‘Writer Success Stories’ Archives

Writer Sandra Shaw Homer, at Home in Costa Rica, Interviewed on VoicePenPurpose


Sandra Shaw Homer at the bow of the HS Schubert, North Atlantic


Writer Sandra Shaw Homer, whom many of my students and retreat participants know of by now, was recently interviewed by writing coach Amy Brooks for the VoicePenPurpose postcast series. In Episode 37, Amy chats with Sandra about the life experiences that have fuelled her fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction, including her travel memoir Letters from the Pacific: 49 Days on a Cargo Ship (read the Kirkus review here).

Born in the U.S., Sandra has now lived for 27 years near Lake Arenal in Costa Rica’s spectacular northern highlands. One of the hardest working writers I know, she is published regularly in journals, both print and online. Most recently, her poem “Holding” appeared in Junto Magazine.

She was a guest speaker at my writers’ retreat near Playa Herradura, Costa Rica, in 2012, and a co-host for my retreat at Mystica Lodge & Retreats on Lake Arenal in 2015. Several of her published stories evolved from prompts during these retreats or from my website. (So if you still believe prompts are “just” exercises, banish that thought!)

In an email to me, Sandra talked about her process, and I asked her permission to share this advice:

“I think it’s really important to tell aspiring writers that they just have to keep plugging away. The [first] Junto acceptance was my fifth try with that piece.  My practice is to submit elsewhere the very day a rejection comes in.”

Sandra is currently seeking a publisher for her beautiful memoir Evelio’s Garden: The Short History of an Organic Garden in Costa Rica, and she blogs at www.writingfromtheheart.net.


Wednesday, December 27th, 2017

12 Book Event Marketing Tips from Novelist Elinor Florence


Elinor Florence speaks with a reader at Peachland Gallery, Peachland, B.C.

Elinor Florence speaks with a reader at Peachland Gallery, Peachland, B.C.

Canadian journalist ELINOR FLORENCE, who lives in the Canadian mountain resort town of Invermere, British Columbia, has written for daily newspapers and magazines including Reader’s Digest. Her first historical novel, Bird’s Eye View, was published by Dundurn Press of Toronto (October 2014).

Back in April 2015, Elinor wrote a blog post HERE explaining what she learned in the first six months after her book was released, about the business of selling books. The following year, in June 2016, Bird’s Eye View achieved Canadian fiction bestseller status in both the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail newspapers. Her second novel, Wildwood, will be released in February 2018.

Elinor attributes much of her success to book events. She has visited dozens and dozens of book clubs, public libraries, bookstores, and other venues to make that all-important face-to-face connection with readers. Now she’s back with twelve more tips picked up while on tour.

Elinor wearing a vintage wartime outfit at a book signing in West Vancouver, with Air Force veteran Ruth Nesbitt.

Elinor wearing a vintage wartime outfit at a book signing in West Vancouver, with Air Force veteran Ruth Nesbitt.


I love independent bookstores and will continue to support them, but it is Chapters where I’ve made the most sales. I’ve noticed a ratio of about 20 people walking past my book table per book sale, so in order to sell 30 books, I need at least 600 potential customers. I’ve also done well at Christmas craft fairs and farmers’ markets, where there are crowds looking for gifts or one-of-a-kind items, such as a personalized book.


This may seem obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times after chatting with people for a few minutes, they’ll say in surprise: “Are you the author?” Now I also have a sandwich chalkboard that says Author Signing Today, plus a nametag that reads Elinor Florence, Author. It’s heartwarming to see how many people will buy your book just because they like the idea of supporting a real live Canadian author.


If you’re selling your own books, it’s important to be able to accept credit cards. I lost many sales in the first couple of years, before I finally got smart and purchased a Square. Don’t worry — this little gadget that plugs into your Smartphone is simple to use, and many customers are already familiar with it. Please note that a Square will only accept credit cards, not debit cards. I also take personal cheques, and have never had one bounce yet.


When doing book signings, I urge people to visit my website and sign up for my blog. But few people will actually go to the trouble, so I’ve become more proactive. I have a signup sheet on my table and ask everyone who comes by if they would like ME to sign them up for my blog. About one-third of people who stop to chat give me their names and email addresses, and I subscribe them to my blog later. I don’t ask for any other personal information.


Whenever anyone buys a book, I make sure to point out my email address on the bookmark and ask the reader to contact me. People are flattered to have their opinion sought, and they often do email me (especially if they enjoyed the book!). I’m thrilled to hear from readers, I always answer immediately, and some of those people have become friends and supporters.


I ask every acquaintance, book club participant, and audience member to post a review on Amazon or Goodreads, but very few follow through. Some people don’t have an Amazon account; others don’t want an online presence; for others, it’s a tedious chore that reminds them of writing book reviews in school. When making my request, I always tell them that one sentence, or even a star rating, is welcome. If I have their email addresses, I send a simple list of instructions for those who don’t know how.


If you have a traditional publisher, it’s fairly typical that your returns are subtracted from sales. I wasn’t clear how this worked until I received my first royalty statement. If a bookstore orders 40 books for a book signing, and you sell 20 of them, the other 20 are returned to the publisher and subtracted from gross sales. Your royalties: zero. Even though you sold 20 books! So when bookstores ask how many books to order, be conservative.


If you’re doing a book event lasting four or five hours, make sure you have lunch beforehand. You may think you’ll have time to eat, but chances are you either can’t leave your table unattended, or you just won’t want to miss out on any potential sales. Also, your energy level will flag without sustenance — talking to people for five hours is hard work! Keep a water bottle on hand. (My coffee often gets cold long before I finish it.)


I’ve done events with and without someone to help, and I can assure you that it’s far easier when my long-suffering husband comes along to carry the books, mind the table when I’m taking a bathroom break, count the cash, and even help me sell the book by chatting to people waiting in line. I’ve schlepped boxes of books across slushy parking lots more times than I like to count. Also, while you are finishing up with the last chatty customer, your helper can be packing up and loading the car. If you don’t have a helper, start lifting weights — books are heavy!


When I was first published and started visiting book clubs and service clubs to chat about my research, I soon realized how much easier it would be to show photographs of the people and places who inspired my novel. Fortunately I had a lot of interesting old photos from my Wartime Wednesdays blog, so with the help of a friend who showed me how to create a PowerPoint slide show (I promise it is simple: just drag and drop the photos into a template), I created a visual backdrop for my talk. I bring my laptop with me, along with a cable that will connect into anybody’s projector or smart TV. People love looking at photos, and visuals make the occasion  more memorable.

Elinor with Lancaster bomber in Nanton, Alberta.

Elinor with Lancaster bomber in Nanton, Alberta.


When I heard that the Bomber Command Museum in Nanton, Alberta, was hosting a special event to highlight their Lancaster bomber, I asked if I could do a book presentation. They were happy to have me, and at the event I had access to hundreds of people who love vintage aircraft — a perfect fit for Bird’s Eye View. I’ll be seeking those kinds of special annual events at pioneer museums when promoting my forthcoming novel, Wildwood.


Obviously this won’t work for every book, but I always wear my wartime vintage outfit when signing copies of Bird’s Eye View. People LOVE my seamed stockings, and it’s a great conversation starter ( in case you’re wondering, I found them at Nordstrom’s). My second novel has a pioneer theme, so right now I’m planning my next outfit. It may include a sunbonnet!


Wildwood, a contemporary novel with a historical background, will be published by Dundurn Press in February 2018. It’s now available for pre-order from Amazon HERE.

Broke and desperate, Molly Bannister accepts the ironclad condition laid down in her great-aunt’s will: to receive her inheritance, Molly must spend one year in an abandoned off-the-grid farmhouse buried in the remote backwoods of northern Alberta. If she does, Molly can sell the farm and fund her four-year-old daughter’s badly needed medical treatments.

With grim determination, Molly teaches herself basic pioneer skills. But her greatest perils are presented by the brutal wilderness itself, from blizzards to grizzly bears. Only the journal written in 1924 by her courageous great-aunt, the land’s original homesteader, inspires Molly to persevere against all the odds.

To read more about Elinor and her books, visit: www.elinorflorence.com

Wednesday, July 26th, 2017

Suitcase of Memories: How a treasure trove of family photos led to a published novel


Guest Post by Susan Johnson Cameron

At a family reunion a few years ago, one of my cousins entrusted me with this suitcase, packed with old photos, postcards, and mementos, some preserved since the last century. This collection of keepsakes sprouted the seed of an idea for a story and nurtured a creative writing process that led eventually to the publication of my historical fiction novel, Home Fires.

Inside this suitcase I found a photo of a platoon of men in First World War Canadian Army uniforms. On the back my grandfather had written “No. 5 Platoon, 159th Batt. Haileybury.”

There is a pack of postcards from 1917 showing the devastation from the bombing in Arras, France. My grandfather was there with the Canadian Army, fighting in both France and Belgium. We were blessed that he returned home whole in body, unlike so many others.

As well, in this assortment of family treasures there is a picture of a handsome man dressed in a Cameron Highlander kilt and tunic. He was my grandmother’s younger brother, George. I know that, tragically, he was killed in battle at Passchendaele.

I discovered a photo of another great-uncle, Alfred. In it he is wearing a smart suit, one hand tucked behind his back. My father told me years ago that his uncle had a prosthetic hand. The family story is that after a serious work accident, Alfred received a monetary settlement for his injury. That money helped my grandparents relocate from England to Canada, where they pioneered in “New Ontario.”

Tucked in with the First World War photos and postcards is a more recent colour picture of a summer-dry ditch, filled with white wildflowers and lush green grass. On the back my uncle recorded, “where we spent hiding from the great fire of 1916 with only a tablecloth to protect us.”

All this I wove into my story. Home Fires was published by Iguana Press in November 2015.

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

Survival: Daughter and Father Collaborate on Story of His Time as WWII Air Gunner and Prisoner of War


Survival is the story of Albert Wallace’s dramatic experiences during World War II as an air gunner with the RCAF and a prisoner of war in Hitler’s Germany. This work of creative nonfiction was lovingly conceived, researched, and written in the style of a journal by Barbara Trendos, one of Albert’s daughters, in his voice, with his collaboration.

The seeds of inspiration were first sown in Barbara in the 1980s when her father casually shared the contents of an old file folder he had discovered among his mother’s belongings after she passed away. To Barbara, it was a treasure trove: fragile letters that Albert had written home while he was a prisoner of war; official Air Force telegrams and correspondence that variously reported Albert as MISSING, then as a POW, and finally LIBERATED; dog-eared black and white snapshots that begged identification of people, time, and place.

Barbara was hooked, and realizing that she knew only the highlights of Albert’s wartime story, she naively undertook to fill in the gaps — to what end even she didn’t know.

Her extensive research into World War II, 419 squadron and the RCAF, the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, Stalag Luft III, prisoners of war, and the Great Escape took on a life of its own.

Barbara says she has always been a writer, even when she was something else. She remembers opening a short story in elementary school with the following sentence: “As he rounded the corner, it was his nose I saw first.” She has no idea what the story was about, who it was about, where it went from there, or why she has never forgotten that line. Perhaps, she says, memory is nature’s way of tethering us to something that matters, as we follow one of life’s many roads.

During one period of her life when Barbara was “something else,” she noticed a sign in a local gardening store about Allyson Latta’s 2010 “Garden of Memories” memoir workshop. Attending the workshop kick-started her writing of Survival, which had been simmering on a back burner for years while she worked in corporate communications. Further spurred on by Allyson’s 2011 Sabino Springs Writers’ Retreat in Tucson, Arizona, Barbara shifted her writing into a higher gear, and Survival finally crossed the finish line in November 2015.

Publishing this book has been an adventure for Barbara and her father. They have signing sessions sitting together at her dining room table — as long as she feeds him lunch, or coffee and cookies, she says. Albert sells books wherever he goes, particularly at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, where he volunteers in the veterans’ wing. They’ve promoted the book at small events, including one this week at The Canadian Forces College in Toronto. And Barbara says that in the spring, now that it looks like the weather can be counted on, they will plan an official launch.

BARBARA TRENDOS is retired and lives with her husband in Markham, Canada.

There’s more about her writing journey in these earlier essays on this website:

Writing in My Father’s Voice: Honouring His Wartime Experience, Part 1 and Part 2.

Survival can be purchased through Barbara’s website at www.barbaratrendos.com or Amazon.


Wednesday, March 9th, 2016

Disquiet and Experimentation: Interview with writer Chloë Catán, first-prize winner in the 2015 Aspiring Canadian Poets Contest


Chloë Catán



Chloë Catán’s poem “Uprush” (read it here) received first prize in the 2015 Aspiring Canadian Poets Contest. She received private online mentoring sessions with contest judge Stuart Ross, who had this to say about her submission:

“It was wonderful to award the first prize in a contest for unpublished poets to a poem that begins with an epigraph by Fernando Pessoa, the great Portuguese writer who published very little during his lifetime. With few words that stretch beyond a syllable or two, ‘Uprush,’ a beautifully paced, economically crafted poem, is rich in sound, language, and image. Like a dream, this poem tumbles disorientingly down the page, both celebrating itself and at war with itself: it exalts; it contradicts. There is tension between the stuff of nature and the stuff with which we have burdened nature. Each reading of ‘Uprush’ reveals new nuances, new phrasings, new possibilities.”


Read the rest of this entry »

Thursday, February 25th, 2016

Seven: On learning to embrace revision

Guest post by Alexandra Risen

Photo: Jon Sullivan


I haven’t been a debut writer forever. It just feels that way.

Likely because of how often I revise-restructure-rewrite-rethink-reword-reassess-review. Enough times to learn one thing: Even if you are writing memoir, the truth can be said myriad ways and almost always better than the last time you said it.

My personal memoir about my garden started as twenty short stories, edited several times by creative writing teachers and fellow writing students. Two years later, I asked an agent if they were publishable.

“No,” he said. Not maybe. Not gentle.

“Reassess your approach. Then restructure.” He patted my stack of paper where I had naively typed “Confidential” under the title, as if someone might actually want to steal my brilliance.

I pushed my embarrassment and insecurities aside and registered for a memoir course at University of Toronto. I read breakout books like How Not to Write a Novel, Bird by Bird, and The Plot Whisperer. I loved my memoir instructor, and after the course ended, I begged her to be my Final Project adviser. On her advice, I thought more deeply about themes and tension and narrative arc; I rewrote and saw the story take on a new shape.

Before I submitted it to the university evaluation panel, my adviser told me she believed I had talent and that the manuscript had strong potential, but there were too many storylines.

I knew better.

My agent reviewed it again.

“Too many storylines,” he said. “Rethink it in simpler terms.”

I joined a weekly workshop, where, chapter by chapter, over another two years, I rewrote, they reviewed, and I reworded. I tried new software like Scrivener and read more books, with inspiring subtitles like Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish with Confidence. The thing is, deciphering software and extra reading are ideal time-consuming activities for a procrastinator. I was starting to enjoy writing.

Somewhere between reading, rethinking, and rewriting, I read (I don’t recall in which book) that a manuscript is often complete after seven revisions.



Harsh workshop criticism that used to depress me became a rung to draft number seven. I sought input. Please, I’d beg my husband, I’ve only had feedback on this scene five times — I need two more!

My goal to finish my book was replaced by the desire to reach the lucky seven edit for each chapter. Every misplaced comma and inaccurate word, every removed adverb and exclamation mark was a step closer. Draft six didn’t resemble draft two. Chapter One became Chapter Seventeen. Chapter Three and Eight disappeared. None of it mattered anymore. Cutting a scene didn’t hurt — it was a relief. I was shedding those unwanted last five pounds. Cleaning out the junk drawer. Throwing away those favourite comfortable but sloppy pyjamas.

Life is a series of revisions.

Today, some of my new best friends are editors. I can’t resist them. I stalk them. They are artists, wielding their pencils and applying Track Changes to better the literary world.

When my agent landed my book deal, the acquiring editor said, “I love it!” and then she promptly had me review, reword, and revise.



Alexandra Risen

Alexandra Risen

Alexandra Risen’s Unearthed is her meditation on love, acceptance, and our interconnectedness with nature, a memoir to be published Summer 2016 in the United States by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and in Canada by Penguin Random House. She is one of three founding editors of the online literary magazine Don’t Talk to Me About Love, which explores love in fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and art.

Alexandra studied memoir writing with instructor Allyson Latta, who was also adviser for her Final Project toward the Creative Writing Certificate at University of Toronto. An excerpt from that version of her memoir was a finalist for the university’s Marina Nemat Creative Writing Award.

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016