Sunday, August 28, 2016


I'm a writer who is very project-oriented. I work flat out on one project until it's finished, then I take a break. Yes, it's tiring and my brain feels worn out today.

Some writers work and take a break every couple of hours or once a week. I cannot be as productive that way — we're all different.

I expected to take most of August off and then got snowed by clients who'd finished their projects and needed guidance on their next steps towards publication. But I'm nearly done and I'm heading to Ottawa for a family visit soon.

This post is my way of letting my blog readers know that there won't be any more posts here until late September 2016. Then I'll be back....

Sunday, August 21, 2016

TRANSLITERATION: How to Use It as a Writer

I have been writing travel stories for about a decade now and often spatter a few words of the language of the country to add colour and enhance the sense of place in my articles. This habit has its good side and downsides, and makes me glad I have a good professional editor.
Translation is different from transliteration. 

Translation expresses the sense of the word and is used verbally as well as in text, e.g. when whole articles and books are converted into another language.

Transliteration, in contrast, is representations of written words in a language other than the main language of a book or article. Easier to do if both languages use the Latin alphabet like this post does. More difficult if you're using a word from, say, Arabic or Russian whose alphabet is totally different and you are endeavouring to put it into the Latin alphabet phonetically.

Many years ago, I discovered there are rules for writers when inserting a few foreign words into their writing for publication.  The Chicago Manual of Style is the ultimate guide for transliteration assistance in sections 11.91 to 11.95 for Latin and non-Latin alphabets.
The rules when languages use the Latin alphabet include:
  • The foreign word (other than proper names) is italicized in an English language work if it has not become part of the English language, either for the first use only or all the time – it depends on your publisher's guidelines. 
  • A foreign word that has been absorbed into English is not italicized. You'd be surprised how many have made the transition, so I always check the Oxford or Webster dictionaries to see if the word is listed.  

I visit France often and regularly face this issue when writing about my travels there. The French word for castle is 
ch√Ęteau, but it is now considered an English word too, has lost the circumflex, and would not be italicized. Merci is not in the Oxford Canadian Dictionary. Metro is anglicized. Aurevoir is not.

For example: "Aurevoir," Heloise said, smiling. "The chateau is at the top of the hill in Saumur." (Note the two proper names that are French, but the font is normal.)

If I'm in doubt, I consult an expert. Always! Foreign languages also have different capitalization rules from English for proper names and hyphenation, e.g. rue de Grenelle; St-Malo (note: in English, St. Albans has no hyphen but a period). 

So writers need to employ extreme attention to detail when using transliteration.

© Julie H. Ferguson

Sunday, August 14, 2016

WRITERS: The Difference between Style and Voice

Once more I turn to the wisdom of Joyce Gram, writer and editor. Style and voice are essential to creative writing, but elusive at the outset of a career. Again Joyce helps us out:

Elizabeth Lyon begins Manuscript Makeover, her masterful tome on fiction writing, with one of the most difficult distinctions in the art of writing, that between style and voice. She imagines a panel discussion among literary agents and editors at a writers’ conference on what they most look for in a novel submitted by an unpublished writer. Original style, answers one, distinctive voice, and then story. Fresh, original style, says another, individuality of the author’s voice. The puzzled Everywriter in the front row courageously asks what is meant by “voice” and how that differs from “style,” to which one of the panellists responds, “It’s difficult to put in words, but we know it when we see it.”1

Not all attempts at definition are so unhelpful, and once you see—really see—the difference, I think you will begin to relax and not try so hard to cultivate your voice.

The best definition I have heard comes from my own writing teacher, Eileen Kernaghan, who says, “Style involves the structure and rhythm of the sentences, choice of words, use of metaphors and images. Voice is the disguise you wear when you write. It’s more than style or point of view or word choice, though it incorporates all those things.”

All fiction writers strive for a strong, distinctive, authoritative writing voice, one that will lift their words out of the fast-food category and into collective memory, like “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago…” But, as Browne and King say in Self-editing for Fiction Writers, this is “something no editor or teacher can impart. There are, after all, no rules for writing like yourself. Voice is, however, something you can bring out in yourself. The trick is to not concentrate on it.”2 The best exercise in developing your voice, they say, is to work on your manuscript.

To which I say simply: read and write, and write, and write.

© Joyce Gram

Julie speaking again: Voice may not always be the writer narrating. It can be someone else who is not your gender, personality, or nationality. In that instance, you have to know the character in depth and imagine them telling the story to someone else. For example, you may write for twelve-year-olds and your voice may be the main character who is a boy or girl of thirteen from Scotland. Not easy but doable with lots of practice, expert guidance, and sound feedback.

1 Elizabeth Lyon. Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore. 2008.

2 Renni Browne and Dave King. 
Self-editing for Fiction Writers. 2nd ed. 2004.

Also recommended: Constance Hale. Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose. 2001

Sunday, August 07, 2016


Left-brain types outline articles and books routinely even compulsively, right-brainers often don’t or, at least, not as much. The latter individuals are known as pantsers – they fly by the seat of their pants.

Outlines should never be confused with synopses, they serve a different purpose. Outlines are prepared before a book or article is begun as a guideline and to ensure the writer doesn't forget anything important.
I’ve heard writing instructors teach that an outline is essential and I’ve heard several bestselling authors say they’ve never outlined a book in their lives. My two favourite editors, who have seen it all before, predict a scattered and rambling manuscript without an outline. So what is a writer to do? Probably, what works best for you, which is not very helpful advice.

I'm more left-brained than right so I have always found it easy to outline nonfiction books and articles and in doing so it clarifies my perspective and sharpens the focus. But it was challenging to outline my first novel. I knew my starting point and theme, but not much more. I decided to proceed anyway and the story began to flow. At that point I was able to create a rough outline – turning points, throughlines, rising conflict, resolution, etc. I was more right-brained than I knew. (Bear in mind that your outline should be flexible and not cast in stone.) But I couldn't manage to break it down further into scenes. From that crucial insight, I finally appreciated the novelists' dilemma and struggle. 

Fiction outlines prevent sagging middles, unnecessary scenes, poor chronology, and slippage of tension. If you like to write to a goal of 1000 words a day, your pace may outstrip your plotting (mine did) and this, too, is a strong indication for an outline. Outlines can also keep writer’s block at bay, which is a comforting thought, and can also guide the composition of sizzling long and short synopses.

There are as many ways to tackle an outline as there are writers, and methods can be simple or complex. Books on the craft of writing shed light on techniques to solve the outlining predicament. I recommend two by Elizabeth Lyon (A Writer’s Guide to Nonfiction and A Writer’s Guide to Fiction), which have valuable guidance on organizing your work-in-progress.

Good luck and know that the first outline of your life is the most challenging!

Here are two websites to assist you:

© Julie H. Ferguson 2016

Sunday, July 31, 2016


Many aspiring authors, especially young ones, operate under the misconception that book ideas have to be big ones; that they must span the whole plot and sub-plots if fiction, and the whole subject if nonfiction.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Often big books and articles grow from miniscule ideas that pique the interest and imagination of a writer who is attuned to the unusual.

Here are some examples that have recently become the foundation for novels-in-progress:
  • Young teens spent several years at sea in sailing ships with their fathers, the captains, in the 1800s
  • Crows can fly upside down and learn to talk
  • Time is a river.

And for non-fiction books or articles:
  • The Olympic flame (it's not what you'd expect)
  • Clouds rain liquid methane on Saturn
  • Knitting was in the elementary curriculum for boys in the Shetland Isles.

These flashes of inspiration can strike without warning, so I record them on my smartphone. Opening it as I write today, I find the idea for this article; a name that means nothing to me now(!); places to enjoy in Paris that are free and unknown to tourists (L: Napoleon's tunnel on the Canal st-Martin); a list of amusing differences between Italian and Canadian women; and.... I must stop or I'll give the rest away! Not all ideas produce enough material for a book but might suit an article. Many ideas bubble up while reading—I gave up TV several years ago so I could read more widely.

How do you flesh out these fleeting notions into a book or articles? Reflection and research is key. When and where could this situation occur? What individuals could be involved? How might the fact(s) change them? Writers need to brood on these snippets, sometimes for a long time, before they metamorphose into a full-bodied story.

It's the art of the "What if?"

  • Sailing ship, Wasdale, was my great-grandfather's command
    © Unknown, undated
  • Tunnel of the Canal St-Martin in the heart of Paris built by Napoleon
    © Photos by Pharos 2006

© Julie H. Ferguson 2016

Sunday, July 17, 2016


Nine years ago my professional editor wrote this piece on the active voice. It's important enough to rerun. While most authors and freelance writers know about this, many who write for their jobs don't.  Using the active voice when appropriate ups your game and here's how from Joyce Gram, editor and writer.

The non-fiction guru William Zinsser says, “The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb style—in clarity and vigor—is the difference between life and death for a writer.”
Life and death? Wow!

He goes on: “Verbs are the most important of all your tools. They push the sentence forward and give it momentum. Active verbs push hard; passive verbs tug fitfully.” For example, “Joe saw him” (active) is strong. It’s short and precise and leaves no doubt who did what. “He was seen by Joe” (passive) is weak. It’s necessarily longer and has an insipid quality. It’s also ambiguous: How often was he seen by Joe? Once? Every day? Once a week? A passive style, says Zinsser, will sap the reader’s energy. Nobody ever quite knows what is being perpetrated by whom and on whom.

All the books on writing and style that I’ve read contain similar advice: the active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive. Every writer must learn to spot the passive. Invariably, a passive clause contains a be-verb (or get) plus a past participle (usually a verb ending in ed). “The deadline was missed by the student” and “My wallet got swiped” are passive constructions. “The student missed the deadline” and “Some low-life swiped my wallet” are active—and better.

But, hold on! There are good reasons to use the passive. Here are some: when the actor is unimportant or unknown; when you want to hide the actor’s identity (maybe that’s why the passive has become so common in business and political writing); when the focus of the sentence is on the thing being acted upon; when you want the punch word at the end of the sentence; and, my favourite, when the passive sounds better—which it sometimes does.
Know what you’re doing and choose well (and remember Zinsser: “life and death!”).

Books mentioned above:
Zinsser, WIlliam. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. 2006
Strunk,William, Jr., and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. 2000
Garner, Bryan A. Garner's Modern American Usage. 2003

© Joyce Gram 2007

Sunday, July 10, 2016


When people are evacuated at short notice to save their lives from floods, forest fires, and earthquakes, etc, what's the first thing they grab? Even before their pets? Family photos.... Writers and photographers choose their work.

March 30 was World Backup Day, which brought with it dismal stats. According to Backblaze's 2015 US survey, they estimate twenty-five percent of computer users never backup precious data at all. Backblaze believe this figure is probably much higher, and these results probably reflect similar behaviour in most countries.

I often ask writers how they backup their manuscripts and judge that the figures are more like 35% are not doing it at all; 30+% put files on an external hard drive kept beside their desktop or laptop; and maybe under 20% upload to cloud platforms. The rest? Who knows? 
Almost no-one backs up daily and should fix this by automating the task. Serious photographers are bit better at taking precautions to preserve their work — perhaps they are more concerned about it because they work in the field not in the perceived security of an office or or at home. 

Everyone I know, including me, has had a hard drive crash that taught us a lesson, but there is a risk today few know about. This can be just as devastating and more costly. Ransomware is malicious software that deliberately encrypts all files on a hard drive on a desktop or laptop rendering it impossible to decipher or use without paying a large sum to the company that did it in the first place. Sometimes, the files are lost forever, but if you're backed up, you're safe from disaster. I run Malware Bytes anti-malware's app at to reduce the risk.

Sensible writers and photographers ensure they back up in two places as one could fail. If you only use the cloud, be aware it can go wrong — in fact, this  happened to me about a year ago when a company folded. However I had everything backed up on external hard drives as well. 

Don't despair if you recognize you don't have two back ups. Dan Misener of CBC says, "Many cloud services let you download a copy of everything you have stored with them. Google has their 'Takeout' service. Facebook lets you download all your data, including photos, as one big file." Smartphones can backup your data to Dropbox or an equivalent.

So what's the best route to prepare yourself for any eventuality affecting your precious data? Here's how I do it for my writing, which may suit you too:
    I mostly work on a desktop at home where I keep my current writing projects on the free version of Dropbox, which also allows me to access them on any device I own wherever I may be.
    I also backup my manuscripts to an external hard drive

every evening, which I unplug every night. (I give my drives to a friend when I'm on the road in case the house is robbed.) If I'm traveling I still use Dropbox, but backup onto a USB drive that I carry on my person at all times.

    When my work is published, all versions of the manuscripts, edits, etc. that are already saved on the external drive, are then also uploaded into a special folder on Google Drive, a service I now pay for. I consider the money well spent and the price of doing business. I write it off against taxes.

I manage my images a bit differently. The higher risk of losing 3000 photos scares me when I'm on a long trip of a onth+ because I earn money from them when they illustrate my books and articles. So here's my process for images:

    I download them from the camera to my laptop (a tablet would work too) every evening without fail however tired I am. Two reasons: Memory cards need to be reformatted regularly to reduce the likelihood of corruption; but the main point is to get my images out of the camera. A young friend of mine lost every photo of a three month trip to Europe when his camera with two big cards was stolen while waiting to board his flight home. 
    If I have Internet, I'll immediately upload the image files, now on the internal hard drive, to folders on my Google Drive. But sometimes in remote areas this is impossible if the Internet is slow or non-existent. (When I get to a location with fast reliable Internet, I do upload them.) But I can't afford to lose them if my laptop is stolen or dropped in the meantime.
    So I backup my images to 128Gb USB drives that I always

carry in a pocket, well separated from my camera and laptop. Why? If my baggage is stolen, my camera or laptop can be replaced with insurance, but my photos are irretrievable.

    And BTW I never carry my laptop and camera in the same bag. The reason should now be obvious!!
    Once I'm home, I backup the original RAW files onto an external hard drive as well, later adding the edited TIFs and JPGs.

Start assessing your situation by asking yourself some questions. Firstly, what data is crucial to you? For your livelihood and memories? Secondly, which files are only backed up in one place? Thirdly, how many gigabytes of storage will be needed? Then set to work to research the products and services that suit you.

There are many services for backing up to the cloud that offer free storage space. Read the fine print as they are all different:
     Dropbox (2Gb - ideal for text files)
    Google Drive (15Gb)
    MS One Drive (if you are a monthly subscriber to Office 365, 1Tb is free),
    Amazon Web Services Free Tier (5Gb lasts for only 12 months after sign up),
    iCloud (5Gb). 

I started with a combo of the above, using two free services for images as I couldn't fit them all in one, and one for my works-in-progress. Later I opted to pay USD$9.99/month for Google Drive (not to be confused with Google Docs) and I now store both types of file there.

I've mentioned my external hard drives— I have two, a small one for text files (above) and a 3Tb one for my images (left). I use five 128Gb USB drives on lanyards because they're easier to find when traveling and can go round my neck if my pockets are full. I number them.

And, yes, you may think I'm paranoid but I haven't lost any data since 1990, despite two hard-drive crashes, one stupid deletion of a folder containing 350 original images, and one laptop dropped on concrete! My methods have changed as technology improved, but not my habits.