Category Archives: Process


by Becky Alexander

photo by africa from

photo by africa from

The first thing a reader sees when you have a piece of poetry or prose published is the title. This will instantly soak into the reader’s mind: will it hook, or will it sink?

I’ve always found titles to be a challenge. They either fly right into my mind perfectly, or I cannot think of one easily. This is where one’s critiquing group can be of great help.

What should a title do, other than to hook the reader?

A title should:

  • fit the mood, theme or tone of the written piece;
  • offer some clue as to why it was selected; be a bit of a tease;
  • not give away the entire plot of the piece;
  • not be the first line of the poem (which is a common practice when a writer cannot think of another title: in today’s literary world, this is considered to be a ‘cop out’)
  • be fresh and original; e.g.: not The Oak, but something more creative like Mother.

Rules for Writing Titles

Be careful of capitalization in titles;

It was the custom of old to capiatlize every letter in a title. Now, in this cyber age, using capitals is considered to be ‘shouting’;
the first word in a title should be capitalized;
nouns, verbs, adjectives must be capitalized;
articles are not capitalized, unless they are the first word in the title.

So, put on your thinking cap. Let your titles inspire the reader to read.

Becky Alexander is a Cambridge writer. Her work has been published in five countries, and has won hundreds of awards. She runs Craigleigh Press with her husband Dave Allen.

Is the Pen Mightier?

by Rob Quehl 

A few months ago, I met with some writers at a coffee shop. Most were participating in the National Novel Writing Month competition. Every one of them had their laptop in front of them. They type, type, typed away, before, during, and after the meeting, while my dinosaurian hand grasped a ballpoint.

Keeping notes in the 21st CenturyI own a laptop, and had tried to make the switch several times, hoping to save time by inputting directly into my computer. But for some reason, I always went back to my old way: writing the base story with pen on paper, then typing it in later. I didn’t know why it worked better; I just thought it was because I was a terrible typist. But recently, I found the difference aptly described in Susan Bell’s book: The Artful Edit.

Susan discusses Judith Freeman’s experiment in handwriting her novel Red Water. In the past, typing directly into her computer had made the writing process choppy.

Judith Freeman:

“When writing longhand, the brain and the hand are connected. Once you let an idea unfold, you keep unfolding it. Ink flows, ideas flow with it. When writing longhand, I am not tempted to constantly go back, scroll up, stop and reread. When you type, especially into a computer, you don’t give your imagination the chance to really follow things through.”

Susan Bell expands on the idea:

“Clean and professional looking, the typed page can induce the illusion that the sentences on it are finished and ready to be inspected. It is impossible to make that mistake with a hand scrawled note.”

In the same book, Tracy Kidder discusses this concept with respect to editing:

“One of my gripes about the computer is that it encourages a kind of editing that I don’t think is very useful. That is, you can move stuff around endlessly. I did a little editing for the late lamented New England Monthly. One writer was writing a piece that we really needed and all he kept doing was taking the same bankrupt paragraphs and moving them around.”

Amen! Exactly the same thing happens to me when I attempt to edit “tough spots” in my book. I stare at the screen, cut and paste, move it back again, switch words, but get nowhere until my eyes go buggy staring at letters on the screen. At this point, I’ve learned to turn off the computer, calm down, take a break, then go sit somewhere in a nice coffee shop, with nothing in front of me except a pen and a blank piece of paper. It’s only then that I can start from scratch and write something fresh that can solve the problem I’ve been stuck on. It takes time, but it always works.

So my intention is not to argue that you should come back and join me in the Stone Age, but only to consider handwriting as another option, especially if you reach a tough spot in your work that has you stumped.

Good luck.

Rob Quehl lives in Kitchener and is currently working on two novels


by Lee Anne Johnston

Image by kongsky |

Sometimes I think we writers take ourselves a little too seriously. I am a writer. I have much to say. I have much to say about the sad, inequitable state of the world. I know what I’m talking about, as I write murder mysteries.

While pondering about what to write for this blog, thinking of what might be helpful to other writers, I thought of my favourite moments in the Cambridge Writers Collective. You know what? They are the silly moments.

One writer almost never takes himself seriously, and his work is incredibly intricate and poised. Another acclaimed writer shared a short story last week that had me in stitches. I laughed like a goof. The power of words extends to pure pleasure and this is a good thing.

I’m going to continue writing my stories of death and family dysfunction, but I always keep in mind a lecture I attended by P.D. James, one of the most literate and prolific murder writers of all times. She said that murder mysteries are a modern extension of the medieval mystery plays which were produced and performed entirely by the Catholic Church. At the end of a murder mystery, the crimes have ended, the perpetrator is punished, and harmony in society is restored. Life, and writing can be hopeful and even touched by grace, whatever one perceives that grace to be. For me, it’s a giggle.

Lee Anne Johnston is a devoted member of the CWC and writes historical murder stories as well as varied flash fiction.


by April Bulmer

Are you a poet suffering from writer’s block malaise? Here’s a quick remedy: take five minutes and write down every word that comes to mind. Then link the ideas and images to create meaning. The result can be a quirky and unique piece.

Here’s a poem I wrote using this method:

Eartha: Indian Bands

My spirits come
in good makeup
and little white gloves
for it is the winter
of mine husband.
I wear bust lace,
but outside
the Natives gather
in buck pants.
They have brought
an offering of blood.

It is true I love him
and he has grown
his hair long
through the seasons.
It is the red of autumn
and of snake.

I have smoked
my gown in fire.
My veil I have hung
from a tree.
It bears the breath
of step dance
and Langdon Lake.

I touch his hand
we eat a pretty cake.

All night, the Indians
cry like virgins,
their voices torn like lace.

Previously published in Tower Poetry Winter Edition 2008-2009

April Bulmer has published six books of poetry. The poem above is an excerpt from her new manuscript Women of the Cloth. Her work has appeared in many national and international journals including the Malahat Review, PRISM international, Arc, Harvard University’s Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion and the Globe and Mail. She recently placed second in the Trinity College Alumni Fiction Contest and was a judge for the Hamilton Literary Awards.

Learning to Accept Criticism

by Becky Alexander

I joined the Cambridge Writers Collective in 1993, about a year and a half after it had been founded. I credit this group for inspiring me to write, and for continually helping me to improve my writing skills, through the helpful critiquing offered at our meetings.

Writers join writers’ groups for several reasons: e.g.: to be with like-minded artistic individuals, to feel connected to a greater whole, to be inspired to write, and to learn and improve.

In order to improve and grow, a writer must open her/himself up to criticism. Before this happens, the writer needs to ask a few honest questions: do I want to improve, or do I want to feed my ego? Am I ready to feel the swings and clouts of criticism? We have all met writers who simply want to show off, who want only kudos as to how wonderful their writing appears. These are people who will probably never improve (as they already believe they know everything) but move merrily along ‘doing it their way’, leaving a trail of cliches, and adjectives and adverbs behind them. Yet every writer has the potential to write something wonderful, if they allow themselves to be open to sincere suggestions for improvement.

When work is presented for critiquing, suggestions are offered in a group setting, and this can lead to productive discussion and input, which can be most helpful to the writer whose work is being analyzed. Yet unfortunately, there are writers whose egos are so fragile, and whose heads are so big, that they choose only to pick away and dismiss the work of others. (These are often the people who will loudly announce, to the whole critiquing group, any spelling or grammar errors they spot in your work, instead of graciously and privately recording those on your hard copy for your personal perusal and correction later on.) I have even witnessed writers in other writing groups actually sneering and making rude faces while some poor soul is presenting work. This is most unseemly, and offers nothing constructive to the writer. And such negative actions can result in a writer giving up writing altogether.

Conversely, I have also witnessed other group members, who immediately ‘jump in’, before a pause has been held after the writer has presented, with gushing comments about how wonderful the piece is. Fodder for the ego, or what? And this makes for a tenuous situation for any other writer who may feel that a suggestion or two for improvement is in order!

Many writers’ groups have rules such as ‘no comment on content’ which is fair enough. If I don’t like the genre, language, topic, or tone of a piece, I am not obliged to make a critique: I can merely take a quiet pass. There are writers who write simply to shock others: another egotistical way of saying, “Look at me!” But there should be no criticism on the content of a piece. Some writers feel this includes comments on why or what inspired the writer to produce such a piece in the first place. I have no personal problem explaining why or what prompted me to write something, but others carry this ‘no comment on content’ rule to personal reasons for why and what they have written, so be aware of that.

It is always up to the writer to mull over suggestions and to choose and reject these as s/he sees fit. It is important not to take critiquing comments personally as much as possible, and this can be tricky, especially if you think someone in a group may have some animosity toward you. The best way to deal with this type of person, I have found, is to ignore their obvious actions at a group critique session, and then to bring it up with that person privately.

We writers must have thick skins: not everyone who reads our work will appreciate it, but it is hoped that only honest and constructive criticisms should be offered. And a good rule of thumb, when one enters a critiquing session: check your ego at the door.

Becky Alexander is a Cambridge writer, born and raised in Hespeler. She has been writing for more than two decades, and her work has been published in over 200 periodicals and anthologies, and has won over 100 awards. She runs the micro-publishing company Craigleigh Press with her husband Dave Allen.

Breaking Through That Dreaded BLOCK

Image: Idea go /

Since no one person has all the answers, we’ve starting gathering around-the-table tips from members on subjects that affect us all. What follows is some of what came out of our discussion on writer’s block.

Lee Anne Johnston:
I journal every day. In my formal writing, I write in the first person so the characters seem to develop themselves and tell their own story. I also am a very slow writer. I write historical mysteries and I just love learning the gritty details about the past that will make my story come to life.

Barb Day:
There you are writing away, the words flowing from you, gushing out, you can’t get your thoughts down on paper fast enough. Your mind is working faster than your pen. And then it happens – you hit a brick wall, your mind closes (more like slams shut.) Your pen comes to a screeching halt. For me- it’s always two reasons – I’m tired of sitting in the same spot for hours or I’m not knowledgeable about the topic I’m writing about. I get up, get a coffee, take a break and come back refreshed and ready to do research. The joys of Google and from the research, ideas pop into my head like crazy just from reading what someone else has written even though it’s dry, boring facts. And then I’m back at it – full speed ahead, refreshed and armed with new knowledge.

Barbara Lefcourt:
The key for me when I want very much to write but cannot get thoughts to flow IS TO NOT SIT AT MY DESK. Rather, I turn my attention to some of the mindless household chores that always get delayed being done: dusting, vacuuming, cleaning floors, hand laundry, etc. etc. etc. It also sometimes help to put favourite instrumental music ( no vocals) on my stereo. That often sets the stage for the magical flow of poetic expression. And it’s good to have paper and pencil handy around the house so I can easily pause to jot down ideas, expressions, particular words that must be captured before they fly from my head.

Marcie Schwindt:

  • I try to write something everyday to keep the muse happy and coming back.
  • I read from something published every day. There’s always something to be learned from someone else’s successes.
  • I critique at least one unpublished work every week. Figuring out on my own what does and doesn’t work for me, and why, is more helpful to me than anything I’ve learned second-hand (through a course, instructional book, etc.).
  • I plot out my stories, then don’t write them sequentially. If I’m blocked on something, I write around it. Once I have the thing surrounded, it usually surrenders.
  • I stop writing mid-sentence or mid-scene. That way I don’t really have to face a blank page the next day. I already know how that sentence or scene should end.

Diane Attwell Palfrey:

  • I get a lot of inspiration from news stories or articles I read via different search engines. I like to research a topic and then write about it. So when the idea train has left the tracks – I head for the PC. I like to write about people and relationships, the human condition etc. News is full of items that can be turned into poetry.
  • I also get ideas from Facebook. I’ll read my homepage and that will inspire me. Sometimes I can’t quite believe the kind of things that people blog on a public forum. But then I think – well – it’s giving me a subject to write about.
  • Sometimes I ply myself with chocolate and listen to music. It soothes and helps the ideas flow.
  • Most of my writing is done after midnight. That’s when the house is quiet, the phone has stopped ringing and there are no more e-mails to deal with.
  • I’m not above asking others for ideas. I’ll often ask someone to give me an idea. I’ll just say, “hey, I need to write a poem – do you have an idea for me – tell me a story and I’ll turn it into a poem for you”. My mother is a great source for that.

Have you ever suffered from Writer’s Block? How did you overcome it?

Writing an Historical Memoir

by Becky Alexander

Image: Simon Howden /

Over the course of the last five years or so, I have written a number of vignettes about my years growing up in Hespeler, Ontario. These were based on childhood memories of people, places, and events that I wished to share. In seeking out some of these pieces a year or so ago, to submit to a contest, it occurred to me that there was good value in sharing those memories, and in writing more of them.

Small towns across Ontario are disappearing, as they are incorporated into larger demographic clusters, and even the names of these places are disappearing. Such it was for the active town of Hespeler, in 1973, when it became part of the new city called Cambridge.

As I started to write about family and historical events during the halcyon Hespeler days of the ‘50s and ‘60s, more and more memories poured in. This is true of writing: once you write and write, the floodgates open.

It soon became obvious to me that my small stories formed a larger picture of how it was to grow up in a small town, where nearly everyone knew everyone else. I began to research dates, events and timelines, and my collection started to meld into an historical memoir.

As my fingers typed and typed, many thoughts occurred: what do I leave in and what do I leave out? If I recount a tale of one of my relatives, will they be insulted? Will this eventual book cause more trouble than it’s worth? Many mental struggles occurred along the way, and these are the resulting resolutions:

If you choose to write a memoir, tell the truth as you know it. But as Dickinson so aptly writes in one of her poems: Tell the truth, but tell it slant. Each chapter I wrote was based on my personal memory. I soon realized that these memories were not going to be the same for my relatives, friends, and former neighbours. As my best and oldest friend so wisely told me when we were discussing this project, “This is your story, based on your memories, so tell it as you like.”

When a chapter showcased the life of a specific person, I invited that person to read what I had written about them, or, in the case of a deceased person, I asked a surviving relative to read those related parts. Not one of those people was offended by anything I’d written, and many times I was offered further memories and facts about the people of whom I wrote.

Organizing a necessary timeline of events is crucial to the book, and difficult to attain. I was trained as a literary researcher, and those skills helped greatly. With the internet today, we have historic details and facts at our fingertips, but that is not enough. I learned the most about the people and places of whom I was writing by talking to people who knew and remembered them. When I absolutely could not find any printed or recounted facts, dates, or details about a certain story, I went with my best memory: and I said so.

I believe a memoir should present a balance of the good and the bad. We’ve all read memoirs that were nothing more than a series of ‘Poor Me’ complaints. And we’ve probably read ones written through the mystic eye of perfection. Life is not like that: good things happen, terrible things happen, and funny things happen: it is the writer’s job to pick and choose for balance.

Becky Alexander was born and raised in Hespeler, and now lives in the Preston area of Cambridge. She is a poet and prose writer, and runs Craigleigh Press, a micro-publishing company with her husband Dave Allen. Her historical memoir Growing Up (in) Hespeler is planned for a spring 2012 release.

Poetry in Politics

by Elizabeth McCallister

When I read Marcie’s e-mail that it was my turn to write for the blog, I wasn’t sure what I would write about. I’ve spent the last month or so filling my time with spreadsheets of the financial kind. While I like to think poetry might exist between the lines of numbers, it isn’t a very good thing to suggest at year end when you’re the bookkeeper. It might lead people to wonder what is missing. Besides I can’t quite find the poetry in math.

However, the other night I was at a local coffee shop discussing the possibility of doing poetry readings at a local art gallery. One of my points was that this could be a way of reaching the people who think that poetry matters. Yet, I believe that poetry and literature should reach the masses – you know those people whose only contact with poetry came in school and haven’t thought about it much since then. There are so many exciting things happening in the world of poetry since the canon that most of us read in high school. I like to remind myself of how important poetry and literature can be to people when I remember that the old English poets and their sagas were the way that people way back when got their news. Imagine sitting round a campfire in a village listening to a musical version of the Greek debt crisis. That might make it more palatable or easy to hear.

Some of the news this week hasn’t been good. There was an article in the paper about a bookseller wanting to charge writers to appear in their stores to launch their new works. I’m familiar with the bookstore. It had been a great place to get local writers’ works and participate in the literary scene.

That might make it seem as if even the literary news is bad along with the rest of it. However, one exciting thing has happened. A poet was elected as the new President of Ireland. Michael D. Higgins is a poet and peace activist who received over a million votes to win the election. I wasn’t familiar with his work so I Googled him. Here is a link to one of his poems, “When Will My Time Come”: I found it quite good, and it’s not about winning the election.

It does bring me back, in rather roundabout way, to my original point. I heard Robert Kroetsch say in a talk that writers are sometimes seen as mad because we are the ones who dare to speak the truth to power. When some people are under the impression that writers are part of the literary elite, it is up to us to remind them what does matter in life. Most of us in the CWC lead ordinary lives (except for our writing) just like our neighbours. Yet we see the world and its patterns in a different way. In times of upheaval, we should get ourselves out there to remind people of what matters and how art is a comfort, not a luxury.

Image: renjith krishnan /

Elizabeth McCallister grew up in Scarborough now resides in Brantford. She is currently a member of the Cambridge Writers Collective, enjoys poetry readings and has been a winner in Cambridge Libraries’ Poem A Day contest.

Plain and Simple Writing Tips

by Becky Alexander

Image: Salvatore Vuono /

  1. Write every day, even if that just means revamping old work, organizing files, or sifting through notes and old journals for inspiration. Daily writing will become natural, and the rest of life will flow around your writing time.
  2. Read. Reading keeps the mind sharp, as it is an ‘active’ process, as opposed to a passive one. The more one reads, the more the words flow in.
  3. Rely on a few good writer friends to critique your work. The smaller the group, the more you will be able to help each other. With the email access that we have today, this process is apt and effective.
  4. We’ve all read that it is a good idea to let a piece ‘cool’ before presenting it for a critique. Sometimes this is a good idea. Sometimes it is not. If you suddenly have something spill out onto a page as perfect as you can imagine it to be, there may be no need for a ‘cooling off’ period. I send such pieces out to my critiquing circle in short order, so no spontaneity is lost. When I have some doubts about parts in a piece, that is the one I set aside, let cool, and possibly rework before presenting for critique. The point is that you can tinker a piece to death, and it could end up being less than it was at the first draft.
  5. Look for inspiration everywhere you go: keep the blinds open, literally and figuratively. Sit at the back of church, funerals, literary readings, etc. so there is a full and open view of the ‘field’ Keep pens and paper in every room. Some day (when I remember!) I plan to buy a small recorder to keep in the car. Ideas come when least expected, and a writer needs every chance to catch those ideas before they fade away. As Dickinson so aptly put it: true poems flee.
  6. When I have a good idea, I stick with it.
  7. I write poems out the minute they ‘hit’. With stories, I like to carry them around in my head for a few days or weeks, thinking of various options, characters, problems, resolutions. I usually don’t start to write a story until it is blocked out in my head. (A creative writing teacher taught me this years ago. It took me further years to actually be able to do it.)
  8. When the story is ready in my head, I write it out to the end. If I’m not sure about some of the middle parts, I scratch down a few idea lines (e.g. the main characters have a fight; about what? Figure it out later.) Once I have the beginning, and the ending, I go back and flesh it all out. Some writers need to write out a story plan. This has never worked for me. Each scribe must find the best way.
  9. Attend writing retreats, and not just with the same group, same place, every year. Some of the best retreats I attended were with one or another of my Kentucky writing groups, each held in a different location. And once a year, if possible, go somewhere completely alone, and do nothing but eat, sleep, read, walk and focus on writing. This is how books can be born.
  10. Get your work ‘out there’. If nothing else, this is how we know that we’re writers. There are hundreds of good markets and contests for people who are neither virgins nor masters of the art. As serious writers, it is our job to seek these out. When something gets rejected, send it right back out elsewhere. Never let a rude or nasty rejection letter stop you in your tracks. As another old wise teaching instructor once taught me: one of your shots will hit them! And as far as rejection goes, remember the ‘Rule Of Twelve: some other wise old writer once scientifically determined that on average, a submitted piece gets rejected 12 times before being published. I aim to wait for that twelfth rejection before revamping a piece.

Becky Alexander is a Cambridge writer. Her work has been published in five countries, and has won hundreds of awards. She runs Craigleigh Press with her husband Dave Allen.

It’s All About the Art!

by Diane Attwell Palfrey

Image: africa /

A couple of years ago, I was approached by an Oakville artist who wanted me to write her “artist statement”. Most of my recent work was dabbling in poetry and I wasn’t sure I was up for the challenge. The right message was so important to the artist and after some consideration, I agreed to write the text for a specific piece of art that was featured in the exhibition.

I spent a few hours researching “the artist statement”. Ideas on how to write an artist statement are as diverse as writing bios. Everyone has an opinion of content, length and what is considered appropriate. But after several e-mail messages, a few phone calls, several pictures of the work in progress and the finished piece – I was able to construct the first draft.

This artist is known for her work with the model – sculpting and painting the nude. Her work is organic, raw and primal. It was paramount that the statement conveyed her truths, but that the piece be open to interpretation by the viewer. I also had to ensure that I wasn’t putting my spin into the verbiage. I kept reminding myself that my ideas about the huge canvas covered with entwined bodies – were merely my ideas and I didn’t want my thoughts to impact the reader. It was a difficult task with such a beautifully haunting piece of work. During our conversations, I found that the artist’s beliefs and visions for her work are very similar to my ideas about poetry. I like my work to convey who I am, but at the same time I like some ambiguity so the reader can walk away with their own viewpoint.

The final statement was several paragraphs and captured the essence of the
artist and her work – with just enough evasiveness to leave the audience
creating their own opinions. I feel about art the way I feel about poetry. And the late Gilda Radnor summoned it up beautifully in her quote “I always wanted a happy ending… Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity.”

Note* As payment for my services, the artist let me select a piece of work from one of her collections. It is now proudly displayed in my home. As writers, we have numerous opportunities to use our craft. Sometimes all we need to do is just meander outside of the box.

Diane was born in Toronto and has lived in Cambridge for the past twenty-two
years. She is a poet and prose writer. Diane is a member of the Cambridge
Writers Collective and has poetry published by the Waterloo-Wellington CAA,
Serengeti Press, Craigleigh Press, Hammered Out, The Ontario Poetry Society,
Cruickston Charitable Research Reserve/RARE, & Ascent Aspirations Magazine. Diane is also the first place winner of the Cambridge Arts Festival Poetry Contest for 2009 and 2010.