Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Elora Writers’ Festival: Climbing back after a tough year

Robert Rotenberg, author of Stranglehold, kicks off the readings
at the 2013 Elora Writers' Festival on Sunday, May 26, 2013.
The Festival was held this year at the Elora Centre for the Arts.

It has been a tough year for the Elora Writers' Festival organizing committee, a group that includes me.

Organizing any kind of public arts event is challenging, of course: people are busy, money is scarce, details are daunting. But for the six of us, it was an especially difficult year.

Our 2012 Festival had a fantastic line-up but suffered from a lack of ticket sales. Why? We don’t know. A busy weekend on the event scene? Ticket prices too high?

And we didn’t receive the Ontario Arts Council grant that we had come to rely on to support our costs. Why? We’re not sure, but perhaps because we can’t show that we bring tourism into Elora, or that we especially appeal to those demographic groups that the OAC is committed to serving.

No, we’re just a little festival, in a little town. “Come and be read to” is our motto. Everyone is welcome. Be part of the audience for a few hours, and then spend some time together to meet, face-to-face, and talk books, writing and reading.

When we sat down at the committee table after last year’s event, we found ourselves in deep, depressing, daunting trouble. And so we made a plan.

Andrew Westoll, Ailsa Kay, Carrie Snyder, Sonia Day,
Robert Rotenberg and Terry Fallis show off their books.
We streamlined, we chose respected, award-winning authors with great popular (and local) appeal, and we went digging for sponsorships and grants.

We also took a break from our writing contest, which was an annual competition associated with the event, and which I was responsible for chairing. Administratively bulky and financially demanding (People need prizes, and only adults are required to pay an entry fee. Sorry, I’m not charging kids to enter a creative writing contest!), the writing competition needed an overhaul. So for one year, it was snipped off the agenda.

We focused. We worked hard at finding dollars to meet our costs. We moved to a central, welcoming venue (the Elora Centre for the Arts). We changed up the program to make it more audience-friendly (a post-readings schmoozefest with wine and hors d’oeuvres, including a Q&A with the authors). 

I’m happy to say, we battled back from the abyss.

Sponsors stepped up, granting agencies saw the value in our event and handed over cheques, people bought tickets to hear six very different Canadian authors share their thoughts and words with us: mystery writer Robert Rotenberg (Stranglehold); science writer/memoirist Andrew Westoll (The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary); authors of literary fiction Ailsa Kay (Under Budapest) and Carrie Snyder (The Juliet Stories); satirist Terry Fallis (Up and Down), making his second appearance at the Festival; and gardening guru Sonia Day (The Untamed Garden) – award winners and first-timers. It was magic, and the audience loved it.

Carrie Snyder (left) and Ailsa Kay chat with a fan, while Terry Falls
(right, with glasses) laughs with others during the reception
after the readings.
The authors loved it too, and they told us so. They loved that our wonderful MC (Roxanne Beale, owner of the local bookstore, Roxanne's Reflections, and a perpetually smiling, hard-working member of our committee) introduced each author with grace and humour - and then got out of the way. They loved that they had time to talk and read, but not so long that the audience got restless. They loved the green room with its snacks and opportunity to chat author-to-author. And they loved the up-close-and-personal schmoozefest with the fans – as well as the authors-and-committee-only BBQ that followed, where we could all kick back and relax together after being “on” during the afternoon.

We are ready to tackle our next Festival – our 20th Anniversary – in 2014. The writing competition will be back. Maybe we’ll resurrect the dinner that we used to include, and maybe we won’t. Maybe we’ll do something spectacular, or maybe we’ll just stick with what worked for us so well this year.

“This is the third time I’ve come to this event,” one audience member told me as the afternoon was winding down, “and this is definitely the best one yet.”

She looked around at the crowd sipping wine and munching on delicious finger food, chatting with each other and with the authors in informal groups.

“This is great. You should do it like this every year.”

You know what? Maybe we will. The Elora Writers’ Festival is definitely alive and well!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Grammar Wall of Shame #1

Mistakes happen, I get it. But sometimes the mind boggles. Here are three recent examples of either poor writing or poor editing, two from The Globe and Mail, and one from The Guelph Mercury.

Exhibit 1: It's vs Its

No explanation necessary.


Exhibit 2: Hyphenation creates adjectives, not nouns

In this case, the hyphens are not required:

Any suggestions for getting off the beaten path?

If the writer wanted to create an adjective, then by all means go for those hyphens:

Any suggestions for a getting-off-the-beaten-path adventure?


Exhibit 3: Parallel structure gone wrong

Parallel structure adds depth and style to sentences, and it's a useful tool for constructing lists, but it must be used correctly or the sentence implodes, as it does above.

Kids, parents, young professionals, and seniors all have a plethora of activities at their disposal to entertain themselves with, create new social networks in, and to improve their health.

Think of it as a list with bullet points - and remember that in a list, each bullet point must follow the same structure.

Kids, parents, young professionals, and seniors all have a plethora of activities at their disposal to:

  • entertain themselves with
  • create new social networks in, and
  • to improve their health.

Item one is okay (although ending with a preposition is a bit awkward...)

Item two is okay (follows the same structure as the first item in the list)

Item three uses a different structure: it starts with to (i.e. infinitive form) and it doesn't use the preposition ending. One of these things is not like the others, and that's how parallel structure breaks down.

And don't get me started on plethora...!

Take care, writers (and editors); you're giving me way too much material for my Grammar Wall of Shame.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Writing, and a walk in the woods

A walk in the woods last October...

My day started with a walk in the woods.

I’m very lucky to live in a neighbourhood that is minutes from real-world, untouched-by-lawnmower nature. Sure, I have lots of trees in my good-sized yard, lots of grass – well, actually, lots of weeds – and birds that come to my feeder when they’re not swooping out along the cedar hedge and calling down from one of the tall maples at the back of my property.

But getting away from houses and cars and people can be hard in most residential areas, so I’m lucky. A five-minute walk from my back door and I’m looking at a farmer’s field. Twenty minutes later I’m crossing a dam over Guelph Lake and the Speed River, heading onto trails that can keep me away from Where People Live for a few hours. Heck, the other day I walked for a few minutes down the streets of my neighbourhood and turned off into the trails that meander towards the lake, or along the nature area tended by the monks at Ignatius College. I can cross busy Highway 6 (the Hamilton to Georgian Bay route) and disappear into the woods and farmland of the College’s wild (in places), cultivated (in others), and welcoming property.

I’m lucky. I don’t know about you, but I need nature. It calms me, warms or cools me, and - especially - feeds my creativity.

Weather doesn’t matter (although I’m not that great at floundering through snow, and my snowshoeing technique is pretty lame and inefficient). Rain, wind, snow, sun, heat – bring it on. Nature copes, and so do I.

My trusty steed
Walking in the woods, or riding my bike on trails away from cars and people, I find my creative mind starts to burble below the surface. The To-Do List fades away as something else takes over that space behind my eyes. (You know, the eyes are looking at a creek and tall grasses, but in that space I'm seeing someone searching for clues. Clues to what? Who is this person? Wait a minute, it's a teenager, and he's - no, look again - she's frantic...burble, burble, burble...). Movement of the body begets movement of the mind. Walking down a busy street can have the same effect, of course, but there's something magical about getting away from pavement, from technology, from noise. Instead - trees, water, birds, wind. Nature.

So my day started with a walk in the woods. Now, please excuse me. Ideas rising to the surface...

Monday, May 13, 2013

Grammar errors that drive me nuts #1: Pronoun agreement

Pronoun agreement.


If the teacher is talking, don’t interrupt them.


If the teacher is talking, don’t interrupt him or her.

Correct, if somewhat clunky.

In the effort to be gender neutral, too many writers break the bonds of correct usage and resort to using a plural pronoun with a singular noun.

Teacher (singular)
Them (plural)
His or her (singular)

Better to rewrite the sentence:

If the teacher is talking, it’s best not to interrupt.

It’s a simple rule that everyone needs to learn:

Singular noun requires a singular pronoun.

And that brings us to one of those tricky parts of the rule:

Everyone needs their umbrella today.


Everyone needs his or her umbrella today.

Indefinite pronouns (such as everyone, everybody, everything, someone, somebody, something etc) are singular and require a singular pronoun.


Everyone is happy. (Not Everyone are happy).
Everything has its place. (Not Everything has their place).

And the trickiest of all the indefinite pronouns in “none”.

None of the cars is washed.

None is washed.

I know, I know. You’re dying to say “None ARE washed.” Well, go ahead. But you would be grammatically incorrect.

It’s a minefield, but you can remember it this way:

Indefinite pronouns that end in “one”, “body” or “thing” are singular. One. Replace the word with a singular pronoun like “her” or “he” or “it” and test it.

For example:

Everyone had their umbrella becomes,

He had their umbrella. (Hunh?)

Pay attention now, and see how often newspapers, broadcasters and the general public get it wrong.

Pronoun agreement. A grammer geek’s dream!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Writing, basketballs, and rain on a tarp

Outdoor office - and just on the other side of that
hedge are basketballs....

There was a debate on CBC’s "The Next Chapter" recently about whether it’s better to write with music playing in the background or not. Some writers can work while a musical sountrack plays in the background, and some can’t.

I can’t.

Well, not completely true. I can – if the music doesn’t have words, and if what I’m working on doesn’t require the streneuous stretching of my creative muscles.

A friend of mine writes to jazz. I know another writer who has the CBC French station Espace Musique playing (she doesn’t understand French, so it’s all just a tapestry of lovely cadences and music to her).

But sounds of any sort are a problem for me. They have to be just right, or I’m distracted. At their worst, sounds can irritate me. Forget any kind of productive writing when the dog is barking, for instance. Or – my favourite – when the neighbour kids start bouncing their basketball on their driveway, just a few metres from our open windows, or the deck, where I love to work in the summer.

Basketballs – they are symbolic of the intrusion that unwanted sound makes into my writing life. They’re bounced by people, and I like to write in solitude. They make a repetitive, reverberating, rhythmic pattern of sound not unlike the maddening drip of a leaky faucet or, as I like to describe it, Chinese water torture.

And it is torture for me. Bounce, bounce, bounce. 

I can feel anxiety rising every time I’m enjoying the natural sounds of my back deck, and I hear the neighbour’s door slam.

Someone has come outside.

Nothing, then…

Bounce, bounce, bounce, clunk (ball through hoop). Bounce, bounce, bounce, clunk. Over and over.

And over. And over.

But I’m the first person to say the sounds of kids playing are good sounds (Hey, I’m a mother, after all). So as much as I would like to stand up on the edge of my deck and holler over the cedar hedge “Can you please give us a break over here?”, I don’t. Of course I don’t.

Instead, I shut up and went looking for an app.

No, not an app that yells at kids over the hedge. It’s an app that allows me to mask the annoying sounds around me with soothing natural sounds. That’s what it’s called – Nature Sounds.

And the Rain on a Tarp track is perfect. Percussive enough to cover the bouncing basketball, and familiar enough to invoke the sounds of rain on a tent roof, camping, solitude, nature.

It's a fabricated natural world, of course, but it works. Be gone, basketballs! Or that loud TV. Or traffic. Or people talking. Rain on a Tarp allows me to retreat to my own writing space, with a soundtrack that supports rather than disturbs.

A tent roof, camping, solitude, nature...