Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Blue Monday

Apparently today is the blue-est day of the year, in terms of people’s moods, at least here where it was a story on the news tonight. I’m not sure how wide-reaching this idea of the most depressing day of the year is; one assumes it’s a cheerier time in the southern hemisphere and in sunnier climes than it is here in the fog and the grey.

On this blue day — as it seems to be for more people I’ve talked to than not — I wanted to think about something that touches my soul instead of the giant pile of stuff on my desk or the fact that there are simply too few hours in the day, or any of the frustrating things it can be easy to focus on and get wrapped up in if we let ourselves.

What are some of the things you’re lucky to have in your life or in your thoughts or in your heart? My list, thankfully, is long, a truth for which I’m abundantly grateful. But for the sake of this blog, I’m going to tell you about one tiny, wonderful memory I realized recently is one I cherish, something special that means a lot to me. Here it is:

Thanks to a keynote address at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference one year (I don’t remember which), I am lucky enough to have James Elroy Flecker’s “To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence” in my head, recited in Anne Perry’s voice. If you’ve never been lucky enough to hear Anne Perry talk, I highly recommend it (she’ll be back at SiWC this year). She’s a gifted speaker, and there is little that reminds me of the enduring gift of words and the connections they can forge through space and time than the memory of her reciting this poem:

I who am dead a thousand years,
And wrote this sweet archaic song,
Send you my words for messengers
The way I shall not pass along.

I care not if you bridge the seas,
Or ride secure the cruel sky,
Or build consummate palaces
Of metal or of masonry.

But have you wine and music still,
And statues and a bright-eyed love,
And foolish thoughts of good and ill,
And prayers to them who sit above?

How shall we conquer? Like a wind
That falls at eve our fancies blow,
And old Moeonides the blind
Said it three thousand years ago.

O friend unseen, unborn, unknown,
Student of our sweet English tongue,
Read out my words at night, alone:
I was a poet, I was young.

Since I can never see your face,
And never shake you by the hand,
I send my soul through time and space
To greet you. You will understand.

Isn’t that lovely? Please feel free to share some of your own special, small memories in the comments. I’d love to hear them.

(To the best of my knowledge, this poem is in the public domain in both Canada and the US. If you know otherwise, please let me know!)

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Happy new year! The fact that I’m saying so on the 14th of January should give you some idea how busy the first two weeks of 2013 have turned out to be.

I’m currently researching my next WIP, reading whatever and wherever my subconscious takes me to try to make sense of the hints of a story it sends up every once in awhile for my conscious mind to chew on. Consequently, I’m reading stuff I would probably never otherwise pick up, from pictorial and written histories of Vancouver in the last five decades to biographies of musicians and lots in between. At the moment, that includes reading Rod: The Autobiography, the un-mysteriously titled autobiography of Rod Stewart.

I’m a writer who doesn’t outline, but has to feel her way into and through the story. So when I read something Rod said about the writing process, it made me smile both because I related to it and because I’m reading the book to help me do precisely that. For all my writer readers, and anyone else who doesn’t quite know where they’re going until they get there, I give you Rod Stewart on writing:

“The whole process is a mystery to me, in any case. When we wrote ‘Maggie May’ and the song was in its formative stages, just a sequence of chords that needed some words and melody to fit, I hadn’t got a clue what the number was going to be about. I was just mouthing away and making noises, some of them words, in the spaces where the vocal was supposed to be. And suddenly ‘Wake up’ snapped into my mind — not even ‘Wake up, Maggie,’ just ‘Wake up.’ And where that came from, or why, I have no idea. You just have to think ‘Thank fuck,’ and allow yourself to set off after it, down the path to the rest of the story.”

Ain’t that the truth?

Back soon!

(Oh, and for the sake of proper attribution, that quote, used for commentary/review, appears on page 124 of the hardcover edition of Rod: The Autobiography by Rod Stewart, Crown Archetype 2012)

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Who are we?

The grey, drippy skies of a West Coast December invite reflection. It’s a time for philosophical discussions over warm beverages and taking personal inventory. At the moment, I’m also mulling bits and pieces of a new novel that have been infiltrating my consciousness. I’m not at the point yet where I can look straight at the ideas without chasing them away into the dark, but the sense of them is there, the hint of what’s forming beneath the surface. And that makes me slow down and listen to whatever my subconscious reveals.

One of the themes that’s been nagging at me lately, connected somehow to that new story I can’t yet put my finger on, is the question of what defines us.

I think when this subject arises, people are often quick to trot out labels or name the various “hats” they wear. In my case, I am, among other things, a writer, a mother, a conference coordinator, a wife, a friend…. We can all count these off on our fingers, and possibly our toes, too, depending on how much we try to pack into this life. But do they define us?

Certainly they are easy, these labels, and their obligations fill our days. But alone when no one else is around, with time to really think and simply be, are they the things that make us who we are? I think not. I think maybe we come to those things because of who we are and not the other way around.

So what, then, truly defines us? Does it take everything – those labels, the things we enjoy doing, our backgrounds, the way we think about the world, the side we take on contentious issues, what we eat for breakfast, whether we cheat on our taxes or at board games, and any/every other measuring stick we can think of – to truly express who we are?

Or is it as simple as knowing whom and how and what and why we love?

I don’t know. But I like this stage of a new book, where I don’t have any idea what it is or where it’s going or even if it’ll become anything at all, but my mind turns over impossible questions, looking for the ones that resonate with the story hidden behind the curtain.

How do you define yourself?

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We all have them: those souls who, going about their daily lives, doing the best they can, change ours. Some of you who know me well have heard about this one before, but today, I felt like telling the rest of you about him.

Me in grade 5

When I was a kid, the week before back-to-school meant riding our bikes over to the elementary school to check out the class lists taped up in one of the windows to see whose class we were going to be in.

On that fateful day right before the beginning of grade five, a look at the lists left me quaking. This man, the stern, strict, terrifying vice-principal of our school, was to be my teacher:

To say he didn’t suffer fools is probably an understatement. He had the kind of look, an old-school vice-principal look, that could quell misbehaviour without a single word, and we were all scared of him.

But what none of us knew until we started getting to know him in his class was that he was passionate about language. He pulled it apart and put it back together and taught us to do the same. And while we worked, he played classical records on a scratchy old record player, too. I loved it. Loved knowing how sentences worked, loved understanding the rules and how I could bend them to my will once I knew what they were. I was mostly alone, I think. Other kids grumbled and groused about grammar lessons, but I revelled in them. Thirty years after being in his class, I still have my grade 5 grammar notebooks tucked away somewhere.

That year changed me in ways I didn’t realize until much later. I became an English teacher, one who taught against the tide, closing my classroom door and, very unfashionably at the time, teaching my students the language to talk about this language of ours. I like to hope there are at least a couple of people out there who write better emails, at least, because I taught them how sentences work.

When I moved on from teaching and became a writer, what he’d given me became even clearer. I play with language because I love it and because I can, and I can, at least in part, because all the stuff I’d picked up from being a bookworm made even more sense after he showed me why it was the way it was.

For ages, I’ve been meaning to tell him. He’s getting old, and I didn’t want to leave it too late. When I missed last year’s reunion, I thought I’d talk to him at the retirement of a mutual friend this past June. He missed it for health reasons. Suddenly not leaving it too late became a bit more urgent. But I was a chicken. So much easier to run into him somewhere and seize the moment than create one out of nothing.

But today, I was thinking about Judy Blume. (howzat for a non-sequitur?). She’s been a theme in my world this week, popping up at least four different times unexpectedly. And that got me thinking about the first time Amanda Palmer made me cry, at her show in Vancouver last year when she sang this:

And I decided that if she could sit on stage and tell Judy and all of us, too, I could call Mr. Rawlins. So I did. This morning. When my books find a publisher, he’ll be there in the acknowledgements. I hope he’ll be around to see that, but I don’t know if he will be, so I told him today. I don’t know what he thought, but I’m glad I made the call.

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I recently read a historical romance by a multi-book NYT bestselling author. I won’t name her here, but I’ve read her stuff before and have liked it well enough. This particular book, though, was saved from being thrown across the room only by the fact that I put my back out on Friday, and it was altogether too much trouble to get upstairs to choose another book from my TBR pile. In the end, the story was okay, but I had to wonder how an experienced author like this one somehow got through writing and editing the book and the editing process with the publisher without catching several instances of “I’ve done my research and now you’re going to pay.”

This particular issue bothers me as much as lazy or non-existent research about easily-researched topics. I think I’ve posted before about one book that drove me crazy by having a character, set up as the expert, explain the rules of hockey to another and get them wrong. And another by a British author who hadn’t checked BC’s geography and had characters take a train from Victoria to Whistler, which was supposedly in the Rocky Mountains.

“I’ve done my research and now you’re going to pay” (a phrase I first heard from Diana Gabaldon, though I’ve no idea whether she coined it) can be just as frustrating.

For example, at one point in this recent read, the hero attempts to prove to the heroine that women are as easily addled by arousal as men by seducing her with a kiss. In the middle of the suggestive conversation that leads to the kiss is this, quoted here for illustrative purposes: “Taking her arm, [hero] drew her to a more secluded area of the kitchen garden, behind a pair of pergolas covered with scarlet runner beans. They stood next to a glass forcing house, which was used to compel plants into flower before they might have otherwise. A forcing house allowed a gardener to grow plants and flowers irrespective of the prevailing weather.”

Now I don’t know about you, but if I’m in the middle of seducing someone or being seduced, the specific use of the building by which I’m standing isn’t going to be at the front of my thoughts. Having the explanation of a forcing house there – twice, really – threw me right out of the story and made me uncomfortably aware of, and frustrated with, the author when I should have been lost in the story.

Research mistakes and giving too much explanation of things the reader might not understand are easy mistakes to make as a writer, I know. It’s one of the tough jobs of writing, making the research invisible to the reader, whether s/he knows what you’re talking about or doesn’t. I just hope that if I ever do it, I’ll spot it or someone else will while I can still fix it. Because when research is plain wrong or is presented at the wrong time as blatantly as it was in this book, it interferes with my suspension of disbelief and ruins the story for me.

What makes you want to throw books across the room in frustration?

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Once upon a time when the world was young and the internet only a gleam in some computer geek’s (or was that Al Gore’s?) eye, writing under a pen name was as simple as, well, writing under a pen name. Not that I know anything about what it was actually like, of course, but it seems simple: write the book, have it published with a pseudonym on the cover, and thence be known by that name as a writer at signings, writing events, etc.

But in our current world, writers are expected to have a web presence. This is where the whole question of a pen name becomes more complicated for me. I don’t suppose I’m alone. So I thought I’d post about it here and see if any of you out there have thoughts or suggestions on the topic.

I intend to publish (she said, attempting to use the power of positive thinking) under another name. I know the name, I’ve checked to make sure it’s not too close to anyone else in my genre, I’ve bought the domain name, and I’ve set up the email and the Twitter account, all ready to go.

But I’m not published yet. The agent hunt has been very positive so far, but is still in progress. Admittedly, I feel ridiculous introducing a pen name before I know for sure whether I’ll ever see that name on a book cover. That’s part of the problem for me in figuring this out. But more, I already have a public web presence for my day job, a job that involves interacting with the very same community I’d interact with as a published writer, and the same one I already interact with under my own name as an aspiring writer.

So this all feels very complicated. Most of what I’d post as my writer self I already post as my work self or my social self. There’s a lot of overlap. And I don’t want to change the name I use for work to my pen name.

Most of the people I know who’ve introduced a pen name have simply used it as their only online presence apart from personal email, either because writing is their only job or the only one for which they need to be visible online or because they were using the pen name long before a web presence became a necessity, so I don’t have an example – at least not one I’m aware of – to emulate in introducing a second version of a web presence while still needing to maintain the first. The very thought makes me want to run screaming into the night.

I’m not concerned about privacy, so much; I have other personal reasons for using a pen name for my writing. So I don’t mind if my worlds overlap. But how?

This has been a point of discussion at our house for awhile now, and we don’t seem to have any satisfactory answers, so please feel free to throw out any ideas you think are useful. I’d appreciate it.

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Working and Waiting

So many areas of my life right now are all about waiting. It’s an occupational reality in both my jobs and happens to be the case in my personal life right now, too. The trick, of course, is to keep moving forward instead of getting stuck in the waiting. Some days, that’s easier said than done.

Others, there’s a hint of brightness trying to poke through the clouds, a spot next to an outlet at my local coffee shop, amazing hot chocolate, that fluttery feeling of something good on the horizon, and a friend’s MS to read while my subconscious putters away, figuring out where I’m going next with my own WIP.

Hope your Monday has the feel of forward motion, too.

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I started writing my own New Year’s post today – happy new year, by the way – but got interrupted by life. It’ll get done, but until then, if you’re a writer, especially if you’re one who’s struggling right now, go read this. You may already have seen it, because it’s come to me from at least three different sources in the last two days, but in case you haven’t, here it is.

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Agents and Underwear

I haven’t talked too much here – or anywhere – about my recent serious effort to find an agent. It’s no secret, but it’s a business thing, and I figure it’s pretty much between me and the agents until something official happens. In the meantime, either someone is going to love my work and want to represent me or s/he’s not the right agent for me, however perfect s/he may look on paper. But, of course, as easily said as that is, the whole process is also a very emotional one. I don’t think it’s possible to write a good book without pouring your heart and soul onto the page, so sending it out and waiting for likely rejection isn’t easy and feels very personal. For me, it’s essential to remember, always, that this is a business. But it’s also essential for me to keep my sense of humour about the whole thing.

My best friend is not a writer, and is the perfect person to help me keep this process in perspective. So especially for those of you who are also going through this process at the moment, I give you her analogy about agents and underwear:

A query letter is the first time you see a potential date across a room and get up the nerve to go over and introduce yourself. Rejection is likely, but the amount of yourself invested in the attempt is relatively minimal. Being rejected sucks, but it’s a numbers game. You expect it to happen more often than not. If it happens every time, you polish your approach and try again. And if things go well, it leads to

The partial. This is the first date. It’s conversation over dinner, where you find out whether you have the same taste in music and feel the same way about dogs vs cats and whether there’s any chemistry. At worst, one of you will feel it and the other won’t and you’ll get rejected. This will sting, because you had your hopes up that he might be The One and you put your best effort into being your most attractive self. But if the two of you click and you can’t stop talking and suddenly it’s two am before you realize it’s even dark outside, the relationship will progress to

The full manuscript. This is the first time your date is going to see you naked, and you’re not sure whether you’ve picked the right underwear for the occasion or if he has an aversion to cellulite or freckles, but cellulite and freckles and the lacy number you picked up that one day you were feeling thin is what you have to offer. And it’s here that you reveal so much of yourself that rejection is going to hurt. You know he likes you enough to want to see you naked; that’s been established. But when you’re standing there in your best bra and panties, holding your breath, it’s nerve-wracking. Being told “Sorry, not for me” at this point is a blow. No matter how circumspect you’ve tried to be about the whole thing, standing nearly naked in front of anyone is pretty intensely personal. But there’s always the hope, the chance, that he’ll take a long look and want to take things to the next level as much as you do and maybe even propose…

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Being a writer changes you as a reader. It’s not as easy as it once was to suspend disbelief and let a story take you away when you’re aware of the writer at work, crafting the tale. Even in the books I love best, I can see some of the choices the writer made along the way. In good books, I see those choices with appreciation for the skill of the person who made them, and they don’t take away from the pleasure of reading. In other books, well, the story gets lost because I’m too aware of the author sitting at his or her word processor trying to finish the damn thing.

So when a book makes me squirrel myself away from the world for a couple of stolen, don’t-really-have-them-but-am-taking-them-anyway hours to read the last hundred pages or so in one sitting, and the only thing that makes me put it down during that time is the need to go get tissues because it makes me cry, that is something very special indeed. The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley is one of those books.

I finished it two days ago, and I haven’t started reading anything else. I am never without a book on the go, but this is one of those rare cases where I’m still thinking about what I just read and don’t want to interrupt that with something new. That’s in part because I enjoyed the book so much and in part because it left me wanting to be a better writer, and I’ve been thinking a lot about just what Susanna did that made me want to aspire to be able to do it, too. That is probably a topic for another post, but for this one, kudos to Susanna Kearsley. If you like Scottish history and books with writer protagonists, this one’s for you.

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