Why do I choose to write mainly male main characters when I’m female?

It’s time to start another novel, and here I am thinking about who my main character will be, their goals, their dreams…and, their sex.  I have no idea why I’m drawn to male characters, but when I think of writing from a female point of view, I shrink a little inside myself.  Should I seek therapy?  I’m sure a shrink would say it’s a manifestation of my own dissatisfaction with myself, my own sex, or some deep harbored issue with my mother, but I’m not so sure.

It could be because most of my fiction writing is centered on high action, thriller type story lines, which seem to gravitate towards a male main character.  It could be because I write YA fiction and I have two sons who are about the same age as my main characters.  Who knows?

It could be any number of things, but I can’t help but wonder if I’m alone, if there are other writers out there who also are drawn to the opposite sex as a main character?  I’m curious, how many other writers write mainly from one perspective, and not from the perspective of their own sex?

Self-editing: an important tool for fiction writers

Self-editing is an art, and one that many writers admit to struggling with.  When you are in a situation where you don’t have a reading group or someone to read your story or novel, self-editing is essential for your project.  I used to struggle with this myself, but over the years of writing non-fiction in which I needed to produce an end product in a very short period of time, I’ve finally gotten the knack for this tough writer’s tool.

Here are some tricks of the trade I’ve picked up over time:

1) If you think it’s awesome, get rid of it.  

This may sound harsh, and I admit I don’t always follow my own advice, but I’ve noticed a trend in what I’ve written and what other people actually want to read.  Sometimes I’ll write something, a paragraph, a line, an entire chapter, and I’ll think wow, that’s awesome! I just nailed that, I’m amazing!  I’ll keep that section through edit after edit because I love it so much.  But when someone else reads my work, they inevitably will target it as something that has GOT to go.

And I will resist, because after all, I love it, and it’s an expression of my awesomeness, right? Even though that section, line, or chapter doesn’t contribute anything to the plot, character development or overall story arc, I love it and hold onto it.  Even though it may interrupt the flow of the overall story, I cling to it irrationally.

After years of seeing readers identify my most cherished prose as what needs to be eliminated, I’ve finally given in and gone the other way.  I now view anything I think is particularly awesome as questionable.  I am inherently suspicious of what I happen to like best. I’m not sure if it is just me, or if other writers have this same vulnerability, but now I highlight anything I really like and consider it for deleting  in the future.

2) Let it sit.

Don’t try to edit something right away.  Even when I write stories for a newspaper or magazine, I will never, ever, ever send it off to be published without letting it sit for a few minutes to an hour, or often even a day for larger projects.  Looking at something after a break offers you a new perspective on it, and can save you from making errors in grammar, or sentence structure, or even fact.

So after writing, sit on it.  And wait, and then look at it again.  Of course,  if you look at it again and think wow, I’m amazing, this sounds awesome! be doubly suspicious.

3) Let your instincts guide you.

If you’re reading your work and something is bugging you but you can’t identify what it is, stick a bookmark at that location, or highlight it, or however you go about editing your work, and let it percolate in your head.  Chances are your instincts are correct.

I’ve often had sections of a novel or parts of a story that for some reason tugged at something in my subconscious, although I couldn’t identify what it was at the time, I made a note.  Often I’ll come up with what exactly is bothering me while doing other things, like driving or even sleeping, and then I can go back to it and make the changes I need to make.

4) If you don’t need it, leave it out.

If something in your story doesn’t contribute to the plot, character development or overall story line, don’t keep it there.  All it will do is bog down your piece and keep readers from really getting into it.  You want to keep things moving.  So that chapter that you have that describes the fantasy world in detail?  Ditch it.  Leave more to the imagination.  Some description is necessary, but probably less than you might think.

5) Don’t trust Microsoft Word.

Please don’t rely on Microsoft Word to do your work for you!  MS Word can’t tell in what context you are using a word or phrase, they can’t tell you if it’s correct in one instance or another.  MS Word will also highlight words which are just suspect like “it’s” and “its” but that doesn’t mean it’s incorrect.  Real words won’t be tagged as being incorrect, like “from” and “form,” which I will mix up constantly, especially when I’m typing so quickly my fingers get ahead of each other.

Hope this will help other writers, there is very little out there in the way of self-editing information, particularly when you start looking to self-editing for structural issues, which is a whole other ball game.

By the way, after rereading I found two grammatical and spelling errors, and there’s something about the first sentence in point number one that rubs me the wrong way….

From magicians to vampires – the next big trend in YA literature

First there was Harry Potter, which convinced the publishing world that YA literature may have more to offer than previously thought.  Then came Twilight, and now we have The Hunger Games and other dystopian fiction.  The big question on everyone’s mind is: what will be the next big thing in YA literature?

I want to be clear that I’ve been writing YA short stories and manuscripts since before it became popular, long before Harry Potter and Bella had even been conceived in their creator’s eye.  But now that they’ve arrived and I’ve been able to enjoy the pleasure you can get from reading a well crafted, high concept novel, I have to admit I’m after more.  And I would love to write something that gives readers the same excitement I’ve gotten while reading one of these bestsellers.

Before I began writing my YA novel, Scott Free, I spent a good month contemplating what will be the next thing to hit YA newsstands.  I was tired of dystopia, tired of fairies, tired of vampires, and I guessed literary agents and publishers were likely feeling the same.  The big question is what will be the next trend in demand, because I know if you want to break into the publishing world it takes a combination of luck and skill – you need to have the right idea at the right time – which means your novel must already be written before that trend takes off.

The topics I’ve considered as being possible hits in the future for teens are science fiction, dark novels (think Gillian Flynn) and mysteries or spy novels.  I think teens are ready for a transition away from the mystical and imaginary to something based in the reality they see around them every day, something they can identify with.  Crafting a novel that combines a high concept that will relate well to teens with a trend that isn’t already a big hit means taking a risk.  You could spend a year of your life creating something that will never sell.

On the other hand, you could spend a year of your life working on something that has meaning for you and then, if it doesn’t sell, shelve it.  In five years, when trends turn again, you could find yourself sitting on a literary gold mine, and you will be a full year ahead of the game for other writers.

Maybe you should think of writing as an investment, and the publishing world like the stock market?

The three must have elements for a compelling novel

How to begin?  When I began writing Scott Free, I spent a good month coming up with a concept that I thought contained 1) a good enough hook, 2) was unique, compelling, and interesting enough to keep younger readers reading.  I also wanted something with 3) strong thematic elements, that raised more questions than it answered.

These are all the components of a good novel, in my opinion.  The Hunger Games, for instance, by Suzanne Collins, has all of these elements in spades, it contemplates strong themes from our society, forces the reader to ask questions about the extent people will go to for entertainment, has an excellent hook, and follows through on every count.

The problem is, I hope that I’ve already created that in my YA novel, Scott Free, which I am currently working on perfecting along with the help of my literary agent, Steve Kasdin, from Curtis Brown.  I am keeping my fingers crossed that once it’s ready for submission to publishers it will be picked up and YA readers will be able to take part in the experience that took me a year to put down on paper.

But now that I’ve done that, what do I write about next?  What could be my next project that I care passionately enough about to dedicate nearly a year of my life to its completion?  If it took me a month to come up with something before, how long will it take me this time?  Because I’ve already rejected dozens of concepts and hooks and ideas, so what, exactly, is left for me?

I am excited to find out!

Raising the Bar: the ever shifting concept of success


When I first started writing my main goal was to get published.  Period.  At the time that seemed like enough of a goal to keep me going for a few years, if not forever.

I’ve found, however, that the closer I get to attaining that goal, the more that goal has shifted.  Like now I’m thinking, sure, having my novel published would be great, but maybe I don’t want to publish it without it being a success.

And if it’s published, does that make me officially a good writer?

Or does it need to be a success before I can make that claim?

And how do I define that success?

And what changes am I willing to make to my manuscript to attain that success?

And…well, the list of ands is pretty much endless.

It raises the question of: is there ever a point in anyone’s life where they say “Yeah, this is good enough, I’ll stop here?”  I don’t think so. Continue reading

Giving Birth to Fiction and Overcoming Transition

Writing a novel is a bit like birthing a child – you spend months and months growing your project, devoting untold hours in nurturing and supporting it, trying to make it the best possible creation you can.  This is no easy feat.  As you write you will often find yourself considering your little burgeoning masterpiece as a mirror, a reflection of you.  And if you suffer from any self-doubts, you will  find yourself faced with the eternal questions of “What am i doing?” or “This sucks, why did I ever think I could do this?”

When I hit that point (usually once I’ve devoted days, weeks and months to a project) I inevitably consider dumping the project and going onto a new, fresh story that is still perfect in my mind.  Reality is never as exciting as what you imagine, isn’t that the challenging part of writing?  Taking the work of art you have in your head and somehow translating that into something on paper that resembles the original in any way.

I call this point Transition, and this is the hardest part of writing a novel.  This is when you doubt yourself, you doubt everything you’ve done this far, you wonder why you ever started, you want to quit…this part of the writing process inevitably results in cursing and moodiness that your significant other will (if they’re smart) keep silent about.

Continue reading

Cold Pressed Sunflower Oil – Capturing a Niche Market


(as appeared in Small Farm Canada March/April 2014)

BY AMY HOGUESunflower1

There are few agricultural sights more riveting than that of more than four hundred thousand sunflowers tracking the sun across the sky. 

When Dale Horeczy and Brad Daily of Kricklewood Farm settled into their 90 acre Eastern Ontario farm property they were looking for a farm crop to supplement their hobby farm’s market and farm gate sales.  What they settled on was a small scale cold pressed sunflower oil production that has since become the backbone of their farm production.

The concept of growing sunflowers as a farm crop isn’t a foreign one for Dale and Brad – both are from Winnipeg, Manitoba, where sunflower fields are common sight.  After reading an article about Loic Dewavrin, a sunflower oil producer near Montreal, Dale and Brad’s interest was piqued at the prospect of resurrecting the picturesque fields of Manitoba in their new Ontario location and producing a hard to find local food – high quality culinary oil.  The entrepreneurs were quick to recognize a niche market waiting for discovery.

“We saw it as an opportunity to both grow sunflowers and share the beauty of the field with others,” Dale said of their decision to enter sunflower oil production, “We thought ‘if Loic can do it, maybe we can do it, too’.”

Kricklewood Farm is the perfect location for sunflower production, being close to several smaller rural centres as well as the larger urban centres of Ottawa and Kingston.  Their central location offered them access to multiple farmers’ markets and allowed them to capitalize on agritourism components for their farm.

By specializing in a crop and value added product not typically found in Eastern Ontario, Dale and Brad have attracted local and regional interest in their farm and captured an edge on a niche market, putting them on track to developing a viable, sustainable and profitable on-farm enterprise.

Canada’s Sunflower Industry

Native to the Great Plains region of North America, sunflowers have been grown commercially in Canada since the early 1940’s.  In 2011 there were more than 75,000 acres of sunflowers produced on 500 farms across Canada – 90 per cent of which are found in Manitoba.

There are two varieties of sunflowers – confection and oilseed. Confection sunflower seeds are used primarily for human consumption, while oilseeds are used primarily for birdseed and oil production.  The majority of all sunflower crops in North America are of the oilseed variety.

While there is clearly a market in Canada for sunflower oilseed crops, if a farmer is growing for oil production, processing of the seed can be another matter.  Because there are no seed crushing facilities located in Canada farmers growing seed for oil production must either process it themselves or ship it to the United States for pressing.

The Canadian sunflower oil industry has the potential for significant growth in the coming years as increased awareness of “healthy fats” leads to demand for high quality oil that is also low in saturated fats – and sunflower oil may be just the product consumers are looking for.

All Oils Are Not Created Equal

Sunflower seeds grown for oil are easily recognized by their black shells and are separated into three different varieties –linoleic, mid-oleic (Nu Sun) and high oleic.  All sunflower oil is high in vitamin E and a source of B vitamins, but mid-oleic (NuSun) and high oleic oils also contain higher amounts of monounsaturated fats, and lower amounts of saturated fats and zero trans fats.  Linoleic oil is the traditional oil used for many years but has limitations for frying and is higher in saturated fats.

Although mid-oleic or NuSun oils have dominated the industry for decades, market demand appears to be shifting toward high oleic oils which contain a minimum of 80 per cent monounsaturated fats compared to the 60 to 65 per cent found in mid-oleic oils.

According to the National Sunflower Association of Canada (NSAC), mid-oleic sunflowers currently make up the majority of all sunflower crops in Canada, but the trend towards healthy fats could impact oil production.

“There is a growing demand for high-oleic sunflowers as the oil competes better with the likes of canola and soybean oil in the marketplace.  The [high oleic] oil profile is healthier and society is encouraging a move in that direction,” Darcelle Graham, NSAC Executive Director, explained.

If the potential health benefits weren’t enough motivation, mid or high oleic sunflower oils can be sold at a premium, resulting in more economic gain per litre of oil.

Sunflower Oil Processing 

Sunflower oil can be processed in two different ways – expeller expressed and traditionally processed.  Traditionally processed oil uses solvents to remove the oil from the seeds.  Expeller expressed includes both cold pressed and regularly pressed – for an oil to qualify as “cold pressed,” the head of the pressing machinery used in production must not exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit during pressing.

Cold pressed is considered to be the method of processing that retains the most of an oil’s natural flavour and benefits for health and wellness.  To keep temperatures down, cold pressed oil production is much slower.

Dale and Brad place an emphasis on the quality of their oil, informing potential buyers about the health benefits of cold pressed, high-oleic oils.  “Some people don’t understand cold pressed, it can be a bit of an education,” Dale explained.

To cold press sunflower seed after harvesting, the seed is first cleaned to remove chaff and then fed into a mechanical press where the oil is squeezed from the seeds.  The machine spits the oil out of one opening while the remaining sunflower meal is ejected from another.   The oil is then allowed to settle before being filtered and bottled.  As an added bonus, the by-product of oil production, called seed meal, can be marketed as a sole source protein supplement for beef or dairy cattle.

How a grower chooses to extract their oil will have an impact on where and how that oil is ultimately marketed.   Deciding which method to use can be a balancing act –cold pressed oil can be marketed at a higher cost while expressed oils can be produced more quickly.

Market and Scale

In addition to farm gate sales, Kricklewood Farm sells at several farmers’ markets and stocks products in dozens of retail locations.  At market, Dale offers free samples of bread dipped in oil to customers, promoting it as having a light and “slightly nutty” flavour.

“I tell people to think of it as an alternative to butter,” Dale explained, “If people are still skeptical, I say come and try it; it tastes like sunshine.”

Dale explained the market for their product has been good, but stressed that the biggest challenge to their operation has been balancing the production scale they are able to attain with a growing market demand.

To make it even more challenging, prospective oil producers must determine their production scale well before entering production – with an initial expense of $20,000 for a small scale oil press , accurately forecasting what size press will be needed is critical.

Dale uses a small scale German made oil press to process between four and five hundred pounds of seed daily, producing roughly 30 to 40 litres of oil.  He averages approximately 300 litres of oil per acre harvested, which, at full production and with optimal pricing of $14 per 500 ml, has the potential to gross $120,000 annually.

Although at a glance this may seem like a profitable farm venture, there are other overhead costs to consider such as planting, harvesting, equipment and utility costs, not to mention the cost of the time involved in the processing, which can be substantial.

By producing 30 litres of oil daily, Dale works roughly 150 days annually just to process the oil from the previous season’s harvest.  And that number doesn’t take into account market days or days spent planting, weeding, harvesting or on administrative activities.

“Like any new business, it takes time to build it up,” Dale explained, adding that even after two seasons, Kricklewood Farm still has a way to go before reaching full income potential.

With an upgrade to a larger press and bottling equipment, Dale could produce more oil in the same amount of time.  At their current scale there is little room for expansion to meet a growing demand for their product.

To become cost effective, Dale said he envisions an on-farm processing facility where visitors can watch the oil being processed and where value added products could also be sold.  To accomplish these goals would require the purchase of a larger press, filtering equipment and bottler, not to mention the expense of an on-farm facility to handle the processing and retail sales.

To make things even more challenging, Dale and Brad have discovered there is not a lot of information out there about small scale sunflower oil production, giving every step of the process a steep learning curve.  Tweaking production to get the best results is a constant balancing act – seed moisture, temperature, and press adjustments all affect production quantities and consistencies – but according to Dale the end result is worth it.

“It’s a reward to see people come out to the farm to see the flowers and the field and enjoy it… if the crop itself wasn’t unusual and rare it wouldn’t be as much fun.”

Cost Outline

How much would it cost to enter into small scale cold pressed sunflower oil production?  Here’s a quick look at the basic initial expenses, based on a 15 acre field rotation.

Seed                                                                                      $600

Press, Filtering Equipment                                           $30,000

Bottles, Labels and Equipment                                   $3,000

Machinery (tiller, cultivator)                                        $4,000

$37,600 min. initial expense

(These costs are estimates only and dependant on a farmer’s production scale, region and available machinery)

Growing Sunflowers – Not Your Typical Farm Crop

Growing sunflowers successfully means thinking outside the traditional farming box and coming up with innovative solutions to planting and harvesting.  Typical planting, tilling and harvesting machinery may need to be modified to accommodate sunflower seeds and plants – a sunflower grower will need to invest more time problem solving to overcome obstacles.

Sunflowers can be grown as a single field crop, but also grow well as a rotation crop with corn, soybeans and sorghum.  Either way, they should not be planted on the same field more than once every three or four years.  Sunflowers are fairly hardy and grow rapidly and best on loam, silty loam and silty clay loam soils.  A good guideline for a farmer planting 20,000 seeds per acre is a row spacing of 30 inches with  eight to twelve inches between seeds.  Dale and Brad use a John Deere four-row corn planter to plant their seed.

Due to its size and vigorous growth sunflower plants are able to tolerate weeds well, but will likely need some assistance in the early weeks after planting or until the plants are large enough to compete with weeds.  Sunflowers are able to tolerate damage from pests fairly well and infestations will not generally result in any significant economic loss.  They are more vulnerable to diseases such as sclerotinia and rust verticillium and should be monitored to ensure overall yield of the plant isn’t affected.

Sunflower crops can be harvested in late fall, or any time after the back of the seed head turns brown and the seed moisture is below 20 per cent.  When harvesting a sunflower crop, a combiner must adjust settings to accommodate the sunflower plant and head.  Some farmers suggest using a grain head, while others prefer a corn head.  The skill and experience of the combiner will be instrumental in determining which settings to use to ensure the least amount of loss.

Are Sunflower Seeds for the Birds?

Sunflower oilseeds are the preferred seed for most seed eating birds – they will preferentially seek out sunflower oil seeds in any feeder.  Bird seed production is a growing market in Canada and is increasing by roughly 10 per cent annually in North America.  The bulk of all oil seed grown in North America is marketed to the bird seed industry.

Sunflower oil may be a growing market for Canada, but the bird seed industry shouldn’t be discounted either for prospective sunflower growers.

Did You Know?

Sunflowers are heliotropic – in the early stages of their flowering development sunflowers will track the sun across the sky and then face east at night.  During the seed development stage most sunflowers will remain facing east.

One sunflower can have up to 2,000 seeds.

A sunflower is actually composed to two types of flowers – the petals around the edge of the head are called ray flowers while the face of the head is made up of disk flowers that each form into a seed.

Sunflowers are considered mature when the back of the head turns yellow and ready for harvest when the back of the head turns brown.

Seed harvest can be put off until quite late in the season, and a late frost can be useful in drying out seed.

For More Information

Canadian Sunflower Association http://www.canadasunflower.com/

National Sunflower Association http://www.sunflowernsa.com/

Canadian Special Crops Association http://www.specialcrops.mb.ca/index.php

Sunflower5 Sunflower3 Sunflower6 Sunflower15

The Dry Spell – Water, Water Everywhere, but Nary a Drop to Drink


The dreaded dry spell…blank pages blinking at you from your computer screen, deadlines not met, and a teeny trickle of doubt niggling at your spine….

Writer’s block is one of the most talked about phenomena in the writer’s world and probably the one most misunderstood.  I’ve never really suffered from the condition until just recently, I would generally be able to sit down and pound out a few pages at a time, no matter what the conditions or subject were.  Fiction or non-fiction, didn’t matter.

That all changed a few months ago when I committed to writing a novel and put my money where my mouth was, laying everything on the line.  All of a sudden, my fiction writing meant something.  It mattered if I was able to write one, two or no pages.  And I found I was paralyzed, sitting at the computer, hands poised on the keys, ready to pounce on anything – any idea, phrase, concept.   When nothing came I decided it was because I needed more information and launched into research mode, researching my topic ad nauseum.     That didn’t work either.

This went on for more than a month before I realized that I wasn’t writing because I was afraid.  I was afraid of making a mistake, of screwing it up, of writing something that no one else would want to read.  And that fear handcuffed me.  To put words on paper when it means something is scary.  It’s kind of like stripping down and parading around in front of a bunch of strangers and leaving yourself open for criticism, comments, or – even worse – rejection.  Writing a book is a huge time commitment…what if you put in all that time and effort and nothing comes of it?  What if you’re nothing but a big fat failure? (my heart skips a beat just writing that sentence)

Fear of failure is like a ghost, you can’t see it, you can’t touch it, but you can feel it, deep, deep inside of you.  And how do you exorcise that ghost?  I was stymied by this.  How do I find enough self-confidence to launch into something that I’m also deeply afraid of?  To risk everything?

I was reminded of my son, who played lacrosse and hockey and was shy and a little nervous about performing in front of other people.  I told him, when you put that helmet on, no one really knows who you are, you can be whoever you want to be, it’s like a magic helmet.  Inside the helmet, your view of the world is limited to what’s right in front of you, you’re lost in the game, the audience is irrelevant.

Lacking a writing helmet (the tinfoil one I wear to keep aliens out doesn’t count) I latched onto the next best thing.  I just need to write like I’m not me, I told myself,  like I’m someone else.  I have to believe that when I’m writing I can mask myself in the persona of anyone I want, I can channel Jesus Christ, Elvis Presley, whoever, and write with confidence.

My choice, naturally, was Michael Crichton.  “Do you think Michael Crichton was afraid when he sat down to write?” I demanded to myself, “Or did he just sit down and do it?”  By the time he passed away, Michael Crichton was a world-renowned author, having made millions from his writing.  I would guess he sat down every day and believed that every word he was writing was a literary gem just waiting to be discovered.

So I channeled Michael Crichton and started writing and haven’t stopped.  And whenever I start to feel a little queasy and uncertain I now just remind myself that Michael Crichton doesn’t need to fear anything.  Sometimes we need to make believe in order to believe.