Breaking the Solitude by Molly Brewer Hoeg

Writing at Sinclair Lewis' table (1)We hear it all the time. The only way to get writing done is to “put your butt in the chair.” Show up and just do it. Punch those keys, push that pen. It requires mental fortitude, commitment, a will to write. And a willingness to shut out everything else, endure the solitude.

It’s been a quiet fall. The sudden cancellation of our September travel plans left me at home with an empty slate. An abundance of empty mornings that screamed Writing Time. A lack of excuses. A productive stretch. A lot of time spent inside my own head.

Yet as I look back over the last few weeks, I can see the benefits I reap from my so-called solitary pursuit.

A chance meeting at a birding event with my husband led to a coffee date with another nascent writer. She shared her passion for submitting stories to publications, reigniting my resolve to pursue more short pieces and send them out into the world. We swapped sources, favorite contests and writing goals all with a heavy dose of encouragement.

Through Lake Superior Writers, I have met local writers and now call many of them friends. Most are far more accomplished than I, yet generously share their knowledge, their experiences, their support. I can pour out my fears and inhibitions and they get it. They’ve been through it. Just recently, I spent several hours walking the woods of Lester Park and Hawk Ridge with two such women. With each crisp footstep and breath of Northwoods air, I relished the one-on-one connection, the common pursuit of elusive goals. No matter our skill levels.

My very first writing class was a week-long immersion in travel memoir, sequestered on beautiful Madeline Island. The twelve women in the class bonded by week’s end, sharing our writing aloud – hesitantly at first, then more eagerly as the week progressed. Last weekend, five of us gathered for dinner. We’ve managed a haphazard schedule of reunions since we first met four years ago. Of course, we all brought a piece to read. We still cheer one another on.

My own writing group met a few days ago. We’re only three in number, but we hold one another accountable. Critique each other’s works. One member has accurately dubbed it the Motivation Group. Once again, it’s the common bond of writing that unites us. Enriches our lives with this connection.

I just returned from the North Shore Readers and Writers Festival in Grand Marais. This bi-annual assembly of authors, instructors, book lovers and writers is the pinnacle of literary indulgence. For four days, I attended classes, listened to speakers and panels, and rubbed elbows with other writers all day long. Socializing over wine, meeting up for dinner, or just sitting in the same sessions widened my network of fellow writers and friends. But even better I could share my passion with like-minded folks. People who ground me. Reinforce my desire, and fully share the journey.

I came home exhausted but inspired. Ready to put my butt in the chair again. New ideas racing through my head. Suddenly, I don’t feel so alone anymore.




Molly Brewer Hoeg turned to her creative side after spending a lifetime working in IT.  She writes for regional and national magazines, including Lake Superior Magazine and Adventure Cycling, and is working on a memoir based on thousands of miles of bicycle touring with her husband.  When not in a coffee shop writing, she can be found outdoors running, cycling or cross-country skiing or sewing slipper jammies for her six grandchildren.  You can read about her adventures on her blog, Superior Footprints,


A note about the photo:

I started writing my book at this table, which once belonged to Sinclair Lewis, and made its way into our family.  It seemed a fitting and inspirational way to start!

The Other 7 of 14 Takeaways for the Aspiring Published Author from The Loft’s Wordsmith 2019 Conference by J. Mackenzie

Part two of a two-part blog. See the first part here.

The second half of this blog will focus more on the specifics of finding an agent and the publishing process.

  1. Commercial vs Literary vs Upmarket vs New Adult vs Young Adult vs Contemporary

Ahh! What’s the difference? I did a ton of research on this before the conference and I still got confused, referred to my notes, found myself saying one thing when I meant another. To those of us on the verge of being in the business, these terms seem overwhelming and confusing and nebulous. But they are very, very important to people inside of the industry.

The good news here is that there are TONS of blogs about this on your friendly internet. Google it until it’s clear to you. (It took me about three different blogs). Know this before you pitch. If your dream agent only takes Literary Fiction and you wrote Commercial Fiction, then they’re not your dream agent because they probably won’t even read past the first line of your query.

  1. Put your character at the center of your pitch or query letter

This has been a hard one for me since my own work involves some world building and magical elements. Where do I start?

At the characters.

It’s not that these other elements aren’t important, but they’re meaningless without a character that people can care about. Lift up your character and their core conflict first, and everything else can follow (if there’s room in your short query letter).

  1. Agents/Editors want to be curious, not confused

This advice harkens back to the query letter. I thought this idea from one of the agents summed it all up nicely.

  1. Comp titles

Or “comparative titles”. Many agents at the conference empathized with how difficult this part of the process is, particularly because they have to do it themselves when they’re trying to sell any book – maybe even your book, one day – to a publishing house. But the idea behind it is simple: what other moderately successful book would share the shelf with your book?

Note that I say “moderately successful.” This is because we were advised against using huge worldwide phenomenons in our list of comp titles because series like Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games have seen such an incredible amount of success across such a wide audience, that it’s nearly impossible to replicate and realistically picture how your book will fit in amongst the other mere-mortal books.

I’m sure you’re thinking to yourself, like I did, “But my book isn’t like any other book. That’s why I wrote it.” Well, that’s a good step, but Barnes and Noble isn’t going to create a new section just for you. It’s got to sit somewhere. So, where’s that going to be? If someone searches for your book on Amazon, what other books is the site going to suggest for that person?

It’s okay to say something like, “The plotline is laid out similarly to XXX with the romance twist of YYY.” As a personal example, I’m using, “My novel is like American Gods by Neil Gaiman, but with a lighter, bubblier tone.” We’ll see how far that gets me.

  1. Google Yourself

Because they’re going to Google you.

And what are they going to find?

Okay, who’s ‘they’?

Well, first it’s going to be that agent that you adore. They want to know more about you. Who are you? What are you like? Are you a normal, well-adjusted person? Do you understand the industry? Do you read? Do you participate in the literary world? Are you a crazy ax-murdering stalker? These are all things that agents need to figure out before they offer to work with you for the next few years; before they stake their very livelihood on your success.

That’s right. Their livelihood. Many of us write because it’s our love and our passion and then we change out of our jammies, take a shower, and go to our full-time job. If an agent chooses your work, your work becomes their source of income. That’s serious business. You’ve now left the world of ‘fun hobby’. So they might check to see if you have a backlog of hateful tweets before making a bet on you.

Not into social media? That’s usually okay (pending agents’ opinion and genre), but you should have a website. What to include? Name, email and a little about you. A blog is nice too. Book reviews or some form or reflecting your love for the literary arts a plus.

Once the agent and publishing house are locked down, ‘they’ could turn into your fan base. The big takeaway here is that you should create a social presence for yourself, or someone else will. And it’s better if it comes from you. If you’re on your way to being published, create pages on behalf of the ‘author’ you. Separate it from your personal accounts. And then use it and use it well. Don’t know how? Use part of the nice little advance you received from the sale of your book to hire your niece to show you the ropes.

  1. Set 10% of your advance aside to reinvest in your own writing career

Gone are the days of fully-sponsored nation-wide book tours and elaborate marketing budgets for us debut, unknown authors. You’re going to have to work at selling your own book and, while agents will do what they can to spare authors the expense of  promoting their own book, I thought some sage advice came from one of the original founders of The Loft. She advised to set 10% of your advance aside to go out of town do a book signing at a bookstore you love or to send yourself to that writers conference on the other side of the country. This advice resonated with me not as a writer, but as a business person. I appreciate when my employer sends me to the occasional conference to keep my skills sharp and to network with people in the business. If you become a published author, you are now also owning your own small business. Same mentality applies.

  1. Resilience

A final, common theme throughout the conference was the emphasis on resilience. The path to professional publishing can be very hard. You gotta want it. You gotta try over and over and over and over. Andy maybe it still won’t happen for you.

Or maybe it will.

Thank you to the Arrowhead Arts Regional Council for their support, and to The Loft for organizing and hosting the Wordsmith Conference. 


J. Mackenzie is a passionate reader, scribbler of words, hiker, pet parent and Duluthian. She is also on the board of Lake Superior Writers, where she plans programs to connect the local writing community. She is currently seeking representation for the first time for The Platya, her third manuscript and has recently started a project, documenting the writing process from the spark of an idea through publishing. She’s currently in the early idea phase. Follow her journey at

7 of 14 Takeaways for the Aspiring Published Author from The Loft’s Wordsmith 2019 Conference By J. Mackenzie – Part one of a two-part blog

So much of writing is delightfully solitary. We authors eke out quiet moments in quiet corners of our busy lives where we don’t have to make eye contact with another living being so that we can stare down our own imaginative heroes and demons. We recall and create worlds. We reframe and reimagine what we know to show how things could be better. From the silence of our own minds we create battles and love affairs; we capture what it is to be human and we share it with the world in ways that can cause us all to better understand the humanity within one another and ourselves.

If the world ever reads it.

If anyone ever reads it.

Okay, can maybe my mom just read it?!?

The Loft’s Wordsmith Conference over the weekend of November 2-3, 2019 on the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities campus was built around this next step in mind, when we quiet little introspective writers need to take our gaze off our shoes and make eye contact with the world of publishing. It was built for those of us who’ve finished and polished that ‘final’* draft of a novel, look out the window above our computers screens and think ‘Now what?’ It’s for those of us who’ve spent our lives going to bookstores, zooming down the alphabet of last names to find where our own published works will eventually live. It’s for those of us who have something to say and are ready for someone to hear (read) it.

Thanks to an educational opportunities grant from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council, I was lucky enough to venture down to the Twin Cities for the weekend conference. But I know it’s not possible for everyone to devote an entire weekend to a conference that’s 200 miles away, so, in this blog, I will attempt to bring the conference to you. The only thing you’ll miss is the cinnamon roll from Tobies on the way there. There’s simply no way to replicate that goodness.

The first part of this blog will focus on the basics of an agent/editor relationship, and how to prep your manuscript for querying. The second half, which will be published at a later date, will cover specifics of finding an agent and the publishing process.

1) Ummm…so what does an agent do?
They are your partner. Your collaborator. Your problem solver. They will get you as much money as possible for your manuscript and then will do whatever they can to get as many copies of that book sold to a greater audience.
They will take 15% of your manuscript’s purchase price (the amount your publisher pays for your manuscript). If there is a separate foreign distribution arrangement, then you’ll pay 20% (10% for your agent, 10% for the international distributor).
They’ll fight for you whenever a problem arises. Doesn’t that sound great? Book jacket design is terrible? They’ll help to figure that out. Would your book make a good movie? They’ll get it to producers. Some other unimaginable problem? They’ll deal with that too. This is why many agents only take a few new clients at a time, or maybe aren’t taking new clients at all. Because they’re fighting for other projects. They’re trying to get them sold.
Agents can be amazing. But, a word of caution, there are people who give agents a bad name. Read all contracts before signing. Ideally, have a lawyer familiar with the publishing world review any potential contracts before signing anything.

2) What does an editor do?
And so much more.
Editors for publishing houses, of course, edit manuscripts. But they also fight for them. When an editor loves a manuscript that an agent has put in front of them, they have to sell it to a whole room full of people. They have to convince the publishing house that it’ll sell, so that their bosses will pay them to spend time on perfecting the book and eventually publish it.

Now that we’ve established the players in the game, we’ll move on to some advice on preparing your manuscript before sending it to potential agents.

3) Love Your Book. Hate Your Book. Love Your Book.
Madeline Miller, one of the keynote speakers, and author of The Song of Achilles and Circe spoke about her own editing process while finishing her manuscript. Her advice on the topic personally resonated because it perfectly summed up a process that I was experiencing without realizing it.
You have to love your book, especially when you’re writing the first draft. You have to believe in your idea and be passionate about your characters.
But then, when your draft is done, the book’s complete, your ideas are all out on the page, you have to hate your book. You have to edit. You need to believe that everything that you did could be done so much better, and then you have to do so much better.
Finally, once the editing step is done, you have to love your book again. Because if you’re not excited about it, how will anyone else be?

4) Proofread
Who would have thought that there would have had such a strong emphasis at a writer’s conference on proofreading?!?
A common question was whether agents actually throw queries away if there’s one typo.
The advice here was contradictory. Some agents have a “one typo and I’m out” policy when reviewing query letters and the first ten pages of your work (the typical amount to send alongside a query, though check each agents’ guidelines.) Others are more forgiving, knowing that a book will have to go through tons of revisions down the road anyway. (See #3).
Agents’ big concern is, and always will be, the story. However, they have a lot of other secondary concerns which can be deal breakers, and a top one is the quality of the writing. Typos in a query don’t send a strong and professional first impression. We are writers, after all.
But, bigger picture, the advice was to hold on to that manuscript until it’s DONE. Spend the time to perfect it, especially those first ten pages, which are so critical to hooking a potential agent and publisher. Rework it and revise it. Make sure it’s the best version of itself that it’s going to be. Then send it. This could take six months. This could take ten years. They don’t care. Agents will be around when you’re ready.
Agents get thousands – THOUSANDS – of queries a year. They may take ten clients on at a time. Proofread your work.
Another common question was whether us new-to-the-table authors should hire a professional editor. Agents and editors shifted uncomfortably in their chairs at this question because it’s really up to the individual author and their work. Only you know how much work is needed until a manuscript is done. Or, maybe get one, two or ten beta readers to give you feedback first for free (who owes you a favor???). If there’s a problem that you still can’t fix, maybe a professional editor could be helpful. But research them too. It would be terrible if they gave you bad advice that steered you further from your publishing goals.

5) Hold onto that manuscript until it’s ready
One of the agents on a panel commented that books need to be far more ‘done’ and polished than ever before. Back in the day, when there were dozens of publishing houses, editors could pick up projects because of their promise.
This way of life is no more.
Due to the constraints of the publishing business in 2019, he said that your book should be at least 90% of the way there, or they won’t pick it up. And, in my observation, their “90% of the way there” means that we authors have to get that manuscript as perfect as we think our book will ever be before we start the querying process.

6) The reason for the * after “‘final’*” draft in the intro paragraph to this blog
You think your draft is final, done, polished? That’s cute. The conversation that I found most surprising at the conference was the emphasis that agents and editors put on their own editing process. So, even though you need to get that manuscript as wonderful as you possibly can pre-querying, be prepared to edit it again. Over and over and over.

Depending on the agent, you can expect one to several rounds of revisions (sometimes before they even sign you!), and that’s before they even shop it out to editors and publishers. If an editor/publishing house signs with you, then you can expect one to several more rounds of editing as well (see above…it’s sort of what editors do.)

7) “Effective writing is flying” – Kao Kalia Yang
Yes, there’s a lot in this blog (just think what didn’t make the cut!). But it’s also important to continue to create the space to write. You need to take care of yourself and protect your time so that you can hit the point where you can write beautifully, eloquently and effectively. How else are you going to write that second best-seller?

Thank you to the Arrowhead Arts Regional Council for their support, and to The Loft for organizing and hosting the Wordsmith Conference.

J. Mackenzie is a passionate reader, scribbler of words, hiker, pet parent and Duluthian. She is also on the board of Lake Superior Writers, where she plans programs to connect the local writing community. She is currently seeking representation for the first time for The Platya, her third manuscript and has recently started a project, documenting the writing process from the spark of an idea through publishing. She’s currently in the early idea phase. Follow her journey at

Editing with Track Changes in Microsoft Word by Vickie Youngquist-Smith

I’m slow to warm up to technology. I’d see the Track Changes icon under the Review tab in Microsoft Word, but I’d ask myself “Do I need more technology?”

When I write a first draft, it’s rambling and long-winded. With the hardest part over, I revise and edit. I move story elements around, cut the fluff, choose the perfect word (or somewhat perfect) for precise meaning, and proofread.

My old method of revising was a cumbersome cycle: print copies, revise with a pencil, print again, revise again, save as a new document, print, revise, save, print. I used lots of paper and printer ink.

Occasionally, I’ll change my mind about revisions, so I save all the drafts of a story on my hard drive. It became overwhelming to search for a draft that contained the word, sentence, or paragraph I wanted to resurrect.

Then I took an editing class, and I had to learn about Word’s Track Changes. Using Track Changes makes revising easy—maybe too easy. In one story, I redlined part of a paragraph. A day later, I redlined the rest of the paragraph. The next day I missed it, so back it came. But a few days later, I cut it again. It’s gone for good. But, if I wanted to reinsert it, I could put my cursor on it, right click, and choose Reject Deletion.

Track Changes is easy to use. Numerous online articles and YouTube videos are available to learn about Track Changes in the many versions of Microsoft Word. I like the videos best.

Some of Track Changes useful points:

  • All edits, insertions, and deletions can be seen in one document.
  • Track Changes can be used with Comments.
  • A two-color option helps distinguish between insertions and deletions. Multiple color options are available.
  • Selecting No Markup provides an edit-free copy, which is easy to read. Select All Markup and the edits return.
  • Many editors use Track Changes.

When I want to email an edit-free copy of my work, I follow these steps:

  • I choose Save As and give my document a new name. I use the same name but add a number.
  • I click the dropdown box under the Accept icon and choose Accept All Changes and Stop Tracking. I Save
  • I still have my original copy with all the additions and deletions. But now I have a clean second copy, which I can submit to an editor.

Track Changes makes editing easier and cheaper. With a couple of clicks, I can see or hide revisions and edits. I save fewer drafts on my hard drive. And I print less, so I save money on paper and ink. For writers who use Google Docs, the feature Suggested Edits is similar to Track Changes.


Vickie Youngquist-Smith writes short stories, essays, and articles. She is working on a collection of short stories. Her short-short story “Tossed” won first place in the Lake Superior Writers’ Contest in May 2019. When she writes, her two standard poodles keep her company.

Writers’ Bumps: An Endangered Condition? by Marie Zhuikov

Photo by Jak of the Mast Cells & Collagen Behaving Badly blog.


Writers’ Bumps: An Endangered Condition?

The picture above of the middle finger is not me flipping you off. It’s not even my finger. I found it on this blog. I am featuring it here because it shows a writer’s bump, which is something I, and many other writers have. 

These bumps are formed from the pressure of a pen or pencil pushing against the middle finger when a person is writing. If you’re right-handed, it will form on your right hand. If you’re left-handed, it will form on your left.

I once asked a manicurist if she could ever tell what profession a person has from looking at their hands. She had never considered it. Then I told her about how to spot a writer from their bump. I’m sure she was edified forever by this information and it changed how she approached her job.

I realized the other day that my writer’s bump is much smaller than it used to be, presumably because I hardly ever use a pen anymore, opting instead for a computer keyboard. This caused me some dismay since I rather like my writer’s bump and the distinction it gives my profession.

Then, I realized in horror that most young people probably don’t have a writer’s bump. They might not even know what one is since they all use phone and computer keyboards.

Truly, writers’ bumps are endangered. We just can’t stand by and let them disappear. They have been with society for hundreds of years. Somebody should do something about this. We need a public information campaign to “Save the Writers’ Bumps!” 

Where is the outrage? Why are we complacent with the disappearance of this badge of honor earned by hours of slaving over paper with a writing utensil?

Cast aside your computer keyboards and your phones my friends. Start a movement!

(Smirk. I think not. I actually love the convenience and speed of typing.)


In her day job, Marie Zhuikov is an award-winning science writer and communications project manager, specializing in environmental and medical topics. She has published hundreds of articles, publications, videos and radio programs, as well as coordinated production of many web sites. At night, Marie writes eco-mystic romance novels for new adults. Her first, Eye of the Wolf, was published in 2011. The sequel, Plover Landing, was published in 2014. Her first short story, “Water Witch,” was published in the Going Coastal anthology in 2017. Her website is and she blogs at