Writer’s Craft

Upon This Rock I Will Build My House

In Uncategorized on January 21, 2011 at 10:06 am

One morning not too long ago, when I was feeling particularly naive, I told my husband, “I am going to build Ava a beautiful wooden doll house for Christmas.” 

My husband had his usual reaction, “Does she need a wooden doll house?”

And like I said to the wii remote in the shape of Elmo the day before, “Of course she needs it!  She will have it forever and always take care of it!”  So, I got in the car and set out to get the supplies for the most beautiful dollhouse.

Well, three hundred dollars later (JUST FOR SUPPLIES!) I sat down to make my daughter a Christmas present.  The lady in the shop told me it would take forty hours to make.  It took me two hundred.  But, as you can see from the picture above, it is beautiful.  And it was also a very useful experience.  As I was painstakingly sanding, painting and assembling every piece of siding together (don’t even get me started on the balcony…) I was thinking to myself (as you do when you have been trapped in the same room every night trying to prove your husband wrong) that building a dollhouse is not unlike writing your novel.  How you say?  Well, let me tell you…

Getting Your Pieces in Order

When I opened the box and looked at the pile of wood and the instruction manual (with no pictures and the dimensions as the only description of the pieces!) I had to sit down and figure out what was going on before I started.  Like writing a novel, you should always sit down and think about what you want to accomplish before you start.  Now, I know some people are able to just sit at the computer without any idea where they are going, but I would argue that you still need to have a general idea of what the story is about.  You need to know who your character is and you need to know what you want the conflict in the story to be.  Yes, you can start writing with a vague notion of what is going to happen, but I promise you that the more you know about your character’s background (their past, their wants, their needs, their motivations) it will save you time on your editing and it is will also help with writer’s block.  Of course you don’t need to write a detailed outline of your character and where you want the story to go, but as I found out with the dollhouse, the better described your instructions are from the offset the easier it is for you in the process.

The Foundation

This part is also involved with your planning from the offset.  Once you are done your novel and you begin the query process there is going to be one question on everyone’s tongue and no, unfortunately it is not, “How do I sign you as my client?”, but rather, ”So, what is your story about?”.  And sometimes (alright, more often than not) we get through our speech about our novel and when we are out of breath and smiling from remembering our brilliant work they utter the words that all authors dread, “And?  Is that all that happens?  What makes your book different from the book on the exact same subject I received yesterday?”

When constructing my daughter’s house I spent more time on the foundation then was perhaps necessary just to get the house constructed, but I knew that if this was wrong the whole house would be wrong.  You spend a lot of time on your manuscript, mine is like my second child.  Make sure that when you start writing you know what you’re writing, that it is enough to sustain the reader’s interest, and that the conflict is compelling enough to push the story and characters forward. 

The Construction Has Started

I’ll admit that when I started I was an idealist.  I remember walking in with the huge box in my arms and when my husband raised his eyebrows I smiled and asked, “How hard can it possibly be?”

Apparently extremely difficult.

When  raising the walls and carefully adding every piece of siding I was thorough.  I knew some of this work would never be appreciated and that in the end it would probably look the same as the person who had spent forty hours putting it together, but I didn’t care.  I needed to take that long.  When you are writing your manuscript you might be writing in back story that people will never see, witty comments that you spent hours thinking of that no one will ever laugh at.  My manuscript was complete at 75,000 words but a wonderful editor I am working with wanted me to trim it down to 55,000.  EEK! I know.  And as I am trimming out word after word I keep thinking that all my hard work and the time it took me to write those words are lost.  But are they?  After finishing with the axe, I have read back through my manuscript before resubmitting it to my editor and I am noticing that the sentence makes sense without the four lines of back story before it.  Taking out that character has put a greater focus on my heroine and it is her story- she deserves our sole attention.  So yes, perhaps no one will read every word you have written, but in my case I have learned that the time it took to write those words was not wasted. 

The Final Touches

The paint, installation of the windows, staining and installing (individually might I add!) 864 roof shingles is the hard part.  It is the finicky little work that hurts your eyes and just makes you think you are never going to finish.  I would look at the door I just installed and squint my eyes because it just didn’t look straight.  The level said it was straight but my eyes were telling me something else.  My husband came down and said it was straight but his eyes were wrong as well.  Though, he did point out one of the windows was upside down and I had to throw him out the room in denial (then secretly fix it when he was safely upstairs).

When your manuscript is done and you are taking the red pen to your beloved piece of art it can be daunting.  Sometimes you need to take a break, for a week, a month, even a year sometimes to get perspective.  You have to ask others to help you gain perspective and sometimes they tell you things you don’t want to hear.  Listen to them.  If it hurts your feelings and you just can’t face it right then and there, then write it down.  When some time has passed you will want to look it over and evaluate it.  Sometimes they will be wrong, but more often than not they will be right and you can make your changes accordingly.  Remember, you asked them to look at your manuscript for a reason- you value their opinion.

The Finished Product

When Christmas morning came and I brought my  Ava’s beautiful dollhouse upstairs I had the biggest smile on my face.  I loved it, I had worked hard for it, and I was so proud to give it to her.  When my nearly two-year-old came down the stairs she gasped, opened her eyes wide and pointed at the house I had built for her.  I smiled from ear to ear as she squealed and ran to the house, but as she got closer she walked right around it and picked up the little ducky she had left on the table the night before and started kissing and hugging it.

To say I was crushed would have been an understatement.  Later my husband graciously showed her the dollhouse more carefully and she did show some interest but the duck had won the day.

As we clutch our edited, polished manuscript in our arms and gently hand it over to agents/publishers with stars and money signs in our eyes, we are crushed when the rejections roll in.  Trust me, I know, 146 rejections are a lot on someone’s self-esteem.  But the truth is, perhaps they are not ready yet.  Perhaps we are not ready yet.  Perhaps our work just isn’t ready yet.

The editor I am working with right now has requested changes and I am working on them just as hard as I worked on that dollhouse.  A big name publishing house is giving me a chance when all others said no.  Did the rejections hurt?  Absolutely.  But, two years later I am presented with the opportunity of a life time.

I know my daughter will grow to love that dollhouse and one day perhaps she will even give it to her daughter.  I know now that she was too young to receive it but I was too impatient to wait.  I had put my heart and soul into it and I wanted her to notice, I wanted her to be ‘wowed’. 

So, after all your hard work is done and you are ready to share your labour of love with everyone, you might be in for the hardest part of the whole journey- waiting.  It will be hard, you will question whether it was worth it or not, but please if you take nothing else from my experience remember this- it is.

-Emily Harper

*I must send out a big thank you to my sister-in-law Laura.  Without your hard work and calming presence, Ava’s beautiful dollhouse would still be a work in progress.

***To find out more about the author, please click here.

The Dark Waters of Critiquing – Part 1

In Uncategorized on January 7, 2011 at 9:49 am

This image was taken from Stephen King’s On Writing

Critiquing:  Take Aim and Fire?

So your mom or dad, brother or sister loves your story or novel.  Right.  We all know where this is going.  No matter how hard they try to be subjective, they love you, they don’t want to hurt your feelings and they might just not know a well written story from a publisher’s nightmare.  Hence the need for someone a little more removed, and, hopefully, skilled in the art of critiquing.

Critiquing someone’s writing is a huge commitment.  It, like writing, must be learned.  It must be done honestly, skilfully and tactfully.    There is a sensitive human being at the end of the gun barrel, who may not as of yet developed the distance needed to accept criticism, even constructive criticism.

Make no mistake.  Unless you are an editor with years of experience in reading all kinds of material, critiquing can be challenging and hard work.  You don’t write or like science fiction but someone in your writing group needs their piece critiqued?  It takes away from your time to write your novel.  Are you still willing to commit the time to do a good job?

So what is a good critique?  First, some generalities. 

 I think we must keep in mind that it is their story that they are telling, and we must critique within that framework.  We are trying to make suggestions that improve this story.  Help make the story better, not different.

It is not enough to tell the author that something isn’t working.  Tell them why you think it isn’t working and if possible make a suggestion as an alternative.

The author needs to know what is working as much as he/she needs to know what is not working.  It will build their confidence and help them focus on examples that they can emulate.

At what stage of the writing process is the particular piece?  Is it a first draft and they are looking for feedback on story structure and character arc?  A final draft and you are doing a line by line edit?

Review your critique and be organized in your presentation of your thoughts and ideas.  Stumbling around will make your opinions seem unsure and less worthy of consideration.

Don’t let your personal feelings or views of Mary, or the subject of her writing, influence your objective critique.  It can happen easily without even being aware of it.

Sometimes the longer you work with someone, the better you get to know them, the more difficult it gets to remain objective.  Just like Mom and Dad, you don’t want to hurt their feelings.  You must be professional and keep the whole reason for critiquing in the forefront.

Those are some general thoughts about critiquing.  In part 2 I will offer a process to try using to critique a piece of writing.

Til then, keep writing.

Dan Side

Just Another Useless New Year’s Resolution?

In Uncategorized on December 31, 2010 at 10:28 am

 So, you’re going to give it another shot.  “This year I am going to complete my …blah, blah, blah, blah. blah.  Kinda like that one where you are going to lose weight, ehh?  So let’s get real.

If you are going to make another writing resolution, before you do, ask yourself a couple of questions.  This is particularly important if you have made those writing resolutions in the past and failed dismally.  How badly do you want to write that book?   Is it REALLY important to you?  Are you hungry enough?  Do you really need to tell that story?  Do you just have to write?  Do you WANT that fame and adulation – and money!!!   Do you have the answers?  OK.

Lots has been written about how to create a routine, get up an hour early, close the door, tell everyone that it is your time and space, etc. so I am not going to go that route.  But if you are serious about making a writing resolution, I want to get you focused on what it is really about.  And that is priorities and balance in your life.

Married?  Kids?  New job?  Taking care of elderly parents?  Single.  Retired? 

We are all in different stages or circumstances so be realistic about what you can and can’t do.   Don’t set yourself up for failure.  If your lifestyle allows for writing four hours a day, more power to you.  If you have just had a baby (see Leann’s article for help) then be realistic.  The key is to make the writing resolution attainable.   If you do this, and you accomplish it, even a goal as simple or small as one page a day, then the routine is established.  The progress becomes evident.   The synergy is self perpetuating.  You are a New Year’s Eve success!

But a caution.  If it is attainable, and you don’t follow through, then you have to deal with this truth.  You are not that hungry – you really don’t have to write.  The money really isn’t that important.  This kind of discovery might be a reality check – which is pretty healthy.  We shouldn’t fool ourselves.

This kind of self discovery isn’t all bad.  It might be disappointing at first, but it might just free you to examine what you really want to write or do.  Ditch the novel you have been struggling with for five years.  Maybe it is time to try a screenplay.  Maybe you want to take that course on cooking that you have always put off.  This admission might just free you.

I believe what is important is balance in our lives.  That it comes down to priorities.  Changing priorities that we need to be aware of and adjust.  When we can do that, and we are in the right place and time or circumstance, with the right resolution (goal) then I think the muse will strike and we will write.  My experience with writing throughout the years has proved to be like that for me.  

So be honest about where you are right now, give that resolution some thought, and HAVE a happy writing new year.


Click here to learn more about Dan Side and his novel “Teacher’s Pet”.

Is it Possible to be a Writing Mom?

In Uncategorized on December 24, 2010 at 12:45 pm

For the past eight months, since giving birth to my son Charlie, I’ve asked myself this question several times a day.  In those first few months, the answer was a definite NO.  No, it was not possible to nurse every hour and a half, change diapers, feed myself, keep my house decent, deal with the strange things that were happening to my own body and be a writer too.  The exhaustion alone was reason enough not to write.  Unable to think straight, unable to form a sentence verbally, let alone write down a fictional sentence was truly impossible.  At that point, I couldn’t have cared less about Owen Vandenkirk, the protagonist in my novel.  I was ready to give him up completely for the other little boy in my life.  But I didn’t like it.  I didn’t like ignoring my novel.  I thought about it daily with much regret and guilt. 

Thankfully, I have a writing group that is open-minded and flexible and after a few months, when the number of night feedings decreased and I re-entered the world of the living, I did return to my novel.  It is not easy to find the time and the motivation to write when there’s a little one usurping your life.  And I’ve had to accept that while Stephen King may think it should take no longer than three months to churn out a first draft (as he states in On Writing), those of us in the real world know that this is nearly impossible.

In my struggle, I have found there are a few things we can do in order to find the time and the motivation to get back to our first babies, our novels.   

  1. Store-Bought Purées:  While I get a lot of satisfaction from making my baby’s food from scratch, it can be a time-consuming endeavour.  And guess what, you can buy it, in cute little jars, pre-made, no blender needed.  While these jarred foods were full of fillers and sugars when they first hit the shelves in the 1950’s, today they are relatively healthy and free from harmful additives.  Feeding your baby a mixture of store-bought and homemade purées will provide him with good nutrition and will get you out of the kitchen and into your novel more often.


  1.  Nap Time / Bedtime: Nap time is a parent’s best friend, and if there is a God, I think that sleep was his or her little gift to parents.  While it isn’t possible to spend every nap time writing, try to set aside 2-4 naptimes a week that are dedicated to writing.  This takes discipline.  No matter what needs to get done – laundry, dishes, puréeing sweet potatoes – you must ignore it and spend that precious time writing.   Same goes for bedtime.   While it may be tempting to veg in front of the telly with a glass of merlot, novels don’t write themselves, so get off your butt and start writing!


  1. Daddy/Baby Quality Time:  When your husband gets home, give him the baby, grab your journal and get the hell out of there!  If you stay home and try to work in the office or in your bedroom, it will be much more difficult to write.  You’ll hear the baby whining and you’ll want to step in and save him, or you’ll think about how it will only take five minutes to scrub the tub.  Get out!  Leave them alone.  It’s good for your baby to spend quality time with his daddy.


  1. Grandparents are Good Babysitters:  Take your parents or in-laws (or neighbours, friends, strangers from the street) up on their offers to babysit.  Grandparents are dying to spend time with their grandbabies.  Afraid to leave the baby alone with those crazy old people, well, they brought you up and you’re okay, right?  Trust them.  Your novel depends on it.


Hopefully these tips can be of some help to the writing moms out there, and if you, dear reader, have any other tips for writing moms, please post them!  The more, the better.  My final word on the topic is to be kind to yourself.   When you fail to reach your monthly goal of thirty pages, or you fall asleep on the couch with that glass of red, don’t be angry at yourself.  Be as flexible and gentle with yourself as you are with your little one.  Admit that it’s hard, and if you don’t reach a goal, it’s not because you’re lazy or a bad writer, it’s because you are, above all else, a good mom.

Now, to losing the baby weight…

By Leann Leyten

Writing Craft – Creating a Great Antagonist

A variety of thoughts – from a fascinating site called No Nonsense Self-Defence by Dianna Gordon MacYoung and Marc “Animal” MacYoung.  Their knowledgeable take on everything from stalking, to the five stages of crime, to knife fighting, to legal issues.  Check it out.

1        The antagonist is never a villain in his own eyes.

2        Believes what he is doing is justified.

3        Is trapped in a world that is all about them.

4        Most “bad” guys are:

            Control freaks

            Self righteous

            Self important



            Have low self esteem


5        Most are missing: mercy / compassion / empathy

6        Whatever you choose to have your bad guy do, you must ask yourself: 

            What do they want? 

            Why are they doing this?

            Why do they choose violence?  What is there about the antagonist or their            situation or             their environment that makes violence the best answer for             him/her?

            What triggered them?  Internal / external reasons?

            What keeps him in check?

7        Under the violence is often:

            Self loathing

            Chronic anger

            Warped perceptions


            Blaming behaviour

8  It is often the fear of showing weakness that forces him to respond to insults or the situation.

Dan Side

December 1 2010

Writing Lists – cause we probably all need them

If you are at all like me – and not an expert yet- you constantly do some research, looking for the next skill or piece of information that will improve your writing.  You use it, pleased with yourself and then repeat the process, looking for another.  Again, if you are like me, you have trouble remembering the advice.  Using it once or twice hasn’t engrained it.  It’s not automatic yet. 

So what do I do?  Probably the same as you. (Cause we’re really not all that different are we?)  You make lists of those skills and tack them up on the board or wall in front of you.  Probably going to need them until you’ve finished that fifth or sixth novel and they are engrained and part of you automatic skill set.

So to share and make your writing life easier, I will from time to time throw out a list or two that you might find helpful.  And I would sure appreciate one from you that would help me. 

Just as a qualifier – none of these ideas are mine.  You might take issue with some of them, and that too I would welcome.  Always ready to hear another opinion.

Thanks for visiting – Dan


  1. Start as close to the end of the scene as possible.
  2. Each has a beginning, middle and end.
  3. Should move the story forward regarding plot and character development.
  4. Always contains conflict.
  5. Scenes end dramatically.
  6. Should lead to the next scene.  Ie. Have good transitions.
  7. Scenes are paced – sometimes hi tension, sometimes low.  Alternate them.
  8. Do have a definite mood.
  9. Scenes never tell if they can show.

    10.  Talking heads should be limited.

-Dan Side

October 18th 2010

What is a thriller?

In the words of the ITW co-presidents David Morrell and Gayle Lynds: …

Thrillers provide a rich literary feast – the legal thriller, the spy thriller, the action-adventure thriller, the medical thriller, the police thriller, the romantic thriller, the historical thriller, the political thriller, the religious thriller, the high-tech thriller, the supernatural thriller.

The list goes on and on, with new variations being invented constantly. This openness to creation and expansion is one of the field’s characteristics. Even so, what most readers think of first is the “thrill” in “thriller.” And they’re right. What gives thrillers common ground is the intensity of the emotions they create, particularly those of apprehension and exhilaration, of excitement and breathlessness. By definition, if a thriller does not thrill, it is not doing its job. Thrillers are known for their pace, the force with which they hurtle the reader along. They are an obstacle race in which an objective is achieved at heroic cost. The objective can be personal (trying to save a spouse or a long-lost relative) or global (trying to avert a world war) and often is both. Perhaps there is a time limit, perhaps not. Sometimes thrillers begin with intrigue, building rhythmically to rousing climaxes that peak with a cathartic, explosive ending. Other times, they start at top speed and never ease off. At their best – this needs emphasizing – thriller authors use scrupulous research and accurate details to create environments in which meaningful characters teach us about our world. When a reader finishes, he or she feels not only emotionally satisfied but is also better informed – and hungry for the next riveting tale.

A mystery is about a crime, about a dead body and clues to the solution of the crime.  A thriller is a novel of suspense, jeopardy and the achievement of a heroic objective.

-Dan Side

October 1 2010

Just what does “Thanks, but no thanks” mean?

So you just checked your e-mail and got another NO from yet another agent or publishing company. 

Yes, but damn it, you read somewhere that Stephen King was rejected 45 times before he was published.  You just have to be persistent.  Sooner or later someone out there will see the true genius of your writing and then you are on your way! 

Yes, you have to believe this.  If you don’t believe in the story you are telling, your energy will dry up, the no’s will slowly destroy your dream as a writer, and your story will go untold.  HOWEVER, we must be realistic.  We must be honest.  We must see past our personal love affair with our story. 

I think it’s important to be realistic about that first novel we send out.  Do send it out, -when you are sure it’s your absolute best work.  But, here’s what is hard to accept.  Just because it really is your best work, it still may not be good enough. 

How do you know if you should listen to them?  Well, agents do make their living getting books published, and publishers do make – well you get the drift.  Yeah, but what if the first ten are idiots who don’t get it?  Let me relate my adventure thus far and maybe it will help you be realistic about your work.

I am presently sending out a novel.  To date, 48 agents, 3 publishing companies.  No nibbles.  Now that’s got to tell me something.  Just exactly what it is telling me is what I have to figure out.   Given the lack of feedback I receive, or don’t receive at all, it has taken quite a few “thanks but no thanks” generic, and sometimes personal rejections to get a handle on it.

Even the feedback can be diverse and frustrating.  I have been told the writing is not strong enough.  Another has told me it is well done and shows flashes of artistic brilliance.  I know which one I want to believe but, the reality is, none to date have said “yes”!

So maybe it is the concept or premise.  The characters?  The climax?  Take what little feedback you get and be coldly objective about your novel.   It’s a business and they want to make money.  If your book can guarantee to make them money, I’m sure they would love to publish it. 

Yes there have been those who, with their first effort, have written a classic.  But we are not all really created equal when it comes to storytelling and all the myriad skills it entails.

How many novels have you written?  Is it number one that you have sent out over and over again?  The first time you tried to ride a bike, were you ready for the Tour de France?  I have heard (or read) somewhere, by someone (how’s that for reporting accuracy) that most aspiring writers need to have 3 or 4 manuscripts under the bed before the multiple skills are developed and you are ready for the big world of agents and publishers.  Doesn’t really sound unreasonable.  So I think we have to be ready to put in the work.  Pay our dues – in order to learn the skills.

Then again, a certain young lady on this blog site just got her FIRST novel accepted!!  All it took was 142 queries.

So what’s your take on this?


December 1 2010

December 1 2010

Link to Christopher Vogler’s Blog 

One of our wonderful writers, Linda, wanted to share this link with you all. 

All the best
Writers to Authors

P.S. If the link above will not open, please click on the webpage below:


eBooks- Author’s Friend or Foe?

September 18 2010

We’ve heard a lot on the business side of eBooks and how it is impacting the publishing world, but there is not a lot of information on how it impacts the author.

EBooks save publishers money- there is no doubt about it.  Instead of spending thousands of dollars on printing, turning the author’s manuscript into a novel, all they have to do is click a button and it is available to the mass public.So, when sending out query letters to publishers, should new writers consider the eBook route?  It seems that it would be a lot less risk on the part of the publisher.  If the book doesn’t sell do they really lose anything?  I suppose the time spent getting the novel ready for upload; the editing, the formatting, the cover art.  But some smaller publishers such as Oak Tree Press are willing to publish the book in their name; however you must present a copy which is ready to be uploaded- meaning if you don’t edit it properly, no one else will.

Yes, the royalties are higher, but will you sell enough eBooks to make that even matter?

When going on sites like Amazon’s Kindle you have over 470,000 books to choose from.  Some from renowned publishers, some smaller publishers, and some self-published pieces authors have put on the site themselves.  What are the odds a reader would search through 470,000 books to find your newly published novel, especially if you are a first time novelist?

I think the answer to this is they wouldn’t.  Unless you find yourself lucky to be published by an extremely well-known publisher who would promote you through their own website in order to lead the reader to buy your book, you are just one in 470,000+. 

So what happens to the author when eBooks is inevitably the only source of publication?

It seems the way to success for any eBook author is this- self promotion.  Of course, you self promote when publishing the traditional way through books tours, signings and readings.  But, how do you sign an eBook?  Do you go on tour to the Chapters and Barnes and Nobles across the globe with your computer in your hand?  It seems unlikely.

The real answer seems to be the form in which I am communicating right now- the internet.  The future book tours will take place in chat rooms; the readings will be preformed via web cams.  We need to have an internet presence and know how to network and share our journeys through forums like Facebook, Twitter and blogs.

So, to the question whether eBooks are an author’s friend or foe, the answer seems to be it depends whether the author is internet savvy or still sending letters via Canada Post.

–  Emily Harper



Dear Unresponsive Agent,

If you do your homework on an agency you may find that, “because of the incredible influx of queries”, (lucky them) they regret that it is impossible to respond to every one they receive.  Therefore, you, dear writer, will only be contacted if they are interested.  Sound familiar?

In my opinion, the very statement indicates a lack of respect for our efforts.  Doesn’t our blood, sweat and time deserve at least a modicum of acknowledgement?  Do we not play a role of some significance in the whole publishing picture?  We do supply the material that they forward to publishing houses.  We do in, essence, write their pay check.

Ah, it’s the time factor.  Come on.   Some agencies can send out a generic “sorry”, not only for rejecting your work, but for the generic rejection note.  Yes, it is much better, for we know that they received the e-mail, someone at least glanced at it, and the effort we have invested, good or bad, has been acknowledged.  And how much time does it take to hit an extra key or two and send off this previously prepare note. 

I have received many wonderful rejections, some generic, others personal.  (Did I just say wonderful rejections?)  Some of the generic ones are worded so well, it’s almost as if they are personal.  They are encouraging.  How good is that.  No, an agent doesn’t have to be our best friend, but it’s called professionalism.  It’s what separates agents like Nathan Bransford, Adelade Brooks, Laura Bradford, Mickey Choate, Katie Kotchman, Adam Schear, Anne Hawkins, Jon Tienstra, Irene Kraas, Alan Lampack, and Stacia Decker from others.  If these agencies can do this, why is it that others can not?  Or do they just not want to bother?  Does seem to say something about the agent or agency.  Like maybe they won’t bother doing some other things that should be done?  Just asking.


September 26 2010

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