Get physical with your writing!

I’ve been working on my one-woman show project for a while now, but it’s been slow moving – and when I say “slow moving,” I mean meandering in Southern Georgia in 105ºF sun slow. I toil to find the right words; search for the right flow of the piece; strain to visualize it on stage. Some days I forget where I’m going. Some days I’ve moving so slowly I think I’m actually stepping backward.

One weekend in September, however, I had a breakthrough. I joined a group of six other women for a day coined as “Wealthy Women Master Planning.” The focus of the day was to look at personal wealth, beyond simply the financial side. What does wealth really mean? What are our individual goals around wealth building? Where in our lives do we already possess wealth? How can we use that wealth to translate into financial prosperity?  And on. And believe it or not, it was during this day, my writing breakthrough happened.

We were at was this cool office space with bright, large windows, a two-floor water feature, a foosball table, a mini putt green, and a Buddha sand garden. All features to inspire innovation and creativity. We brainstormed and talked, but half way through the day, I hit another wall. I was attempting to plan out my show on paper, but it felt as productive as trying to convince a three-year old to eat Brussel sprouts. When the facilitator came by to check in, she could see the pained expression in my eyes.

“Andrea, stop trying to write it down. Go play in the sand.”


“I’m serious. Go play in the sand and build you show,” she persisted.

I shrugged. “Okay.”

It took a minute for my brain to recalibrate as I looked at the sandbox and wondered where to start, but as soon as I let go a little, physically drew out the edges of the stage, and found markers to stick in as audience members, new neurons starting firing. It was like the pilot light had been lit before, but now the flames were ignited and high!

Playing in the sand

Playing in the sand

Before long, I felt like a kid again. I threw my shoes and socks onto the floor, the sand soft cool between my toes. I tore pieces of paper to lay out different parts of the show. I found rocks to place as set pieces. With every physical act, fresh ideas popped into my head: new segments to write; clarity on the flow; a deeper sense purpose. In my child-like state, my vision came alive again and I re-discovered the passion with which I had started to write this piece in the first place!

When we feel stagnant and stuck in what to write next or how to fix a piece that’s not working, it’s time to get physical and play. Imagination is a child to be set free. Assume she’s four and let her explore, touch, grasp, feel everything in her world.

“Creativity is intelligence having fun.” Albert Einstein

Einstein said, “Creativity is intelligence having fun.” So, go have some fun. Go outside. Pick up a leaf or a rock. Or stay inside and explore your surroundings. Pick up something where you are. What happens when you move it in your hands?  What does it feel like – its texture, its temperature, its weight? Play with it. Now bring your story in. Think about your characters, your story line, imagery you’ve been using. Just be present, be curious and open up your mind.

Get physical with your writing. Play in the sandbox like I did and see what happens.


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It’s not about me. It’s about my book.

I finished my novel last year and mid-September is now staring at me, such a nag is the fall when it comes to writing and getting back on track. I mean, seriously. I know I have fifty pages of comments and issues to address before passing my manuscript to my agent.

My baby is going on submission in October.betareader

Since January, I’ve been sorting through feedback from beta readers—volunteers who provided feedback on my book. Also known as superheroes to me. The experience has been all kinds of awesome, as well as terrifying. I’ve had a total of fifteen readers. Their feedback has been invaluable, even if one of my betas hated my protagonist. Regardless, this input helped expose weaknesses in my characters which I have since spent months improving on. Each of my readers have helped sniff out many pertinent issues in some way or another.

Overall, the process of working with beta readers has been smooth and the comments mostly positive. It has identified weak and irrelevant parts of my manuscript that still require work. And work it has certainly been, at times painstaking. But I’m happy to report that I’m almost through the majority of issues…yes, nine months later.

Working with beta readers is important. Below are some things I’ve learned along the way.

  1. One beta is not enough. Fifteen is a lot! Five betas is a good start.
  2. Try not to get good friends or family, they’re predisposed to loving whatever you write, no matter how good or bad it is.
  3. Select members of your target audience, other writers, someone who is not afraid to be honest, and someone who is reliable.
  4. Find beta readers using social media sites, like LinkedIn or Wattpad.
  5. Offer format choices: print vs. electronic. Make it as easy for your betas as possible.
  6. Don’t give your betas a shitty draft. Make sure it’s a polished copy that has been thoroughly proofread.
  7. Provide your betas with clear instructions of the feedback you’re looking for. A checklist is handy, but nothing too complicated or they won’t do it.
  8. Try not to be too protective of your work. Don’t take the feedback personally. Remember, you asked for it!
  9. Set a deadline of when you’d like comments and don’t let it drag on too long.
  10. Always thank your beta readers. Consider swapping services or giving a small token of appreciation. Perhaps even thank them in your acknowledgements when your book is published!

Remember your goal is to make your book better. You don’t have to accept every piece of feedback you receive, but if you’re getting similar comments, there might be something you need to take a closer look at. No story is perfect. More revisions will always be possible. As writers, we are blind to our weaknesses. Where beta readers aren’t. Like I said, superheroes.

Best lesson of all? It’s not about me. It’s about my book.


Filed under Books and stuff, Getting published

No Arguments? Father Knows Best

As some of you may know, the Globe and Mails’ Facts and Arguments recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. To mark the occasion, the national newspaper held a contest inviting submissions for The Essay that centred on a moment of truth.

As a group, each of the Restless Writers has at one time or another submitted an essay to the Globe and Mail in the hopes of it being published in The Essay. It’s a right of passage for a new writer. We followed the submission guidelines, kept to the word limit, carefully critiqued and then revised our pieces to get them just right. We pressed send on our computers, anxiously awaiting a reply and then zip. Nada. No traction. Among the four of us, we’ve submitted a total of nine essays and have only managed to crack the secret code once with the publication of Maria’s entry about starting a second career.

Despite these terrible odds, some of the Restless Writers decided to once again dust off their keyboards and submit an essay to the moment of truth contest. They were good. One made us cry to read how life can change in an instant when faced with a personal health emergency. The other made us laugh with tales of kicking a serious caffeine habit. Again, we read the criteria, kept to the word limit and worked to polish our drafts. And you know what? That’s right. No dice.

So all of this has got me thinking, what DOES it take for a submission to make it past the steely guards surrounding the desk of the Facts and Arguments editor? In honour of Father’s Day today, I thought I’d ask the one person I know who’s actually had something published in Facts and Arguments – not once, but twice. My dad, Barry.

Writing is something my dad started in his retirement. He’s had some great success with personal essays and travel articles published multiple times in the Toronto Star and travel magazines.

So I asked him.

Me: What advice would you give to a writer looking to have their personal essay published in the Facts and Arguments section?

Dad: I have given it a lot of thought and here are my Top 5 tips.

  1. The editors are looking for a very good story. It doesn’t have to be “professional” but well written.
  2. Write about an honest personal topic, something unique. Humour helps too. Be self depreciating, you don’t always have to look good.
  3. Avoid having an axe to grind or making others look bad.
  4. Make sure your title is an attention getter. Think of what’s trendy in popular culture, alliteration can work well. In my case, an essay titled “A Wedding Trauma” became “One Wedding and a Trauma.”
  5. Give your piece a strong closing that puts it all into perspective.

So there you have it, some insider tips from a real life published Facts and Arguments author.

Believe me when I say, the man knows unique personal stories. One of his published essays detailed the time he accidentally walked into a metal sign and split open his forehead 30 minutes before he was due to walk me down the aisle on my wedding day! He ended up with five stitches. Did I mention it was in the middle of the SARS epidemic in Toronto?


Me and my dad on my wedding day. Bandages and all!

While I don’t suggest personal injury as a route to publication, I do hope some of my dad’s tips might inspire you to not give up on the quest to be a part of the exclusive Facts and Arguments club.

Rejects Rejoice
In the meantime, for everyone who’s ever had their Facts and Arguments submission passed over, there is now a place where you can share your essay with the world as you intended.

The Restless Writers are proud to introduce a brand new blog called Restless Rejects – the site that will take your Facts and Arguments submission and post it. The only requirements? The essay must have been submitted to and rejected by the Globe and Mail and be under 1,000 words.

If you are still shaking your head wondering how the editors could have passed over your piece, we want it. Read more about the new blog.

P.S. Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there and a very special thank you to my dad for lending his support with this blog post and every other single thing I’ve ever done – including making it back from the hospital in time to walk me down the aisle! Now that’s a good dad. Happy Father’s Day.

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Tread gently: Some tips for critiquing poetry

photo-1429032021766-c6a53949594f“Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.”
~ Robert Frost

The Restless Writers are a diverse bunch. Our interests range from children’s picture books and YA to memoir to spoken word. Recently, a few of our members have even ventured into poetry. And while we as a group are supportive of all our individual efforts–even if we haven’t had a lot of experience with a particular genre–we are not all confident in our ability to critique poetry.

I have a graduate degree in English literature, so you’d think I would have some skills when it comes to reading a poem and giving feedback to help the poet better express her idea. But my university years are well–well!–past, so I have been trying to find ways that I can offer feedback in a constructive way. Because with our writing group, it’s all about trying to make each other better writers.

Poetry doesn’t appeal to everyone, and you might not get or even appreciate each poem you read. But hopefully my approach to critiquing a poem will help you give positive and constructive feedback to the poet in your group.

Immediate impact: 
The first thing I reflect on when I read a poem is how it makes me feel when I read it for the first time. I try not to get bogged down in the structure or form of the poem at this stage–I let the words and rhythm carry me through. Does my mind delight in the poet’s language? Does she make me think about an object, an experience, a setting in a new way? Do I smile involuntarily because of the way she described a particular moment? Can I relate to the subject? Is it uniquely personal or oddly universal? How did her poem touch me, on an emotional or intellectual level?

Dig a little deeper:
Next, I think about how the poet achieved these impacts. How did she use language and metaphor to evoke a specific mood? How did she structure the poem? Did she employ a specific form, and was she true to the spirit of that form? Was she consistent in her use of meter and rhyme? How did structure and form help to emphasize different elements of her poem? Where could she have used such devices to better effect? How did she use words and sounds to jar, to charm, to tease, or to question? The important thing at this stage is to be honest but respectful, and tread gently.

Move forward:
To wrap up my critique, I provide suggestions regarding word usage, punctuation, and spelling. If I found some phrases to be a little clichéd, I try to help her come up with some fresher or more surprising options. If I really liked a particular stanza or rhyme, I let her know that too. I also like to find out what she wants to do with the poem. Is it a stand-alone piece that she wants to submit to a journal? Or will it be part of a larger work or series of works? Perhaps she wants to read it at an event or gathering, or keep it all to herself. Whatever she wants to achieve, I offer to do a second reading before she considers it done.

I always bring my own emotional state and life context to each poem I read. Different poems with different subjects will have different impacts on me, depending on what is happening in my life at the time of reading. But I think that’s one of the beautiful things about poetry–it can create an intimate connection between the poet and the reader, using language as a bridge. And for the Restless Writers, poetry is just another way we get to explore the ideas, themes, and words that keep us writing.

Happy critiquing!



Filed under Group meetings, poetry

Guest Post: An Official Invitation

This guest post comes to you from Anna, an honorary member at our Spring writing retreat.


One very cold evening this past February, I received an invitation in my inbox: “How would you like two full days of dedicated writing time where the only interruptions would be the songbirds (outside) and some free-flowing vino (inside)?”

Well, I am not really a writer, but I have always enjoyed the sound of songbirds and of course, have never been known to say no to free-flowing vino, inside or out! So of course, I said yes and this past weekend enjoyed a weekend as a guest member of the Restless Writers at the Andrew Logan House in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

What a privilege it was to join this super talented, generous and just plain nice group of women. There was such a feeling of peace and yes, as corny as it sounds, harmony.

In the words of one restless writer, “you decompress the moment you step in the door”.

We left everything behind (except of course for the copious amounts of food, drink and other “writing” supplies) and we focused on the moment.

There was plenty of space – to be alone and to come together. We read, we wrote, we reflected.

We cooked for each other, told each other stories, ate and drank together, encouraged one another and shared awesome “gifts of wisdom”.

Maria madcocktailse us special Algonquin cocktails – they are rye–based and every single one of us despises rye.  Yet we soldiered on, bravely sipping the concoction, pretending we were grownups in another era, before finally accepting defeat and ceremoniously pouring them down the drain. They came with a great Dorothy Parker-style story, so we had to try!

Sharon shared some beautiful lemon cream tulips and wisdom learned from her late Mom, advice she is still learning to perfect, about enjoying the deck liftulipse hands you, whatever it may be.

Beckie gave us special handmade quote books that included William Faulkner’s line, “If a story is in you, it has got to come out,” along with other thoughtful sayings and a few irreverent ones, such as the group’s mantra: write drunk, edit sober (Hemingway).

Andrea’s gift, a gratitude book, promises to start a new tradition, a brave attempt to capture in written form what this special group means to its members.

This past weekend, the birds did sing, the sun did shine, the wine did flow and the creative spirit was released (not to mention the visiting spirits from the graveyard across the street).

As Andrecakea shouted out spontaneously, “I’m happy to be here! Just for the record.”

Well said, Andrea! Thank you Restless Writers. I’ve never had an experience like that before. Even if the best lines in this post are the invitation, I’ll never forget it!


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Look out the window: An evening with Lawrence Hill

“Writers – and artists in general – need time and space to look out the window.”

This is only one piece of wisdom Maria and I heard from Lawrence Hill about a month ago. Author of the best-selling Book of Negroes (and a friend of mine from many years ago), Larry spoke of creativity, finding voice, research, injecting humour in serious subjects, and my favourite – needing time to stare into space.

I’m staring at my fireplace right now to craft this post. The comforting flame. The glowing logs. The soft heat they exude. I am mesmerized by their gloaming. My thoughts are centred on creativity and opening the mind to the possibilities. When he stared into space, Larry created in Aminata Diallo, a protagonist with the most to lose– a black midwife, stolen from her village as a child, later to bring new life into a world that beat her, abused her, hated her and every other like her. Larry found the voice of a teenage girl out his window. He reached far outside himself to imagine her – what she looked like, sounded like and how she felt. He imagined what she saw when she looked across the ocean toward her home. He imagined the questions she would ask; the anger she would carry; whom she would meet along her way and what they would mean to her. Much of his story was sparked by researched, yes, but he fleshed it out in his mind while he looked across his back yard or the lake at his friend’s cottage he sometimes borrowed for a week or two to write.

I stare at the flames and feel my mind quiet as I type. It is tonight’s window. I imagine my next installment to the Messy Art of Motherhood. So much more to come. I will return and find my creativity out the window. Maybe out their windows, Maria will create new creepy witches; Beckie new tormented teens; and Sharon new spirited children.

There is no limit to what lays beyond our windows or within the fire. We just need to let go and look.

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We are never ever breaking up, like ever

Warning: this IMG_20141220_202552is a fluffy post.

As we reflect on the past year, it’s been one of discovery, friendship, and productivity for the Restless Writers. We’ve made friends with inner nuttiness, embraced angels, found love, and drum-roll please… completed manuscripts, short manuscripts and long manuscripts–twenty five months in the making.

Our final meeting of 2014 has been described as epic. Best. Meeting. Ever. And it had nothing to do with the bite-size gingerbread arranged perfectly in its own gingerbread bowl. It was about us, as writers, and what we have accomplished and shared over many months and many bottles of–you guessed it–Prosecco.

We’ve been on this journey together for more than a few years now and it keeps getting better. Like some secret society, we’ve solidified this journey; we’re officially etched in glass and we are never ever breaking up, like ever.

Here’s what we look forward to in the new year:

  • One of us will have a new YA novel on submission.
  • One of us will be querying for the first time.
  • One of us will be getting our shit together.
  • One of us will be making space for creativity.glasses

You know who you are.

Look out 2015. Here we come with stories in hand!


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