On Writing

On Writing: A. Putting it on paper B. What rate should you charge

Recently, the Federation of B.C. Writers asked members to respond to the following two questions.

A. Do you write on a computer? Typewriter? Using pen and paper? Why do you prefer the mode of writing you use? What are the problems you experience when you try to write any other way?


B. “I wonder if the federation offers any resources that help freelancers get an idea of price recommendations for various services,” wrote the member. “There’s a lot of confusing information out there and aside from the going per word rate for local publications it’s hard to know how to charge for things like white papers, newsletter and annual reports etc. Do you have any idea where I might find that sort of guidance?”  Continue reading

On Writing-Why Write Fiction At All?

In fiction, we create characters, places, and events, or rearrange real-life things to fit a pattern we want to create, to explore an idea we want to explore, or to tell a story we think needs to be told.

In life, certain people, places and events grab and hold our imagination. Some events change the course of history. Some people bring about change that affects the whole human race. Life is full of memorable, horrifying and inspiring people and events that teach us things and stories that need to be told.

It’s all already there. So what makes writing fiction a relevant thing to pursue? Continue reading

On Writing – Constructive Feedback

The following is a guest post by Scribes instructor, Annette Yourk. To see more from Annette, visit The Scribes, Comprehensive Writing Services at www.thescribes.ca

Peer Review and Feedback – What’s it all about?

Writing powerful well-crafted stories is a life’s work. Like any demanding job with high standards, sometimes we need some help from the side. Guided peer review can provide that helping hand. However, trepidation around receiving perceived criticism can prevent writers from participating in peer review.

Sandra Doran, Tim Murray, Lee Ann Weigold, Wendy Burke review each other's writing.

Some students cannot let go of their original words. Others never feel ready:
“One more rewrite of chapter three…” “The ending still needs work…”
Writer trepidation is sometimes rooted in a past critique experience that was painful, embarrassing and damaging to the writer’s confidence. When peer review and feedback is unguided people can and do get hurt. Grizzled veterans of the process might say, “Suck it up, buttercup. If you wanna to be a writer you gotta take the flack.”
But “flack” isn’t a necessary ingredient in solid, honest, constructive feedback. Continue reading

On Writing: An Irresistible Query Letter

Every year at tax time, we face an uncomfortable question. No, not, “If I’m a presenter, are nose-hair trimmers a legitimate business expense?” I’m talking about, “When can I write off everything I’ve spent learning to be a writer?”

And the answer, of course, is: “When your writing turns from a hobby into a business.” (Answer not certified by CPA.)

In the interests of helping you get there sooner, this blog is devoted to your handiest sales tool: the query letter.  Continue reading

On Writing: Putting it on Paper; What Rate To Charge

Recently, the Federation of B.C. Writers asked members to respond to the following two questions.

A. Do you write on a computer? Typewriter? Using pen and paper? Why do you prefer the mode of writing you use? What are the problems you experience when you try to write any other way?


B. There’s a lot of confusing information out there and aside from the going per word rate for local publications it’s hard to know how to charge for things like white papers, newsletters and annual reports etc. Does the fed offer any resources that help freelancers get an idea of price recommendations for various services?

painting cover for Kittens and Stars, sm

For illustrations, I prefer watercolour, or watercolour and ink. Watercolour gives me the range of colours and edges I want, and sometimes happy surprises when I use wet in wet. Ink gives me precise drawings when those are called for, such as in this simple drawing of a blue heron.


Sometimes I write text by hand. Things such as poetry, a short descriptive piece, blocking out elements such as character traits or possible story lines. I also tend to write by hand when I’m doing research, because it seems to help me retain the material better. However, when I start to write a story or a novel, I park myself at the computer. The ease of typing, correcting typos, and editing blocks of text allows my thoughts to flow and lets me get much more done than when I write by hand, not to mention it saves me from hand cramps. A welcome side effect of using the computer is that I don’t smudge the work the way I do in handwriting. I’m left-handed, and in North America we write from left to right. Words get smudged and smeared as my hand and arm move across the paper. No matter the angle I might turn the page at, the copy is never clean.

To set rates for contracted work, one really needs a handle on:

Click for preview

• exactly what work is required

•how long the task will take

•what expenses will be incurred to complete it

•what do your competitors charge for the same work

•what is your time worth to you

•what is it worth to the client

•how experienced are you at doing this particular job

For instance: a prospective client approaches you to do a brochure for their business. This will entail graphics, text, set-up/design, printing, folding and delivering the finished brochures. Rates will differ if you are required to supply the graphics, design and text, or just some of these elements. They’ll differ again depending on whether you’re also contracting to print, fold, cut and deliver the finished product, and whether you choose and supply the paper for said printing, or the client does.

If you’ve years of experience under your belt, chances are you will be much faster at it, and there likely won’t be the ‘practice’ failures that sometimes accompany the learning curve that occurs when one is doing a job for the first time. Experience should equal a much faster turn-over time with a quality result. ‘Should’ but it isn’t always the case (something prospective clients might want to keep in mind). Checking the rates and results (quality of product, satisfaction of customers) of those who offer the same services is beneficial for both a potential service provider, and potential customers.



On Writing: Wedded Bliss, or, Happily Ever After

On Writing: Wedded Bliss, or, Happily Ever After

I recently read a post by a writer friend of mine, who is into romance. “Happily ever after is still the dream,” she wrote, as part of an explanation of why so many readers gobble up romance novels. I’m all for romance, and the feelings of newness, anticipation, and pure joy romance can bring. But happily ever after has never been part of my world. Seems to me it’s a delusion, passed on to countless children in Walt Disney-ish retelling of stories like Cinderella and The Sleeping Beauty, and mass-market ‘Romance’ novels. Original fairy-tales (The Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, even Mother Goose) made no such promises. In my view, the ‘happily ever after’ theme sets children (and adults) up for huge disappointment, if not worse.  Continue reading

On Writing: The Hero’s Journey

Guest Post

The Hero’s Journey by Bruce Hale

The oldest story ever told forms the basis for so many of our modern tales. No, I’m not talking about the “check is in the mail” story. I’m talking about the Hero’s Journey.

This mythic structure has been used so often, it’s almost part of our DNA. You’ll find it in the simplest picture book and in the splashiest Hollywood blockbuster. In WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE and in LORD OF THE RINGS.

And since the Hero’s Journey forms the basis for so many stories, doesn’t it make sense to learn it and add it to your writing toolkit?

Here are the story’s basic elements:

The Call: Going about his humdrum life, our potential hero receives a call to adventure. This could be anything from Obi-Wan Kenobi inviting Luke Skywalker to join him on a journey, to Harry Potter receiving an invitation to attend Hogwarts. The hero refuses at first, and then reluctantly accepts.

Crossing the Threshold: The hero enters a strange world where her normal reality is turned upside-down. She meets allies and antagonists, and here she is tested. A mentor appears (like Glinda the Good Witch) to advise her and prepare her for what’s to come.

Dark Night of the Soul: After a series of increasingly harder tests, the hero must face his antagonist alone. He reaches a point when all seems lost, when he has to make the most difficult choice possible. (Think Frodo at Mount Doom, or Dorothy in the Wicked Witch’s castle.)

Triumph and Return: The hero makes that difficult choice and triumphs over darkness – which could be her own weaknesses as well as the dark antagonist.

She wins a boon (deeper understanding, magical gift, etc.) and brings it back to her normal world to benefit her community.

Dorothy Gale brings back the knowledge that “there’s no place like home.” Luke Skywalker defeats Darth Vader and brings peace to the galaxy. Harry Potter… well, if you haven’t read the last book yet, I won’t spoil it for you.

In the end, the Hero’s Journey is a form, not a formula.

It’s a tale we humans have been telling each other since we lived in caves. And when you use it consciously, you can help elevate your own story into the realm of the mythic.

Bruce’s many enlightening tips and other info can be found on his website: www.brucehalewritingtips.com. He has written and illustrated 30 books for kids, and is a widely experienced writing workshop leader and teacher.


On Writing: Writing Without an Outline

Writing Without An Outline

Deciding what works for you

Often, the first rule writers are told is: Make an outline. Outlines usually involve chapter headings, and plot points, properly listed under the appropriate chapter heading. Many successful writers wouldn’t dream of beginning to write their books without making an outline first.

Personally, when it comes to making an outline before I start writing an actual book, I like what Jack Hodgins, multiple- award-winning author and master teacher, says. He believes outlines tend to deter a writer from wandering down trails that might:

•lead to a discovery that completely alters the story’s direction

•uncover an unexpected twist

•bring a dim character to life

•or reveal a breathtaking transformation the writer didn’t know existed until s/he stumbled on it.

Steven James—author of two dozen non-fiction books and nine novels—doesn’t like outlines at all. In an article titled Go Organic (March/April 2013 issue, Writer’s Digest), he says he likes Stephen King’s analogy that storytellers are like diggers uncovering fossils. James carries the analogy further with: To plot out a story is to decide beforehand what kind of dinosaur it is. …Here’s the problem with writing an outline: you’ll be tempted to use it. You’ll get to a certain place and stop digging, even though there might be a lot more of that dinosaur left to uncover.

But staring at a blank page and beginning a book without an outline to follow can be daunting. How then to start?

Getting Started

In my previous blog: What Every Good Story Needs, I included the rules that combine to make good writing.

 With the rules in mind, ask yourself:

•What is truly at the heart of your story.

– focus all of your attention at the heart…and you’ll begin to intuitively understand what needs to  happen to drive the story forward.

•Keep track of unanswered questions and unresolved problems. (Steven James, Go Organic, Writer’s Digest, March/April 2013)


For me, it helps to remember that the actual events in my novels are drivers that help move the story forward, but they aren’t the story.

•How the characters experience those events—the choices they make and the tools they use to deal with the things that happen

•Why they do what they do

•And what they discover as they do it—that is the story.

 Tricks to get going again

•Re-read the previous two chapters out loud, and see where the characters might want to go next -Let the characters respond naturally to what’s happening.

•Flip to a blank page, write any scene that jumps into your head

-If nothing is altered, you do not have a scene.

•Use setbacks

-If your characters solve something without a setback, you do not have a story.

•Answer an unanswered question, or resolve an unresolved problem

•Ask: What are readers wondering about, hoping for and expecting at this moment in the story, then give it to them.

Writing without an outline might lead you places where you spend some time before you decide you need to leave. Sometimes you come away with something special gleaned for the piece you’re working on now. Sometimes not. But if what you learned doesn’t work for this piece, maybe it will for the next.


On Writing – The Dreaded Synopsis

Tell most aspiring novelists they must synopsize their masterpiece, and they run screaming into the hills.    Dee-Ann Latona LeBlanc, Writing a Synopsis from the Ground Up

The synopsis is your sales pitch—worth the time it takes to construct and polish until it’s right. Think of it as a jacket blurb. Many jacket blurbs are actually written from a synopsis.

What is a synopsis? Essentially, a synopsis tells a reader the central story of the book, and introduces the central character(s).

How long should a synopsis be? • one sentence • one paragraph • one page (250 words) • expanded version

As a general rule, publishers who request a synopsis with submissions prefer shorter versions, unless they specifically ask for longer versions.

So, how does a writer determine what to tell a reader about their book in a single sentence, or paragraph, or page?

1. Start by re-reading your novel, pen in hand

•write a paragraph for each chapter -what happened here, and to whom?

-Notice: the running theme, symbolism you didn’t know you’d woven into the story

The result is a fairly dry outline of the novel. Now, it’s time to distill and up the interest quotient.

II. Ask: •who is the central character

•if there are more than one, what qualities describe them as a group—are they all doomed, are they all searching for something, is there something all must overcome

•what is the main driving force (goal) for your main character(s)

•what are the costs of obtaining the goal—consider internal costs to the main character(s), and external costs to the community, world, etc.

•what is the overall theme

While some believe there are only six or seven plots and everything is a variation on those, others think there are many more.

7 basic plots as remembered from second grade by IPL volunteer librarian Jessamyn West:

  1. [wo]man vs. nature
  2. [wo]man vs. [wo]man
  3. [wo]man vs. the environment
  4. [wo]man vs. machines/technology
  5. [wo]man vs. the supernatural
  6. [wo]man vs. self
  7. [wo]man vs. god/religion

 20 Plots: Tobias, Ronald B. 20 Master Plots. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1993.

1. Quest 2. Adventure 3. Pursuit 4. Rescue 5. Escape 6. Revenge 7. The Riddle 8. Rivalry  9. Underdog 10. Temptation  11. Metamorphosis                12. Transformation  13. Maturation  14. Love  15. Forbidden Love 16. Sacrifice  17. Discovery 18. Wretched Excess 19. Ascension  20. Descension [not a word].

In the list of 20 plots, there are variations on the same theme (quest/adventure; transformation/maturation) and some are simply opposites (ascension/descension). So it might be helpful to think of a reduced number when you’re trying to discover your central theme. Is yours a story of redemption, love (loss of love), coming of age (maturation), revenge, or escape?

III. Write several single sentences that capture the essence of the answers you’ve given above.

IV. Expand the sentence you like best to a paragraph.


•telling details of the main character — the boy/girl is a homeless waif

•why does the main character need to proceed — if s/he can back out, there will not be enough tension to sustain the novel. If there’s more than one issue, concentrate on the main issue.

•if there is more than one main character, what fate ultimately binds them together

•what is the climax (turning point) of the piece

•what transformation takes place (lesson learned, etc.) This might be identical to the theme, or it might differ in a subtle way.

V. Expand to a page.


•what does each central character want?

– feeds back into theme, but if there are multiple characters each might be addressing a different facet. Take care to weave these together.

•what are the drivers for each character?

•what personal issues hold each character back?

•what is the central character’s defining moment—the moment they must face down what’s holding them back and press forward against all odds. What realization must they have, or decision must they make?

*Don’t involve subplots.

*Don’t leave out the ending.

*Use the same way to refer to characters throughout: if you introduce a character as Dr. Evans, don’t use ‘Jerry’ next time and ‘the doctor’ the next.

*It’s also advisable to identify which character(s) is the point of view character by typing (POV) beside their name the first time you introduce them.          Marg Gilks, How to Write a Synopsis

**Note: Synopses are always written in the present tense.


On Writing-What Every Good Story Needs

I belong to a writers’ group where the pros and cons of beginning one’s book by creating an outline has been discussed a lot. Recently, I was asked to write a guest blog on writing without using an outline for The Scribes: Comprehensive Writing Services for Non-Fiction. That turned into two blogs. The first, What Every Good Story Needs, is the first of a series on writing I’ll post here.

What Every Good Story Needs

How Stories Announce Themselves

…For most writers, whatever the exercise that precedes the story, there comes the moment when the initiating impulse—whether it be character, or events, or ideas—has triggered a fluttering throb of excitement…that will not subside—increases rather—until the story has been lived through, written through, dreamed through to its end. At least some of that excitement comes from the urgent desire to see what manner of creature this thing will insist on becoming. (Jack Hodgins, A Passion for Narrative)

If you are reading this, I’ll assume you have a story that is pressing you to write it. You likely have folders of relevant research, ideas for the story, and character sketches for each main character. All of these can be added to as the writing takes shape and the story develops.

Multiple-award-winning author, Jack Hodgins, says: there is no beginning, end, or proper sequence for the act of writing fiction. If you are writing a non-fiction narrative (memoir, biography, autobiography), this is also true.

That said, to bring a story fully to life, there are rules a writer needs to follow. Whether one writes fiction or non-fiction narratives, the rules are essentially the same, and if the aim is to create a work that engages readers from beginning to end, a writer needs to know them.

Every good story includes the following key elements:

•Setting—Setting offers colour; atmosphere; can contribute to action, affecting character; can become a major character itself; can be a metaphor; time—the passage of time

Stare at your setting until you discover what it has to offer you. (Hodgins, A Passion For Narrative)

•Believable Characters—Characters are those primary substances to which everything else is attached. (William Gass, Fiction and the Figures of Life)

To be believable, characters must act in contextually believable ways. All the time.

•Conflict •Tension—conflict brings tension. Stories build through escalating tension. …Tension comes from unmet desire. (James, Go Organic, Writers’ Digest, March/April 2013)

What do your characters want, what stands in their way, what are they doing to get it?

Escalating tensions equals rising stakes. Keeping the stakes rising is what keeps the reader involved.

When the conflict ceases, the story ends.

•Causality—everything that happens must be caused by the thing that precedes it.

•Downturn—a moment when everything seems lost.

•Climax—an encounter that turns things around.

•Transformation—either of a character or a situation, or both. It’s irreversible. There is no going back.

•Conclusion—must be a direct result of all that has gone before, and in retrospect could not be other than it is.

The next blog will be the one I started out to write: Writing Without an Outline. It’s a subject that’s often debated by writers of all stripes.