Category: For Writers (page 1 of 6)

Flowing Waters

Spring has arrived in my corner of the world.  Blossoms popping out of the ground, buds swelling on the trees and ditches full of running water.

Don’t know if it’s the weather, but the creative juices are flowing afresh for me too.  I’ve an idea for a spin-off from my latest book (to be released in early summer).

This is that lovely honeymoon stage of the writing process.  The stage where I believe the book will be easy to write, the story will come together like magic and the finished product will be brilliant.

This is also where I employ my favourite plotting method.  The one where I lie on the couch and stare at the ceiling, letting words and pictures and ideas float freely through my mind.  Kind of like looking at clouds when I was a kid. No barriers to the imagination. The part before the hard work.

All the school children in my district are on spring break.  I feel a bit like I’ve been let out of school too.

Happy Spring, everyone.

Change the World?

 Placido Domingo is said to have given this advice to a young musician.

  • Give the audience your all, even your mistakes.  You are human.
  • Put on a smile.  It is a gift.
  • Never stop trying to change the world, no matter what your age.

It is that last point that intrigued me.  As writers we rarely meet our audience face-to-face so they won’t know if we smile.  Writing allows time for re-writes, proofing and corrections, so we have a chance to correct out mistakes before they are in the readers’ hands. 

Change the world?  That is what the arts are all about.  No matter if we write or sing or paint or sculpt, the artist’s job is to change or clarify the way people view the world.  We evoke emotion that inspires action.   One has only to pick up a newspaper or turn on the television to realize our world is beset by problems that are overwhelming to the individual.  It would be easy to take refuge in cynicism or ignorance. Yet, collectively, we can make a difference.  The artists among us have a responsibility to reach that place within humanity to urges us to build a better world.

Remember “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson.  Published in 1962 it inspired the environmental movement that began in earnest two decades later and resulted in the ban on DDT.

Consider the “Singing Revolution” where hundreds of thousands of Estonians gathered to sing forbidden patriotic songs as a protest against occupation by the Soviet Union. Estonia is now a free nation.

Aesop used story to illustrate and motivate in his famous fables.  Who doesn’t know the tale of the tortoise and the hare, with it’s moral of perseverance over flash and dash. Written over 2500 years ago, the lessons still resonate.

Setting a romance novel alongside these great works may seem presumptuous, but romance is read by millions of women.  In the past few months we’ve all seen the power of women united in a single cause.  The romance genre has been routinely dismissed by academia, but now various universities are offering courses on it.  That’s the power of good story-telling; the power of art.

I’m a fan of Mr. Domingo.  His advice resonates with me.  I do try to give my best in all circumstances.  You can’t see it, but I’m a smiling sort of person. Change the world?  That’s a big task.  Still, my stories celebrate love. They illumine positive relationships between men and women and children.  They are hopeful. They are uplifting.  They portray a world of decency and faith and good neighbours. That’s how I try to change the world.



The Most Important Element

“The most important element is passion.”

Those are the first words I heard when I turned on the radio this morning.  The announcer was speaking of music, but the same applies to all walks of life, whether it be career, sports, relationships or hobbies.  I’m watching The Brier (the national championship for men’s curling in Canada).  One of my favourite teams has had a poor year, losing many matches.  But they’ve got their old form back and are top of the standings now.  The difference?  Passion.  Even the broadcasters remark that the team is demonstrating the intensity that won them past championships.  They are exciting to watch.


Last week the clutter in my office reached the tipping point – literally. The pile on the desk tipped over into the pile on the chair which tipped into the pile on the floor.  I was trapped.  Unless I did some clearing out, I couldn’t get from the desk to the door.  It took a whole day and some tears as I sent old notes, cards and manuscripts to the recycle bin, but now when I walk to my desk, I’m energized by the clean surfaces and neatly stacked supplies. 

As part of the clear out, I examined old workshop notes. That brought a few tears too.  I remembered my naïve self heading off to those classes convinced I would learn the “magic” element that would turn me into a prolific, best-selling author. I’d come home from each session invigorated, eager, feeling on the cusp of something wonderful.

Time passed. I’m not a best-seller.  Realism has overtaken passion. The manuscripts are more polished, better structured.  The characters are more rounded. The prose is clear and fluent.  So, I’ve learned much in my years of writing, but I’ve also lost some of the passion.

How to get it back?  

Last week I talked about learning something new. That’s a good step. 

Reading a good book is another. My tablet is full of new e-books, my bedside table has a stack of TBR titles, but so much of that reading feels like work. I’m studying my craft.  For a change of pace I returned to an old favourite.  Joy coloured my reading time. I remembered that, as an author, I wanted to give that kind of joy to my readers.  The passion is stirring.

Make new friends. There is nothing so wonderful as an old friend, but a new friend can stir up  the soul. It’s kind of like going out on a blind date. So much to discover.  Will she become a soul-mate or turn out to be a dud?  I don’t know, but the journey promises excitement.  I’ve joined the Pioneer Hearts group on facebook, where I’m meeting new people who share my passion for history.  I’m excited to chat with them.

In her iconic book on writing, bird by bird, Anne Lamott talks about the writing frame of mind. She points out that starting and abandoning numerous projects indicates a lack of passion for them.  She recommends that writers look to their core values and write from that place.  You probably aren’t even aware of your core values, they feel like universal truths that no one has ever not known.  But it is the job of the writer to explore those truths, to lay them out for the world to see, to dissect them and put them back together again.  A writer’s passion lies in telling her truth.

I’ve made a start on all of the above. Now, I’m going to do some of the exercises from those old workshops.  After all, in my office clean up I unearthed coloured pencils, index cards and a variety of charts. I’m already smiling in anticipation. The exercises won’t create passion in the work, but they may put me in the frame of mind where passion happens.

Anyone else like to share some tips on how to keep the passion alive in your writing when you feel jaded with the whole thing? Please share.

Benefits of Learning New Things


In the last issue or RWR® Holly Jacobs reported on her return to school and taking ceramics. She liked it.  It improved her writing. It improved her life. Her story is only one of many describing the benefits of life-long learning.

Google “try new things” and you’ll get a raft of articles, some scientific, some opinion, some psychological and some medical.  From all of them, you’ll get encouragement to try something new.  Here’s a brief summary.

From a “happiness” perspective.

  • You grow as a person
  • You rejuvenate yourself.
  • You’ll become more adept at every day skills, saving time and reducing stress.
  • If you’re not learning something new you stagnate.
  • Learning something new improves your self-esteem.
  • You meet new people. As old friends drop away through life changes, it is essential to cultivate new friendships.
  • You become a more interesting person
  • You aren’t bored

From a scientific point of view.

  • Learning new things changes the white matter in your brain, improving performance.
  • The more you learn, the easier it becomes. By stimulating neurons in the brain, more neural pathways are formed and messages from one part of the brain to the other travel more quickly.
  • You make connections between different skill and knowledge areas. In other words, the more you learn, the more you learn. The more you exercise your brain, the better it works.
  • You adapt better to change. In our world where change is happening at an unprecedented rate, the ability to adapt is priceless.
  • You may decrease your chances of developing dementia, or, at the very least, slowing its progress.

Let’s look at these benefits as they apply to writers.

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron explores a number of ways writers can become more creative, productive, and happy. Among her chapters are:

  • Recovering a sense of Identity.

Surely learning new things plays into that sense of identity. You are not the person you where at 15 or 25 or even 55. You are a life-long learner, an interesting person.

  • Recovering a Sense of Power.    

Having more skills and information at your disposal must confer a sense of power.

  • Recovering a sense of Possibility.

Once you’ve mastered one new skill you are open to the possibility of learning another, and another. Your mind is open to new experiences, your senses are tuned to notice the world around you. With a sense of possibility, your writerly antennae are aquiver.

  • Recovering a Sense of Abundance.

With an ever expanding circle of friends, days filled with satisfaction of learning and striving, your creative well is filled—abundance.

  • Recovering a Sense of Connection.

Taking a class, joining a new group, reading outside your comfort level. All of these things connect you to the ever-changing world around you.

  • Recovering a Sense of Autonomy.

Fear is an unwelcome companion to many writers. It sits there on your shoulder whispering that “you’re not good enough. You can’t do this. You will fail.” By learning new skills, you whack Fear in the solar plexus. You have an A+ on your paper, or your musical composition or your woodworking project. Proof positive that you can. You are free to pursue your writing career without constantly worrying that you can’t.

I did a very small new thing this week. I downloaded the Libby app to my tablet in order to borrow electronic books from my local library. It worked! A miracle considering how many computer glitches I’ve encountered in the past month.

As a result, I feel empowered, connected, and my self-esteem has risen. Such an amazing lift to my spirits from a very small accomplishment.

Have a happy week. Go learn a new thing.



Opening Lines

Heading into my final round of editing this week. I’m very excited and scared to death at the same time.  This book, the third in the Prospect series, has been a long time in the incubator.  Now that it’s ready for publication, I want to get it “right.”

I’ve already made several passes through the ms on the computer, now I’ve printed it out for a final read. My twentieth century brain “sees” things on paper that it misses on a screen.

Aside from the usual eye out for typos and inconsistencies, like changing hair colour or a week with two Mondays, I want the story to engage the reader right from the start. I’ve been studying opening lines in my favourite books, reading advice columns and watching “flog a pro,” on Writer Unboxed.  Ray Rhamey  writes a regular feature on that blog where he quotes the opening paragraph or two of a best seller and asks readers if they’d turn the page.  It’s a fun game, but I’m often at odds with him.  Rhamey wants lots of tension and action in the opening lines.  I understand that.  It’s a great hook.  Yet, when I check out my favourite stories, they often begin slowly, setting the scene, hinting at a problem but not diving straight in on the first page.  Many books on my keeper shelf begin with dialogue, which may seem innocuous but speaks to character and motivation.

Advice for writers always emphasises the importance of the opening line. It should ask a story question, hint at the protagonist’s character, introduce the setting and exhibit the author’s “voice.”  All in ten words or less.

I think lots of writer advice books are geared to high-concept stories – thrillers, action novels, suspense; the type of book, that when turned into a movie, opens with a gun fight or a car chase.

Romantic movies usually start more gently. “You’ve Got Mail,” begins with a long sequence of shots setting the location in Seattle.  “Casablanca” starts with a map and ominous music while a voice over sets the scene.  In a book, that would be omniscient author. “Titanic” is a sepia scene of passengers waving from the deck of a cruise ship.  There are other examples, but you get the idea – no gun fights.

My book starts with setting, gold rush town in 1888. The heroine is excited about a new business venture.  She has risked her inheritance.  She has a sister.

There’s more, of course, but if we were to follow Ray Rhamey’s model, that is all you would get before he asked the question “would you turn the page?”

Over to you, dear readers. How do you like your opening lines in a romance?  Would you read the next line after this opening?

On a hot sunny morning Louisa Graham stood on the boardwalk of Prospect’s main street and pointed with pride to the brand new sign over the photography studio.  “What do you think?” She craved her sister’s approval.


Item F-08807 in B.C. Archives- Susan R. Crease.

            Last week I wrote about the use of the word “idiot” in my ms.  This week, I’m showing you a portion of the unedited ms and my re-write. This if from a scene where Rev. Daniel Stanton goes down on one knee in the dusty road to propose.



The impatient mare tossed her head, and whinnied breaking the spell. Louisa gasped. “Get up, you idiot! What if someone saw you?  The gossip would be hotter and faster than a wildfire.”

            “Is that a yes, then?”  He rose to his full height with a lithe grace Louisa admired. Convention demanded that he conduct himself with dignity and decorum. It was easy to forget that, behind the collar was an attractive and athletic man in the prime of life.

            “No it is not a yes.”  Her chest ached and she felt an absurd impulse to scream. Shock, she assured herself, Too many shocks in too short a time. “I won’t marry to save face.”


          The impatient mare tossed her head, and whinnied breaking the spell. Louisa gasped. “Get up, Daniel, do.” She plucked at his coat, while trying to look in all directions at once, alarmed by his extravagant gesture. “What if someone saw you?  The gossip would be hotter and faster than a wildfire.”

            “Is that a yes, then?”  He rose to his full height with a lithe grace Louisa admired. Convention demanded that he conduct himself with dignity and decorum. It was easy to forget that, behind the collar was an attractive and athletic man in the prime of life.

            “No it is not a yes.”  Her chest ached and she felt an absurd impulse to scream. Shock, she assured herself. Too many shocks in too short a time. “I won’t marry to save face.”       

    Just a note, I did have her use the word earlier in the ms where she is laughing and clearly making a joke. Daniel did not take offence. Is that enough set-up to let the original of this passage stand, or do I need to eliminate the problematic word?

   I’d love to have your comments both on the original and the re-write. It is always easier, and more fun, to critique another’s work than our own! 🙂

P.S.  The photo at the top comes from the B.C. Archives.  I wanted to show you an historical image of a woman and a horse.  Most photos show only men, but there were horsewomen in our past as well.

Save the Cat


Blake Snyder’s classic advice to “Save the Cat” came forcibly to mind this week.  I was reading a best seller where the protagonist not only didn’t save the cat, he aimed a kick at it.  At this point my dh put down the book and refused to read further.

I carried on reading. The novel is a book club assignment so even if I don’t like it, I have to read it to justify my opinion.  In this case, I came to empathize with the hero—he had a hard life and in the end he did rescue the cat—but I did not identify with him.  In other words, the story was entertaining and well-told, but it kept me at a distance.

For some types of novel, that distance is not an issue, but for romance novels, we want the reader to enter into the story, to put herself in the heroine’s shoes and feel every heartbeat with her.  Having a heroine who even contemplated kicking a cat could eliminate a large readership.

This little vignette was a good reminder to me to choose story words and actions carefully. What may seem like good characterization to an author– being mean to a stray cat—may offend readers so deeply that they cease to be  readers.  Snyder’s example was intended to help authors write empathetic and complex characters. In real life, no one is all good or all bad.  Unless they are comic book caricatures, even villains will have at least one redeeming feature.  They care for their mothers, or they send money to an orphanage, or they rescue a stray kitten.

I had an object lesson on this topic in my WIP. I used the term “idiot.”  A beta reader found the word harsh, denoting anger and insulting to both the heroine, who says it, and the hero, to whom it is applied.  Such was not my intention.  I had used the term the way Georgette Heyer used it, almost as a term of endearment.  She also uses “stupid,” and “wretch” in the same way, playfully and with no intent to hurt.  Clearly, I’m not as skilled as Ms Heyer in portraying the meaning of the word in this way.

I could argue with my reader, or I could put in a long explanation of how the word “idiot” is intended in this context, but none of that would be helpful. If the word offended one person, it might offend others.  Why would I want to annoy readers when I could avoid the issue by re-writing the sentence?  I’m not suggesting that writers should water down their prose to be as bland as a blanc-mange but I do recommend paying attention to possible misinterpretations.

English is a living language and words change their meanings and connotations over time. For example, hussy comes from the word housewife and used to refer to the mistress of a household, an honourable position, the exact opposite to the disreputable woman it refers to today. When writing historicals it is wise to keep an etymology dictionary handy.  I find this one on-line useful.

So, now I’m going through my WIP on the hunt for unintended red flags. My heroines can still be strong, decisive, and, occasionally cranky and plain-spoken, but they must remain likeable.

So, thanks to Blake Snyder and the unsympathetic hero for warning me away from “idiot” unless I really mean it.

How about you?  Are there words or actions that cause you to close a book and write the author off your TBR list?  Are there themes that are auto-buy for you? I’d love to read your comments.


Resolution – Meh!


It’s the new year and media abound with lists of resolutions

  • 8 ways to a happier marriage,
  • 10 tips to lose those holiday pounds,
  • 6 foods for better health,
  • 101 reasons to exercise.

This blog will not give you any suggestions for resolutions.  If you’re like me, you are a work in progress, always seeking to enhance your lifestyle, to improve your mind, to work smarter, and to cultivate relationships.  Those are not one-off resolutions to be written down in January and checked off in February. They are part of daily life.

What I am doing to mark the  new year, is clearing my closets. Over the years, I have accumulated “stuff,” and lots of it.  There are rods full of old clothes, that I kept because they might be good for costuming, or I could wear  again if I lost that ten pounds. (See 10 tips to lose those holiday pounds.)  Those closet hogs are going to the thrift store.  If  those extra pounds ever disappear I want new clothes, not old ones.

Dated or broken electronics.  We are never going to need that old VCR and the idea of repairing a broken tv is just a pipe dream.  Off to the recycling depot they go.

Harder, are the old Christmas decorations.  They have sentimental value, even if they no longer go on the tree.  Apparently, they have monetary value as well.  I saw a set of my old tree balls in an antique store, priced at $30.00 for a box of nine. I’ve still got mine in the original box and I paid $3.99 on sale, according to the price sticker.  Anyway, I’m keeping the pretty cut ball ornaments, but those fabric ones the cat scratched up?  They can go.

Clearing book shelves is harder still.  Some books were gifts, with the donor’s name on the inside page.  If I get rid of the book, am I telling the donor she no longer matters to me?  However, I got new books for Christmas, just like I requested, so space must be freed up.  I’ll take some old treasures to the used book store so someone else can enjoy them.

The basement and attic, I’ll leave to the man of the house.  It’s mostly his stuff in there anyway and I don’t have to look at it, except for my canning shelves.  They seem to be full of jars, yet when the season hits, I’m always running out of jam jars.  Another run to the recycle depot in my future.  Just because a jar is shaped like a bear, does not mean I must keep it.  I never put jam in an old bear jar.

Fabric, odd balls of yarn, worn out linens, these are the hardest tasks for me.  The last time I gave away my stash of yarn, I needed it a week later.  Even tiny scraps of pretty fabric can go into a quilt.  I dread clearing out my sewing supplies.  But it must be done.  The drawers are full and I’m still buying new stuff. However,  I’ve instituted a rule about not adding more storage space. Everything I have must fit in the space already allocated.


All this clearing and tidying and sorting gives me fresh energy. I feel as though I’ve cleared the decks for new adventures. The energy carries over into my writing life as well.  I’m better at seeing “stuff” in a stodgy sentence and throwing out the unnecessary words.  A ms that has languished for years is bound for the recycle.  It occupies space on my computer and in my mind but does nothing to promote my career.  Time to let it go.

There is nothing magical about turning a page on the calendar, but our culture seems to think January 1 is the start of new things. So, I take the first weeks of January as an invitation (command?) to clear out the dead weight of the previous months.  Then I feel refreshed and ready to go.

What about you? How do you mark the beginning of the year?

Finishing Touches

One of the Christmas traditions on my list is a handmade tree ornament for each of the children in my clan who are under eighteen. I started the practice when I moved far away from my birth family.  Although I kept tabs on everyone, I was not up-to-date on the interests, needs and desires of the youngest generation.  Some said I should just forget about presents, but I like Christmas.  I like the excitement of wrapping a gift, of hiding it under the tree, of watching the smiles on Christmas morning when someone receives exactly what he wanted.  Besides, I worried I’d become nothing but a name in my extended family if I didn’t do something to maintain a presence with young relatives I rarely saw face-to-face.  So, as a compromise, I agreed not to spend much money and my siblings agreed I could send little remembrances. 

All went well for the first generation. There were eight of them.  A manageable number.  When each of them reached the age of eighteen, they had a collection of eighteen ornaments for their own tree.  (I assumed the kids would move out of the family home and set up on their own.)  At first, I didn’t know whether my idea was well received or not, but in later years I’ve heard from nieces and nephews that my gift to them had a special ceremony all of its own.  In one family, it was the only gift to be opened on Christmas Eve and then hung on the tree.  Another wrote to me years later, when she was a mother herself, about unpacking her collection of hand-made ornaments and explaining them to her children, and feeling loved. 

So, now I’m full of warm fuzzies, and could have said “my work is done,” but instead, I started in on the children of the children. Now there are thirteen ornaments to be made every year, often in a mad, last-minute scramble.

This year, I tried to get ahead of the game by completing the ornaments in October. I set them aside, feeling smug, with a note that they needed a few finishing touches, but I had lots of time.  NOT! 

When I went to package up the gifts, I realized there were many finishing touches still needed. Names to add, loops to attach, ribbons to affix.  I was, once again, behind the eight ball.

As a writer, there is a lesson for me here. That first draft, or even second draft, that I confidently put away saying it only needs a tweak here and there, is not ready for other eyes.  In this age of instant communication, it is wise to pause before hitting the publish button.  Novels, short stories, social media posts, even e-mails, can all benefit from fine tuning.  Where my ornaments needed ribbons and tags, my prose might need tightening, the plot might need clarification, the characters could do with some polish.

I’m happy to report, that my Christmas gifts, with loops and ribbons attached, are all in the mail, carrying love from me to little folk I may not have met but who hold a place in my heart.

What about you? Any Christmas traditions in your family you’d like to share? A favourite book? Movie you have to watch?

Artificial Intelligence

My brain seems to have gone onto Christmas mode and I have no idea whatever for today’s blog. So, I thought I’d try one of those “blog idea” generators. 

I got a bunch of titles like 5 Ways to —–, 10 Things You Should —–, and a bunch of verbs and nouns.  I also got some weird stick figures with various parts of speech attached to them.  None of this produced anything for a blog but it did make me think of the current discussion on artificial intelligence.  You know, that thing where machines are smarter than humans and make decisions for us.  e.g. Facebook’s algorithms decides which ads you should see.  Amazon’s brain decides which books you should buy.

So long as artificial intelligence is confined to advertising blurbs, I guess it won’t hurt me, but if AI starts running political parties, or setting government policy, or determining patient treatment in medical situations, we’re in trouble. Some would argue that that is already happening.  Since I just spent a fruitless hour trying to place an order on-line, I can attest to the fact that computer programs don’t always work.  I would be afraid of a situation where there was no human to over-ride the machine’s decisions.

Have a look at this report aired on the CBC Monday night.

Robert McCheseney is a leading author on the subject of economic, democracy and technology. He suggests that deep artificial intelligence can pose a serious risk to society and even the future of humankind. e.g. AI, which is built and programmed by humans, can become autonomous and put their “prime directive” above all other considerations.  Thus humans could lose control of  autonomous weapons, programmed to kill.  The weapon then kills indiscriminately because there is no check on its operation.

Self-driving cars already exhibit a form of artificial intelligence, but if the self-driving car is told to drive on the left hand side of the road in North America, mayhem will ensue. I’d want the human driver of that automobile to have an over-ride button.

And that brings me back to the question at the top of this blog, “what will I write about today?”

Mr. McChesney tells us that a robot, or deep artificial intelligence is unlikely to adopt human emotions like love or hate or jealousy or forgiveness. So, I’ll keep writing stories about humans who suffer the joy and despair of love. Characters who struggle to find meaning in hardship, and sacrifice for the good of others;  people who’s souls respond to beautiful music or poetry; children who delight in the first snowfall and the wonder of Christmas.

Maybe, one day, a computer will write better plays than Shakespeare, or greater symphonies than Beethoven, or paint masterpieces that surpass Rembrandt. Until that time, I plan to revel in my humanity.  I’ll celebrate other humans and I’ll give thanks for the Child born in Bethlehem, come to save us all.

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