Archive for the 'My Writing' Category

How to understand what reader feedback *really* means (2/2) – Endings

On November 21, I gave a short story writing workshop with Lydia Peever to the Ottawa Independent Writers. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to cover everything we wanted.

One of the things I wanted to discuss was how to translate feedback you might get from readers or editors into ways to identify problems with your story. In other words, what they really mean and what can you do about it.

I posted earlier about the beginning and middle of a story. Now it’s time to look at the end of your story. While beginnings are delicate (just ask Princess Irulan) and middles can be tricky, the purpose of the story’s end is to tie everything together. When it doesn’t, you might hear…

“That ending came out of nowhere”

What they are really saying: There was no set up that we were heading for the climax.

Life is usually chaotic, but in we are used to a pattern in stories: the climax is the inevitable confrontation between protagonist and the antagonist. We know the climax is coming because other options are closed off.

When your ending “comes out of nowhere”, there were still other options the characters could explore. While rushing headlong at the antagonist might make for an exciting scene, most people prefer an easier non-confrontation than a harder, riskier encounter with their antagonist.

Or, you didn’t communicate how close the protagonist and antagonist were—having the evil wizard suddenly materialize in front of the warrior, and the warrior killing him with her magic sword, without any set up isn’t satisfying.

How to fix it: In Part 1, I said that as the main character tries to make things better, things get worse. But in short fiction, limit the number of things they can try. As the end looms, signal to the reader that the main character has one—and only one—last shot:

  • The main character assassin’s friend calls to say the target is boarding a train to leave the city
  • The crush is driving to the ex’s house for that weekend, and the main character needs to race to get there first
  • The helicopter arrives to take the strike team on their mission

Motion, especially toward something, is a great way to signal a coming climax.

Another way to signal the climax is to come out and say it. Have your characters discuss their plan to get what they want. Nothing signals the coming climax like someone saying: “We either do this, or we die.” The plan can (and should) fall apart, but it tells the reader that the end of the story is coming.

We also need to understand how the antagonist operates. If the antagonist doesn’t get its own scenes, at least explain its rules so when the confrontation happens we understand how.

“Ending took forever”

What they are really saying: This is opposite of what’s above when you didn’t signal we were heading into the inevitable confrontation. Instead, you signaled that we were heading into the climax too early. The climax, in general, is the last 1/4 of your story. That’s not a hard rule, but you should spend more time setting up how we get to the climax than in the actual climax. Enter it too early and readers are waiting (and waiting (and waiting)) to see who will win and how.

How to fix it: Using the examples above on how to signal we are transitioning into the story’s climax, go back and see how early or late in the story you give this signal. You might not even mean to set up the climax, but the reader thinks you did.

A common mistake that makes the ending seem to go on forever is raising the stakes in the climax. In longer works, you might be able to have one more reveal for raising the stakes, but in short fiction raise the stakes in the second act, but as we head into the final confrontation, we know what’s on the line. The end of the story is to wrap things up, not introduce new ideas.

For example, let’s say the convenience store manager from my earlier post is leading a group through the airport (the motion I mentioned above) to a waiting plane during a zombie attack. The stakes might be not just the survival of the group, but her own identity since earlier in her life as an army lieutenant she had failed to save her squad. If you suddenly introduce that one of the group knows how to stop the zombie apocalypse, it changes the story. Characters have to react and change as a result of this revelation, stretching things out. It might be only 100 more words, but it will seem longer. Lose that momentum and you lose the reader.

If you have story-changing reveals that appear in the climax, can you move them earlier in the story and make the middle more exciting?

The other aspect of this is after the climax. Short stories might not have enough room for denouement, but some can. Poorly done denouement, where things aren’t wrapped up or settled quickly, drags. It begs the question from readers of where are you taking them. When your main character wins over their crush, how does their life change? Tell us that and end the story. Page and pages describing dates and romance are events, not story.

“It just kinda stopped… there wasn’t an ending”

What they are really saying: This is a combination of the two items above. There were no signals that the story was coming to an end, and nothing is resolved.

How to fix it: Take the above advice into consideration.

But also, make it clear what’s on the line if the main character fails. Just as I said to not raise the stakes in the climax, we must know the stakes going into the climax. Otherwise we don’t know what all of the conflict is for.

For your main character assassin, why is it important to fulfill the contract? Money is not enough. Make it so we learn the master assassin (the target) has a contract for the main character’s family. For your character trying to ask out their crush, maybe they know that the crush wasn’t really happy with their ex, but the crush is lonely, so the main character is also helping the crush by saving them from a bad relationship.

And lastly, go back to the idea of the main character wanting something. Did they get it at the end of the story? If you begin a story with a man in jail for a crime he didn’t commit and he’s desperate to prove his innocence, but it ends with him killing the abusive gang leader, you didn’t finish your story.

In other words, your story will introduce some ideas and will-they-won’t-they questions. Make sure these are wrapped up.


How to understand what reader feedback *really* means (1/2) – Beginnings and middles

On November 21, I gave a short story writing workshop with Lydia Peever to the Ottawa Independent Writers. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to cover everything we wanted.

One of the things I wanted to discuss was how to translate feedback you might get from readers or editors into ways to identify problems with your story. In other words, what they really mean and what can you do about it.

This is the first part of a two-part post covering the beginning and middle of a story. I’ll post more about endings a little later.

“It started slow…”

What they are really saying: They don’t know what the character is after, or the character doesn’t do anything about getting that thing.

We are invested in stories through characters. And in stories, characters want something. The will-they-won’t-they of what they want propels the story:

  • Fall in love
  • Find treasure
  • Defeat the monster
  • Find the killer

That desire for something—and the drive to get it—is very human, and what readers identify with.

A character simply going about their day—without some desire for something—isn’t interesting. Nor is a character who wants something, but does nothing about it.

How to fix it: As Kurt Vonnegut said: “Make your characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water.” That initial will-they-won’t-they question, even for something minor, draws in the reader.

In longer works, what they initially want might not be the major driver of the story, but in short fiction try to introduce what the character is after as early as you can. This signals what kind of story follows: romance, horror, mystery. If you can’t introduce this main idea, then make the character want something minor from page one:

  • Go to bed
  • Take the dog for a walk
  • Answer a ringing phone

And once they do that, have that lead to some other want:

  • In bed ► Find what that strange sound in the house is
  • Walking the dog ► Who is that odd person standing on the corner
  • Answer the phone ► Who is the weird voice on the other end

The next step is to have the character taking action to get it. They might not succeed, but someone longing to go on a date with-so-and-so without doing something about it, or constantly running from the monster without figuring out how to defeat it, or wanting to go to a good school without doing the schoolwork, is just annoying.

 “It didn’t grab me”

What they are really saying: This might be the same as starting slow, but hopefully a slow story picks up steam. This comment is worse. It means you didn’t communicate what was on the line if the character failed, or they didn’t care if the character failed.

What’s on the line, or stakes, is what makes the will-they-won’t-they question so compelling. But we have to care about the characters and their success or failure.

How to fix it: Character development is its own beast, but a simple thing to do is ask yourself why we should care about your main character. What do we identify with? What do we admire? We all love underdog stories, so what deficit is your character starting from that they must overcome?

Also, extend the stakes beyond the character. In horror, not defeating the monster might mean the main character dies, but the stakes can be increased—and draw the reader in deeper—if it also means the monster will move on from the farmhouse and destroy the town. In romance, the cheerleader turning down the chess club president for a date is not just disappointing, but might discourage all the chess club geeks from believing they are worthy of love.

“Not sure when the story started”

What they are really saying: It wasn’t clear when we left the status quo and entered the unknown. Terms for this include crossing the threshold, call to adventure, the first disaster, the inciting incident, or entering Act Two. (If you know your story structure, you’ll know these are different things. But we’re talking short stories here, so sometimes they are jammed together.)

The first part of a story is set up: where are we, when are we, what’s going on in this world, and who is our protagonist? Often this is a static situation—the status quo. Every day for your character is essentially the same.

Then, there is some event that disrupts the status quo and sets in motion all other events that follow in the story. This disruption usually comes from something outside the main character—a friend comes in from out of town, aliens invade, someone moves in next door. How your main character handles that disruption is essentially your story.

How to fix it: In longer works, you can take your time to establish the status quo. There are plenty of novels where not a lot happens in the first few chapters… and then suddenly we’re caught up in a whirlwind of adventure!

In short fiction, you might begin with set up or begin at that change in the status quo and then layer in backstory. Either way, you have to show the reader that something is new or different for the characters. This has two steps: some change from an outside source and the character’s reaction.

Outside sources could be:

  • A roadside convenience store is suddenly flooded with motorists fleeing some disaster in the city
  • A sergeant assigns a police detective a new case
  • A production company offers a famous daredevil a new challenge

These may be normal events for your character, but it signals to the reader that here is something new in their world. How the character reacts also helps to establish that we are leaving behind the status quo and entering something new, especially if the character isn’t able to initially handle this new situation:

  • The convenience store’s manager, usually tough and decisive, is overwhelmed in the chaos
  • The detective, by-the-book and methodical, can’t make any progress on the case
  • The daredevil, now in his 40s, realizes he doesn’t think he’s capable of the job

All of these engage the reader and promise them what the story will be about.

“The middle drags”

What they are really saying: Things happen, but it’s not building toward anything.

In the classic Three Act Structure, Act Two should have lots of action, rising stakes, twist and turns. Often, it can be the hardest to write, especially for short stories. You might have a great beginning and fabulous end, but you find you’re just moving characters around in the middle in order to connect beginning and end. Or the middle might be great battle scenes, witty banter or an exciting chase, but in the end nothing changes—the stakes are the same, your character hasn’t learned anything, and they want the same thing as the beginning of the story. That is, you can take a lot out and not lose much.

How to fix it: Once your main character crosses the threshold and the real story starts, have them fail. They proactively try to get what they want, but they are outside their comfort zone—they would succeed in the status quo, but we have left that behind. This might put what they want further away, signal their location to the enemy, or embarrass them in front of their love interest. These changes increase tension in your story and draw the reader in. It forces the question “What happens now?”

You should also increase the stakes. Don’t leave them the same as the beginning of the story. Make things worse for what can happen if the character fails:

  • Your main character is an assassin with a contract. Unable to kill their target, they learn their target is actually a master assassin.
  • Your main character is trying to find the courage to ask out their crush. When your character is about to ask, the crush and their ex talk about taking a week-long trip together to try to reconcile.
  • There’s been a last-minute replacement on a strike team that is inexperienced and puts the mission at risk. Then the timetable for the mission is moved up to tomorrow.

Rather than giving up, your main character should push forward. While the “What happens now?” question is plot, how your main character reacts is character development. They learn new things and act in new ways to be successful. They don’t have to be someone completely new, but understand that how they were at the beginning of the story didn’t get them to success. So while your main character may be reactionary at first, eventually you can have them be more proactive and beginning to take control. They are proactive because they know what they want, are working to get it—two things we should have in the beginning—and now might have a chance of success.

Lastly, the reason the story seems to drag is it’s clear you the author are moving things around rather than circumstances forcing characters to react. And as characters react, they affect other characters, forcing them to react. Character-driven action is much more interesting than you the author dropping in things to move them around.

Workshop on November 21: Short Story Writing

I will be teaching a writing workshop on short stories along with the amazing Lydia Peever at the November 21st meeting of the Ottawa Independent Writers.

The details:

WHEN: Tuesday, November 21, 2017 @ 7PM (doors at 6:30)
WHERE: Hintonburg Community Centre, 1064 Wellington Street, Ottawa
HOW LONG: 2 hours
COST: $10 payable at the event (free to members of the Ottawa Independent Writers)

The event on Facebook

Why take this workshop?

Have you always wanted to write a short story? Or are you looking to improve your skills? You’re not alone.

Short stories can be deceptively complicated little beasts. I’ve known a number of novelists say they’re harder than novels. This workshop will break down how short stories work, where to find inspiration, techniques to turn that inspiration into the story you want to tell, and how to get them published.

Meet and greet begins at 6:30, workshop at 7 p.m. Coffee, tea and snacks are included. If you’re not a member of the Ottawa Independent Writers, the $10 fee can go toward your OIW membership if they wish to join.

There is plenty of parking at the rear of the Community Centre.

Writing workshop: “Keep Readers on the Edge of Their Seats” at CAN-CON on Oct 13 in Ottawa, ON

I will be teaching a writing workshop on how to create and maintain tension in your story at CAN-CON in Ottawa, Ontario.

WHEN: Friday, October 13, 2017 @ noon
HOW LONG: 2 hours
FORMAT: Lecture with group exercises and hand-outs
COST: $20

Why take this workshop?

Regardless of what you write, you need to hook the reader and keep them reading. “I couldn’t put it down,” is something we all want to hear. This can be through characters we care about, end-of-the-world stakes, will-they/won’t-they romance, or a plot that keeps unfolding new twists.

But have you been getting rejections like “Just didn’t grab me” or feedback saying it “Started too slow”? Do you have trouble figuring out what your main character should do next? Does your story start great and ends with a bang, but gets bogged down in the middle?

This workshop will help.

How will it help?

Tension is more than short, clipped sentences, the “ticking clock” or cutting between scenes. It’s making readers want need dying to know what happens next. This all comes from how you reveal and conceal information, and increase the stakes for your character. It’s not gimmicks, tricks or “on page 14, reveal the conflict” formulas. It’s solid writing techniques that can be used in any genre and any length of story.

What will you get out of it?

We’ll discuss:

  • How to structure scenes and the overall story so readers will keep turning pages
  • Techniques to make sure there’s always several things threatening your main character, driving them through the story
  • The various kinds of antagonists working against your main character, and why they are such a threat
  • How to keep upping the stakes if your character fails
  • How to stop using clichés, tricks and gimmicks that actually remove tension from your story


Story out in new anthology The Sum Of Us

16651594_10154976984491449_72596578_nI have a new story out in the anthology The Sum Of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound. “Good-bye is that Time between Now and Forever” is a brief story about a daughter travelling with her father to an appointment for doctor-assisted suicide. Except in this world, the dead rise.

The theme of The Sum Of Us is the burden that caregivers carry. Often forgotten or not valued, caregivers face challenges that too-often go unrecognized. This anthology hopes to change that. And part of the money raised from sales will go to support programs provided by Canadian Mental Health Association.

With a cover by Samantha Beiko and stories by friends Hayden Trenholm, Sandra Kasturi and Liz Westbrook-Trenholm, you can find links to where you can order the book on The Sum Of Us page on the Laksa Media site.

Cover for my short story collection It’s Not the End and Other Lies released

I’m very happy to show you the cover for my debut short story collection It’s Not the End and Other Lies. Published by ChiZine Publication (CZP), it is scheduled to be released in April 2018. The cover is by Erik Mohr, who has been doing the covers for CZP since the beginning.

After years of admiring CZP’s work, I am honoured and humbled to be joining their roster of writers.

More to come as a release date and table of contents is finalized.

CZP_It's Not The End and Other Lies

Writing workshop: “Keep Readers on the Edge of Their Seats” at Limestone Genre Expo on June 3 in Kingston, ON

I will be teaching a 2-hour writing workshop on how to keep readers on the edges of their seats at the Limestone Genre Expo in Kingston, Ontario on Saturday, June 3, 2017. It will start at 3PM.

Why should I take this workshop?

This workshop is for writers of all genres who want their stories to be page-turners that readers can’t put down. If you have been getting rejections or feedback like “Started too slow” or “Just didn’t grab me”, this workshop is for you.

There’s more to maintaining tension than just writing short, clipped sentences, the “ticking clock” or cutting between scenes. Stories, and the scenes within them, have a structure. (And do not confuse structure, which is descriptive, with formula, which is prescriptive.) That is, we are introduced to a scene, something changes for our characters, and they move on to the next scene. This can involve saving the universe or looking for their car keys. To create tension, you need to understand how the pieces of this structure work—plot, pacing, characters, conflict, etc.

We’ll look at things like:

  • How to end a scene in a way that makes the reader want to keep reading, but by giving a pay-off and not “cheating”?
  • What kind of threats and challenges can you throw at the main character that aren’t tired, clichéd or too easy?
  • Who or what is working against your main character?
  • What is on the line if your main character fails?

I hope to see you there!

Schedule for Limestone Genre Expo 2017

Here’s my schedule for the Limestone Genre Expo, a multi-genre convention taking place June 3 – 4 in Kingston, Ontario. This is a new and growing convention that I hope you’ll check out if you’re in Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto or upstate New York.

One highlight is a workshop on Saturday about how to build tension in your stories. I’ll also be doing a reading from The Sum Of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound, a great new anthology about the burdens caregivers must bear. My story, “Good-by Is That Time Between Now and Forever”, is about how do we care for the elderly and terminally ill in a world where the dead never stay dead.


  • 10:00 – 11:00: A Bleak Future: Post-Apocalyptic And Dystopian Fiction (Room 1020)
  • 1:00 – 2:00: True Crime Leads to Crime Fiction (Room 1020)
  • 2:00 – 3:00: Why We Need Tales of Vampires, Werewolves and Ghosts (Room 1020)
  • 3:00 – 5:00: Workshop – Keeping Readers on the Edge of Their Seats (Room 1040)


  • 11:00 –12:00: Oh the Horror! (Room 1010)
  • 3:00 – 4:00: Reading – “Good-by Is That Time Between Now and Forever” from The Sum Of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound (Room 1030)
  • 4:00 – 5:00: Historical Fantasy: Facts vs Imagination (Room 1010)

Schedule for Ad Astra 2017

Here’s my schedule for Ad Astra 2017, a sci-fi/horror/fantasy convention happening this weekend in Richmond Hill, Ontario (just outside Toronto). Some good horror programming on here!

I will also be doing a reading, but the timing for that is TBD.


7:00 – 7:30: READING
Markham B
I’ll be reading my historical science fiction story “A Shame That Binds Our Hearts, Binds Our Fate,” which appeared in On Spec, Issue #102 and placed 2nd in the Friends of the Merril short story contest. Stick around for Matthew Bin at 7:30. His novel Brendan’s Way (Bundoran Press) is launching Saturday at 9:00).

Richmond B
John Carpenter’s films have always had an audience in fandom, but recent years have seen a critical reappraisal of his work. In the words of Guillermo del Toro: “Carpenter creates masterpiece after masterpiece and they are often ignored.” Films like Halloween and The Thing are definitive horror films, but are they more relevant to cinema as a whole than previously thought? What other works of Carpenter deserve a closer viewing? (with James Bambury, Beverly Bambury, David Clink, Adam Shaftoe-Durrant)


Richmond A
Works of horror necessarily disturb their readers with feelings of unease, revulsion, and fear. Easy to say, hard to do. What do horror authors do to create the negative emotions their readers are seeking? (with Derek Künsken, Jon Oliver, Alexandra Renwick)


Publishers describe novels as a “supernatural thriller” or “novel of terror”, but is no one saying “horror” anymore?  Did the 80s heyday, and eventual burn-out, of horror novels ruin the term? Or maybe the onslaught of remakes of 80s horror film? Why aren’t we saying “horror” anymore? (with Anne Bishop, Beverly Bambury, Dean Italiano, Jen Frankel)



Fantasy in the 1970’s and earlier was usually a stand alone book or a trilogy at the most.  Now it’s a megaseries of books often with a movie or television tie-in.  Once the little sibling of science fiction fantasy now dwarfs its sibling.  How did this happen? (with Jeff Beeler, Brandon Draga, Nicholas Eames, A.A. Jankiewicz)

My Can-Con 2016 Schedule


The schedule for Can-Con 2016 has been posted and it’s amazing. There is everything here for fans of science fiction, horror and fantasy. Plus science panels, pitch sessions, agent sessions, and more. Please take a look at the panel descriptions.

If you’ve never been to a convention but have thought about it, but felt it might be too much for you, please read my post about why conventions are safe spaces for the shy or introverted. If you feel this way, please check out Can-Con. Registration information is online. It will make you feel at home and introduce you to an entire community you didn’t know was out there.

For me, I will be busy! Here’s my schedule, subject to last-minute changes.


7:00 – 8:00: So This Is Your First Con!
Zenith Room
I’ll be joining Lisa Toohey, Ryan McFadden, and Brandon Crilly (m). I will try to bring some humour and sage wisdom to this panel.

9:00 – whenever: Bundoran Press party
Tavern ConSuite
I’ll be reading from my story “Innocence Prolonged, And Overcome” from the new anthology Lazarus Risen. What happens in a town where everyone will live forever? Well, it’s not good. Nope, not good at all.


11:00 – 12:00: Reading from But It’s Not The End And Other Lies
Guildhall ConSuite
Join me doing a reading from my upcoming collection But It’s Not The End And Other Lies (ChiZine Publications) about what makes us human and what makes us monsters. Joining me in this time slot is fellow CZP author Ian Rogers reading from Every House is Haunted and ‘Nathan Burgoine reading from Triad Blood.

5:00 – 6:00: Can The Exorcist Work in the Modern World?
Twilight Room

I’ll be moderating a panel with Timothy Carter, Madeline Ashby, Mike Rimar and Ranylt Richildis. Since The Exorcist works on the idea that the Devil is real, that must mean God is real. And Jesus. And the Bible. In a secular world, does being scared by The Exorcist mean we must accept Christianity? We’ll discuss.

9:00 – whenever: ChiZine Publications party
Tavern ConSuite
This is the party to be at. Meet the leading voices in horror and dark fiction. And there will be booze.


12:00 – 1:00: Not All Antagonists Are Created Equal
Sunset Room

I’ll be moderating a panel with Julie Czerneda, Erik Scott de Bie, Gregory A. Wilson and Nina Munteanu where I propose there are three types of antogonist—villains, monsters and forces of nature. We’ll slug it out, talking to both fellow authors and fans. Bring ideas about your favourite antagonist.

1:00 – 2:00: Horror is Domestic
Sunset Room
I’ll be with Suzanne Church, Sean Moreland, Ryan McFadden and Sandra Kasturi. This is an important concept in horror—horror is some external, corrupting force invading the family unit. Is this essential or is it bullshit? We’ll figure it out.

Upcoming Appearances

Limestone Genre Expo – Guest
May 26 – 27, 2017
Holiday Inn Waterfront
Kingston, ON
Can*Con 2018 – Special Guest
Oct. 12 – 14, 2017
Sheraton Ottawa Hotel
Ottawa, ON

Where Else to Find Me

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