Predicting the future with any accuracy is hard. Predicting the future of the written word…I hardly want to venture a guess. Maybe that’s because it’s too close to my heart.

I attended a conference of the Canadian Authors Association this past weekend. It was richly enjoyable and inspiring, as always. You’d expect writers to attend conferences to learn how to perfect our craft, and that’s certainly true. Yet these days there are just as many presentations about how to get published, how to get an agent, and how to market our books. In other words, the business side of writing. We’re writers—business stuff isn’t our strong suit. But if our writing can’t support us financially, we have to find other employment and either give up writing entirely, or only bring out a new book every five or ten years while we earn a living some other way. Combine a full-time job plus all of the business aspects of writing these days, and we’re lucky to get a book out to an audience of readers at all.

The advent of ebooks has turned the publishing industry on its ear, and it’s also messing up the money thing. An ebook doesn’t require cutting down trees, slapping on ink and glue, and trucking the end result to the corners of the continent, so obviously an ebook shouldn’t cost anything close to the price of a printed one. Right? Well, those thousands of words take just as many months or years to cobble together whether they get to the reader in the form of symbols on a page or pixels on a screen. The same goes for any editorial work required, cover art, or marketing to let potential fans know the book exists. But the more people get used to paying $2.99 for an ebook, the less money will enter the system to pay for all of those things. At the same time, publishers are becoming less and less willing to risk their money on any but their stable of bestselling authors, a state of affairs that unavoidably takes its toll on variety and originality.

Whether you read from a page or a screen, there are some truths about the written word that seem self-evident to me:

  • When writers can turn their full attention to writing they can produce better books and more of them.
  • The more writing a writer does, the better they get.
  • The way to get more of the books we most enjoy is to enable writers to devote more of their time to what they do best.

What can you do as a reader? Be willing to pay a reasonable price for something that brings you hours of enjoyment, and maybe even some real insight that can last you a lifetime. Rely on your taste for good writing instead of your taste for a bargain. Support the writers you like by buying their books.

I don’t know if, a hundred years from now, we’ll be reading from screens, or holographic letters in the air, or flashes of light on the insides of our eyelids. I do know that if we don’t support the best of our storytellers, the physical format of the stories won’t much matter.


Just spending time with other authors you can learn a lot, especially the ways other writers do things (which will almost always give you ideas about your own work). But here are a few more tips I picked up from the scheduled presentations at this year’s Canadian Authors Association conference.

These days, you need to develop an online presence in every way you can, but before you do, make sure you understand your personal brand: who you are, what you do, and what makes you unique. Then stamp that brand everywhere you can on the web. (Thanks to Dawn Boshcoff.)

Read and follow a publisher’s submission guidelines to the letter, every time. Otherwise you’re asking to be rejected—they’re too busy to bend their own rules. Along with your publishing credits, publishers do want to know that you belong to professional organizations (like the C.A.A.) and smaller writing circles—it shows you work at your craft and take it seriously. (Thanks to Anne Judd.)

When trying to create fresh, original, and authentic dialogue don’t use filler words like well, oh, like, or you know. But maybe do try the “Law & Order” dialogue style: when the L & O cops are interviewing witnesses, the witnesses carry on with what they’re doing, sometimes even with other conversations. That’s realistic and automatically prevents long speeches. Just don’t overdo it. (Thanks to Matt Bin.)

You don’t have to sell your poetry for $10 a crack, or even give it away. With some creative thought, you can find nearly endless ways to market it in the form of everything from bookmarks to fridge magnets to framed decorative photos. (Thanks to Jean Kay.)

When doing a public reading of your work, or giving a presentation, relaxation and vocal exercises beforehand can make a world of difference. And don’t be concerned about a case of the “butterflies”—they don’t represent stage fright, but excitement, and that adrenaline can be channeled to make for a vibrant and compelling performance. (Thanks to Ben Nuttall-Smith.)

And last of all (for now) every serious writer acknowledges that, above all, you need to put your butt in the chair and keep it there. Eliminate all distractions and do the work. That’s the way, the only way, to succeed in this crazy business.


In my last post I talked about writers conferences being valuable for what you can learn, so I thought I’d pass along a small (and pretty random) sampling of some of the tips I picked up at the recent annual conference of the Canadian Authors Association.

More than one presenter pointed out that writers need to read and write. This seems like the most obvious and unnecessary advice, but so many writers still don’t get it. If you aren’t reading everything you can get your hands on in your chosen genre, you can’t know what’s already been done (so you don’t repeat it and come a poor second), nor what publishers are looking for. You need to read good writing and bad writing—often you can learn more from the bad, because it’s too hard to see the method behind good writing. It looks like magic. And you can’t get away with only writing when the muse inspires you. Writing is a craft—you have to write every day to keep your skills sharp, in the same way that professional musicians and athletes need to practice every day. When they don’t, their performance suffers. Why would writing be any different?

Especially with a novel, the more thoroughly you outline the plot and characters, the easier the writing process will be. Barbara Kyle spends six months outlining her novels! The benefit is that the actual writing might only take her four months. And since she plans every major scene, she can not only see if a change in the order of the scenes would improve the story, but also make those changes much more easily than can be done with a written manuscript. There are lots of other benefits, too.

If inspiration is a problem, try doing completely new things that are out of your comfort zone, like studying an exotic language, or learning ballroom dancing. Our brains make connections in strange ways sometimes.

To clarify your writing (and other) goals, try writing your own obituary, and then work backward from there to make it come true. Only make sure that it’s true to your own life and circumstances—write your obituary, not Stephen King’s. (Both of the above tips thanks to Lynne M. Smelser.)

To keep this in digestible portion size, I’ll save some tasty morsels of advice for next time.


Lots of writers are members of writing groups or larger organizations. Based on my own experience, relatively few attend annual conferences, retreats, and extended workshops. After all, once you factor in the registration fees, accommodation, food, and travel costs, they can be expensive. And they may require you to take time off from your ‘day job’. All good excuses to beg off and stay at home. So why should you go to a writers conference?

This past weekend, I took in the Canadian Authors Association’s annual CanWrite conference in Grand Bend, Ontario. Although I wasn’t there for the full retreat (a new element this year), the participants benefitted from the wisdom of award-winning short-story writer Sandi Plewis and highly-successful novelist Barbara Kyle in half-day workshops, plus shorter seminars from the likes of New Media specialist Dawn Boshcoff, writer/trainer Lynne M. Smelser, and freelance editor Jodie Renner. They heard the perspective of small press publisher Anne Judd, and independent bookstore owner Mary Brown. They picked up tips from fellow CAA members like Ben Nuttall-Smith, Jean Kay, Robert W. Mackay, Bernice Lever, Anthony Dalton, and Matthew Bin. And that’s just the organized presentations. So obviously one reason to attend conferences is the number and variety of educational opportunities they offer. Every writer wants to improve their craft. I don’t plan to stop learning until the day I die (in fact, hopefully the next level of existence will be really interesting, too!)

But equally important and valuable is the companionship conferences offer. I think every writer needs to regularly spend time surrounded by other writers, if only to keep our sanity. No-one else has a clue about the writing experience: the heartaches and the joys, the madness and the inspiration. Not friends; not family. Only other writers can really give you the encouragement and support you need to continue in such a daunting path—and it’s just plain enjoyable to be around them.

A third reason is to support organizations (like the CAA) that support you and your career, with information and a broad range of services. They also give a strong voice to the writing community, something that certainly becomes important when big issues come up (like the Copyright Bill C-32).

Let’s not forget that most writers have other jobs and hectic lives, and a retreat or conference can kick-start your creative juices again—think of it as life-giving medicine for your career, ignored at your peril. But a getaway like that can also be a reward, and you deserve it. Writing is a lonely and difficult pursuit. In the case of this weekend’s conference, Grand Bend is a beautiful spot, and the people at the Pine Dale Motor Inn were terrific hosts, highly recommended.

Start out small, if you have to—find a conference or retreat or multi-day workshop close to home and try it out. Your career will thank you. You might even be able to say goodbye to your shrink.