Posts Tagged ‘writing’

A Writer’s Moment in Sintra, guest post by Sandy Kenyon


Historic Sintra, Portugal (Photo by Sandy Kenyon)


I stand and watch as people wander to and fro through the Praça da República, the square in old-town Sintra, Portugal. Everyone’s looking around, but not always looking in front of them. I step aside quickly as a German couple in heated debate barrel towards me.

Spying the Café Paris, I make a bee-line over the cobbles towards it.

The hostess greets me, and I tell her that I’m interested in brunch. She motions me over to the pastry counter. “We have pies with chicken, shrimp or cuttlefish, and several delicious sweet pastries.”

I think about having sweets for breakfast but decide that maybe I’ll have the shrimp pie and a hot chocolate instead. OK, it’s an odd combination, but I’m on my first-ever destination writers’ retreat. Anything goes.

“So, if you were to have a sweet pastry, which one would you choose?” she asks.

We both gaze at the myriad confections in front of me: pastel de nata, éclair, tarte de amêdoa. My eyes light on the travesseiro de Sintra — a local specialty that resembles a pastry pillow and is filled with almond paste and cream.

“I think that one.” I grin. “But I’ll wait till another time.”

She winks at me and shows me to a table in the sun.

My hot chocolate soon appears, and I sip while writing in my journal, trying to capture the magical feel of this place. A few seconds later, my shrimp pastry appears. I break the flaky crust open and the scent of spices and shrimp waft up to me. I eat it with gusto, savouring each bite as I watch the school children and tour groups traipse through the square.

I feel a contentment in my core that has been missing for a while, and realize: I’m having my Shirley Valentine moment.

I call a young waiter over. He sees the phone in my hand.

“I take your picture,” he states rather than asks.


He steps back, and I smile, wondering if the camera will show how big my happiness feels. Once he’s snapped a few photos, he pointedly stares at my journal.

“You are writing about your trip?” He nods, clearly having seen this before.

I say yes and add, shyly, “‘I’m a writer.”

It’s the first time I’ve voluntarily offered this info outside of a writing group. It feels momentous.

“Oh my god, that must be painful,” he groans. “All that writing, of all those pages.” He shakes his head. “This I cannot do.”

He grins, and his charm warms my heart.

“One more picture,” he says. “The beautiful writer in beautiful Sintra.”

My smile is even wider than before.

Seconds later, the hostess slides a dish with a warm travesseiro de Sintra in front of me. It’s accompanied by a scoop of mango sherbet and a flourish of whipped cream. She winks again.

This morning, my last in Sintra, has been my favourite so far.


SANDY KENYON is a writer focusing on short stories and autofiction. In the last two years, she has learned that writing needs a more central place in her life. She has just returned from a writers’ retreat in Sintra, Portugal, where she worked with other writers honing their craft. Sandy, who lives in Kitchener, Ontario, has driven across Canada several times, travelled to Cuba and Portugal, and in the U.S. has explored 16 southwestern states. More of her work can be found on Quick Brown,, and on her blog, It’s a Life.

This post originally appeared on Sandy Kenyon’s blog, It’s a Life, and is reprinted here with her permission.


Sandy Kenyon was one of 12 writers who participated in Allyson Latta’s writing & yoga retreat, March 8 to 15, 2019, in Sintra, Portugal. Sintra is located 33 kilometres north of Lisbon in the foothills of the Sintra Mountains.

Friday, April 5th, 2019

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:

Wednesday, July 26th, 2017

Seek an Agent Who Takes the Long View: Advice for writers from literary agent Marie Campbell

Marie Campbell photoMARIE CAMPBELL is a senior agent and partner with the Transatlantic Agency, based in Toronto, Canada. She joined Transatlantic in 2003 and represents writers of children’s fiction for ages 8+.




AL: At what stage should a writer think about looking for an agent?

MC: There is no hard and fast rule here, as requirements differ by individual agents even within the same agency. In general, I’d say that agents look at a writer’s background even before they look at the specific pitch for an individual project. We’re not looking only for previous publications — I’ve been known to be hooked by a quirky resumé. One recent client I took on, for example, is previously unpublished, but she’s just completed a master’s of fine arts in creative writing and, of particular interest to me as I represent children’s writers, also works with a community children’s organization. I scanned her c.v. with interest before I even read the summary of her current work.

But to address your specific question, I always tell my clients that we have exactly one shot at hooking the interest of a publisher’s acquiring editor — so I suggest their manuscript be in its best possible shape before we submit. I think the same is true of agents. For a first-time writer, I really do need to see a full, completed manuscript before I’m able to make a confident decision whether I can take it on for representation. It may or may not need to be have been professionally edited by the time it reaches my desk. That’s an assessment best made by individual writers when they consider the state of their manuscript.

AL: In the Canadian market, how essential is an agent? That is, are there publishers out there that accept submissions directly from authors, and if so, do they tend to be smaller publishers, or publishers of certain genres?

MC: Some publishers do accept direct submissions. It’s wise for new writers to familiarize themselves with particular publishers’ submission guidelines before beginning on their own — it can save postage, time, and frustration. Is a writer more likely to have their manuscript land in an acquiring editor’s to-read pile in Canada with an agented submission? Yes. Is it essential in every case? No. It’s not just the smaller publishers who will accept unsolicited, unagented submissions — sometimes the largest companies have staff capable of handling new material.

AL: What services does a good agent provide? And on the flip side, what would one not provide?

MC: This is a big question, but I’ll try to sketch out the basic services an agent provides. In general, we are responsible for marketing a writer’s work. We do this in various ways, from meeting with editors at book fairs and in their offices as well as keeping in regular contact in different ways, to maintaining a detailed website, which editors and commissioning art directors are invited to browse at any time. Most obviously, we submit writers’ work to publishers for their consideration for publication. If an offer is made by one or more publishers, we handle that negotiation, then review the details of the final contract on behalf of the writer. We also provide career management in various ways, including reporting to writers on the information we receive from editors and our sub-agents around the world. We are also responsible for ongoing issues that arise as a result of any contracts we’ve negotiated.

AL: How would a first-time author begin looking for an agent?

MC: The route to finding an agent can be as circuitous and happenstance-filled as looking for a publisher. In general, I think it’s important for writers to familiarize themselves with the industry in which they are hoping to publish their work. Word of mouth is an important part of many industries — perhaps all the more true in the book-publishing world. Several agents with my agency, for example, accept new queries only from writers who have been recommended by one of the agency’s current clients. So how to look for an agent? Meet people, talk to people, ask questions of anyone you can find involved in the book business. Ask writers whether they would recommend their own agent — the response to that question will say volumes. There is, of course, always the Internet, and sources such as the Writers’ Union of Canada.

AL: What should the writer look for in an agent?

MC: As I often explain to new and prospective clients, the author–agent relationship is, in an ideal world, a long-term one. For that reason among many, “fit” is important. Does the agent “see” your work as you’d like? It’s my view, too, that an author should be looking for an agent who does take a long view. It’s certainly common enough practice for an agent to take on a single contract negotiation on behalf of a client, but I prefer to look beyond a single contract — I’m really quite determined to develop a client’s career. Publishers will often (well, not as often as they used to) tell us earnestly that they “publish authors, not books” — I think a good agent should represent an author, not a single book.

AL: How important is it that the agent specialize in certain genres? Are there generalists out there who will take on any kind of manuscript?

MC: The answer, curiously, is yes to both questions. It can be extremely important for an agent to specialize, as any agent is only as good as her contacts — and it’s hard to maintain contacts in every publishing field. (I, of course, say this as someone who specializes in children’s fiction, bear in mind!) And yes, there are generalists who represent a very broad range of types of material. Both models can and do work very well, often within a single agency.

AL: Is there greater safety in going with an agent who is part of an agency than with one who works independently?

MC: That’s a good question, though I don’t think there’s a straightforward answer to it, in large part because I believe much of any relationship — especially, perhaps, those involved in creative cultural industries — is about “fit.” Some writers like to be published by large, multinational companies; others prefer the more intimate fit of a smaller publisher. Neither is better or worse, and the same is true, I think, of agencies. The one question I’d encourage writers to ask of prospective agents, whether they work with an agency or not, is whether writers’ payments are held in separate trust accounts. When they are, it means that writers’ income is separate and protected if the agent or agency were to file for bankruptcy protection.

AL: Is there a way to check out an agent’s experience, reputation, or credentials? Is it appropriate to ask an agent about these things before sending in a submission?

MC: Because I do believe these are long-term relationships, I think it wholly important for an author to do their own due diligence when approaching an agent. After all, if successful, they will be signing a contract with an agent and an agency — and it’s never to be taken lightly, putting your signature on a legally binding document. While agents need to “interview” their authors, that process is as much for the authors to interview us.

AL: How does payment generally work? Should writers be wary of agents who ask for money up front?

MC: Absolutely! Standard industry practice is that agents earn a commission from sales of their clients’ work. It’s one of the reasons I think there’s a successful alignment of interests with agents and their clients: I only make money when I actually sell something for them. I’ve certainly not encountered an instance in which we would ask anyone for up-front money.

Payment is made from the acquiring publisher to the agency, on the writer’s behalf. The agent’s commission and any other expenses/charges are then taken from the gross amount, and the net amount due is paid to the writer by the agency.

AL: What form should an author’s initial query/submission to an agent take?

MC: It’s very important for authors to do as much research as possible about an agent’s interests, specialties, and preferred form of inquiries before sending off an approach. Nothing irritates me more than being pitched a project that is wildly off my stated interests, which are clearly listed on my agency’s website. I represent children’s writers only, for example — so an author who pitches adult gardening books is wasting their own time, and mine.

AL: How long might an author expect to wait to hear back regarding a submission? What’s an appropriate amount of time to wait before following up?

MC: This is an awkward one for me — I have only recently come to the end of a long-overdue to-read pile! Some authors there had been waiting six months, I’m embarrassed to admit. I’ll leave that to individual writers to judge when nudging becomes counter-productive. As a general rule, I’d say 6 to 8 weeks is an acceptable period of time to wait for an agent to get to your submission. That said, a hot property can be read in an afternoon — I recently signed up an author after having her manuscript only two days.

AL: Is it acceptable for an author to make simultaneous submissions to more than one agent?

MC: If an author is approaching more than one agent at a time, they should let each agent know that from the first correspondence. That might put some off, though it can be part of our competitive world. Within my own agency, for example, we do require writers to query only a single agent within the agency at a time.

AL: When you turn down an author, do you provide a reason, or suggestions for improvement?

MC: Unfortunately, time and volume of submitted material doesn’t generally allow for that kind of correspondence, particularly if I’m passing on the opportunity to represent a particular writer. I do have several different versions of the way I communicate a pass, though. Oftentimes I might not think I can place a particular project but am intrigued by a writer’s voice — so I’ll ask to see what they have ready next for submission, or I’ll ask if they’re working on something else. If I’ve not offered to leave the door open for future correspondence, though, it’s probably not open.

AL: Once an agent has agreed to take on an author as a client, the two sign a contract. Briefly, what would this contract set out?

MC: It sets out our responsibilities to each other, includes a warranty from the author that this is indeed original work to which the author has copyright, sets out the agent’s commissions and how expenses are to be handled, and often, and among other details, a process by which the contract can be cancelled.

AL: And how would a contract be terminated by either agent or author?

MC: There should be a process set forth in the contract for how the relationship might be dissolved — it’s usually possible with written notice, from either party, in a prescribed period. It’s perhaps worth noting that even after an agent/author has ended the relationship, any previous and existing contracts between them continue to flow through the agency and are subject to its commissions.

AL: Is there anything the author should watch out for in the contract? And should an author have a lawyer look it over before signing?

MC: Again, I’d look for details of how the accounts are to be managed. It’s entirely up to an individual’s confidence in their understanding of the contract and its language whether they want to seek professional advice on it.

Very helpful, Marie. Thank you!

Note from Allyson: This is an updated version of Marie’s  interview, one of the most-accessed posts on my website to date.

Wednesday, July 6th, 2016

Ethan Canin on Story Endings

At the end of a story or novel, you do not want the reader thinking. Endings are about emotion, and logic is emotion’s enemy. It’s the writer’s job to disarm the reader of his logic, to just make the reader feel. You’ll often see this in the final moments of a film: The camera tilts up, and the movie ends with a non-distinct image of the sky, or the sea, or the coast. Something the eye can’t quite focus on, which allows you to focus on everything that’s come before. That’s how “that was how he was” [“A Silver Dish,” Saul Bellow] works, too. It brings nothing else to mind. This sentence would be a non-sentence if it began the story—but, placed at the end, it’s packed with the charge of everything that precedes it. Each of those non-words is nitroglycerin, and the story that precedes it is the fuse.”

— “Can Writing Be Both True and Beautiful?” by Ethan Canin (The Atlantic, March 1, 2016)

Wednesday, March 30th, 2016

Join Me for “Spit and Polish: Self-Editing Workshop,” Bracebridge, October 17, 2015

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

Congratulations, Carin Makuz, finalist in the 2015 Toronto Star Short Story Contest

Carin Makuz
If you subscribe to my website, or even check in frequently, you’ll be familiar with Carin Makuz and her photography at Matilda Magtree (where she writes as well, and beautifully). She’s one of my small Wordless Wednesday group, each member of which once a week publishes a photo-to-inspire. Once upon a time, she took part in one of my annual North York Central Library workshop series on memoir writing, which is how we met.

Carin is in fact far from wordless, as her recent news proves. She was a finalist in the highly competitive Toronto Star Short Story contest, coming in third with her entry “Quality Goods.” (You can click that title link to read her story online.)

Carmelinda Scian took home first prize in the contest, and Andrew Bryant second prize. Read more about the contest and all the prize-winners.


In the wake of today’s announcement, I managed to coax a few more words out of the very-private Carin …

… on the award ceremony:

“Such a loveliness, this whole thing. Still feeling delightfully stunned at hearing the news. The awards ceremony was last night, in a downtown library, an old Carnegie one (on Yorkville). A lovely spread. Wine, excellent nibbles. (You’ll always find me hovering over the cheese!) I’m not one to enjoy being fussed over but this was so wonderfully done; it was, is, a pleasure to celebrate!”

… on the genesis of the story:

“It’s from a WIP, a novel ms that I’ve been working on for several years about family dynamics, with the focus on a broken relationship between sisters. For the longest time I couldn’t get the structure right, kept fighting against each chapter that wanted to be born as an individual story. Then I realized I was writing a novel in stories. I have no idea how to write a novel. (My favourite writing quote is from Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately nobody knows what they are.”)

… on writing and submitting to contests:

“Something I heard yonks ago that stayed with me was that rejections are how you know you’re in the game. And if you keep doing the work, keep improving it, even those become more and more helpful in that you occasionally get a word or two of advice on the piece. And THAT is invaluable.”

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015