure items that don't seem to fit but do, actually, contain the words you set for your Alert. For instance, my "curling club" keywords sometimes turn up soccer stories from the UK: someone "curled" a shot into the net, or a particular football "club" just fired its manager. Sometimes the curling club just hosted a book sale or was the scene of a car accident. Oh well. All grist to the mill.

Easy to set up, easy to use, and a time-saver: Google Alerts is a great online tool that you can customize to suit your research needs.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Writer on the rails...

A few weeks ago I went on a trip that I've been dreaming about for a long time:

I rode The Canadian from Toronto to Vancouver. Yes, I was a writer on the rails!

Did I get much writing done? Not really. At least, not on paper.

Writer on the rails...
But what I did do was think. A lot. About what I was reading. About my writing life. About what I might write next, and whether I was up to the effort of rebuilding my fiction-writing life on top of a very busy paying-gig writing life. Writers need to do this sometimes. We need to stop, and think, and fill up that jug that we so quickly empty when we're working. Riding the rails for four days was a gift.

Hour after hour of gazing out a window at a changing landscape of trees, rocks and water. That was Northern Ontario which goes on forever...until you hit Winnipeg.  More hours of watching the rolling landscape gradually flatten into the prairies of Saskatchewan. Flat? Yes. Boring? Never! (I'm reminded of the story I heard from a friend: Family moves from Saskatchewan to BC, from the prairie to the mountains. Kids complain: "But we can't SEE anything! These mountains are in the way!")

Wine country in BC
Then the foothills, and the Rockies gradually rising up and surrounding the railway tracks. The Canadian doesn't do the loopy, side-of-mountain route that the Rocky Mountaineer does (tunnels, spectacular switchbacks). No, we followed rivers, and sometimes the Trans-Canada highway. We sat on sidings - frequently! - as freight trains, sometimes kilometres long and stacked with double container cars, took precedence over our tourist train. (No matter. No rush.) We saw May's "Super Moon" rise over Kamloops during a late-night stop. We watched the lush farmland around Chilliwack soak up the sun as we rocked by. And then into Vancouver, where urban and green hold hands in a unique landscape of cityscape, sea, mountain and rain forest.

So, did all those hours of watching and thinking clarify my writing life?

Not sure. But it didn't hurt. Riding the rails - taking time out to just sit. And think. And watch. And read. And luxuriate in it all.

It didn't hurt my writing life. Not a bit.


Okay, I did do a little writing. And I mean a little...

The Canadian: Day One

View from the window:
Trees, water, and low grey clouds.
Nothing? Everything.

Watching for wildlife.
Beaver? Moose? Bear? Eagle? Nope.
Fellow travellers.

Train life: one long line,
See only the car in front -
'Til the curve. Then - all.

Looking back...

Monday, April 16, 2012

Elora Writers' Festival Writing Contest: A Journey...

Where will your journey take you....?
(Photo T.J.R. Mills)
“The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair,” claimed 20th century American writer Mary Heaton Vorse.

If you’re a writer – or you want to be – then the time has come to adopt Heaton Vorse’s credo as your own because, yes, it’s writing contest season.

Start thinking about this year’s contest theme: A Journey. Let your imagination wander. Feel the creative energy start to flow.

Then apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair, and write!

Contest Details:

Enter your short story (1500 words maximum) or poem (75 lines maximum) in the 2012 Elora Writers’ Festival Writing Competition by Friday, April 27.

·         Title Page:   Category, Title of Entry, Writer’s Name, Address, Email
·         Short Story or Poem:   with title (Writer’s Name on Title Page only)
·         Category 1:    Include Entry fee
·         Category 2-4:    Indicate age on Title Page
·         Deadline:    Postmarked by Friday, April 27, 2012

Send double-spaced, printed entries (with entry fee for Category 1) to:

EWF Writing Competition
c/o Elora Arts Council
Box 668
Elora ON N0B 1S0

Winners will be announced 12 p.m. ET, Saturday, May 26, 2012
on the Elora Writers’ Festival blogsite

You can find entry details on the contest flyer here,

and a list of Frequently Asked Questions here.

Questions? Contact Contest Chair, Jean Mills, at jrmills@rogers.com

Monday, April 9, 2012

My Favourite Client: Highlights of a Season of Champions

On the job in Saskatoon: Writing World Junior reports
 while waiting for the Bronze Medal game at the
 2012 Tim Hortons Brier to begin (Photo D. Mills)

When I took on the role of writer/editor for the Canadian Curling Association website last summer, I was looking forward to a season of writing about - and helping other writers write about - a sport I love. The job was everything I thought it would be, with some unexpected challenges thrown in.

Where to start? How about with some of the challenges:

1. With five high-profile national/international events being held in Canada this season, and a number of others involving Canadian teams on the world stage, the website was the hub for news as well as marketing. That meant at least five - usually more - stories a week requiring editing, photos, links and posting on the website. Because each post involved individual event teams made up of mostly volunteers, an event coordinator, a writer, and an editor, the process relied on clear, timely communication among all participants - and that communication chain sometimes snapped. More than once I found myself doing a last-minute edit late on a Sunday night for a post that was scheduled for first thing Monday. Part of the job, and we all got it done, but not my favourite way to operate, particularly when I juggle other jobs and clients along the way.

2. Some of the writers I worked with this season were not writers - they were contributors with essential expertise and experience in aspects of the sport. They sent me copy; I had to turn it into something readable, entertaining and informative. That's not always easy - especially when I was determined to maintain each writer's distinct (and sometimes quirky!) voice. What a challenge, and what fun for the writer in me: playing with other voices. 

Highlights? There were many!

1. Writing about the grassroots of curling in my bi-weekly column, Around the House, allowed me to speak with curlers and curling club managers around the country about the sport we all love. I had a chance to tell their stories, and that's my favourite thing to do. From writing about the brand-new club in a little town in Quebec, to the massive sports and entertainment complex that just opened in Moose Jaw, I loved sharing curlers' stories - and they were generous with their efforts to answer my questions and provide photos.

2. Writing summaries of games at The Dominion Curling Club Championships, the first-ever Youth Olympic Games, the World University Curling Championships, the World Juniors, National University and most recently, the World Men's Curling Championship. Did I get to attend these events? No - this was long-distance reporting. It was exciting to follow the action online, using line scores from the event (sometimes in the middle of the night for international events!), then incorporate news from the official media release into the story, wait for photos to be posted on the CCA or event image gallery, write, edit and post the story - quickly! And when Canada won medals, as they did at every one of those events, it was even more exciting. 

As a writer/editor, this has been one of the most satisfying and enjoyable contracts I've ever worked on, and here's hoping there will be more in the future. Thanks, CCA! You are my current favourite client!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Real Estate Agents: You need an editor.

Anyone who never turns off his/her inner editor (yes, I'm putting my hand up) will know that reading the listings in the local newspaper's real estate supplement is torture. Please allow me to relieve my anguish by sharing a few anonymous zingers I encountered this morning. Note: The following examples came from the same publication. No, I am not making this up.

The classic its/it's battle - and a hint of overcompensation:

"Best in it's Class!"
"Country Living At Its's Best!"

Please consider proofreading for typos/spelling and other goofs:

"Cut as a button from the great layout to the great yard."
"If your looking for a great place to invest money & your life into, [address] might be for you."
"The wide open spaces of the great room, country kitchen and deck compliment the private nooks of the study, porches and balcony." (This line was part of a description that appeared in two separate listings. Different houses. Same description. Not very complimentary - or complementary, for that matter!)

Comma splices are okay in advertising, right?

"Come and see for yourself, you will be glad you did."
"Don't worry about bringing your decorating ideas, the owner has tastefully updated & decorated with unmistakable quality."

Punctuation? Who cares?

"...on a magnificent 190' foot deep professionally landscaped lot..."
"While most new freehold towns are much more than this to build. These owners have priced this one to sell."
"[Address] is a beautiful tree lined street..."

Let's just invent new usage, shall we?

"Bright 3 bedroom, 1,436squft unit..."


Calling all Realtors: If you want to impress potential clients with your ability to communicate clearly, concisely and correctly, please consider asking someone to look over your listings before publication.

Better yet: hire an editor!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

My Annual Writing Contest Adventure: The Elora Writers' Festival Writing Competition 2012

Volunteerism is something that most of us take seriously. It's hard to find the time and energy in a busy life to commit to an obligation outside of family and job. 

This wolf is on a journey in the Yukon...
And if you're a writer, as I am, it's even harder to give up potential creative time in order to contribute to a cause or organization.

But we do it anyway, don't we? Not for glory and not for thanks: we do it because we believe strongly in the causes we support.

Outside of health, happiness and the well-being of those I love, I don't think there's anything that means more to me than writing, so when I have the chance, I do my best to help support writers and spread the word of books, reading and writing.

One of my favourite volunteer commitments, the annual EWF Writing Competition, is about to rev up for another year. The Call for Entry is almost ready to go, and the Frequently Asked Questions page is drafted and waiting. A few more loose ends need to be tied up and then - the official announcement.

Stay tuned here at Writer's Life and also at the Festival blog, Elora Writers' Festival, for all the news on this year's adventure.

Psssst! Want a hint? This year, the competition has a theme: A Journey....