Taking a Course

I’ll be taking an online writing course this winter.  Odyssey is probably best known for their intense six-week summer workshops on writing science fiction, fantasy and horror, but they also offer online courses that don’t require you to take so much time off from your day job. In January of 2015, I took Jeanne Cavelos’ Showing vs. Telling and found it immensely useful in polishing the manuscript for Avians, so I’m coming back for more.

This winter, I’m enrolled in Getting the Big Picture: The Key to Revising Your Novel with Barbara Ashford. My goal for this course is to get a better handle on Bandits, the sequel to Avians. The first draft is complete, with a coherent plot, but I’d like the characters to feel truer and more consistent, and for the story’s developments to feel more integrated.

It happens to work out well that the course begins while I’m on holidays, so that will help with the required reading. To my delight, The Hunger Games is the principal course reference. I loved this book when it came out—partly for the wrong reasons*—and I’m looking forward to picking it up and reading it again, with a more studious eye.

*at the time that Hunger Games came out, I was working on Avians, and I was troubled by the need to kill off a young character, but I felt that it was essential to show how much danger the heroines were in, and that the flying they did was so important that the deaths of teenagers were an acceptable price. Then I read Games, in which children are killed off by the dozen for entertainment, and I was, like, “Oh well, then, permission granted.”

Let me tell you a little about what these courses are like, in case you’re interested. There are four online sessions, conducted using your computer and webcam, spaced out at two-week intervals. In between lessons, there is homework. A lot of homework. The course guide, I think, says to allow a minimum of five hours a week to do the assignments. A swift writer might manage it in that, but it took me more like three times as long. Naturally, there are writing assignments, but there is also the requirement to thoroughly and professionally critique the work of your classmates. You upload your assignments and critiques as you complete them, and you read your classmate’s critiques of your own work between classes, too. And that’s on top of the reading list.

Since many of the students are of the mature/returning to education variety, there is an atmosphere of “I’m here to work hard so I get my money’s worth.” Incidentally, students enroll from all over the world, and some rearrange their schedules to attend class in the middle of the day, or night. I’m lucky to be only one time-zone away from the school.

Part of the course takes place while I will be on vacation in Mexico. That’s okay, it’s only for a week, and it falls between two of the online sessions. I write well there; it gives me something to do in the hours before Caroline gets up. (I’m an insanely early riser, usually getting up before 4:00am.) Last year I wrote in a grand resort’s all-night coffee bar, where I was always the only customer for the first hour or two. Actually, sometimes even the staff weren’t around, so I taught myself how to use their fancy coffee brewer. I read and critiqued a novel manuscript for a friend there, and I have fond memories of laughing out loud at the funny parts.

This year, we’ll be at Villas San Sebastian, a tiny property in Zihuatanejo with just a handful of suites, and I plan to do my writing homework on a little patio overlooking the pool.

021 Our palapa

These pictures are from a visit in 2004. Note that my “office” will not look like this while I’m working, mainly because it will be dark at the time I’m writing. I’m pretty sure no-one will be tanning at five in the morning.

014 Caroline & Linda at our pool

Remind me to pack some ground coffee, in a sealed pack to go through customs, or I’ll have to go grocery shopping on day one.

The hardest part of the course for me will be later in January, when I’m back at work and not only doing my regular trips, but also fitting my annual flight training into my schedule. That involves at least twelve hours of ground school, plus two training flights that eat up most of a day each. Not looking forward to that workload so much, but I may be able to get some of the ground school or course homework done on the days when I’m sitting up north.

I’m excited to take a new approach to revising Bandits, and I’m really looking forward to meeting my classmates.

Prose & Cons: Can-Con 2017 Complete

Every time I go to a conference or convention, I get something different out of it. At first, I was desperate for writing advice, then I needed help with query letters, pitches and submissions. Later, I wanted to know about contracts and marketing. Can-Con has filled all those needs, and has grown with me. This year set an attendance record.

Can-Con 2017 was a low-pressure event for me, because my first novel is on sale and my second is unfinished. I had a light schedule, with one reading and one panel, so that gave me time to take a workshop on Friday afternoon. Nailing Your Beginning, with James Alan Gardner, was in the form of a critique group, with James speaking last. The other writers showcased some fascinating story openings, and I hope to see many of their novels come to fruition. My own effort was a proposed start to Bandits, the sequel to Avians. I got the same general feedback as my critique group in Winnipeg offered: the reader feels a bit lost. The story needs to start more clearly with setting and situation. I’ll have to invest in more description to make the action and the conflict comprehensible. This will be about my fifth version of the opening, but with the story laid out, I really want to work on the starting scenes before I go too far with revising the body of the story, because it’s important to have that connection between the beginning and the end.

The reading was fun. I shared a time-slot with Su Sokol, who turned out to be a fascinating writer: her Cycling to Asylum takes an uncomfortable look at the direction things are going in the United States and the need for Canada to follow a different path. She chose troubling, disturbing scenes to read for us, revealing a cruel and creepy America. I’m still thinking about them. My own reading focused on two scenes from Avians from Corby’s point of view. This made sense for the adult audience, and I guess I reached someone, because one person went straight to the dealer room and bought a copy.

My panel on Leveling Up Your Writing with Formal Courses went okay. The other authors were much more educated, and, I confess, much harder working. Still, I hope I was able to speak to the audience members who aren’t quite ready for a six week boot camp. Odyssey’s online courses are a great way to learn without throwing yourself in the deep end.

I mentioned earlier that my involvement with conventions has changed over the years. At first, I rarely went to readings. I needed factual information so much more than fun. This time around, I took in a lot more author readings, and I met a guy who goes almost exclusively to the reading sessions. He’s attends because he’s a reader, and he likes to see the authors give voice to their work. I think he’s on to something. I bought at least three books because I attended the Renaissance Press reading session: Eric Desmarais’s Parasomnia, John Haas’s The Reluctant Barbarian and Lust and Lemonade, by Jamieson Wolf.

I arrived late at the Bundoran Press party, so I missed the readings, but at their table in the dealer room, I bought Brent Nichol’s books because I had read the free Prix Aurora Awards voter’s version of Stars Like Cold Fire and felt the author earned my money. They had the sequel, Light of a Distant Sun, so I bought that too, and it’s next on my To Be Read list. Also, 49th Parallels, because I’ve found Bundoran anthologies to be a sure bet.

I enjoyed some of the other readings, too, but our suitcases were growing heavier book by book, so I steered away from thick volumes. I can always download the e-books later.

I had one unexpected source of fun. Diane Walton, the editor of On Spec magazine, was on the same plane as us from Winnipeg to Ottawa, so having met her, I stopped by the her table in the dealer room. She had dozens of back issues featuring stories by authors at this year’s Can-Con. It was an impressive list, but better still, she had a contest: if you took a sheet listing the stories and got signatures from the writers wearing an On Spec flag on their name tags, you could strive to win a handful of issues and a year’s subscription. I recognized quite a lot of the names, so I set off to track them down in the dealer room and the hallways. In the end, I encountered over half, and won the contest. I’m looking forward to reading issues old and new.

When I got home, I checked my spreadsheet, and as On Spec‘s submission window opens infrequently and not for very long, I have never actually sent a story to them. I should try harder. I’d be in good company.

Speaking of company, one thing about conventions has remained constant: I always meet fascinating people and make wonderful connections. This year I met authors, agents, editors and publishers. But best of all, I had great conversations.


Winter Wheat

The first Winter Wheat Literary Festival was held in Portage la Prairie on Saturday. It was conceived and put together by my author friend Leia Getty and Portage librarian Lori Mackadenski, who tapped local playwright Chris Kitchen to act as moderator. The winter weather was bitterly cold, but we still got some guests. Not just random attendees who wandered in to see what the noise was, or to grab free snacks or put in for a door prize; we had budding writers with keen questions. We were asked where we get our character names, what we do about writer’s block and how we go about building a story.


Scott B. Henderson       Timothy Gwyn       Leia Getty       R.J. Hore


We talked about the choice between planning a story and seat-of-the-pants writing. Many authors plan a beginning and an end, and frame the key scenes in between. Pantsers generally write from the beginning to the end and let the characters and situations lead them from one scene to the next. Both of these methods have adherents. Ron Hore is a full-blooded pantser. For his Houstrap Chronicles, in which he melds detective noir with fantasy, he starts with a title and goes from there.

I feel that am am neither of those kinds of writer. When I started Avians, I certainly didn’t have a plan, because I didn’t even know I was writing a novel. I wrote an action scene with a girl, a glider and an airship. I enjoyed it so much I wanted to write more, so I spent my falling-asleep time contemplating worlds where those things could work together. I wrote more scenes, and gradually started looking for ways to link them in a cause and effect kind of way. This developed into a plot, and only then did I start work on where to begin and how to end. For a while I assumed I was a pantser who was learning to embrace planning, but it turns out there is a name for what I did. It’s called quilting, because you take the pretty scraps of story and sew them together into a pattern. On the plus side, you get to write the exciting parts first, so you don’t have to slog through the middle. The downside for me was that it took a long time to work out how and where the story should begin.

Chris, our moderator, asked how we name our characters. Leia admitted to a fascination with Gaelic names and mystique, and they permeate her Tower of Obsidian, but she concedes she is sometimes urged to cheat on the spelling to make them easier to pronounce. I like to take names from different backgrounds and meld them into monikers like Kayla Singh and Rukia Antonov.

Ron and I did short readings, and I was pleased to get some questions that showed interest. Because my book release is still eight months away, I was the only participant without a book or a poster to display, but people did take a handful of business cards. I have often worried that because my main character is fourteen, sixteen-year-olds might not want to “read down,” making the YA market a tough one to crack. So I was reassured when a woman of eighteen years said she wanted to read it.

After a snack break, Scott lit up the projector and ran through the process of illustrating a graphic novel. From author notes, he works up thumbnail sketches, then pencil versions, then ink, then finals. The coolest take-away lesson for me was that there were different ways to progress from panel to panel. It was all visual, so in contrast to doing re-writes, it was really easy to see the different ways a story could unfold.

I have just two regrets. Not all of our guest speakers were able to make it, so the plan to have a balanced three men and three women didn’t work out, but  although we lost some valuable input, I think we did okay. And I meant to take my copies of books by Ron, Scott and Leia to get them autographed, but I forgot them at home.

What made Winter Wheat fun for me was the audience engagement, both during and after the panels. I think the small scale of the event made personal conversations easier.

One other highlight: when I arrived more than an hour early and made my way to the library’s main desk, I said I was there for Winter Wheat. The librarian asked, “Are you the author?”

I’m pretty sure I’m not the author. But it felt great to say, “I’m an author.”



Prose & Cons: When Words Collide, Saturday & Sunday

Saturday was my busy day, with a presentation, a salon and a reading. A little stressful and long.

I learned some things about launching a book from Tyche Press’s Margaret Curelas. Pre-release orders work best for big name authors who will achieve high advance sales on Amazon. For someone like me who will attract modest numbers, it will just drag my stats down before the game even begins. Huh. Might not be a good strategy.

Went to a nice panel on Trilogy, Series or Serial. I’m planning a series, by the way. That means my first few books will be related, featuring the same setting and characters, but a reader won’t have to tackle them in order: each book will stand alone.

My own presentation, An SF Writer’s Glossary of Alternative Aviation went well after a rocky start. The room needed to be reversed because of a noise issue, so before I could begin, every chair had to be spun around and the speakers table had to be moved from one end of the room to another. I was already sweating about the length, as WWC is very conscientious about ending each session early to allow people to change rooms. There was also the issue of connecting my tablet computer to an older generation projector. We ducked this by using Lindsay’s laptop and an adapter. She was brilliant as an A/V operator, adjusting the projector, scanning ahead to keep up with my talk and even fixing my e-reader when I accidentally zoomed my speaking notes to an unusable scale.

We had an audience of fifteen or so, which was not bad considering my topic was listed in a very abbreviated form on the pocket guide. The right people read the full blurb in the booklet and showed up. We had about even numbers of writers and aviation buffs, and one person who was mainly interested in a reading list for Sky-Fi. Gave them a plug for Updraft, by Fran Wilde. I’m reading it in my spare time this weekend and loving it. Kind of Windhaven meets Divergent.

Got through my topics on time, even with the inclusion of what I pass off as humour.

After that, I ran upstairs to attend the Five Rivers salon. My publisher is launching two books at once right now, and I enjoyed the reading from A Town Called Forget by C.P. Hoff. This is a tale about a girl who has to go live with her eccentric aunt. For eccentric, read bug-nuts if you’re American, or barking mad if you’re British. It’s slated to be my next vacation read, as soon as I finish Updraft.

Lindsay won a copy of The Mermaid’s Tale by D.G. Valderon. It’s a dark story of serial murder in a fantasy realm. It might not be for me; I’m pretty sure it’s not for my vacation.

I met Jeff Minkevics, Art Director for Five Rivers, and had an encouraging chat with him. If you didn’t know, not every publisher lets the author have a lot of say on the cover art. Jeff seems willing to talk. Later in the conference, I also met other Five Rivers authors, and one that had moved on. Tellingly, he had no complaints about his time with them. That isn’t always the case in an industry that mixes artistic creators with demanding economics.

After that, Plotting for Pansters. I was relieved to learn that I am not the only author to “write dessert first” and then tackle my scenes out of order. There’s even a name for it, it’s called quilting.

The book social with Gerald Brandt and Robert Sawyer was fun. Lindsay won another book. I bought one, and got it autographed. I got invited to a party.

I made time for a supper break with Caroline, then returned to the convention just as the Aurora Awards wrapped up. I showed up early for my reading, partly to show support for other writers. That turned out to be a good thing, as there were a few no-shows. I got to do my bit early, and we ran out of readers at around the time I was originally scheduled. I offered some pitching pointers to some of the newer writers, which is absurd when you consider that I do the nation’s worst pitches. I have, however, learned from my mistakes, and these people hadn’t yet.

Sunday was my fun day. I had no stress and spent most of the day hanging with other writers of MG (middle-grade) and YA (young adult) books. Two panels of kids were probably the highlight of my day. Ranging in age from nine to fifteen, they talked books, shared how they choose what to read, and responded to slush readings. Amazing footnote. One of the slush readings, an SF piece, appeared before both a panel with adult editors and the panel of kids. The kids identified the same flaws. They weren’t as tactful. They haven’t learned the politest ways to hint that a page is boring. They just said so. There were spectacular rants on the topic of describing things in too much detail, and on repetitive phrasing.

After that, I started saying my goodbyes. Some friends are travelling tonight, others, like us, first thing in the morning. There are quite a few people I’ll see again soon, at Can*Con in Ottawa next month. And I was asked if my aviation thing could be reconfigured as a writing workshop. That would be cool.




Prose & Cons: When Words Collide, Friday.

Day One of When Words Collide. This is my first Calgary convention, and it’s the biggest one I’ve been to yet.

Right of the bat, I ran into Gerald Brandt in the coffee shop at 6:30 this morning. He had been trying to squeeze in a little writing since 5:00, because deadlines. I hope he was ready to give up, because I moved over to sit next to him and pestered him about everything from readings to cover art. He was very gracious and enormously helpful.

This made me late for my morning walk, so we were only able to do an hour. Then shower and get downstairs for a workshop on working with an editor with Robert Runté. Who happens to be my editor, but we’ve never had enough time to talk, so I was very glad to get his input on working with Track Changes, a feature of Microsoft Word that is powerful but sometimes tricky, especially when two people use it differently. The overview on different types of editors was good review, and I hadn’t seen it specifically applied to polishing submissions before.

After that, registration opened, and I was able to get my ID tag and desk card. Then I asked about doing a reading, as my email request for a last-minute slot on Saturday evening hadn’t been answered. Turns out I had missed the boat on that, but a cancellation this morning had left an opening after all. I’m on for a ten minute window at 9:30PM tomorrow.

Also started running into friends as they registered, set up in the book room, or found their way to meeting rooms.

Sat in on Gerald’s first panel, about blending genres. Good stuff there from all four authors, and fun.

Somewhere in here I slipped out for a quick lunch, but made it back to learn about doing readings. E.C. Bell and Jayne Barnard tag-teamed one with good audience participation. My favourite part was about bookstore etiquette: show up early and thank the staff when you’re done. Oh, and I got to ask Jayne if one of the flying machines in her book is an ornithopter. It is. Bonus! (The character observing it is well acquainted with them, so does not remark on the other possibilities.)

The panel on common manuscript mistakes was packed, and I was lucky to get a seat. Five editors (three I know) tore loose with their pet peeves. It was fascinating and amazingly useful. Lessons I took home: don’t slow the action down with mundane movements, extensive physical descriptions or pointless showing. Check.

Pretty much dragged Lindsay Kitson off to sign up for a pitch session. She hadn’t been able to negotiate one online, but there were still some last-minute slots available. I also talked to a beginning writer who wasn’t sure whether she wanted a Blue Pencil or a Pitch. I’m a believer in Blue Pencils. These short sessions are the drive-by shootings of literary criticism. The time constraint, usually just fifteen minutes, brings great focus. You get one or two bite-size lessons pertaining to things that really jump out at the editor. Usually glaring flaws, in my experience. Pitches are for writers looking to submit a completed novel, so that comes later.

Caught up with Caroline after that, and went for pizza. That’s all for now.



A Bird in the Hand

It’s been an eventful few weeks, but I think things have calmed down enough for me to post an update.

Back in January, I hustled to polish and submit the opening thirty pages of my YA SF novel to a small publisher. They immediately asked for the full manuscript. Then some things happened at their end, and I didn’t hear from them for a while.

Until ten days ago. They offered me a contract!

There was more good news. The Senior Editor felt the book was structurally sound, and didn’t need a lot of further work. They were proposing to fast-track it for publication.

The contract is quite comprehensive: it’s six pages long and it includes some language I’m not sure I understand. Naturally, I contacted some of my mentors for guidance.

The first of my advisors to respond was an established author who has had agent representation for a long time. He wasn’t all that taken with the terms of this direct author/publisher deal. He cautioned me against signing off so many subsidiary rights, and he lamented the lack of an advance.

Next to check in was someone more accustomed to author/publisher contracts. She was comfortable with both the scope of the rights and the lack of advance, but thought some of the compensation was lower than the going rate: foreign language rights, in particular.

Neither of them liked one phrase. I found it confusing, too. In the first section of the contract, it says the author retains any rights not specified. That’s good. But later, when it’s listing those specified rights, it goes on to embrace all other rights not specified. That’s not so good.

Well, I’ve been meaning to consult a lawyer about writing a better Will, with an intellectual property clause, so I found somebody suitable and got in touch. I have arranged to show it to him soon.

I mentioned my concerns about the offered contract to the editor who sent it to me. He said he’d bring it up with the publisher. In the meantime, we did some preliminary edits of the book, and discussed one or two ways to strengthen it.

Long story short, the publisher stands by their contract. They say they worked hard to make it fair, and consulted with people at the Writer’s Union of Canada extensively to get the wording just right. They aren’t willing to make changes for me.

On the bright side, they haven’t withdrawn the offer or anything. It remains in effect while I do research. To my untrained eye, the contract appears to score a pass on all the  basic criteria suggested by the Author’s Alliance. That’s good.

I visited the Writer’s Union of Canada website to get a feel for their stance. They offer extensive guidance on contracts for their members. But there’s a Catch-22. You cannot become a member until you’ve signed a contract. So I could sign the contract, pay the dues, and then ask if I just shot myself in the foot! I’m looking for an ounce of prevention, not a pound of sympathy.

I’ll see what the lawyer says. If nothing else, I’ll learn something about contracts.

In the meantime, I am writing to agents. It feels good to write a query letter and say I have a contract offer in hand. It seems to get results, too. I’ve heard back from one already, and have sent her a full manuscript.

Best case scenario? I get an offer of representation from an agent or two, and a chance at reaching readers in the big scary American market.

Middle ground? I have a contract offer from a small Canadian press that is, I think, trying to play fair.

Worst case? It all blows away like dust in the wind.The contract expires, and agents go back to ignoring me.

Except: I made a new friend. The editor and I hit it off. He liked my work, and he wants to see it published. By his company, preferably, but by someone else if not. I liked the suggestions he made, and loved the results I got when I followed his advice. My book has a crisp new title, Avians, and it’s the best it’s ever been.

I’m going to take a workshop of his this summer. Maybe I’ll be an agented author by then. Or maybe we’ll be working together. Stay tuned.


Can-Con Workshops

Can-Con is Ottawa’s SF Convention. It’s not about getting a selfie with a movie star; (autographs are so last century) it has a strong focus on writers and writing. That’s why I came back.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before the con began, I had a misadventure. Remember, this blog is about the adventures and misadventures of an SF writer. Whether it goes well or badly, I write about my journey here.

I walked to the Sheraton and had lunch early. In the hotel’s lobby bar, there’s a guy pattering away on an Apple laptop. Has to be a writer. Halfway through my lunch, I realize he’s likely Robert Runte, one of the special guests. I’ve signed up for a blue pencil session with him. (That’s a fifteen minute critique of just a few pages of your writing. It’s like a drive-by shooting with paintballs.) I confirm his identity by peeking at his Twitter profile picture.

So I wander over and say hi. He seems nice, and willing to chat, so I bring my coffee over to his table. When it comes up that I’m pitching my novel to Pop Seagull, he asks why I’m not pitching to him. He represents Five Rivers. I can’t remember. Is it because they don’t do YA? No he says, we do YA. Why don’t you pitch me now, he says. Un. Pre. Pared. I babble about the plot. I mutter desperately about the character and setting. He gives me a few pointers on what a publisher looks for in a ptich session. I leave him convinced that my first novel is alphabet soup thrown at a wall to see what sticks.  I have to pay my bill and run, tail between my legs, to the first workshop.

My first workshop is with Derek Newman-Stille (sorry, if I hyperlink every author I mention in this blog, I’ll be surfing for hours. Google him.) His thing is on Exploring Your Character’s Sensory Environment and Setting. I try to write for the five senses, so this appeals to me.

The workshop is fun. We wear blindfolds half the time while we listen to stuff, smell stuff, touch things. BTW, can you turn off your cell phone while wearing a blindfold? I can’t.

He lets us take the blindfold off to write.  Anyway, the workshop was great fun, people scribbled out some amazing short paragraphs, and I learned something about the interconnectedness of our senses.

I give myself a grade of C: Tim needs more self-study to improve his skills. I was inspired to write, and had some wonderful ideas driven by scent and sound, but when I reviewed my stuff, the writing wasn’t as sensual as I would hope.

On to Workshop Two: World-Building as a Biologist, the Complexity of Eco-Systems and Using Them as a Metaphor, with Nina Munteanu. I went to this one because my novel is set on a colony planet with an artificial ecology, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss something important. Nina was fun,and enthusiastic about her field. We did an incredibly rapid overview of what ecology is. The most entertaining part of that was when we discussed extremophiles (very useful for SF authors) and tardigrades (fascinating little critters- tough as nails). Oh, the part about aggressive symbiosis was cool, too. After a short break, we moved on to the writing exercise.

For storyboarding practice, we sketched out the links between our Major Character and one of three things: a minor character, a setting, or a development. I guess the ecological angle would dovetail best with the setting. I chose to show how my MC chose a different path than a minor character who had undergone some of the same challenges. It was a useful insight into some of the ways that my writing is knit together. I give myself a B- on this one, because I was able to keep up with the science and complete the exercise in a relevant way.

I missed the opening ceremonies because I had a Blue Pencil with Leah Bobet. I showed her the first three pages of Avians, because those opening pages are so crucial to editors, agents and publishers. This is where an author makes his first impression; it’s a job interview, and your opening paragraphs are your suit and haircut. Leah could tell right away that the opening pages have been reworked a number of times. On a more positive note, some of her favourite sentences were new ones. Her special gift to me was a suggestion that to tie it all together, I should focus on the scene’s dominant emotion. I’m not a note taker by inclination, but I wrote that down.

Went to the Bundoran Press / SF Canada party in the hospitality suite. I’m running low on time this morning, so I’ll have to just say that the readings from Second Contacts were solid. They were short, they ended in hooks, and they were delivered with the casual confidence of pros.

Bumped into Robert Runte on the way out, and undid some of the damage from our earlier meeting. I remembered why I had chosen not to pitch to Five Rivers; they express a commitment to SF with a Canadian flavour. I didn’t think my setting on another planet was what they were looking for. Turns out, that’s not what they meant. There’s an old saying that American SF ends in victory (Star Wars),  British SF ends in failure (Day of the Triffids), and Canadian SF ends in compromise or limited achievement of revised goals. That’s us, alright, and that’s closer to what Five Rivers meant in their submission guidelines. That I can do, and I was invited to drop them a line in January.

Ran into Brandon Crilly, Rob Sawyer and some friends on the way through the lobby. All in all, excellent fun for the opening day. I’m going to post this now, and head off for day two.