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My apologies -- as a writer, I feel I should be offering something earth-shattering, or at least something original, but I'm not. What I offer is a trailer of what has come before, what is coming to me now, and will doubtless come to the next generation in the future. It is an epiphany only in as much as I am saying, "Oh, so that's what that is."
I'm a writer, therefore I should know better than to expect surprises. There aren't any. Everything old is new again. Recycling is the word of the day.
The epiphany is this. It's only old, until you get there. Until then, it's just same old, same old, Yada, yada. And then, suddenly it's news. Eureka! Aha! I get it! Finally, it's relevant. It makes sense. You look at things you've seen every day of your life and finally you appreciate them. And, at the same time, you realize that you will be unable to make anyone else understand what you see.
It's one of those double-edged swords. It's one of life's lessons that you want to share, but the only ones who are going to hear what you have to say already know it anyway. You're preaching to the choir.
I'm 62 years old -- on the outside. Inside, I'm 20, but with an advantage. I am now at the point in my life where I can enjoy what is. I don't have to fight stuff. I don't have to judge things. I don't have to improve things. I don't have to validate stuff. I can just let things in and enjoy them for what they are.
Holy mackeral! How cool is that? Now, if you are 18 and reading this, you probably think I am a total head case, because you think you are doing what I'm talking about all the time. All I can say to you is come back and reread this blog forty years from now. You may see it through different eyes.
In past posts, I have mentioned my interest in genealogy and some of the amazing things I've learned about my ancestors. I wish I could take credit for these discoveries, but the truth is I've had a ton of help. My cousins (one in Ontario and a newly found one in England) have shared the results of their digging, and they've done lots of it. I've also received assistance from message board genealogists who just like helping others. And, of course, it was the Quest Team from my local genealogy society that uncovered a whole new branch of my family tree this past spring. I'm still coming to grips with that one. It feels like I've been given a giant treasure chest, filled to the brim. It's overwhelming.
Until I began delving into my family's past, I had no idea it would affect me as deeply as it has. Yes, these people are long dead, but as I find out about them, they come to life again, their sorrows become mine, and I often find myself hurting for them. That might sound crazy, but it's true. What can I say? We writers are empathetic creatures. It's a hazard of the trade.
In my search, I have come across so many fascinating ancestors. A grandmother who quietly gave up the love of her life to marry a man 30 years her senior, because it was the practical thing to do. A grandfather who was placed in Dr. Barnardo's orphanage when his mother died and was later sent to Canada as a home child. A grandmother (on my husband's side) who spent the last 30 years of her life in the Weyburn Mental Hospital (the word psychedelic originated there), yet no one in the family knows why she'd been committed. My family, as well as my husband's can be traced back to the late 1600's. The mind boggles just thinking of all the stories there.
Which brings me to my current dilemma. Actually, it's not a dilemma anymore, since I've made a decision about how I shall proceed. The problem is how others are going to react to that decision. You see, I've decided to write a novel (we're talking fiction, people) based on the life of one of my great grandmothers. Her name was Alice Maria, but in my novel, she will be called Jane. As I put together the pieces of Alice Maria's life, it struck me what a hard road she'd travelled. She was born into the worst part of London, the East End, in 1869. Her whole life she knew nothing but poverty and filth. She worked in a button factory. She married at 20, had three children who all died in infancy, after which her husband left her for a woman who lived down the street. She then cohabited with a man who gave her two children, then went off to the Boer War. Upon returning, he married someone else and had seven children with her. As far as we know, he was never in touch with Alice Maria or her children again. Then Alice hooked up with another man, who worked part time as a carman. Their first child died. The next two -- a boy and a girl lived. During the next pregnancy, Alice Maria fell down a flight of stairs carrying a tub of water, putting her into labour. She and the baby both died. Alice Maria was 38 years old.
How can I not tell that story? BUT, there is no way I can find all the facts of her life in order to make it a biography. Therefore, I've decided to massage the basic story and turn it into a novel that resembles my great-grandmother's life. I'm fine with that, but I don't think my genealogy associates will be. Afterall, genealogists are seekers of the truth, and I'm messing with that. My Ontario cousin has already made her plea -- "Do you HAVE to make it fiction?!!"
On the bright side, my mother, an empathetic soul in her own right, is enjoying the early scenes I've written. They make Alice Maria/Jane come alive for her and provide some semblance of sense to a life riddled with hardship.
My apologies to diligent genealogists everywhere. I shall continue to look for the truth, but in the meantime, I have a novel to write.
When I published my first book, someone asked if I was using a pen name.
"Of course not!" I replied. "I want people to know I wrote this book. I want to be able to plant myself in the bookstores and point it out." Heck, I would have stood at the shelves with my novel in one hand and my driver's license in the other as proof.
Twenty books later, I am happy to say that many people now know my name. Some readers look for it when choosing a novel. Also it helps me bypass the dreaded slush pile at many publishing houses. (It doesn't stop me from having my work rejected; it just helps it happen faster.)
But lately I've been thinking about writers who write or have written under more than one name. People such as Stephen King/Richard Bachman, Nora Roberts/JD Robb, Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain, and most recently, JK Rowling/Robert Galbraith. There are hundreds of other examples. Some writers simply choose to safeguard their anonymity by using a pseudonym, while some have more compelling motives. Stephen King's publisher would only allow him to publish one book a year, so he got around the restriction by taking on a second identity. Rowling had enormous success with Harry Potter, but she wanted her follow-up work to be judged on its own merit, not her reputation. Nora Roberts wanted to venture into another genre, and rather than risk alienating current readers who might not like the new genre, she adopted a pen name. Marilyn Evans (George Eliot) and Ann Rule (Andy Stack) both assumed male pen names in order to gain more clout in their chosen genres.
I am standing on the doorstep of a new genre myself, and to avoid possible confusion for my readers, I am contemplating using a pen name. I'm not moving into erotica or horror or anything else that would shock 10-year olds, but I am going to tackle an adult novel, and I'd hate my young readers to think it's for them and then be disappointed.
So do I become a man or stay a woman? (Please do not quote me out of context.) Though society has come a long way, men are still more readily perceived as authorities, so to assume a male pseudonym might put me up a step on the success ladder. On the other hand, I'm used to being a woman, and I have confidence in my abilities. Besides the novel I plan to write has a female protagonist, and consequently being a female writer might provide me more credibility. That is not to say men can't create realistic female protagonists. One need only think of Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha and Lawrence Hill's Book of Negroes.
It's a dilemma. On the upside, I don't have to make the decision in a hurry. I might actually want to write the book first. Still, I'm open to suggestions. What do you think?
My kids and their families are connecting. My daughter, her husband, and four kids have driven from near Toronto to Winnipeg to visit with my son, his wife, and their two children. And here am I on the other side of Canada.
Who's going to stop the wars?!
And believe me, when my kids were growing up there were many.
Hopefully that is all in the past. After all, my daughter is nearly 39 and my son will be celebrating (or not) his 35th birthday in another week. But in the last twenty years, we have all been so scattered geographically that one can't help but think in old patterns.
In case I've made you dubious, ponder no longer. I have the best kids ever. Always did. There is likely no parent alive (except my husband) who can claim better kids --scholastically, socially, and athletically. I got lucky. And as adults, they carry their weight too. AND they've both married wonderful people. AND they gave me fabulous grandchildren. You can't ask for more than that.
But as a parent, I do. I know my kids love and respect one another, but they are very strong personalities, and in their youth, they clashed. Can you hear the old mother muttering?
But unless I see it on CNN, I'm going to assume all is well.
Truth is I'm just jealous. I wish I were there too.
So, if there aren't tons of pictures, I shall be wanting to know why.
This is not actually a blog, but an interview and that can be insightful too. I hope you enjoy. Click HERE to be taken to the link.
Reduce, Reuse, Renew.
A million years ago, when I was teaching grade 7 social studies, there was a unit on ecosystems and the environment. That was in the mid-eighties, when the concept of recycling was just making its way into the public's consciousness. I remember the text book defining recycling as the 3 R's: reduce, reuse, and renew. Reduce the amount you use and subsequently reduce the waste and preserve nature. Instead of discarding things, reuse them whenever possible. It certainly saves the landfills and our natural resources. And, lastly, renew the resources. For every tree that is cut down, plant another.
Now, almost thirty years later, recycling has become a way of life for most of us. We rinse out tin cans, bottles, jars, and milk cartons and put them in the blue box. In also goes paper, plastic, and cardboard. We use cloth bags to carry groceries -- over and over again. We are conscious of turning off lights and avoiding peak hours when running appliances. Toys, baby equipment, and children's clothing get passed round and round from one household to the next. People are composting and car-pooling. It's hard to say if we can undo the damage we've already done to the earth, but at least we have acknowledged there's a problem. And, as Martha Stewart would say, "It's a good thing."
It struck me as I was drifting off to sleep last night that writers are great recyclers. To my mind -- in writing -- less is more, so I'm always conserving words. I have a friend who says of every 4000 words she writes, she keeps 400. I'm a step further along the recycle road. I only write the 400 to begin with. But that's just my style. For those who spill everything on the page at the outset, editing is key. Epic manuscripts are reduced to readable novels.
As for reusing things, writers are born thieves. Anything and everything we see, hear, or otherwise experience through others is likely to appear in a novel someday. Moreover, they say there are only three truly different plots out there, so we writers are recycling them all the time. Add to that the fact that many books are blatant retellings of well-known stories or paradies of others, and you can see that writers are masters of reusing.
Renewing takes many forms. We renew ourselves when we write. We renew ideas through the way we rephrase things. We renew old stories like a decorator refurbishes a room.
Yes, we writers are very good recyclers. In our hands, what's old is new again.
This morning my daughter sent two photos: one of herself at her 1989 grade nine grad and the other of her this morning, straight from bed complete with zero make-up and bed-head and again in the dress she wore to her grade nine grad.
And as I did the math, I realized that in 1989 I was the same age my daughter is now --38.
Holy poop, Batman, where has the time gone?!
I'm reefing on the brakes, but it's not doing any good.
To bring the truth home even more, I'm currently digging into my family's history, and thanks to the stellar efforts of my local genealogical society, I have recently learned that my great-grandfather (who was never actually married to my great-grandmother) had a second family, which no one in my family had ever heard of. I have since connected with this new family branch and am optimistic that together we can dig even deeper to find more of our roots.
So what does this mean? To many people, perhaps nothing. But to me, a writer and lover of mysteries and stories, it presents a web of relationships, fragile yet strong enough to outlast time. As I delve into my great-grandparents lives, I am struck by the power of the era in which they lived. I wonder how my great-grandfather could totally abandon one family and create another. I wonder who these people were. What did they feel for one another? What did they have to sacrifice to survive?
My great-grandmother had three different partners and bore nine children. Only four of her children lived. She died when she was 38 years old -- the same age my daughter is in the second photo -- the same age I was when my daughter graduated in 1989.
Time, place, circumstance -- it means everything.
I have been fortunate to have been part of TD Canadian Children's Bookweek twice. In 2004, I toured the communities around Lake Ontario, and in 2009, I toured the Lower North Shore of Quebec. As I prepare to apply for 2014, I came upon my final report for my Quebec tour, and I was instantly reminded what a wonderful experience that was and how fortunate I had been to go there.
Thanks so much, CCBC and all the sponsors and organizers of this fabulous annual event. There's nothing better than bringing readers and creators together.
Canadian Children's Book Week
The Lower North Shore of Quebec
When I found out I had been chosen to participate in Book Week 2009, I was thrilled, and when I discovered I would be touring the Lower North Shore of Quebec, I knew I was in for a great adventure. I surfed the Internet, searching for information about the region. The first photograph I saw was the tip of a whale's tail in front of an iceberg. (Note to self: Pack mitts, parka and boots.)
Considering I live as far west as you can go in Canada and I was visiting an area that is as far east as you can get, it's a bit of a haul, and the first two days were devoted to travel—the third day too as it turned out, though that wasn't part of the plan. The first leg of the trip went smoothly. It was raining in Montreal when I arrived, so I ordered in dinner (no restaurant in the hotel) and made it an early night. Since I had to be at the airport very early the next morning, I was up before 6 am.
The Provincial Airlines flight was late boarding. I don't know why. Then, when the pilot started up the engines, he discovered a computer malfunction, and after trying unsuccessfully to correct the problem, he called in technicians to fix it. Could be an hour, we were told. Ooh—that would make it touch and go to make my connecting flight. So I relayed the news to Carol-Ann Hoyt (my tour coordinator), and she called Labrador Air in Sept Iles so that they wouldn't leave without me. Turns out we were three hours late leaving Montreal. This was not good.
At the Sept Iles airport I made a bee-line for the Labrador Air counter. Had my flight left? No, it hadn't. Weather was going to keep it on the ground until the next day. Not that it mattered, because when I didn't arrive, they gave my seat away. So I asked when the next flight was. Tuesday. Tuesday!?
But I had to be in Blanc Sablon for two presentations on Monday!
And this is when the magic of the Lower North Shore took possession of me. Instead of panicking, I accepted the fact that the situation was out of my control, and what was going to be was going to be. So I again let Carol-Ann know what was happening, got myself a hotel room and a good night's sleep, and returned to the airport at 7:30 the next morning in the hope that someone would give up their seat on the Air Labrador flight and I could make it to Blanc Sablon for my author talks.
The flight was scheduled for a 9:30 departure, but didn't actually get away until noon. They put me on the flight ten minutes before it left, so I didn't even have a chance to update Carol-Ann until we touched down in Natashquan, where we were informed we might not be going any farther because of bad weather ahead. Oh, joy. Time to call Carol-Ann again. A half hour later we were back in the air and a little while after that we touched down at Chevery airport. My heart did a somersault. I wasn't at my destination, but I was on the Lower North Shore. Twenty minutes later I was in Blanc Sablon. And thanks to Carol-Ann, my ride was even there to pick me up.
Whew! I was exhausted, and I hadn't even given a talk yet!
I was too late to make my school presentation, but there was still the Canada Council reading that night. The audience was initially supposed to be adults, but because I'd missed the school visit, a lot of the kids showed up too. Therefore, I had no choice but to scratch my planned talk and wing it. My talk was kind of a dog's breakfast (make that potpourri—it sounds better). I talked about all sorts of aspects of writing, but included the embalming component for the kids. The students had been studying Egypt and had done computer-research projects. There was Walk Like an Egyptian music to usher in the audience, as well as homemade sistrums (Egyptian musical instrument), and Egyptian food for refreshment afterwards. The adults asked as many questions as the kids.
Tuesday was busy—four presentations at two schools. In the morning I made two Embalming a Mummy presentations at Mountain Ridge School in Old Fort Bay, after which I was chauffeured by the custodian to St Paul High School in St. Paul's River and talked to two groups of secondary students about Return to Bone Tree Hill. (Three different custodians were my taxi drivers during the tour. People in the area all wear many hats.) I was greeted with a hot lunch and pulled right into the staff room conversation. The only glitch was that the cheques for my talks weren't prepared and the principal wasn't there to sign them. So I had to give the schools my home address and trust that they would mail me the money. (Fingers are crossed.)
Wednesday morning saw me flying to St. Augustine River—late again. Actually, I can honestly say there wasn't a single flight that departed on schedule from anywhere during my whole tour. Transportation schedules on the Lower North Shore are approximate at best; that's part of the charm of the area. Type A people would not do well here.
All the airports in the region are tiny, and this one was no exception. I had no sooner crossed the tarmac and entered the back door of the building, when I saw my luggage walking out the front door with two fellows decked in plaid shirts, ball-caps, and jeans. So, of course, I followed them and watched as my bags were loaded into the back of a van. Up to this point, no one had spoken to me, but I knew I was supposed to go from the airport to a water taxi, which would take me across the river where Hubert (the school custodian) should be waiting, so I figured this must be my ride. Sure enough, an older man opened the side door of the van and—after climbing in—offered me a hand up. Then the fellows who loaded my luggage, hopped in the front, and away we went. (Aside: Though this is an English-speaking area, there is a strong Newfoundland influence, and many of the locals have very pronounced accents, so much so that I often had no idea what they were saying.) Such was the case with these three gentlemen. They started carrying on a conversation among themselves—of which I didn't understand a word, and it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps I was voluntarily being abducted. I almost laughed.
But, of course, I wasn't, and I made it to the school just fine. I spoke to the senior students first, who were familiar with two of my books and contributed to my presentation with readings of their own. In the afternoon I did the Egyptian presentation with the elementary students, and as usual, the teachers were totally grossed out by the removal of the brain through the nose. The kids, on the other hand, loved it. The principal kindly took me under his wing, explaining much about the area, the kids, the education system, and why he hadn't retired though he was well into his sixties. The day also included lunch at the local restaurant, a sight-seeing tour, and a radio interview.
Thursday morning saw me back on the water taxi and then on a plane for Chevery. Both presentations went well, and the school and teachers bought every book I had brought with me. That afternoon I found myself on yet another water taxi to the island of Harrington Harbour, where I was taken on the back of a four-wheeler to another radio interview. (There are no cars, trucks, etc. in Harrington Harbour, because there are no roads—just boardwalks.) After the interview, I hopped back on the ATV and was taken to Amy Evans' Boarding House. (Super accommodation and warm, friendly hostess.)
That evening the second of my Canada Council readings took place at the Community Learning Centre. There was a really good turnout, and because we were all seated around a couple of long tables pushed together, the discussion was brisk. Interested in writing in general, the group was more specifically concerned with safeguarding family and community history, which we discussed at length.
Friday morning I visited Harrington School to make my final two classroom presentations. The secondary teacher was very well-prepared, and her students were familiar with several of my books, including Return to Bone Tree Hill, so I had to change up my presentation a bit to fit the situation. It wasn't a problem, and we had a lovely discussion—even shared a snack together. The elementary students were also familiar with a few of my books and very knowledgeable about ancient Egypt, so the embalming presentation was a great success. The school presented me with a book bag as a thank you.
After lunch it was back to Chevery via water taxi. That evening there was another Canada Council reading in the school library. I believe there was a last minute conflict of community events, so the group was only about 8 strong. Nevertheless we had a good discussion, and everyone shared fascinating stories and insights.
I did my last Canada Council reading on Saturday afternoon. This was a family-oriented writing workshop. After sharing the stories of how I got into writing, I gave the group the basics for story-writing and provided them with a topic—if they couldn't come up with their own. Every one wrote madly for about twenty minutes, at which time parents and kids alike shared what they'd written. It was a lot of fun, and at the end, the group presented me with a school-published story by the kids about Oliver, the tractor—the first vehicle in Chevery.
That evening I was treated to a potluck supper at the community hall, where I got to catch up with the people I had met during my stay.
I truly feel that I may quite possibly have had the best experience of all the authors, illustrators, and storytellers who went on tour. Not only did I get to share my books; I got to experience places and people completely different from any I have every known. The Lower North Shore is a remote area with a rugged, raw landscape. Services are minimal, and the weather is unpredictable. It takes a special kind of person to live there, and I was lucky enough to meet many of them.
"Can't you write any faster?" is a regular complaint from my mother, who gets to listen to each new chapter immediately after it's written. It's kind of like following Dickens' serial of The Pickwick Papers. My mother easily gobbles up three novels a week, so getting a mere chapter a week from me seems to her a lot like watching the grass grow. Throw in the fact that I may be working simultaneously on three different novels, and her annoyance quotient rises accordingly.
Then there's my husband. "Playing games again? I thought you were supposed to be writing. You are such a procrastinator."
It's true. I'd be lying if I claimed otherwise, but I do have a defense. While I'm playing games or scrolling through the Facebook newsfeed, I am also thinking. And that, ladies and gentlemen who don't write, is a very necessary part of the writing process. At least it is for me.
Though I have no trouble coming up with story ideas, and I positively itch to get at the keyboard when I'm starting a new project, I still have to think about what I want to say and how I want to say it. I have to visualize each scene and hear my characters talk in my head (yes, I hear voices!), before I can write a single word.
But the thing that holds me up most is the logistics of writing. Just as I imagine it must be for a director when shooting a movie and dealing with issues of lighting, staging, sets, editing, action shots, doubles, etc. -- all of which mean nothing to the movie watcher, the director has to get them right or his movie will be a flop. So it is with writing. No matter how fabulous the story is, the details have to work or the story is nothing.
"Easy reading is damned hard writing." I don't know who said it, but it's true.
Let me give you a few examples.
In one of the novels I'm currently working on, the central character is dead and it is his job to safeguard the graves of all those buried in the cemetery. That's all well and good, but it's going to make for some pretty boring reading if every scene is set in the graveyard, and since my dead character is the narrator of the story, that would seem to be how it must be. My character is compelled to do his duty as sentinel, but I must find a way to get him out of the cemetery while he's doing it. Hmmn? A definite conundrum.
This is what I refer to as a logistical problem.
In another novel, I have a character pretend to be a ghost in the woods to scare someone she shares a cabin with. The thing is the perpetrator of the prank is supposed to be sound asleep in the cabin, and the victim of the prank is on her way to the cabin when she sees the ghost. So here's the problem: How does the ghost get back to the cabin before her roommate? This logistical issue clearly needed to be sorted before I could write the scene.
Same novel, same ghost, same victim -- different logistical issue. The girl pretending to be the ghost is abnormally tiny, so to make her a credible spectre, I had to adjust the legend about the ghost, and instead of her being a woman, I had to make her a child. Also, in order for my readers to believe that my victim would believe she really had seen a ghost (mandatory if the prank is going to be successful), I had to establish beforehand that the victim is a very superstitious person.
Author dusts hands and sighs. Logistical problem solved.
There is no novel written that isn't plagued by these sorts of logistical dilemmas, and the solutions often affect other aspects of the story too -- it's a domino effect, so the author is always making changes. The thing is that I hate making work for myself, so rather than race through a draft and then do a massive rewrite, I try to get these logistical issues sorted right at the outline stage.
And that sometimes requires a great deal of thinking.
So, Mom, though I am able to type quite quickly, it takes me a bit of time to figure out exactly what I should be typing. And, dear husband, when I'm playing games, I really am working.
That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
I'm never going to write that break-through novel. That best-seller that sets everyone on their ear -- it won't be coming from me.
Have I given up? Absolutely not. I've just come to a realization. Granted, I'm a bit slow, but I did finally get there. The novels that garner the acclaim are the ones riddled with angst, abuse, violence, psycho-something, and oodles of melodrama. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is not me. I can't write that, because I haven't lived it. That is not to say that my life has been without some drama, but certainly not to that extreme. Furthermore, anything bad that has happened hasn't done me in. And that affects what I write. My work isn't heavy with hardship; it is drizzled with hurt and laced with hope. And that is not what sends the reviewers over the top. But it is what I would wish for my readers. I want them to be able to dig into their depths to find the strength and resilience to bounce back from whatever challenges them. So that is what I shall continue to write. Likely, it will continue to be swept aside as light, but perhaps it carries enough weight to resonate with my readers.
What's in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet;
-- William Shakespeare (from Romeo & Juliet)
'Tis true. However, if you called the rose 'stinkweed', there might not be nearly so many people willing to smell it.
Names are important, or -- speaking in terms of books -- titles are. They can draw you in or turn you off. In fact, they are so important, that I often have the titles before I have the stories to go with them. (It's just the way I roll.) Generally, titles come easily for me, and they stick. Of the 20 books I've published, only 3 have undergone title changes at the publisher's request.
Two were from the Zach & Zoe series. The first book I had called The Secret in Mr. Dotty's Garage. For some reason the publisher didn't care for that and suggested Zach & Zoe and the Bank Robber. But they thought that made it sound like a series, so I wrote two more books. The second I titled Zach & Zoe: Double Trouble, which was changed to Zach & Zoe: Bully and the Beagle. The publisher may have been right about that change. They wanted to change the title of the third book too, Zach & Zoe and the River Rescue, but they couldn't come up with an alternative. After that, Lorimer pulled the plug on the Streetlight Imprint, so that was the end of the series. Too bad too, because I had a really cool Hallowe'en book planned.
The only other title a publisher has insisted I change is for one of my 2013 spring books, Truths I Learned from Sam. That was one of those books I had titled before I had a story. In fact, I had the title a couple of years before I knew what the book would be about. It was called God is a Yankee and Other Truths I Learned from Sam. My publisher shortened it to God is a Yankee but thought that was misleading, so amended it to God is a Yankee Fan. They even put the cover out there on the Internet. You can still find it if you do a search. (If you want collector's items, I have bookmarks with the original cover.) But the marketing people felt the title didn't represent the story (which it didn't once they took the other half of it away!), and they thought it might be off-putting to some readers. So I was asked to come up with another one. Hence, Truths I Learned from Sam was born. That title change still rankles. I really liked the original title, but you can't win 'em all, and the book is doing really well, so I'm not complaining.
Some titles I've massaged myself before submitting to publishers. Bone Tree Hill became Return to Bone Tree Hill when friends suggested the original was too much like the title of a television series. Zee's Way should have become Zee's Wall, but my decision to change it came too late in the production process. The most difficult title I ever came up with is The Gramma War. I must have changed the working title of that book a half dozen times while I was writing. I really struggled to find something that felt right, but when I finally stumbled on the right one, I knew immediately that it was the one.
So what makes a good title? For me, it can't be ho-hum and it can't be overly dramatic. It needs to arouse my curiosity, and anything with bones in it automatically gets my attention. (The Lovely Bones, The Bone Flute -- oh yeah, I'm there.) The title must pertain to the story though. Nothing ticks me off more than to finish a novel and still not understand how the title relates.
Bottom line: titles matter. How sad that a wonderful book gets left unread for want of a good title.
Am I travelling to exotic places? Yes. Am I inheriting a fortune? I have done. Am I falling in love? Over and over. Am I chasing a mystery? Regularly.
At least, my characters are, and that's pretty much the same thing. You see, the relationship between me and the characters in my books is a symbiotic one. I live vicariously through them, and they come to life through me. There's not a single word they utter or a thought they think, that I'm not right there helping them through it. I don't sit in my office chair, watching my characters play out their parts. Oh, no. I'm right there in the middle of the action, experiencing the suspense, the fun, and the heart break along with them.
It's a difficult phenomenon to explain to someone who doesn't write, but the truth is that even though authors create the stories, they are as astounded by what happens in them as are their readers. Writers don't know the actual words characters are going to speak until they open their mouths. So conversations are a surprise. The same holds true for characters' actions. I might know a character is going to find a ring on the road, but I'm likely going to be just as surprised as my character, when and how it happens. In fact, I guarantee I will be. I have to be! Otherwise, the scene will seem contrived, and the character will feel flat and lifeless.
In my writing group, we often talk about 'distance' in writing. The plot may be moving along nicely, but sometimes the readers feel removed from the characters, as if they are being held at arm's length. When that happens, it's a reminder to the author to get out of her chair and climb into the story. You cannot create believable action, nor convey credible characters unless you are part of what you are writing.
So when something -- anything, everything! -- happens to my characters (all of them -- even the bad guys), it is happening to me. My writing group recently commented at how real the grief one of my characters was experiencing felt, and though I was pleased to have captured that, I wasn't surprised that I had. And that's because during the writing of that scene, I allowed myself to experience the grief right along with my character. My heart broke with her, tears overwhelmed me, I covered my mouth and rocked unconsolably in my chair. Then I had her do exactly the same things.
Readers suspend their disbelief and allow themselves to share experiences with a book's characters. Writers must do the same thing. It is not enough that they write about their characters; they must become them.
As a rule, I'm not a list maker, but once in a while I accumulate so many tasks on my plate, that instead of simply doing them, I begin playing tag with my thoughts. I try so hard to remember the things I need to do and sort out the order in which I should do them, that I get little or nothing done aside from thinking.
So it was with my writing. I never used to outline. I just waited for an idea to strike, for the characters to walk into my head with a problem to solve, and away I went. Certainly I had a basic idea where the story was going -- or at least where I wanted it to go -- but the details of the plot and the supporting cast of characters were hazy, as if I was seeing them through a fog.
Then, in 2002, Orca Book Publishers introduced Soundings, a new imprint of short, gritty, engaging books for reluctant teen readers. As a former middle and high school teacher, I was very familiar with reluctant readers and knew how necessary and timely this new imprint was. It could have a big impact on turning non-readers into readers, and I wanted to be a part of that. I even had a title -- The Hemingway Tradition. All I needed was a story to go with it. Because the Soundings books were so short and aimed at such a specific audience, Orca recognized that it wasn't practical or fair to ask authors to write these novels on spec, so instead they offered contracts based on an outline and a sample chapter.
Suddenly feeling my way forward through a fog wasn't an option. I had to know exactly where the story was going, and I had to provide a map so that the publisher knew too. Never having outlined before, I had no idea what I should be doing, but being linear and analytical by nature, I came up with a format that worked for me. First I needed a story. That was not a problem. When it comes to ideas, my mind is as prolific as a rabbit farm. Having identified my central character and his problem, I then decided on a solution. Now my story had a beginning and an end; it just needed a middle. I jotted down a few ideas for conflict and plot twists, as well as sub-plots, and -- with a pretty good idea what was going to happen in my story, I began my outline.
I decided on a twelve chapter format. I wanted the chapters to be uniform, and since the final word count couldn't exceed 15,000, my limit was 1250 per chapter. I roughly blocked the plot into twelve parts and, picturing the scenes I wanted to dramatize in my head, I wrote down what I needed to include in each chapter. It looked like this.
∙ set in car crossing Saskatchewan ∙ Shaw relives his father’s suicide ∙ set tone for mother/son relationship ∙ establish the notion that Dylan Sebring’s death is unresolved
∙ provide rationale for the move ∙ give family background ∙ Shaw starts school ∙ introduce Tess Peterson and Jai Sra
∙ Shaw’s English teacher draws a comparison of Shaw’s writing to his dad’s ∙ though Tess smokes, Shaw is attracted to her ∙ Tess (editor) asks Shaw to join the school paper ∙ her pointed enquiries about Dylan Sebring cause Shaw to blurt out his suicide (he’s motivated by anger re: everybody saying how great his dad is, but he knows different) ∙ Shaw and Jai go to volleyball tryouts
During this process, the most interesting thing happened. As I sorted my ideas on paper, the story started to come together on its own, and my ideas began to flow naturally. The story was all right there.
The finished outline was more polished but still pretty bare bones. I didn't include every detail -- that's what the novel is for -- but I had a map.
Orca contracted the book based on that outline and the first chapter. I still think the opening paragraph is one of the best I've ever written.
"We had the top down on our old LeBaron, and the sun was beating on us from a sky that was nothing but blue. It was my mom's turn to drive. I was stretched out in the passenger's seat, watching Saskatchewan slide by and thinking there must be a couple dozen different ways for a guy to kill himself."
So far I've written six hi-lo books for Orca, each of which was contracted on an outline and sample chapters, but the act of outlining has become part of the process for all my writing. The main reason is that it is liberating. Once I have an outline, I don't have to try to keep everything sorted in my head, and I can focus on the chapter I am writing without worrying that it's all going to come together. I KNOW it will come together.
Oh, sure, sometimes I'm so excited by a new story idea that I barrel ahead for a chapter or three on sheer adrenaline and gut instinct, but at some point, I outline. I'm definitely a convert.
In just over three weeks Truths I Learned from Sam will be released. This is my 19th book (my 20th will be out in April), but holding that new book in my hands never gets old. When my first book came out almost sixteen years ago, all I did was wander around in a daze and make numerous trips to the bookstores to stare at it on the shelves. Any and all promotion was carried out by my publisher.
Today, it's a different story (no pun intended). Now authors play a major role in the promotion and marketing of their books. I'm constantly searching the Internet to see what kind of recognition my book is getting. I've done a trailer and am in the process of planning 3 'coming-out' parties for the new title. I've had bookmarks made and I keep my website updated. The publisher is doing its part too, and working closely with my PR contact there helps keep all our bases covered.
The thing I'm really beginning to appreciate in a big way is the power of social networks. When the cover for Truths I Learned from Sam was vying for top spot in a public vote online last week, I put out the all call to my facebook friends and my email contacts, asking them to vote -- AND THEY DID. Even better, they reposted my request and accessed their own networks to multiply my efforts. I realized early on, that it wasn't really a matter of which was the best cover, but a question of which author could muster the most effective network. My cover won with 44% of the vote, a good 12% higher than my closest rival.
When I write a blog, friends and family provide links and repost on facebook, twitter, etc. They mention the book in their own posts and voluntarily write reviews on Goodreads, Amazon, Shelfari, and other book sites.
And it really makes a difference. Word of mouth really is a powerful tool. I am in awe, and I am also very grateful.
Within a week, I received two school-project-prompted requests for information about me and my books. This is not unusual. English teachers are always assigning book reports, and I am pleased to know that mine are some of the books students are reading and reporting on. After all, I write for young people, so it's good to know I'm reaching my audience.
As a former teacher -- who also assigned students book reports -- I am more than happy to help out with students' research. And there, dear readers, is what brings me to write this blog -- RESEARCH. I have no quibble with being a research resource, but I do take offense at students who expect me to write their reports for them.
That was the situation with the last two requests for information.
The first one wasn't even signed, but I knew it was from a student, because the return address was a Catholic school in Missouri. There was no salutation either. No easing into the request with "I really enjoyed your book" or "I couldn't put the book down" or "I can hardly wait to read other books you've written". There were none of the niceties that one expects before being hit up for help. All the email said was -- "I need you to give me the full plot outline for the book, Cheat." (The student used another term for plot outline, but I can't recall what it was.)
And that was it.
For the longest time I was merely flabbergasted. Not only was this email wanting in format, it was sorely lacking in common courtesy. Did the student's teacher not prep the class on proper research techniques, how to approach someone for information, and the types of questions that are appropriate? And when did please and thank you go out the window?
Then I got angry. The email was rude and disrespectful. The request was tantamount to plugging in a search chain on Google. Furthermore, the student wasn't asking me for information, she was basically asking me to do her project for her. What she was asking of me, she could do herself.
I was tempted to write back and give her a piece of my mind (not the part that she'd asked for either!), but I didn't. Instead, I heard my mother's voice in my head, saying, "Don't dignify the insult with a response," and I deleted the email without replying. I thought about contacting the school, but I didn't do that either. Often, things that I perceive as obvious breaches of conduct aren't seen that way by others, so I decided to give my blood pressure a rest and move on.
The second email request came from a mother on behalf of her son. So the warning flashers in my brain went on immediately. Why wasn't the boy emailing me himself? Was his mother doing his entire report for him? Again, there was no salutation. Whatever happened to "Dear Kristin Butcher,"? The body of the email was short. I can't recall the exact wording, but it went like this -- "My son is doing a report on The Trouble with Liberty. Could you explain where the idea came from for this book?" Once again, there was no please or thank you and no signature. If parents don't have manners, it's no wonder their kids don't.
This time I replied -- sort of. I knew a very detailed response to that question existed on the Internet, so instead of seaching online for the information first, the woman had obviously come directly to me. Having pity on her son -- because he may not have known what his mother was doing -- I emailed back a link with a brief reply informing the woman that she could find the information on the linked site. She didn't sign her email, so neither did I.
In fairness, I must say that the majority of requests I get for information are cordial, respectful, and courteous. If I am asked for information that is available on the Net I provide the link, but because I don't put a lot of personal information out there (eg. -- family and personal data), I do give out relevant information to students who ask politely. Often I get thank-you's too.
So, what's the point of this rant? In this Age of Technology, personal interaction is becoming less common, and social skills are taking a kicking. Parents and teachers, if you are not already doing so, please give kids the proper tools to help them move forward successfully. They will actually have to deal with real people from time to time. Teach them how to problem solve, to show initiative, to act respectfully, to consider the rights and feelings of others, and above all, to employ good manners. These things will take them a long way.
Write a story without a setting? It's like trying to write a story without a character. I don't think it can be done. A story has to happen to somone or something, even if it's just a grain of sand, and it has to happen sometime and somewhere. The setting can be pinpointed to the second or it can be as vague as long, long ago. It can be as isolated and simple as the inside of a coffin, or it can be as vast as the universe.
I would guess that for most authors, establishing a setting is one of the easiest aspects of creating a story. That doesn't mean it isn't important. In fact, setting is instrumental in defining the parameters for character development and plot movement. In my novel, Return to Bone Tree Hill, the setting is almost another character, and in the novel I'm currently working on, The Sentinel of Mabry Moor, the setting dictates the entire plot. (Notice how the setting is mentioned in both titles.)
Anyway, the topic came up at my critique group last week, and I've thought about it quite a bit since then. One of our members, who is writing a science fiction novel, has been floundering in recent months. Oh, she's been writing, but often just writing exercises, and even when she has submitted a scene from her WIP, it isn't always clear where or how it fits with her storyline. Plot direction and character attributes tend to be in flux. Last session, she told us that instead of writing, she's been world-building. She's been mapping, researching, juggling, rethinking and reforming the setting of her story, because she can't write her novel until she clearly comprehends where and when it's happening.(When you're creating a completely new world, the setting is obviously more intricate.)
By forcing herself to examine her setting and make some concrete decisions about it, it has gone from a blurry idea to a vivid world. Finally she can picture the place her story is set. She can see every part in relation to every other part and she can see her characters moving within it. (I cannot stress enough how crucial it is to be able to do this. You cannot hope to paint a picture for readers, when you can't visualize it yourself.)
Most important of all, clearly defining her setting helped her make decisions about the direction her story must take if it is to fit the setting. She realizes that she needs to change the time element, because by doing so she can reveal the story in a more dramatic way. Understanding her setting has also made her realize that her characters will react to situations based on their backgrounds (personal settings) as well as the present setting in which they find themselves. (It's the old you can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy adage.) People are in part a result of where and how they grow up. What motivates them is connected to their backgrounds too.
Of course, this spills over into the plot as well. Instead of trying to force the plot into the mold she had originally devised, she is using the aspects of the setting to dictate how scenes play out and how important they are to the story.
Now she finds herself weaving the elements together in a more natural progression and she is anxious to get back to writing. I have a feeling it's going to be a new, improved story.
No, I don't have a novel being made into a movie (yet), but it was a great facsimile this afternoon as the filming for the book trailer for one of my spring books, The Truths I Learned From Sam got underway. I know I complain about how technology pushes its way more and more into the publishing industry, but this is actually one of the aspects of it that I like.
I know nothing about filming anything, but fortunately I have some connections. The grandson of one of the members of my critique group is a promising young film maker. His name is Michael Stevantoni, and his work is not to be taken lightly. I guarantee you will see big things from him in the future. If you don't believe me check out this trailer to his latest film, The Brother. (The Brother is a link. Click on it.) Michael did some work for me a couple of years ago, and though he was good then, his skills have since grown tenfold. Now, at nearly 17 years old, he is turning out some amazing work. Film making is his career aspiration, and I'm pretty sure he'll get there. I'm just glad I got to work with him while I can still afford him.
I provided Michael with a script and we discussed the overall effect I was looking for. Then he threw his ideas into the mix, and we came up with a plan. I hate it when someone tries to tell me how to do my job, so I stepped back and let Michael do his thing. Even so, he checked with me to see if I liked what was happening or if I wanted something else. The kid definitely knows what he is doing, and since I have no clue, I was happy to let him take the reins.
The actress in the trailer is the granddaughter of another writing friend. Since I seldom provide physical descriptions of my characters, there was a lot of wiggle room when casting the part, but Tsitika Ledlin made the perfect Dani Lancaster -- the central character of my novel. Though Tsitika claims to have no acting experience, she couldn't have played her part more perfectly. Her grandmother, Dayle Gaetz, even got teary.
Dayle and I did our parts too. I made it rain on the windows to provide the mood the trailer needed, and Dayle held a big bath sheet to block out offending light.
Even my husband got into the act, though not intentionally and not to the benefit of the filming. He arrived home just as the audio recording was getting underway, and though he thought he was being quiet in another room, the director had to call "CUT!" and my husband had to be shushed into silence.
The filming was an eye-opening experience, as well as a lot of fun. I can hardly wait to see the final result.
And you know I'll be sharing.
Truths I Learned from Sam, a YA novel coming out early next spring was reviewed in today's edition of CM Magazine (a great online review journal). Of course, I wanted a rave review. What I got was respectable. I'm disappointed, but the review was fair, and everyone is entitled to an opinion.
The reviewer did make one comment about my central character, Dani, that riled though, a comment that has been made before about other characters in my books. She said that Dani is 'competent, reliable, and thoughtful', and these are not realistic traits for a teenager. She also implied that teen readers might therefore not relate to Dani.
A teen who joy rides, is sullen, lazy, tells adults off, smokes, drinks, does drugs, shoplifts, breaks the rules, is in trouble with the law, performs poorly at school, lies, and is self-abusive is readily accepted as normal, but those who show compassion, common sense, and good judgment are not. If that's not stereo-typing, I don't know what is.
I am not saying that there aren't rebellious teens -- in fact, there are a lot of them, but not all teens fit that mold. Not all teens slip off the rails during their adolescence. It isn't a necessary or mandatory phase of growing up.
I know this from experience. Believe it or not, I was a teenager once -- a competent, reliable, thoughtful teenager. I cleaned the house and made dinner because my mom worked full-time. I was a straight A student. I was involved in student council and was editor of the school newspaper. I had a summer job. I had a curfew. I followed the rules. That is not to say I always fell in line with my parents wishes, but when I broke a rule I did so after careful consideration and was willing to argue my case or take the consequences. Don't go thinking I must have been a social outcast, because I wasn't. I was popular, went to parties and dances and had a boyfriend -- AND most of the kids I chummed around with were competent, reliable, and thoughtful too.
My children were the same. They didn't always make the choices I would have wanted, but we're talking minor issues none of us was going to lose sleep over. I trusted them, and they never let me down. They too did well at school and had active social lives. They were also elite athletes. They had freedom to pursue their interests, but also were given responsibilities. I always knew where they were and I was welcome in their lives and activities. The only time the school called was to say they were ill or were receiving some sort of award. There was never a single angry phone call from parents, coaches, or employers, and no run-ins with the law ever.
Now you can say my children and I were flukes of nature, but you'd be wrong. In addition to being a teenager at one point and raising teenagers at another point, I also taught teens for many years, and they taught me a thing or three too. One -- individuals respond according to how they are treated. What I mean by that is that even the most rebellious kid will respond positively if treated fairly. He may rebel against a parent or teacher because of the way they deal with him, but he may be a totally different person with a coach who has a different approach. Trust a kid and that kid will be trustworthy. Two -- when put in a position where their decisions really matter, kids will usually make the right choices, or at the very least, have good reasons why they made the wrong one. Take the roughest teens in town and put them in charge of a small child and BAM! instantly they become the adults and assume responsibility for that little person. Three -- if teens rebel, it's often because they feel they have no control over their lives. As much as is possible, they must be allowed to be the 'boss' of themselves.
How kids are raised and treated has a huge bearing on how they ply their way through their teens. There are violent, surly, dishonest, substance-abusing adults, so it stands to reason that there are teens like that too. But those competent, reliable, thoughtful adults also had to come from somewhere.
Therefore I resent the implication that because my characters have these positive traits, they aren't realistic or credible. Truth be told, there are a lot more competent, reliable, thoughtful teens out there than you think.
This morning one of the writers in my group posed an interesting question via email. Basically, she was asking how writers decide on the point of view for telling a story. It's an excellent question that evoked a variety of responses from the group -- which tells you right off the bat that there is no simple answer.
It's a complicated issue. The dictionary defines point of view as the narrator's position in relation to the story being told. In other words, who is telling the story? Is it being told in 1st person by one of the characters? Is it being told in 3rd person limited by an unseen narrator with access to the thoughts and feelings of one of the characters? Or is it being told in 3rd person omniscient by an all-seeing narrator who is privy to all events as well as the thoughts and feelings of all the characters? (There are other alternatives as well, but this gives you the idea.)
So how does one decide? For the most part, writers choose a POV that will help them tell the most effective story. If there is a lot happening to which no single character has complete access, the best choice might be to go with the omniscient narrator -- the fly on the wall that sees everything but has no stake in what's going on. If it's an angst-riddled story with lots of internal conflict, 1st person POV by the character with the most at stake is probably the best choice. If it is a tale of action, where the conflict is primarily external, 3rd person limited might be the way to go.
The bottom line is that you have to be very clear in your own mind about what story it is that you want to tell. Then you can decide who should be the one to tell it. This decision is further complicated when you consider the viewpoint of your POV narrator. Some regard the terms as interchangable, but I think there is a distinction. Point of view is concerned with who is telling the story, while viewpoint refers to the narrator's take or stand on the story. Ask two children involved in a dispute to explain what happened and the stories -- though they relate the same incident, will be night and day different because the narrators have a different perspective. So one must decide how the narrator perceives what is being reported. If it's positively, the narrator might use the word 'slim' to describe a woman. If it's negatively, the word choice might be 'skinny'.
So many choices! It can seem daunting to a new writer, but after a while it becomes an unconscious part of your thought processes and you find yourself making decisions without even realizing it.
Those of you who have read some of my previous blogs know that I have a passion for words that begin with E. For some reason E words are the most musical -- epistomology, endemic, egregious, ephemeral ... I love the sound of them all. So when I have a legitimate reason to use one of those words, I am always thrilled. (As you have probably guessed, I don't get out much.)
Anyway, yesterday I had an epiphany. The experience itself was wonderful as epiphanies often are, but the music of the word simultaneously dancing in my head made it doubly wonderful.
You see I am writing a book. Nothing new about that. I have been a published writer for fifteen years, and I have 20 titles to my name. I also have a multitude of manuscripts that haven't been published, so the fact that I'm writing a book is not the epiphany. The thing that's different about this book is that I am positively captivated by it. I am totally excited to be writing it. That is not to say that I haven't enjoyed writing all those other books. I have, or I wouldn't have done it.
The thing is that the longer I write, the harder I find writing is. Perhaps it's because I demand more of myself. I try different techniques, hone my skills -- in other words push myself to improve with every book. I think it's important to do that. It's kind of like when I learned to play chess. At first it was a challenge just to remember the manner in which each piece moved, and knocking my opponent's pawns off the board was a huge rush, but as my skills and strategy improved and I was able to see several moves ahead, the game became more difficult -- and less fun.
Before I was a published writer, I wrote only when the spirit moved me, and I wrote only for myself, so writing was always a pleasure. It was something I did to relax. Now writing is my job, and though I love it, I still need it to earn me money, so I'm always strategizing. I'm networking, I'm giving presentations, I'm marketing, and I'm writing books for the purpose of selling them. I still enjoy writing them, but I'm always looking down the pipe.
The book I am currently working on is so different from anything I've written before, that I have no idea who the readers might be, nor what publisher might be interested. I may not be able to sell it at all, and I don't care. This book is for me. If I can get it published, that's a bonus. But I am writing it regardless. It's a story I want to tell and I want to tell it a certain way, not because that will make it appealing to readers and editors, but because it appeals to me.
Writing for myself has recharged my writing battery. It is fun again -- all day and into the night. Each morning I can't wait to get working. Here's where the epiphany comes in. I have been so busy doing what I need to do to be a successful writer that I've forgotten how to write for the simple joy of it. Oh, I still have to play the publishing game and write what's going to sell, but I also need to remember why I ever picked up a pen in the first place. Every now and again, I need to push the pragmatic side of writing aside and write simply because I want to.
The Book Thief/Markus Zusak
I didn't love it. I didn't hate it either, but I didn't love it, and because everyone else I've ever spoken to did love it, I can't help but think the problem must be with me.
The writing was brilliant -- there's no argument there. Zusak is a gifted author, creating metaphors that are so simple, natural, and original, that the images practically jump off the page. I love the meagreness of his writing -- less is definitely more. There is no doubt he is a master wordsmith with a refreshing style. In fact, I found myself rereading some passages (something I seldom do), because once just wasn't enough.
I thought it was clever to make death the narrator, especially for a story set during a war, and though I was prepared to hate him, I actually ended up feeling sorry for him -- his was such a relentless job tinged with regret and sadness. But, for me, the choice of narrator created a wall, a distance between me and the characters. The novel has an omniscient point of view -- who better to be everywhere and see everything than Death? -- but that narrative style almost always creates a wedge. It's like taking a step back from the action. Instead of being immersed in the lives of the characters, the reader is always aware -- albeit subconsciously -- that she is being told a story. The fact that Death regularly interrupts the tale with editorial comments further pulled me out of the novel. The use of vignettes didn't help either. Though they provided lots of opportunities for reading breaks, I felt they made the read choppy. As for the drawings and hand-written parts by Max, I didn't like those at all.
The story itself was heartbreaking, and though I'm sure that it is a good representation of what that time must have been like, the novel offers no hope, no light, no redemption, nothing to uplift the reader even a little. I'm sure that is fine for some readers -- but not this one. The tone of the writing is so sombre, that even the parts that should feel lighter, don't. I have no doubt that this was intentional on Zusak's part, which further proves his skill, but I didn't like it. A steady diet of death and heartbreak doesn't do it for me. The only positive outcomes of the story are Max's return from the war and the development of the relationship between Liesel Meminger and Ilsa Hermann, and those are related more as sidebars than happy conclusions. It was the story of apocalypse -- perhaps on a smaller scale -- but apocalypse nevertheless. Everything good was destroyed.
I was under the impression that The Book Thief was a YA novel, but after reading it, I would say definitely not. Cross-over maybe, but I wouldn't expect anyone below the age of sixteen to understand the depths of the story, let alone enjoy the read.
In conclusion: I get what Zuzak was trying to do, and I think he succeeded brilliantly, but did I love it?
Not so much.
Remember that song, Head Games, by Foreigner way back in the late 70's? It was about a love relationship that was driving one of the partners crazy. I never really knew the lyrics, but I could sing the chorus and the song had a good beat to bop around to as I did my housework.
Though I don't like the kinds of head games the song referred to, I do like the term, and I really think it applies to my life, because I live in my head. That's where I'm happiest. I'm always playing head games.
When I speak with my sister, I get weary just hearing about all the activities that fill her life. She's forever going somewhere and doing something -- golf holidays, house renovations, throwing a party, taking a trip, going to the gym, playing tennis, taking a course, etc. When I have to use up a whole day running around, it can actually make me grumpy. I don't even like taking time out to go grocery shopping, and I find housework a real imposition, though I do it, because I can't stand a dirty house. I enjoy getting together with people and attending sporting events and other functions, but not day in and day out. I prefer to plan for such things, and one outing a week is enough for me. My mother is like a humming bird, buzzing from the library to the bank and then the dollar store and then coming home to bake mince tarts, banana loaf, and sausage rolls. I have to psych myself up for that kind of a day, and I'm always happiest when it's over and I can return to the comfort of my mind.
Okay, right about now, you are thinking I'm a slug. You could be right, but I don't think so. I cook, clean, do laundry, run errands, help my mom, travel, do public speaking, paint, socialize, and, of course, write and complete all the other tasks that go along with being a writer. I'm actually a pretty reliable, responsible person, BUT I'm happiest when left alone to wander through my mind.
I have been like that forever. When I was a kid, I would curl up in a corner and read all day. At least I would have if my parents would have let me. But they had this idea about fresh air and exercise and were forever shooing me outside to run and play -- which I did. I had friends and I enjoyed the stuff we did together. But I was just as happy to pack a lunch and go for a day-long hike -- solo -- through the bush and up the mini-mountains surrounding my home. I could sit for hours gazing out over the countryside or staring out at the sea, just thinking and imagining. It was like visiting a spa for the soul.
Drawing, painting, and crafts also brought me comfort, because I did them alone and they nurtured my need to be creative and to imagine.
Writing was a natural off-shoot of reading and another great solitary pastime, so after teaching myself to type, I began recording the stories that filled my head. Everything I saw, heard, touched, tasted, and smelled triggered something in my brain. The inside of my head has always been something like the Hallodeck on Star Trek. Anything can happen there, and it does. It is a wonderful place to play, and I don't even need air miles to go there.
I must be getting old. I know this, not just from my reflection in the mirror or from my body's refusal to do things it used to do without any coaxing at all -- such as standing up after kneeling down or reading the telephone directory without a magnifying glass, but also from my increasing reluctance to embrace change. Considering there seems to be something new out there almost every day, this is not a good thing. I'm falling behind on even the simplest things. I don't own a cell phone. I can't operate the DVD player. I don't know the difference between Blue Tooth and Blue Ray. I have yet to explore iTunes. I don't own an eReader or an iPad.
Yes, I'm falling behind, but for the most part, it doesn't bother me. Things are changing so quickly that some innovations are out of fashion before I've even faced the fact that I'm ignoring them. And that's a good thing. It's kind of like when my kids were little and the laundry basket was constantly full of clothes that needed to be ironed. I always intended to get to it, but more often than not, I merely went through the basket every few months, and rather than iron, chucked the clothes my children had outgrown.
However, because of my job as a writer, some changes are harder to ignore and avoid. Contrary to what the general public might think, writers (at least most of us) aren't recluses locked away in ivory towers, scratching madly on parchment, forgetting to eat and sleep and bathe and growling at anyone or anything that disturbs us. We have families, yard work, cooking and cleaning tasks, and some of us even have other paying jobs. We attend our children's concerts, grocery-shop, watch television, go to conferences, book launches, speak in schools, and throw parties.
Moreover, we have to attend to the business of writing -- correspondence, grant applications, accounting, setting up speaking engagements, and promoting our work. Writing isn't just about writing; it's also about selling what we write, and more and more, this responsibility is falling squarely onto the writers' shoulders. Publishers help to a degree, but they don't usually have the budget or manpower to contribute substantially to a single author. These days, their part in book promotion mainly amounts to telling authors how THEY can promote their books.
Book trailers, for instance. This is a popular promotional tool at the moment, and I can say I have jumped into the fray. I have done trailers for two books already and am in the process of building another one. Not alone, mind you. I know my limitations and have enlisted the assistance of people more expert than myself to bring the projects to fruition.
Websites and blogs. Again, I didn't fight these trends. I have had a website since the late 90's -- I even learned how to do it in HTML, and is this not a blog?
I send out media notices of new books, search for reviewers, arrange launches, attend award galas (even when I don't win), and hunt for speaking opportunities. I have bookmarks made and give them out to my readers. I provide teaching materials for my books. I hand out business cards.
But when it comes to the Internet social networks, I feel myself starting to bog down. Yes, I am on facebook, and I do maintain a visible presence there. I am on Goodreads. I have a profile on CANSCAIP, TWUC, and CCBC. I have set myself up on Shelfari, Jacket Flap, AmazonAuthor Central, Indigo, the 49th Shelf, Google, and several other social networks. But updating those pages is a full-time job in itself. Believe me, I'm dancing as fast as I can.
Twitter proved the turning point for me. I resisted it for the longest time, but when an author I met at a writers' festival this spring suggested that she has had more positive writing support from that than any other network, I thought perhaps I should sign up. So I did. Even managed a couple of hundred followers in aboout three months. There were many links to worthwhile articles, and I read several, BUT there is no way I have the time to really keep up. AND THEN I received three obvious spam posts from Twitter followers I personally know, and I knew either they or I had been hacked. That was enough for me. I simply don't need the hassle. So I closed the account.
That's when I decided the social networks could go on without me. I shan't close the ones I'm already a part of, but I shan't be opening any new ones either. Pinterest? I'm not pinterested. Linked In -- I shall remain linked out. And the only My Space I'll be visiting is my own little office in my own little house.
Self-publishing. Hmmmn... I just don't know. I don't think it's for me, mostly because I prefer to write rather than attend to the business of writing. I know very little about self-publishing, and I am happy to keep it that way. I understand how the desire to see one's work in print can lure writers in that direction, and self-publishing has definitely proven successful for some people, but it's still a pretty slippery slope if you don't know what you're doing.
These days writers aren't gravitating as often to vanity presses, some of which have been known to rob hopeful authors blind. Print on demand books and ebooks are the current draw, and from what little I know, those options seem to be more user-friendly. Still ...
Publishing a book isn't just about getting your words in print. If that's all a person is after, Apple has a fistful of different publishing options. You can write and illustrate that story and print it up for your grandkids for no more than the cost of a Christmas gift. But if you're after a wider readership, worldwide distribution, fame, and fortune, you're going to have to bump shoulders with the big boys.
And that's the problem. Unless you haven't noticed, publishers are experiencing a bit of a crunch as they attempt to keep up with the evolution of the industry. Many houses have already gone under, been absorbed by other companies, or are teetering on the brink of extinction -- and we're talking publishers who have been in the business for a long time. These are dangerous times -- even for the pros, the folks who are experts in the field -- and yet there are still authors who think they can beat the system and self-publish.
My mother would say they have more guts than good sense. Perhaps, or perhaps not. If they've done their homework and are prepared to do what it takes, they just might succeed.
So what does it take? Well ... (and I'm just guessing here) ... money, for one thing. Not only will there be no advance, there will actually be costs involved with producing your own book -- computer software, layout design, cover design, proofing, photography, ISBN, promotion, printing, etc. (I have a feeling that little etc. is highly inflatable -- and expensive.) Self-publishing undoubtedly involves a great deal of time and work too. Suddenly, you're not writing your opus; you're dealing with Amazon and Indigo, you're knocking on booksellers' doors, you're trying to find reviewers for your book. And, hopefully, you're working on the logistics involved with sales. Do you take Visa and Mastercard? Paypal? The big publishers do. You're going to need a presence in all the social media. You'll need to Tweet, keep up with Facebook, Goodreads, Shelfari, Author Central, Indigo, 49th Shelf, Linked-In ... and the list goes on. All that takes a ton of time. Oh, yeah, and don't forget those public appearances you need to arrange and the website you need to build. You should probably employ the services of a tax accountant, maybe a publicist too. Could cost money. Better hope you sell a lot of books.
Still not daunted? Then get out there and do your thing. I pray you have a product worth selling. But how will you know? Without an agent or an editor, there is no one to provide objective feedback and help you produce something that's going to appeal to the public and really be worth reading. Certainly, YOU think your book is fabulous, but you're likely a tad biased. After all, this is your baby. You might not see the plot inconsistencies, flat characterization, time shifts, bad dialogue, cliches, and grammatical errors, but you can bet your boots that readers will. Without exception, every self-published book I've ever reviewed showed a big need for editing. And that's too bad, because some of those books might have been pretty good if they had had the benefit of revisions. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of editing.
So, for those who think they're up to the challenge of self-publishing, I wish you good luck. You're going to need it.
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Yesterday I Skyped for almost an hour and a half with a fellow writer. The two of us met about eight years ago while touring for Children's Book Week. Our real life paths haven't crossed again since, but we have kept in touch through the social networks, email, a telephone call once a few years back, and most recently Skype.
After our face-to-face computer exchange, I was simultaneously inspired and depressed. He is so busy doing writerly things, I feel like a slug by comparison. On the other hand, I was excited to imagine all the avenues open to me that I wasn't tapping.
You see, he and I have one very big thing in common. We write for a living. We have to earn money at our craft in order to pay the rent and put food on the table. We can't NOT succeed, which means we can't just work on that novel when the mood takes us. Weekdays or weekends -- they're all workdays. And that's not a bad thing. We like what we do or we wouldn't be doing it. There are other jobs out there that pay regularly.
Unless you're JK Rowling, writing children's books is not a lucrative career, and if you don't have some other income to supplement it, you're screwed. So you take on other writerly jobs to help keep the wolf from the door. Most of us do school visits. That definitely helps, but schools seem to have less and less money these days. We also give workshops and speak at conferences. Again there are only so many of those opportunities to go around. I wrote an online science/mystery/adventure serial for a year. That paid well. I've done some work for the Ontario Department of Education, and written course profiles for colleges around the world. (That one was more work than it was worth.) I've done some editorial work and been paid for some book reviews. I worked briefly with a weekly journal for young people. I've done a bit of technical writing.
But that is just the tip of the ice berg. I need to do more. I've had offers to write regular articles for a periodical and to do some ghost writing, but for various reasons, I've given those opportunities a miss. I would like to give some courses -- after all, I was a teacher for a long time -- so I need to present a program idea to the local colleges, and I think I will. I need to be more active about pursuing other speaking engagements too. I'd like to look into website writing perhaps and contact the Department of Ed about curriculum/exam writing, etc.I need to send out some queries for non-fiction too.
Mostly, I'd just like to be able to write the stories meandering through my mind, but winter's coming and maintaining a roof over my head would be good, and that means writing for my life.