the magic of your voice

This past weekend I attended a benefit concert for an old friend, listening to a band new to me. I commented to my Brenterest friend that the band had talent, “They could make it.”

My friend shrugged. “I don’t know if their sound is unique enough to make it.”

I froze. I’ve never heard anyone talk about writing that way, but the cogs and gears fit together in my mind and something shifted forward. It holds true for writing as much as music, and the words have stayed with me.

We writers start out with scraps of our voice, but it isn’t honed yet. We may not recognize it. This voice is rough, it needs time and craft and patient work, but when we’re new we don’t know that. We read the latest rules, writing fashions which ebb and flow as much as any other fashion, and only see the problems with our work.

Our voice gets quiet in response, hiding shyly behind crossed-out paragraphs and angry red ink.

We keep writing, maybe finding a critique group. If we’re lucky, we’ll find a good one. But most likely, we find a group as inexperienced as us, and those critiques will be based on what the critiquing writers read in the rules last week and are actively working on. Our voice grows quieter still, until it’s washed from our final drafts completely. The story stands, polished and shiny for everyone to see, but it’s lost its uniqueness. It sounds like a story anyone could have told. It doesn’t sell and we grow more discouraged with every rejection.

Neil Gaiman once said, “You’re not selling them the story. You’re selling them the way the story is told.” We’re selling our unique voice, our way of telling. The lucky writer recognizes the problem, and pulls their voice out of the mental drawer where it was stuffed, applies it, and discovers something else has happened in the interim. This voice has picked up a few rules it respected, it got in the practice of our first drafts if nothing else. We grow bolder, protective of our voice.  We learn to tune out the critique partners who will cut our voice. Eventually, to avoid them.

We may still struggle to sell stories, but we’re moving forward. We still need to practice and hone the craft of our particular strangeness. There will be readers who hate this voice. This will hurt. There will be readers who love it. Appreciate them. Our job is to find our voice, learn its strengths and weaknesses, cultivate its evolution, and spend the rest of our writing lives honing its magic.

blank bloom blossom business
Photo by Pixabay on

Submission Sundays: Arsenika

Welcome to this week’s edition of Submission Sundays! Every week I bring you a unique call for submissions to help you find a home for your stories or inspire a new one. Each call will contain a speculative element and will offer payment upon acceptance.

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Eligibility: Original, speculative poetry or flash fiction (less than 1000 words). Writers are welcome to submit 2 pieces of flash or 5 poems at a time.

Head’s up: Arsenika’s website has a fine collection of free-to-read stories available to see the kind of stories the editors prefer (or to read for fun!)

What makes this call stand out: Arsenika’s rates for flash fiction are considered professional rates ($0.06 per word at the maximum word count)

Payment: $60 for flash fiction, $30 for poetry, American dollars.

Submit by: September 15th, 2018, for this particular call. However, as an ongoing journal Arsenika has rolling submission dates. Please check their website to be sure.

Click here to go to the original call for details.

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Writerly links worth reading this week:

Electriclit wrote an excellent summary of the twitter uproar regarding penis-shaped soap that appeared in a book box this week. Warning: this is NSFW industry news. On a marketing note, going viral has only helped this subscription box and its elements.

This powerful piece on the writing mother by Claudia Dey entitled “Mothers as Makers of Death” has me wondering if she’s been inside my head for the past six years.

Submission Sundays: paying homage to the Princess Bride

Welcome to this week’s edition of Submission Sundays! Every week I bring you a unique call for submissions to help you find a home for your stories or inspire a new one. Each call will contain a speculative element and will offer payment upon acceptance.

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Somebody Kill the Prince!

Eligibility: heroic fantasy adventures that pay homage to the themes and humor of William Goldman’s the Princess Bride.

Caveat: you can only submit the first 500 words of your story. They will request the rest based on your opening.

What makes this call stand out: Hello. My name is Jennifer Shelby. You killed my prince. Prepare to read. (pardon my silly play on the Inigo Montoya speech)

Payment: $42 flat rate, currency unknown.

Submit by: submissions close “fall of 2018” when the 10 story quota is filled. Their site further advises that monthly submissions close after they reach 100 submissions, reopening on the first of the next month.

image via google and

Click here to go to the original call for details.

Writerly links worth reading this week:

I came across this handy article explaining the ‘first rights’ we sell to publishers when they agree to print our stories. Excellent for anyone who finds the concept a little fuzzy.

Happy writing, and if you’re submitting this week:

Image via google and

7 steps to structuring a short story

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

I’ve been mining the internet for short story structure. There’s not much out there and I’ve got a few stories that are STUCK. One of them has been stuck for almost two years. I’ve attacked it from every angle. A critique partner I asked for help scratched his head over it. “I think there’s something wrong with it structurally, but I’m not sure where.” This led me to a workshop on structure, which didn’t wind up being much more than the classic pyramid and slope of rising action. I learned a metric tonne about theme, tone, and depth in that class, but it didn’t help me with my stuck story.

More stuck stories have piled up in the meantime. Stories and characters I love but aren’t right. They’re finished in a technical sense but they aren’t complete enough to send out on submission

The print resources I found stuck to the basics of theme, etc. If I Google story structure, I’ll find novel breakdowns of the hero’s journey, three act structure, screenplay beats, etc, but short stories are a different animal. A condensed, fluid animal, like a miniature jellyfish… from space.

Photo by roya ann miller on Unsplash

I got excited when I found an article on beats for story structure (shared last Submissions Sunday), but when I put my stuck stories through it I didn’t get anywhere. The only thing to do was collect the resources available to me, juggle them around, and find a simple method that will work for me.

Before we get into it, here’s a caveat: structure is a tricky beast. If a writer relies on structure too heavily, their stories will end up being formulaic. Author Chuck Wendig has a fine rant on this here. Protect your creativity, and use it, especially in structure. Experiment. Fall on your face. It’s the only way to grow. BUT if you’re just starting out, or your story is stuck, turning to structure for HELP beats writer’s block any day of the week.

Seven steps to structure a short story:

  • Start with memorable imagery. Spear your reader’s imagination. What’s the wildest thing you can think of?
  • Reveal the plot. What is the point of that memorable imagery you opened with? Drag your protagonist along, kicking and screaming. Stories require characters to change, which means the protagonist is going to resist. Use that resistance to build tension.
  • Introduce the antagonist, human or otherwise, cracking their knuckles and making things tough for the protagonist. Use this entry to foreshadow the climax, if you like. Foreshadowing can make the ending more satisfying to your reader.
  • Make something momentous happen which shows the protagonist changing. In a short story, this works well as an extension of the imagery you opened with. 
  • Knock your protagonist on their arse. Make them lose a battle in this story war. Show that your antagonist is capable of defeating your protagonist.
  • Pick them back up. Make the protagonist find a way to defeat the antagonist, or lose with dignity.
  • Show how it ends. Leave the reader satisfied so they’ll come back for more. Live up to your foreshadowing.

Your story may demand you switch things around. The antagonist’s introduction may reveal the plot. Your momentous happening may switch places with knocking your protagonist on their arse. Likewise it might do the knocking. Be fluid, shift things around, go with it. These aren’t meant to be rigid rules.

Stories that arrive in my imagination fully fleshed out are rare and glorious things. Most often I get an image or a scene which makes my heart race and I build a story around it. Those are the ones that risk getting stuck and I’m happy to have a tool to help. Thus far this method has two of my stuck stories flowing again and I’m excited to tweak them for submission.

I hope this helps next time you’re stuck too.

Happy writing!




reading out loud

Last week I headed to Wordspring’s Literary Soiree in Quispamsis. Myself and many other writers were being honored with awards won in the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick’s (WFNB) annual writing competition. My short story Dragon Crossing won first place in the Fog Lit Books for Young People category. All of the winners were invited to read a four minute selection from their winning pieces as they received their award.

That’s what got me. I have always wanted to read my stories to a crowd. Speeches, blah. University presentations? Meh. Stories? Heck yeah!

The WFNB gave me about a month to practice, and I used it. I practiced my selection about four to five times every day, usually in the backyard to wee Nim and the trees, sometimes inside to Kira (our black lab) who would wag her tail in appreciation. I cut parts I stumbled over, clarified speakers, and found my character’s voices.

At one point I realized I could recite the whole piece by heart. So could the maples in the backyard.

Still, I’ve been that person frozen on stage, stumbling over words I’ve lost all control of. It’s an awful place to be. My stories are my friends, we spend long hours together, pushing and prodding each other into our bests, and I wanted to make Dragon Crossing proud.

When the moment arrived, looking up at the crowded room laying out before the podium, my hands trembling, it struck me: these people are all writers too. I plunged in, forced confidence giving way to having fun as the audience laughed in the right places and I got lost in telling this story I love beyond its words.

here’s me mid-reading, photo by the ever-lovely Deborah Carr

I’m pulling a bit of a funny face in this next photo, but I love it because I know exactly which line I’m reading. A character cracks a snarky joke and the audience laughed right on cue, which felt amazing and edged out the worst of my nerves.


thanks again to Deborah Carr for taking this photo

In a blink it was over and someone else stood behind the podium, reading their story and having their moment. I enjoyed listening to them, especially the newbies like me, wondering if they were half as nervous. More experienced writers blew me away and taught me more than a few things to remember for next time. A lady reading her prize poem planted a story seed which bloomed just yesterday.

After the readings a handful of writers took the time to say kind things about my reading and my story, which gave me a thrill and a few quotes to stuff inside my anti-discouragement files for dark days ahead.

I can’t know if my next audience will be as friendly as this one, but I will admit I’m eager to read my stories to a crowd again. It was a wonderful first.

Happy writing!


Tired Tykes is a go!

I’m pleased to announce that Eeny Meeny Miney Mo: Stories for Tired Tykes has reached its crowdfunding goal and will be sent to the printers! The illustrated bedtime story book (for children aged three to nine-years-old) contains twenty-nine stories from all over the world, including my Leif the Story Hunter.

Leif is a small boy who lives in the forest, hunting wild stories with his dad. It’s a fine life, until one day they trap the wrong story and … well. You’ll have to read the book to find out what happens next.

Each story comes with an illustration by artist Jon Stubbington. The book is being published by New Zealand’s Patchwork Raven. The ebooks and print books will be for sale on their website as soon as they are available, or you might still be able to sneak in a pre-order before the crowdfunding is finished later tonight. Here’s a link!

It’s been a wild ride since Leif was accepted over a year ago, and I can’t wait to hold a copy in my hands and read it to my girls.

I’ve never taken part of a crowdfunding venture before. Stressful, exhilarating, and frustrating are how I would describe it. I learned a lot about marketing and I finally learned how to market in a way that I’m comfortable with. That’s saying a lot for someone as introverted as I am! These are good skills I am walking away with. If you’re considering submitting to a crowdfunded anthology, learning those skills is a good reason to go for it.

The truth is, we almost didn’t make it. PledgeMe, the New Zealand-based crowdfunding site used, crashed on the last night of the campaign, with a breathtaking thirteen hundred dollars to go. Pixies may have played a role. I suspect there’s a few pixies in this book. PledgeMe granted us a few extra days to make up for the crucial lost time. Enough time for a superhero/fairy godmother to rush in and pledge over a thousand dollars to make our book happen! Twenty-nine writers, one illustrator, one designer, one editor, and countless children owe our fairy godmother, who goes by the mysterious name of “Ruth Craft,” a big thank you and a huge hug.

Because this is happening, folks. The time has come to get excited.

I’m off this weekend to the Writer’s Federation of New Brunswick’s Wordspring Literary Soiree to accept my award for taking first place in the Fog Lit Books For Young People Prize with my short story Dragon Crossing. I’ll be reading a four minute chunk of my story to the writers present (gulp!). Can’t wait to tell you all about it.

Happy writing!

the short story that could

Once upon a time …

a girl entered her favorite story into a contest. She wished her characters luck and took a deep breath. After all, she’d entered dozens of contests before, why should this one be any different?

But something was different. Maybe there was a splash of magic in the ink she wrote that first draft with. Maybe lightning struck her computer as she typed it up and brought her characters to life. Maybe the memory stick she backed it up with had a trace of fairy dust inside it.

Perhaps the story made its own magic.

All I know for sure is Dragon Crossings won first place in the contest. Wahoo!!!

… and the story lived happily ever after

On a more serious note, after years of entering and not winning, this does feel good. The judge gave me wonderful feedback that went straight into my anti-discouragement file. I have been invited to accept my award and read my story at the Writer’s Federation of New Brunswick’s Wordspring event in a few weeks, which I’m both thrilled and nervous about. I love reading my stories aloud to an audience … they just aren’t usually adults. *deep breath*

This win also means I met my writing goal for 2018: to win an award. And it’s only April! So now I’m on the hunt for a new goal. Any suggestions?

Submission Sundays: the Horror of Pizza

Welcome to this week’s edition of Submission Sundays. Each week, I’ll be bringing you a unique call for submission. Each call will contain a speculative element and will offer payment upon acceptance.

Where ever you are on your writing journey, calls can inspire creativity. Getting used to submissions – and rejections – is important. Every established writer has a stack of rejections behind them. It takes guts and a willingness to fail.

Ready? Here’s this week’s call:

Tales From the Crust: An Anthology of Pizza Horror

Eligibility: horror stories revolving around pizza, 1000 to 5000 words. Multiple and simultaneous submissions allowed, please query reprints first.

Photo from

Caveat: the publishers want this call taken seriously. No humor. Scare them.

What makes this call stand out: How will writers pull the concept of pizza horror from silly to frightening? Is Soylent Green an available topping?Let the imagination games begin!

Payment: $0.03 per word (currency unknown)

Submit by: June 1, 2018

Click here to go to the original call for details.

Happy writing!

Submission Sundays: the Lantern and the Nature of Cities

Welcome to the inaugural post of a new writerly series called Submission Sundays. Each week, I’ll be bringing you a unique call for submission. Each call will contain a speculative element and will offer payment. As I want this to be an inclusive event, if the call is limited to a certain demographic I will offer a second call for submissions without those limitations.

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Where ever you are on your writing journey, calls can inspire creativity. Getting comfortable with submissions – and rejections – is important. Every established writer has a stack of rejections behind them. It takes guts and a willingness to fail.

Ready? Read on …


Engen Books/Kit Sora Flash Fiction Contest

Eligibility: open to unpublished works no greater than 250 words by Canadian writers (not Canadian? Don’t worry, there’s a second call below) in response to this photo by Kit Sora Photography:

photo by Kit Sora Photography

What makes this call stand out: visual photo prompts open up the imagination in new and unexpected ways.

Caveat: entrants are required to share the contest via social media.

Payment: $0.10 per word, Canadian.

Submit by: April 14th, 2018. No time is given, so err on the side of caution and submit early!!

Click here to head over to the original call for complete details and submission guidelines.

Stories of the Nature of Cities 2099 Prize for Urban Flash Fiction

Eligibility: unpublished work of fiction, one entry per writer, to the topic of a green city in 2099, under 1000 words. Unlimited demographic.

What makes this call stand out: speculative fiction has historically influenced our current technologies, which means your green city ideas now may have an effect on cities of the future.

Payment: one gold prize of $3000 (currency unknown), two silver prizes of $1500, and 3 bronze prizes of $500. Plus publication.

Submit by:  April 15th, 2018, 11:59 EDT

Click here to go to the original call for more details and submission guidelines.

Good luck to everyone  submitting stories and happy writing always,                                                                                                                                                                              Jennifer


the anti-discouragement files

I’ve noticed a lot of discouraged writers of late. Is it something in the season? The air? The  non-existent water levels in the moon’s Sea of Tranquility? Maybe it’s a symptom of a craft that calls for constant effort. I’m not immune, though if there’s a vaccine that works against discouragement infections, I’m in (take note, mad scientists), as long as I don’t have to give up those moments of thrilling encouragement.

One writer, in particular, is a fellow whose blog and writing I’ve been following for a few years. J. S. Pailly’s work at Planet Pailly is fascinating: his fiction, his informative science posts, his wicked illustrations, and especially his dedication.  I learn so much, and with so much wonder, that it feels like a clever magic system. But it’s not. It’s actual science *gasp*. Thing is, James has been discouraged of late, and he’s writing about it. He recently posted this stunning graphic which details a journey which all of us find ourselves on at some point. Clicking on these oddly colored lines will take you right there to behold its wonder for yourself.

If James can discouraged, with his amazing blog, loyal band of merry followers, and mind full of wonder, what chance do the rest of us stand??

I’ve started collecting things. Encouraging things. Things I can stuff away in a file and pull them back out when I need them. It isn’t a big file, not yet, but it has begun. James’ illustration is in there, and so are these:

Another writer I admire (enough to take a course from), Richard Thomas, posted this quick, thoughtful note on facebook 2018-03-09 18.17.22.png

It’s good to get a solid dose of perspective now and then.

I have a small review I received once upon a time which delighted me and first inspired my anti-discouragement file. This review showed up in a black time and has gone a long way to helping me pick myself up after I crash hard.


When I read it, I remember “Making a reader feel this way is why I do this. This is mine to keep. I earned it. Now I just have to keep going” … even when I feel like Sisyphus pushing a big story rock up Mount Publication.

Keep track of the good stuff so it’s there when you need it. We all get discouraged, even our heroes. Remember that. Keep writing.

How do you combat discouragement? Are you a mad scientist looking to create a discouragement inoculation and need some volunteers? Comment below and maybe we can help another writer out.