Meet Our New Columnists

January 19, 2011

Please welcome our two new columnists!

Ian Barker

Born in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, Ian grew up in north-east England and gained a business degree from Teesside Polytechnic in the early ’80s. In the ‘real world’ he is editor of a computer magazine and has spent over twenty-five years working in information technology. He currently lives in Bolton, Greater Manchester and doesn’t own a dishwasher. Over the years Ian has produced lots of comic verse, for things like office Christmas cards, most of which is collected on his website.

In the mid ’90s he made regular contributions to Martin Kelner for a late night show on BBC radio in northern England. Moving to the north-west in 1996, he continued to contribute items to Martin’s Manchester based Jazz FM breakfast show; again some of this material is on his website.

His first cash-in-the-bank publishing credit was a Laughter the Best Medicine gag for Reader’s Digest in 1998. Since then he has gone on to write topical comedy sketches for BBC Radio’s The News Huddlines, and has had short stories published both online and in print. In his day job he is editor of PC Utilities magazine and a regular contributor to sister publications. His debut novel Fallen Star was released by Rebel ePublishers in November 2010.

Keith Cronin

Author of the novel ME AGAIN, coming in August 2011 from Five Star/Gale, Keith Cronin is a corporate speechwriter and professional rock drummer who has performed and recorded with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and Pat Travers. Keith’s fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, Amarillo Bay, Zinos, and a University of Phoenix management course. A native of South Florida, Keith spends his free time serenading local ducks and squirrels with his ukulele.



January 10, 2011

It’s a brand new year and a brand new look for The Scruffy Dog Review! Inside, there’s a wonderful interview with the talented and beautiful Melanie Benjamin, author of ALICE I HAVE BEEN which has just recently been released in paperback.

Of course Devon Ellington gives her usual great advice on writing grants in her latest installment of THE LITERARY ATHLETE and Colin Galbraith profiles Robert Louis Stevenson in his latest issue of SCOTLAND’S TREASURE.

On a sad note, Colin Galbraith has decided to leave the magazine but we’re certain you’ll hear more about him in the future. We, here at SDR wish him all the best!

We have two new columnists coming on board for our SPRING 2011 issue. Stay tuned for their bios.

Wish everyone a wonderful and prosperous 2011.

The staff of The Scruffy Dog Review.


Up To My Ears in Revisions

February 18, 2010

I talk in detail on my main blog, Ink in My Coffee, about the detailed revision process on ANGEL HUNT, and the challenges of adapting it from a serial which ran for 18 months, into a novel.

Which means I have nothing exciting to say here.



The Intersection Between Life and Fiction

February 3, 2010

I planned to write a somewhat snarky post about the latest trend working my last nerve. And then I came home from a freelance gig to find my building crawling with cops because a neighbor blew his brains out.

That kind of gets things in perspective.

I did not know this person, except by sight, but still, it’s incredibly sad. Add that to the fact that this is the second death in the same section of the building in six months, and it’s a little disconcerting.

It also provides a wonderful premise for fiction. There are at least a half a dozen fascinating scenarios set on the foundation of two deaths in neighboring apartments within six months. It could be an urban fantasy, a conspiracy theory, a contemporary drama, a mystery, a paranormal. Each of those choices would take the facts and use imagination to lead them in a different direction.

To those outside of writing and acting, that seems cold. But for those of us within this particular work, it’s the norm. Everything we experience, on every level, becomes material. That doesn’t mean we walk up to the grieving family and start telling our tales. But it means that, even with the personal response we have to a situation like this, the dis-ease and the sympathy we feel for the families of those involved, a part of us stands separate, as the observer. It’s integral to the work, and the work is integral to who we are.

That doesn’t mean we stand on the sidelines. If we see an accident, we are just as likely and have just as much responsibility to jump in and take action as anyone else. Chances are, we’re more likely to jump in and take action in a crisis, rather than turn our heads and walk away. We’re hardwired to see experience from the outside, absorb it into ourselves and understand it from the inside. Therefore, if we see someone in trouble, we’re more likely to actively help than many others.

But we’re also storing the experience for later use.

The next question then becomes, such as in the above situation, how much actual, factual information does the writer gather, and when? If I know what ACTUALLY happened in those two deaths, will it help or hurt the fictional scenarios I’m spinning?

When I was a less experienced writer, it hurt. The actual facts intruded on the story. Now, I’m able to separate the strands of fact and fiction with a more dispassionate eye, and I’d rather have the facts for my own personal closure, knowing I can still spin as many different and hopefully interesting stories out of it as I wish.

Sometimes a situation, however upsetting, sparks an idea that must be written down instantly. Other times, it takes years to absorb different elements, let it take shape, and emerge as a piece. Sometimes, it won’t even be recognizable as being connected to the original inspiration. In fact, the more experience you have as a writer, the more willing you are to let your characters and the situation evolve in an organic direction away from the original inspiration. You can always tell the newbies in a writing workshop. They put together a sloppy piece, full of emotion but no structure or foundation, and when you point out the flaws, they say, “But that’s how it happened.” “How it happened” doesn’t make it entertaining drama (or comedy or whatever) and yur job as a fiction writer is to take “what happened” and make it more interesting. Otherwise, you’re a journalist (unless you work for some of these so-called “news” organizations that actually create fiction and pass it off to the ignorant as fact) or a documentarian. And that’s a whole different issue with a different set of challenges. And, inside, the writer always remembers what sparks the creation.

That’s why genuine writers and artists are never bored. Because EVERYTHING is experience, no matter how frightening, irritating, or mundane. And everything can come out in the work, if you know how and are willing to process it.

–Devon Ellington is a full-time writer who publishes under a half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction. Follow the daily ups and downs of her writer’s life on Ink in My Coffee.


Setting Up for a Successful 2010

January 20, 2010

If you have systems in place, your writing life will run more smoothly in the coming year. It means those snatched moments you give to your writing will be given over to writing, not organization.

Take some time to organize your emails, to set up folders in your computer for various projects or publications for whom you regularly work.

Make sure your clip files are up to date, both electronically and on paper, so that when you have to send clips with your pitches or queries, they are ready to go, and you don’t lose hours hunting them down, making copies, scanning, etc. Keep at least 10 hard copies of each article in your file, ready to go; when you get down to 2-3 copies, take a few minutes to make another 10 photocopies. Make sure you’ve got your electronic clips saved in .doc. .rtf, and, best of all .pdf.

Set up Submission Logs, Pitch Logs, and, if you’re submitting novels, a Query Tracker for each novel. Yes, there’s some crossover between these, but it’s well worth it.

Here’s how I set them up. If it works for you, great; if not, keep playing with the format until you find something that does.

Pitch Log:
This document keeps track of all the pitches and queries I send out in a particular year, and the follow-ups.

At the left margin, I have the date.

I tab in a few times, then put in the email address, name of specific individual, name of publication or company. I space once or twice, and write what job/article/assignment I pitched, and if any materials were sent (i.e., resume, clips, etc.)

When I get a response, I note it in the log. If I land the assignment, the finished assignment is then entered in to the Submission Log, which also contains payment information.

Every month, I look over the log to see what needs to be followed up, or if any potential clients who couldn’t use me in my initial pitch, but suggested I keep in touch need a check-in. For instance, in April, I follow up on all unanswered January pitches, in May I follow up on February’s, etc. I note the date of the follow-up and whether or not there was a response.

Craig’s List addresses are usually good for only two weeks, so they aren’t worth following up. And, since I no longer write project-specific samples without payment for them, I don’t have to worry that work will show up somewhere unpaid. If the potential client wants a sample, they can get a clip or they can pay me a specially-negotiated rate for a project-specific sample. Far too many uncouth “clients” try to get writers to write samples for free, then tell the writer he/she wasn’t hired for the job. The initial site disappears, the “client” sets up a new site under a different name and uses content for which he did not pay the writer. A legitimate employer is savvy enough to tell from a previously published clip if you have the style he needs, and ethical enough to negotiate a special sample rate, complete with a separate agreement and a deposit, if he needs you to write a project-specific sample to get the job. Stay away from the others.

Many writers believe it’s best to do all follow up within two weeks. In some cases, that’s true, but for most of the types of work I pitch, it takes the potential client longer to work through the applicants, and the squeakiest wheel is more likely to be dumped than considered. Clients don’t like to be nagged. Especially not early in the courtship process.

The Pitch Log is also useful to keep track of clients who responded that they’d like to work with you maybe/someday. If you keep in touch every three months or so, chances are you’ll get the work. I have about a 25% success rate with maybe-someday follow-up. Not bad, when you consider direct mail response considers 1% return good.

Submission Log:
Here’s where I keep track of actual submissions and contracted work.

These sheets are set up in the Landscape Orientation (feel free to do any of these in Excel or Keynote or any form that works for you).

At the left margin, I have the title of the piece. Under that is the byline (I publish under a half a dozen names). Under that is what type of piece it is, such as “short story”, “article”, etc.

I tab over a few bits and the next few lines contain the editor’s name, the publication name, the address, the email, and how the piece was submitted. Sometimes I note how long an editor sets in guidelines before follow-up. If an editor clearly states in the guidelines that you will hear back in 4 months and you contact said editor in two weeks, you’re headed for the reject pile, because there are several thousand writers just as good as you are who don’t nag and respect the guidelines.

Tab over and insert the date sent.

Tab over for the response.

When I get a response, I put it in. If it’s a rejection, I enter the date and any specifics. If it’s an acceptance, I enter that, contract date, publication date, payment date. Once the piece is paid, I enter the payment. Once it’s published, I confirm that it’s been published.

Again, regularly checking the log lets you know what’s out where and keeps you from making careless mistakes in the submission process. It helps you follow up, it will reveal patterns in publication history, and help you make decisions on future publications to which to submit, or where to stop submitting.

Query Tracker
I think there are sites set up for this, but I keep a separate query tracker for every novel.

It contains the date, the name of the agent or editor, the name of the house, the address, the email address, what was sent (i.e. “query”, “query and first page”, “query and synopsis”, “synopsis and first 3 chapter”).

The response and the date of the response is noted. If additional materials are requested, that is also noted, along with the date the request was fulfilled (in general, fulfill requests for additional materials within 48 hours — writing back and saying you need more time to finish/polish a piece brands you as an amateur and there’s no reason for them to sign you. You should have the entire manuscript ready to go in an instant BEFORE you start the query process, not query as you’re revising. Once you have a solid publication record, there’s more wiggle room, but then you’ve already got the agent in place).

If you get a contract and still have submissions out, the tracker also helps you know who to contact to officially withdraw your work from consideration. Once you sign a contract, you must officially withdraw from all the other places to which you’ve submitted, even if you haven’t heard back and assume they’re not interested. Even if the agent or editor doesn’t have the courtesy to respond to your query in a timely manner (or considers non-response an acceptable form of rejection), it is up to you to maintain high standards of professionalism and courtesy.

Of course, none of these organizational tools are of any use if you don’t use them. If you set them up, but don’t keep the information up-to-date, it’s a waste of time.

And if you don’t sit down and write the best book, story, or article you can write in the first place, there’s no need to set them up in the first place.

–Devon Ellington publishes under a half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction. You can keep up with her exploits on Ink in My Coffee.


Plodding and Spurting

January 6, 2010

Wow, that title sounds like a little too much information, doesn’t it? Especially for the first post of the new year and the new decade.

Don’t worry, I’m not writing about gastrointestinal distress. I’m referring to the way one’s writing often works in waves.

Leading in to the holiday season, I wanted, very badly, to create some holiday-themed stories. I wanted to have one as a small, beautifully printed edition to send to family and friends, and one as a free digital download for the readers.

Should I have started this process, say, last February? Of course. At the very least, I should have concentrated on it in July. But last year was a flurry of writing enough to pay all the bills, and far too many projects fell by the wayside.

I didn’t start work until autumn. I could look back through my diary entries and find out the exact day, but I didn’t.

The plan was for each of the two stories to run about 1500 words. Maybe the one for friends and family would run a bit longer.

The first idea was a quiet, gentle piece set in Victorian times in a snowy city based on Saratoga Springs, NY, at a place inspired by the Adelphi Hotel. I’ve spent time in Saratoga and used it both as itself and as the inspiration for other settings in my work. As I started this story, I was lucky enough to get up to Saratoga for a day during two consecutive weeks, so I could photograph it and reacquaint myself with the areas that were the jumping off point. I collected books on the Victorian era, digging up books from my previous research and adding in some new ones. I wanted it light, sweet, and warm-hearted.

I wrote my faithful 1500 words every morning, first thing.

It grew and grew and darkened and started to hold commentary on the social justice (and lack thereof) of the time.

It’s will be a good story, someday. But it wasn’t going to cut it for this Christmas.

I thought perhaps I’d try something lighter and funnier. And contemporary, so I wouldn’t have to keep stopping to do research. I put aside the Victorian piece and started on something more contemporary, my 1500 words every morning, going back to it here and there and . . .it grew into a relationship piece about parents and children.

That wasn’t going to work, either.

In the meantime, I received two calls for anthology submissions, both of which intrigued me, so I tried to figure out how to fit them in.

We were past Thanksgiving by this time.

I put aside the parent/child relationship piece and started another one, with the intent to keep it light and fast-moving.

It turned into a contemporary adult relationship piece.

I was pretty frustrated by this point. Plenty of writers would say, “Well, just sit down and MAKE it do what you want it to do.” Unfortunately, for me, stories and characters have lives of their own which reveal themselves to me, either in the outline or during the writing process. I had loose ideas of these pieces when I started, rather than outlining. Basically, I blank-paged. Sometimes that works; often, when one is on a tight deadline, it does not.

So, I put that aside, and, either in the shower or driving to the grocery store (where I get the bulk of my ideas), the idea for a light, fantastical, holiday-themed romantic comedy hit me. So I sat down to write “Just Jump in and Fly” (under the Ava Dunne name). It flowed well, and I wrote the first draft in just a few days. It wasn’t 1500 words — it came in just under 10,000 words.

Because of its late start and late finish, I could not put it aside for two weeks (which I like to do for shorter pieces) before editing. I had to jump in and edit right away. I still tried to distance myself from it and edit it as though someone else wrote it. I edited, designed, uploaded, and it was available for free download on Christmas Eve.

Much to my surprise and amusement, it also contained elements of the two anthology stories on which I worked concurrently (one was finished, edited, polished, and submitted; the other could not be completed by deadline and will go to a different market).

That’s cutting it far too close.

But it was the RIGHT story for the parameters, even though it was longer than I initially wanted. And it flowed well. I got it done.

Do I leave those other stories abandoned?

No. Unfinished projects drain creative energy. They choke you and prevent you from moving forward and growing in your work. Somehow, they will be slotted in throughout the year, in and around other scheduled, contracted projects.

In this particular case, I had to temporarily put them aside, not because I was stuck on them, but because they morphed into something that did not fit the needs of the goal.

Sometimes, when you start plodding, it means you’re not being true to the story. Sometimes, it’s the wrong story to be working on at that particular time. Step away, reassess, ask yourself if the piece really doesn’t work, or if you’re just getting in your own way. If you stop every time you run into trouble, you won’t get anything done. You need the plodding times, or else the wildly creative spurts become fewer and farther between until they disappear altogether. Good writing is not necessarily easy, although it also doesn’t have to be painful. It’s about integrity to the work, adherence to the craft, and an eye on the long-term goal for the piece.

There will be time when the work flows. When it does, ride that wave for as long as you can. Let the laundry pile up and leave the vacuuming for another day. Better yet, delegate them both to someone else in the house while you write. When you feel stuck or “written out”, that’s the time to devote to household tasks. I find there’s nothing like working out plot points while cleaning out cupboards or folding laundry to get me through the tough spots and drive me back to the page.

The most important thing is to get to the page, even for a few minutes every day, whether you feel like it or not. You’re exercising your literary muscles. Like any other muscle, they atrophy when not used regularly. If the times between writing periods are too long, it gets harder and harder to get back into the writing. If you spend even a few minutes at the page every day, whether it’s writing in your journal or writing a few paragraphs of a WIP, you keep those creative muscles loose. Soon, it becomes easier and easier for those snatched creative minutes to go directly into your work as soon as you sit down. You’ll find less and less time spent staring at a blank page.

I started a new novella just before the end of the year (on the waxing moon, to give it a boost). It’s flowing. It’s outlined. May I continue at this pace until it’s done.

–Devon Ellington publishes under a half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction. Visit her almost-daily blog Ink in My Coffee to keep up with her projects. Today is the last day you can download “Just Jump in and Fly” under the Ava Dunne name here.


Nano and Real Life

November 18, 2009


I spent the past four years doing Nano, the last three of them as a mentor. Hitting 50K wasn’t a problem in any of those years. Last year, I did Nano although life was a challenge due to an illness and subsequent death in the family. While I am very fond of the piece I worked on, and it will be rewritten enough to start the submission process early next year, I didn’t get out of the experience what I wanted and needed.

This year, I decided to make the sane choice and not to Nano. It was great Personal Drama for me, but I made the decision and stuck to it anyway. I’m juggling numerous deadlines and contracts, and I travelled every week in the entire month. There’s no way I could keep that kind of commitment to myself and my work without a major meltdown. Rather than setting myself up for frustration and failure from the outset, I passed.

The first few days I felt sulky and left out. I mean, thousands of people are writing in community, and here I was on the sidelines. I have very strong opinions about either you do Nano or you don’t. The parameters of Nano are that you start a new project and write 50K of new material for it in 30 days. You don’t use a current WIP and you don’t revise. There’s nothing wrong with writing in tandem with Nano and riding the energy wave of so much focused attention on the page, but unless you honor the premise of it, you’re not doing it. So, even though I wrote A LOT, I wasn’t doing Nano, and I didn’t pretend I was.

The further into the month we got, not only was I writing a lot, but I missed it less. That made me sit down and assess the pros and cons of Nano. Those who love Nano swear by it; those who hate it say you can’t write a real, publishable piece of work in 30 days.

I believe you can learn a lot during the process that, if you are serious about your writing, you can apply to your regular writing life.

–Quantity over Quality. The point of Nano is to spit out 50K of a first draft. You’re not supposed to go back and edit or slow down or anything else. Since each novel has its own innate rhythm, this can sometimes be counterproductive. Some novels just aren’t meant to be written at breakneck pace over a concentrated period of time.

–Creative Vampires. Whether it’s a Mentee who doesn’t respect you enough to keep his/her end of the commitment, or the person on the board whining about how hard it is or making excuses, a large percentage of Nanoers are trying to find shortcuts, easy ways, or suck the energy out of those who are sitting down and doing it.

–You have to be a Time Management Pro. Nano happens in November. That means the holiday season’s already started and will continue into the New Year. Thanksgiving falls in the month, along with pageants, exams, bad weather, and a myriad of other life challenges. If you suck at time management, you have two options: Learn to manage your time better or fail. Yes, life can and will throw some curve balls, and there will be times when a massive life emergency happens and Nano has to go on the backburner. There’s nothing wrong with that. And there’s always next year. But if you don’t learn to make writing a priority for the mere 30 days, you won’t be able to achieve Nano.

–By December 1, You’re so Burned out, the very Thought of Your Manuscript Makes You Want to Puke. Very few novels can be sold at 50K. You have to finish the manuscript. Unfinished manuscripts hang like albatrosses around your neck. They weigh you down and hurt your future work. Even if you decide to put the manuscript in the drawer for years once the draft is done, make sure the draft is DONE. That’s really tough after a month of breakneck writing. You can choose to either continue the pace into December until the manuscript is done (which, with holiday madness, could land you in the rubber room), or you can cut back your daily quota back to what feels like the novel’s natural rhythm. For me, that’s usually 1000-1500 words a day, although sometimes a piece only lets me write 500 words/day on it. Whatever it is, keep going until the draft is done, even if you’re burned out. If you’re serious about being a contracted, paid writer, you will have to write and meet your contract deadlines whether you feel like it or not. This is good training.

–January, the Edit Month, is Too Soon. The biggest mistake aspiring writers make is to finish their novels and immediately go into edits. Unless you’re on a contracted deadline and are behind, put it away for AT LEAST two months. Four to six months is often even better. When you go back to rewrite, revise, and edit, you MUST be able to look at it objectively, as though someone else wrote it. Finish the draft, even if it takes you into the following calendar year. And then put it away for a few months.

–What You Write During Nano Needs More Revision/Rewriting/Editing. This goes back to quantity over quality. Everything I’ve ever done for Nano needed far more drafts than work done outside of the Nano process in order to make it submissible. Again, that’ why time and distance before revision is so important.

–Do NOT Mention It was Written During Nano During the Query Process. That’s a major turn-off to editors and agents. They don’t want something slapped together in 30 days. They wanted a well-crafted book. Once you hit bestseller lists, the demands change, and they want more from you faster, but at the outset, keep your mouth shut. Let the info drop in post-publication interviews.

–More than 50K. I realized that I regularly write more than 50K in any given month, but it’s not all on one project. If I didn’t write a lot and across a wide variety of projects, I couldn’t pay the bills. And no, I do not churn out quick articles for content mills — they can’t afford me. I write quality pieces, but I do write a lot in any given month. Definitely more than 50K. Adding a 50K novel into that sometimes simply doesn’t make sense (like this year).

–Quantity over Quality. Huh? Wasn’t that also one of the Cons? Yup. But this is a first draft, and the point is to get words on paper. If you don’t get them on paper, you don’t have anything to revise. Those who claim they can’t finish anything because they’re perfectionists are lying to us and to themselves. It’s not about perfection, it’s about fear. Nano helps you let go of a lot of fear.

–Learning Your Novel’s Pace. Again, as I stated above, every novel has its own innate rhythm. Some of them aren’t right for Nano. You have to learn to choose a project that has a quick rhythm (which is different from a quickly-paced novel, which sometimes takes longer to write than a slower-paced-to-read novel that can be written more quickly). You learn to suit the project to the parameters, which is useful if you plan to hire out to anthologies or series or package deals or anything else.

–Riding the Energy Wave. Writing in community is often a great spur to creativity. You can tap in to the energy of thousands of other people whose goal is to write. You have built-in brainstorming groups, and you can attend write-ins and meetings if you choose. Just knowing there are a lot of other people out there going through similar experiences is often very helpful in getting you to the page each day.

–No room for Martyrs. No one cares about your excuses for not writing. You either write or you don’t write. The people who are writing are too busy writing to feel sorry for you.

–Learning about Scheduling and Personal Rhythms. Because I always go away for Thanksgiving, I like to front load Nano. If you plan an even writing rhythm every day, you only need to write 1667 words per day, about 7 pages. I commit to writing 2500 words per day, with an eye to hitting the 50K before Thanksgiving, and anything beyond that, is, pardon the pun, gravy. This way, if I have a bad day or something happens, I have words in the bank and don’t need to panic. I also learned that my best and most creative time is early in the morning, after yoga but before doing anything else. That is something I can carry over into my daily writing life, and is one of the ways I’ve applied Nano techniques successfully into my full time writing career. If someone else’s best time is late at night — go for it. There are always a few things you can rearrange in your schedule to leave you an hour or two of writing time when you’re at your best.

-Learning When to Outline and When to Fly. When I’m committed to writing 2500 words first thing every morning, it’s much easier for me to outline. I pull out my outline when I sit at the desk and I know what comes next. I don’t have to stare at a blank page. If, however, during the writing of a scene, I find a tangent, it’s the perfect opportunity to explore it. You’re upping your word count, and, if it doesn’t work, you can cut it later.

–You Learn To Treat Your Writing Time With Respect. You should already be doing this, but far too many people think if they rush around “doing for” others, it will be appreciated and, in return, the aspiring writer will be given the gift of writing time. Not going to happen. You have to set boundaries and make it clear that this is important for you. It’s often easier to do that during Nano because it’s a concentrated period of time and thousands of people around the world are doing it. If you’re with someone who doesn’t support your dreams or sabotages them, you’re with the wrong person, and you better get out now, because that kind of abuse only gets worse over time.

–You Have 50,000 More Words On a Single Project Than You Had a Month Ago. What you do with them is up to you, but you’ve got them!

Go forth and enjoy!

Devon Ellington publishes under a half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction. Keep up with her on the blog Ink in My Coffee.