Thursday, December 22, 2011

Thoughts on Getting Older

Well, today is my birthday and, for once, I'm not totally bummed out.

This is kind of a big deal for me since this birthday is the one that ends a decade and that is usually the birthday that bums me out the most. It's not turning the big whatever-O (I still can't type the number) but it is the lead up to that big number that freaks me out. It's like my mind and body need a year of preparation before they can accept that I am, inevitably, getting older. But I've noticed that with each successive birthday in the last 20 years I'm getting better at dealing with this aging thing. So, for all of us hitting whatever big birthdays or just for those of us who struggle with the thought of getting older lets put some perspective on things. I offer you some of my favourite inspirational quotes on getting older from people much wiser than me. If they said it, I must believe it, yes?

Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter. ~Leroy "Satchel" Paige

Nobody grows old merely by living a number of years. We grow old by deserting our ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul. ~Samuel Ullman

Growing old is mandatory; growing up is optional. ~Chili Davis

Wrinkles should merely indicate where smiles have been. ~Mark Twain
(Note from Nelsa: I've never actually seen my neck smile so this one's kinda bogus. Sorry, Mark.)

Old age isn't so bad when you consider the alternative. ~Maurice Chevalier, New York Times, 9 October 1960

Everyone is the age of their heart. ~Guatemalan Proverb

The key to successful aging is to pay as little attention to it as possible. ~Judith Regan

Men do not quit playing because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing. ~Oliver Wendell Holmes

Old wood best to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust, and old authors to read. ~Quoted by Francis Bacon, Apothegm

And with that last quote, I thank all my old (and new) friends for the birthday wishes today and their vital, constant friendship. I reach for a glass of good red wine and a favourite book and sit by an imaginary fireplace toasting my feet and this day. For birthdays are, indeed, to be celebrated not feared. Thank you all for celebrating with me!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Christmas Traditions - Love 'em or Hate 'em?

Christmas is my absolute favouritist time of year. Decorating the house, buying presents for friends and loved ones, trimming the tree, snow, carolling, hot chocolate, lights, cookies, food … aww. What's not to love?? But, I must admit, there are some things I don't love too much. School Christmas concerts for one. Christmas travelling for another. Still, this year I realized those last two traditions might be coming to an end and you know what? I might, kinda, miss them. Who knew?

Now I love hearing kids sing at concerts but when it's instruments only? Sigh. It is a bit of a struggle to sit through, I must say. This year was my seventeenth Christmas concert . Yep. You read that right. SEVENTEENTH. I have heard way too many awkward string and band renditions of Good King Wenceslas to ever hear it again without a slight cringe. And yet. When I saw The Boy up there this year doing his best on the trumpet and sounding surprisingly good for a kid that doesn't practice enough (although his band mates might have been working overtime) I actually got a little nostalgic. There is only one more Christmas concert I am to attend at his school. All three of my children have been in the band or strings program there and I do believe music helps with academic and with social skills. I'm proud all of them joined the music program at school. But once those concerts stop, it almost feels like the childhood stops too. Ya' know?

The other thing that changes this year is that we are not travelling home for Christmas. We are staying in Toronto for once. The Boy has a hockey tournament right after Boxing Day. So we would have had to do the four hour drive to my parents , drive back for the 27th then on the 30th drive back again to celebrate my Dad's 80th birthday for New Year's Eve. Way too much driving even for us who are used to it. So we are spending Christmas entre nous. No grandparents or aunts and uncles to distract the kids. We'll either have a lovely, quiet celebration with much walking of the dog and watching old movies or you'll hear something about a family tragedy on the news the next night. I think I might actually miss the long drive home and the squabbling, cramped van with presents piled in the back and the dog breathing on everyone's faces. Hmm. Maybe I won't miss that part too much. But I'll definitely miss the chaos of Christmas morning and seeing my mom cry at least once over some silly little gift one of the kids has given her. Ah, well. Next year we'll host the Christmas gathering at our newly reno'd house and the grandparents and aunts and uncles can travel to us. It will be the start of a new birthday decade for me then and it's only fitting that a new Chrsitmas tradition should start as well.

Still, the only tradition I hope will always continue is that my husband and I are together celebrating the holidays with our kids for as long as possible. That's the only thing that really matters. Not where, but who.

How about you? What are your favourite and least favourite holiday traditions?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Writers Face-to-Face

Last night the amazing Claudia Osmond hosted the 2nd Annual Torkidlit Christmas gathering of writers in her lovely, beautifully renovated home (BTW.I love seeing reno'd homes. Makes me think there is hope for my home!). Anyway, I can't thank Claudia enough for opening her home to quite a few of the Torkidlit writers but, more importantly, I don't know if she realizes what an important thing she started a couple of years ago when she gathered a few Toronto PB, MG and YA writers and illustrators together in a downtown Toronto pub for an evening of talk, drinking and laughter (and sometimes tears). It's become a regular monthly, must-go outing for many of us. And, for writers, once you've experience that community of like-minded individuals talking face-to-face nothing can replace it.

I know the thing now is Facebook and Twitter and writing boards. And, yes, those communities and the chance to connect virtually with writers from thousands of miles away is a wonderous and, in many ways, life-saving opportunity. But face-to-face time with other writers is SO important. There is such value in hearing the voice of the person you might have only connected to via the web. In that voice you hear the subtle nuances of the information they are trying to convey and see the facial expressions that give you so much more context. You can literally give someone a shoulder to cry on or jump up and down with them when they have fabulous news. Putting a real face to the tweets, messages, blogs, etc. then makes your virtual connection even that much stronger.

I'm not saying that Face-to-Face is better than virtual. I'm saying that it gives many writers that added human connection and understanding that we need once in a while in order to be able to slog through the hard times and celebrate the good times. Even if a writer lives in outer Siberia, if there is the faintest chance that they can attend a workshop or travel to a gathering of writers once in a blue moon, I would encourage them to do it. Sometimes, that human connection may be enough to help keep the writing fire alive. Join CANSCAIP. Join SCBWI. Join RWA. JOIN. Meet. Talk. Face to face. It's a life-line.

So, yes, thanks to the Internet, we are more connected now than ever. But also thanks to writers like Claudia Osmond (and Debbie Ohi!) for starting that Face-to-Face time here in Toronto. Thank you, ladies. Very much.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

My Latest Obsession

While I continue to tinker with various writing projects, I must admit it is with only half a heart at present. The largest part of my life right now is dealing with the massive amounts of time and decision-making that must go into finalizing our home reno. We are in the last leg of the race. Not that we are anywhere close to moving in - I'd say another two - three months at least. But now is the time when all the decisions on colours and finishes are made as well as furniture shopping. I tell you, I would have gone mad right about now if it hadn't been for my discovery of this fabulous website:

Oh, my God. I LOVE this site.

You can search by style (traditional, contemporary, eclectic, etc.) and any type of room from kitchen to entranceway. You can specify you want a search done on "mirror over fireplace" or something and literally hundreds if not thousands of pictures in that theme, style, particular search will come up. If you have a specific question on what paint colour or where a piece of furniture was purchased, you can leave a question and a designer will come back and give you the answer. If you're anything like me, you might have a vague idea of the kind of style you might want to have in your space but nothing concrete. With this site, you can create your own ideabooks and start collecting the pictures that will help you to finalize the look you want in your own space. Who knew I would gravitate towards gray walls with white trim? Who knew that I would decide on going with dark kitchen cabinets rather than the more common white? After collecting hundreds of pictures, I kept seeing the same themes/styles emerge. That was so helpful.

It also doesn't hurt when your husband looks at you funny when you say you want a room done a certain way and he scoffs. But when you email him what the room could look like as a finished space (no need to have him sit down with you and flip through home decorating magazines) it makes life so much easier!

Anyway, sorry for this non-writing related post but if you're about to embark on a home reno I have two pieces of advice:
1. Move and buy a house that's already finished.
2. If you still insist on renovating, then go to You'll thank me later.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Have I Lost the Blogger/Twitter Love?

I really had to force myself to write this post today. I'm finding that this feeling is becoming much more prevalent with all of my social networking, including Twitter and Facebook. Well, I never really got into Facebook that much but Twitter and doing my blog posts I enjoyed. Just … not so much anymore.

I could just be feeling social networking exhaustion. I could, after almost 3 years of blogging have nothing more to say. More likely, with how busy my life has been lately, I just don't have the time and energy to create a blog every week. I used to blog three times a week, then I went down to two and now I'm down to once a week. That worked for a while but even that once a week posting seems an effort now. So, if I'm not seeing someone as much as I used to, doesn't that tell me something?

I'm also not finding anything new or fabulous out in the internet world these days. Even Twitter seems to be filled with people I haven't had a chance to get to know and, in my attempts to be a good, polite Twitter follower, I've perhaps followed too many people just because they followed me first. A lot of them seem to be using Twitter as an ongoing advertisement for their books. Which is fine. I just don't want to read about it every time I'm on line. Similarly, I used to love Google and would always have a pile of searches on various topics (mostly writing related) that would keep me happily entertained for hours. But it feels like I'm seeing the same old subjects being talked about by a few different people and nothing new is being discussed. Have I really read it all or am I just burnt out and need to step away from the computer for awhile?

I'm hoping it is the latter. Because I don't want to stop after all this time. But stopping cold turkey just makes it all the harder to step back into it when you do decide to come back. For example, I have (had?) an online friend who was very active for a time on blogger and Twitter and then she just dropped out. For over a year I didn't hear from her and then there was a brief little email to a few of her online friends that said 'Hey, how's everything? Hope to hear from you" but, honestly, I didn't feel the connection anymore because of that separation. That's what I feel will happen to me if I step away completely. But I may have to do that. Keeping up with it all is just way too much sometimes.

Am I the only one feeling this fatigue? If you're feeling it, did it hit you all of a sudden or has it been building slowly and what have you decided to do about it?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Devil is in the Details

I'm in the midst of the reno from hell and, for the most part, my husband has had to deal with stuff. Mechanical, plumbing, HVAC, etc. Not very glamorous (to me anyway) but all those little details add up to a working house that I will one day celebrate and not curse because it doesn't have adequate heating, low water pressure etc. Now that we're getting toward the last third of the reno I now have to become immersed in the details. Lighting, paint colour, tile selection, ack! I know if I screw up on those things that no matter how well my husband has taken care of his details, my details will be out there for everyone to see. So, you might ask, what's your point? What does this have to do with anything - especially writing??

So many writers are doing NaNoWriMo (NaNo for short)this month that I keep reading about the deluge of submissions agents will be inundated with in January. I also keep reading that writers should please, for the love of God, please hold off on submitting. Why? Because it's the details that make your submission stand out. You might have got the bones of the book down this month. Maybe even some flesh and blood. But do you have the right nuances of character? Are your secondary characters fleshed out enough? Like a house that needs the right furniture, have you gone through the book and made sure the setting is solid and evocative and does it contribute to the overall mood of the room ... I mean book! So, so many DETAILS. You get my drift?

Those details - and like a house reno there can be hundreds of details/decisions to attend to - are critical if you want that book (or house) to shine. Even if you get sick of going through every scene (room) to make sure it flows with the rest of the scenes, even if you are sick of looking at lighting fixtures ... I mean descriptions! you need to to make sure your scene is as bright or as dark as you want it to be.

So, yes, the devil is in the details but the beauty will show in the book. And, I hope, my house. Good luck you NaNoWriMo's! Come January our books and houses may not be quite ready but they'll be on their way!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Book is the Thing

I've been writing for nine years now. Not a great long stretch of time when you think of writers like Stephen King who started writing his stories as a young boy and he's in his 60's now or Nora Roberts who has been writing over 30 some years now(sorry, I'm too tired tonight to Google and find out exactly how long she's been at the game). I'm wondering if it's just me or if this happens to all writers at a certain point, no matter how successful they are:

There comes a point in your writing process where you finally realize that the book is the thing.

Not the agent.
Not the publishing contract.
Not a launch party.
Not pretty covers.
Not how many sales you've made (or haven't made).

Those things are the wrapping that's around the actual present. THE BOOK.

I was wondering why, since I parted ways with my agent earlier this year, I haven't been angsting about what's coming next. I'm not panicking about whether I've got a book to go out on sub right this very second. I'm not freaking out over the ever shrinking book shelf space or the lack of reviewers out there. I'm not stressing over whether I'll find another agent or get another publishing contract. I'm not worried about whether I'm tweeting or facebooking or blogging enough. I have finally, blessedly, come to the realization that all of those frets and worries and stressors and strains do very little to help get the real work of writing done. It always comes down to one thing: THE BOOK.

Don't get me wrong, I'm very conscious of the business side of things and I try and stay on top of what's happening - I'm not writing in a vacuum. But I understand now that I will still write stories without all of that. Maybe they won't get published or it may take a while to get them out there but I think I may have finally become confident enough about my stories and my writing to accept that not all of them will be going out into the world. It doesn't mean I won't try. It doesn't mean that I don't believe in the stories I write. It just means that I am accepting the reality that this is a tough business to break into, a tough business to stay in and a tough business to keep slogging through.

With acceptance comes a very relaxed attitude. But relaxed does not mean indifferent. Not by any means. I care about my stories and I want them to find supporters and homes and readers. But if that doesn't happen I know that it doesn't lessen them in any way. The act of creating something out of nothing is significant. And all writers need to understand that what they do and what they write is to be celebrated.

You wrote a BOOK. Holy cow, people. You wrote a frigging BOOK.

Stop worrying about the other stuff. Work on THE BOOK. And the rest will follow. If it doesn't? You still have THE BOOK.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

What Keeps You Keeping On?

In the last week, I've heard the same thing from two different people: There's no point in looking back. That's not where you want to go anyway.

My husband is more succinct. He just says: I don't look back.

That philosophy, I believe, is the only thing that keeps a person's head from going below the water, from falling into the abyss, from whatever precipice you find yourself teetering on.

Don't look back.

Looking back, whether it is at past successes or failures, does nothing to help your present reality. If you keep dwelling on what has gone wrong (my instinctive go to reaction, unfortunately) it will only cement your negative thinking. Conversely, if you only think about all the wonderful things that have happened in the past, it will either make you crave more and bigger things (which can be good sometimes) or make you dissatisfied with what you have now (it's not as good as it was before!). Either way, you won't be happy.

So what's the answer?

Move forward. Keep your eye on the next day.

Or better yet.

Deal with today. Enjoy today. Make it through today. Make today count.

Because while the past may hold some answers, it can also hold you back.

In the most wise words of one of my favourite Pixar characters, Dorrie, from Finding Nemo: Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming...

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Halloween Strike

Okay, I'm going to own up to this, even if it might alienate a few people. I know it's alienated my kids when I've said it before:

I freaking hate Halloween.

Stupidest holiday EVER.

I don't like to be scared. I don't like spiders. I don't like having to stockpile candy that tempts me, hubby or my kids if I buy it too early or that stresses me out by buying it too late so I have to pay exhorbitant amounts of money when it's going to be half price the next day. I don't like fake cobwebby things on my bushes (I like to make my house look nice not run down!) I don't like carving pumpkins (messy, yucky inside stuff!). I don't like teenagers who are way too old to be asking for candy standing on my front porch with a stupid hat or old mask on as their limited attempt at costuming grunting out: Trick or treat. I find that threatening. Not cute. Most of all, I don't like feeling like a Halloween scrooge if I say I don't like Halloween.

What DO I like about it?

Well, I am a fan of zombie movies and there's tons of them to be seen at this time of year (zombies aren't scary - just gory). I do appreciate the art that goes into carving pumpkins. How do they DO those designs? Mine always look like a squirrel has gnawed on the outside shell and I've just forgotten that there's a half-chewed squash sitting on my front step. But I especially like that it's usually my husband who has taken the kids out over the years and I've stayed at home giving out the candy to cute little ones in costume while sipping a glass of wine in between door bell rings.

So this year whenThe Boy asked me: When are we putting up the halloween decorations? I thought: No. I'm on strike this year. It's one more thing I don't want to do and I don't even LIKE doing it. I grumbled and said, "Meh. We're still at the rental. I don't want to haul out the box. Can't we just have a pumpkin? I got that today! And I got the candy too!"

But not even the thrill of having several boxes of candy available made the disappointment of not having Halloween decorations more palatable. He looked at me with those big, brown eyes and said: "Can't we at least put the shaking skull outside? It scares EVERYBODY, Mom."

Sigh. "Okay. We can put up the shaking skull. But that's it!"

A little smile. "Isn't the shaking skull inside the box with all the other Halloween stuff?"

Sigh again. "Yes. Yes, it is."

A shrug. "So maybe we can put up the witch, and the skull with the flashing lights for eyes, and the scarecrow and the…"

I need a union.

And just to prove I'm not all that grumpy, here are a few pictures of amazing Halloween pumpkins my friend emailed me. These I DO like. What about you? What do you hate/love about Halloween?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

That 'In Between' Time

There comes a time in every writer's life when they are 'in between' projects. Okay, not if you're Nora Roberts who's like a writing machine but I'm talking about regular Joe Blow writers like, well, moi. It's the time where one project is done and out the door but the next project is not quite coalesced in your head so it is a time for peering up from the paper/computer and blinking in fascinating wonder at the world around you and saying: Whoa. It's Fall?? When did my kids get bigger than me? Yikes. Look at that laundry. I think a new life form is growing under those towels there.

Used to be I'd finish that one project and almost immediately start another one. But whether it's a result of less pure in-between time (working on edits or various other things for the book that's coming or already out there, blogging, facebook, twitter, etc makes for less empty time) or maybe it's because I'm getting really picky about what ideas I'll develop (damn that 'marketability is important' voice in my head!) or maybe it's just knowing how much time writing a book takes and I'm putting it off, whatever it is, now I really treasure the in between time. It's a time to recharge and do something with my time besides writing. Oh wow, did I start that cross-stitch Santa stocking for The Boy ten years ago?? Um, maybe I should work on that a little. Whoa, when's the last time I shopped for clothes? Oh, dear, winter is coming and I need boots!!! And there is that little thing called the reno. Hmm, eventually the house will be done and it will need furniture. Need to start looking now...

So my in between time is already filling up. But notice that it has nothing to do with words. Doing all that other 'stuff' that's not writing really makes me appreciate the time when I dive back into the words. I will have missed them terribly by then and, like coming home after a long vacation, I sigh with pleasure as I sink back into my familiar, comfortable, always untidy, house.

How about you? Do you take that in between time to do different things and what are they? Or are you a back to back writer who can't let the words alone for too long else you go crazy?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Photographs and Memories

Something awful happened yesterday. Not awful in the sense of life threatening or earth-shattering but awful in my son's world. He accidentally deleted a few years worth of images and videos from our digital camera.

He was devastated.

No matter how much I assured him that we had other videos, other pictures I couldn't really reassure him that all the events captured within this one camera were captured by others. He felt like a part of his past had been deleted as well and he could never retrieve it again.

My son's generation has had almost every moment of their entire lives captured on camera You'd think with so much footage this deletion wouldn't have been a big deal. But for The Boy, having his personal history and memories there in a physical form - in some way - is reassuring. It made me wonder: has our reliance on pictures and videos become more important than the family history we share verbally?

I have some photos of my childhood. An average number I guess. Not so many when I was first born and those photos are certainly precious to me. But it is the stories told to me by my parents that are more important. Luckily those can't be erased so easily (let's hope my brain keeps them for as long as possible anyway!)But the incident yesterday made me think hard about the role pictures have in our lives. In fact, one of the themes in THE BREAK has to do with how photos can help release memory and connect people. But by themselves, without memory to help tell the story, the photographs eventually mean nothing. Here's an example.

My husband inherited a very old family photo album from his father who had it handed down from some cousin or another and none of those pictures or the people in them mean anything to us. Even if those photos had captions saying who they were it wouldn't mean much to me because there wasn't a story - a memory behind the photo - that had been told to or written down for us.

So, I understand The Boy's sadness at the loss of all those pictures and the stories behind them. But, as I told him last night, what's more important are the memories you keep inside you - not on some digital camera. Still, it never hurts to download a camera a little more often. :)

Monday, October 3, 2011

Breast Cancer Awareness Month

We interrupt this regularly scheduled writers blog to make a public service announcement. On top of all the things I love about October (Fall! Wedding Anniversary! No Humidity! Leather Boots!) I also add Breast Cancer Awareness Month. In honour of this most important month, I have changed my background blog post colour from green to pink and I'm posting some stats on breast cancer we all should be aware of (courtesy of the metro "think pink" columns appearing in the Toronto metro news this month):

An estimated 23,200 women in Canada were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010 (an increase of 500 from 2009) and 5,300 died from the disease.

On average, 445 Canadian women are diagnosed with breast cancer every week.
One in nine (or 11 per cent) Canadian women are expected to develop breast cancer during their lifetime (by age 90).

Personal note: my mom was 73 when she was diagnosed in 2010 through a routine mammography. She is currently breast cancer free. My mother-in-law was 49 when she was diagnosed in the spring of 1975. She passed away in November of the same year leaving behind a devastated husband, 12 year old son and 16 year old daughter.)

At present, the five-year survival rate for female breast cancer in Canada is 87 per cent (84 per cent for men) which means women diagnosed with breast cancer have an 87 per cent likelihood of living for five years after their diagnosis.

Breast cancer death rates have declined in every age group since the mid-1990's.
Of the women who undergo mammography screening, about five per cent are invited for a return visit; of these, 90 per cent are given a clean bill of health and 10 per cent undergo further investigation.

An average of one in 2,500 women investigated will undergo surgery for breast cancer.
About 88 per cent of possible cases are detected by mammography.

Think about how far we have come. Think about how far we have to go. Think about your mom, sister, wife, daughter, granddaughter, son, husband, grandmother, grandfather, grandson, and friends who are touched or might be touched by cancer. Do everyone a favour: Get tested. Survive. For all of us.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Sometimes It's Just A Feeling You Get

There are countless books, articles, websites, magazines, courses, conferences etc. etc. where a writer can go to learn his/her craft, to study the nuances of plot and structure, to learn how to incorporate symbolism and theme, to hone pace and develop characterization and a myriad of other technical elements that make up a story. But there is one thing that a writer needs to have in their arsenal of writing tools that is not so easily studied or obtained. That mysterious thing? The gut feeling when you know a story is not working.

This feeling can't be explained very easily. At least, I can't explain it well. Maybe it can be as simple as plot points not working but plot is one of the easiest things to fix, I think. What I'm talking about is when you know you have a good main character, a great idea, the pace is clipping along and the secondary characters are interesting, and there is escalating tension, a strong climax and appropriate denouement and, still, after all that, something is just not right. It is an undefined feeling that the story is just not popping off the page - for whatever reason. It's not about the technical components of the story. Those things can be fixed. But if, as the author of your story, you are feeling a general sense of unease when you read through your pages, or apathy, or reluctance to continue writing it, if you do not feel a little flame of excitement as you read the pages you've created then something is not working on an emotional level.

The other night, I was fixing up some things for THE BREAK as we head into the final stages for it's release in the spring, and my daughter asked me, "Mom, aren't you sick of that book yet?" And I honestly could tell her, no. I really love this book and I love tweaking it to make it better and spending time with it. Sure, I'm sure I'll get sick of it (there are only so many times you can read a book through before your eyes begin bleeding) but it hasn't happened yet. And that is the sign I look for when I'm writing my stories. You don't weary of it. It still holds some special charm over you. And it's not the fact that it's being published! I had one story (paranormal) that was sent out to a few editors and did not sell. Got great feedback and all that but just didn't sell. I still love that story. I could read it again even after all this time still get a little thrill when reading it. Still smile at certain scenes and want to keep turning the pages. So it's not about selling a story that makes it more appealing to me. That doesn't matter. It's that indefineable something a story contains.

I've been working on two WIP's this past year. One is finished and I've gone through a revision with it. I thought that was the one I'd be querying with this fall. Great premise, solid characters, etc. etc. But. There's something missing. I don't know what it is yet but I don't get that FEELING. I put it aside and picked up the other WIP. Still needs work, still need to finish the last 3 chapters or so. Maybe it's not as technically ready as the other WIP. But, boy, when I started reading it - BAM! - that feeling was totally there. There was something about this one…

So, there you go. Like anything that is creative in nature a strong emotion has to be involved or it doesn't work. You can have a technically perfect reproduction of Michaelangelo's David but, from what people tell me (because I haven't seen the real thing), there is something about seeing that actual statue that makes it special. I'm sure it was the emotion that the artist infused into carving that piece of marble.

What about you? Do you get that unexplainable 'feeling' when you know a story has - or doesn't have - something?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Milestone Birthdays

No, I'm not having one right now (thank God) but I just came back from celebrating my mom's 75th birthday and it's gotten me to thinking about not just any birthdays but the 'milestone' birthdays. You know - the ones where the entering of a new year or hitting the actual number means a pretty big deal in your life?

Mom's 75th wasn't big just because the number is. It was a big deal this year because she reached it. Last year, her battle with cancer really made her feel and think about mortality and how every day is truly precious. She (and we!) are so thankful to have her here to celebrate her life. This birthday, for her, is a pretty big milestone because it meant she made it through to the other side. Somewhat changed, weaker in some ways, stronger in others. I think that's what milestone birthdays are all about - knowing or believing that you are about to or have made significant change in your life. Maybe the change is not all good but after that birthday, upon reflection, you know you are a different person.

My milestone birthday was my 40th. I began thinking about it several months before I hit it (I'm always thinking about the approaching date well ahead that it's become a running joke with my husband who says I was born 60 years old already). But that one was a biggie and because I'd made it so significant it must have changed my brain chemistry or something. Why else would I, out of the blue, want to start writing a book? Which is what I started doing the summer before I turned 40. I also lost weight and just had a real "Is this all I want to do and be in my life" kind of moment. Call it a mid-life crisis, call it needing a change, call it what you will but if that big birthday hadn't been looming I wonder if I would have picked up that pen that changed my life in so many ways.

Next year I'll be approaching the big 5-0. In fact, I turn 50 the day after the Mayans say the world will end. Of course it will! I'm turning 50, dammit!! I have a feeling this will be another big milestone for me. I don't know what will change or how but I know that whatever happens I embrace it because now I know 'milestones' are not 'millstones' around your neck. Instead of dragging you down they can lift you up.

What about you all? What have been your milestone birthdays and why?

Friday, September 9, 2011

On Dedications and Acknowledgements

I thought I'd write a little blog post on these two often overlooked parts of a book: The Dedication and The Acknowledgements pages. Maybe not everyone cares about these two pieces, maybe not every book has them, maybe they're not essential to the enjoyment of reading a book but for an author (and sometimes a reader) these two things can add another layer to the story. A personal slant that can give some insight into the author's thoughts and feelings when writing that book.

Before I began writing, I never used to think much about, or necessarily even read, the dedication or acknowledgement pages. Well, perhaps the dedication because it was at the beginning of a book and maybe only consisted of a few lines. But half the time the dedication was so cryptic: e.g. For L.M. Huh? Who was/is L.M. ? What kind of influence did they have on the author? Was it their wife? Maybe it was the librarian at the public library? Who knew? Sometimes the dedication was more personal and offered a little tease like: For Alice. The woman who changed my life. Really? Again, who is Alice and how, exactly did she change the author's life?

Maybe I'm just an overly curious person. I know a dedication is a very personal thing. Maybe it's best that a dedication be cryptic. Maybe the person being dedicated to is very private and doesn't want their name splashed over the pages of a book. There is no rule that says the author has to explain anything about who he/she is dedicating the book to and why. Still, I kind of like to know. When I dedicated ILLEGALLY BLONDE I wrote the dedication to my parents both in Portuguese and English so that they understood why I was dedicating it to them. But, again, that was a personal choice.

The Acknowledgement page is a different beast altogether. I've read some beautifully crafted words that acknowledge the special people who have influenced or inspired the author in their writing. I've also read just a long listing of names that have no meaning for me whatsoever but, with space constraints, maybe a listing was all the author could do. I'm sure the author at least wanted to make note of all the people who have had some role in making the book come to fruition - whether with research, moral support or as part of the publishing team. Again, how an author wishes to acknowledge the people involved in their personal or writing life is up to them but in the case of acknowledgements, I feel like cryptic or a long list of names doesn't work.

Now that I'm an author I often read the acknowledgement page with as much interest as the book itself. Sometimes, an author will give the reader a little story as to how/why they wrote the book or who inspired them. Maybe the issue in the book has touched them personally in some way. Also, from a purely selfish publishing perspective, I love to read the acknowledgements that authors give to their editors or agents. Those shout-outs can tell a prospective author a lot about who they would love to work with in future. I find that in debut novels the acknowledgements page can go on for quite a bit. But that's understandable - who knows if a writer will ever get another chance to publish their thanks?!

I've just finished writing the dedication and acknowledgements for my second book, THE BREAK. For some reason this time it was harder. My dedication for the book is not to one particular person but is more generic in nature and it gave me a lot of trouble for being only one line in length! My acknowledgements were easier but I still fretted about acknowledging some of the same people I did in ILLEGALLY BLONDE while saying something different to them. I also acknowledged people who have passed away and hope I did it with caring and respect and didn't make it too maudlin. What I always worry about the most is the people who I have NOT acknowledged. Many of my friends and family may not be identified specifically but since I like to acknowledge a name with a statement as to why they're being acknowledged if I named everyone I'd have an Acknowledgement book not a page. Ah, well. I wouldn't be me if I didn't fret about something.

So, what do you think about it? Are Dedications and Acknowledgements important? Or do you not think about/notice them at all?

Friday, September 2, 2011

When Panic Hits - Keep Calm and Carry On

I thought I had things together. Figured that this past week when I was on vacation I'd get so much done before September hit. I would prepared. Yeah. What's that saying?? Something about best laid plans...?

Well, I woke up today, realized I was already two days into September and hit full blown panic mode.

Our house reno is so far behind I think it's in a different time zone.

My son's birthday is in two days and I haven't planned a thing!

I realize my MRI to look into this wonky back is scheduled the same day as son's said, unplanned birthday.

The four new toilets for the reno were delivered today but the guy wouldn't deliver them to the basement so had to put them in the garage where The Boy practices his hockey shots. I may have four new cracked toilets to put in the new still not finished house.

The Boy's hockey schedule firmed up and, yes, he has a tournament starting next Wednesday, going all weekend, and yes, he has one the same weekend as my mom's 75th birthday and, oh, yes, all his practices until November occur on Saturdays and Sundays too.

Our main computer got some weird virus so now all of us have to share my poor, overworked laptop until it's fixed (and I still haven't taken it in yet! School starts in four days!)

I'm still only half-way through my revision to the wip and still not sure it's working.

I have to write the dedication and acknowledgements for THE BREAK and the one, freaking line for the dedication is giving me more grief than writing the whole book. What is UP with that?

I'm only halfway through a beta read for a friend who I told I would get to it in a week and feeling very guilty about it.

And that's only the start of my panic. Let's not forget that I'm back to work next week and school starts too.

But you know how I get through the panic? I remember that all these things are small and the panic will soon pass. The Brits survived the Blitz and had the best saying ever to come out of a war: Keep Calm and Carry On.

It's all in the attitude. And remembering that there are way worse things happening to people who are handling true crises with grace, humour and way more courage than we shall ever know.

How are you all handling your busy lives? And how do you handle it when the panic hits?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Take Cover! Fall is Coming!

You've felt it haven't you? The slightly cooler nights. The change in the sun's angle. The crankiness from your children. The opening of the CNE(the Canadian National Exhibition for non-Canucks out there). The slight, inexplicable feeling of anxiousness seeping into your skin. Oh, yes. You know what it is. All the signs point to it. It may be a month away but Fall is definitely coming. And no one is safe.

Don't get me wrong. I love Fall. In fact, my favourite month is October. I love the cooler days, and the changing season. But I also know what that season means. School will start soon. Clothes will have to be organized and laundered on a more frequent basis (the Boy cannot go to school in a swimsuit and flip flops no matter how much he might argue for it). Hockey season starts right after Labour Day with an early bird tournament. Homework commences. Food for lunches will need to be ready (*shudder*).

Any one of those things might be enough to send me into a tizzy. Put them all together and I feel a fainting spell coming on. Put them all together with the last three months of a reno thrown in, then a move in November plus a personal deadline to finish the revision to a wip and also send THE BREAK off to my publisher as spic and span as I can get it (just got my line edits a few days ago) I have a sudden desire to follow the very sensible bear population and go into hibernation for six months.

Alas, I'm not a bear (except for a few hours very early in the morning) and no matter how much I wish I could sleep away the busy season I know that for some weird reason I tend to be WAY more productive when I have absolutely no time to do anything. Is that some kind of scientific phenomena? Less time = More product? Who knows, but once Sept 1st kicks in I seem to get a sudden burst of can-do energy. Maybe it's a primal survival instinct. I'm running on adrenaline because I know if I don't keep ahead of the tidal wave about to crash over me I'm a goner. Man, I knew I should have started that exercise regime earlier…

How about you? Have you thought about Fall? Or are you still sipping a wine spritzer and dipping your toe into the pool?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Surprise! And Why It's Good for a Story

I hate surprises. Seriously. Hate 'em. Don't like people jumping out at me yelling 'Happy Birthday'. Don't like someone putting a dish in front of me for which I have not ordered and don't know what it is. Don't like someone not telling me something because "It's a surprise". So you'd think, then, that I'd also hate when a book or movie has a surprise in it, right? Well, um, no actually. Surprise! :)

Writers know that if there are surprises in a story a reader is more likely hooked by the story. In the last month I've been made aware of how important this element is to story telling in two very different stories and mediums: the George R.R. Martin A Song of Ice and Fire book series and the movie Crazy, Stupid, Love.

I just finished reading the fourth installment of the book series a couple of weeks ago and I saw the movie last week with my daughters so they're both fresh in my mind. In both cases, the author and the screenwriter, used surprises very, very well and those surprises are what I keep thinking about when I think back to the stories. Martin is known for killing off characters that a reader expects to survive but he also throws in some unexpected character actions that make a reader perk up and say, "Whoa! He did not just DO that!" But those surprises, while coming where and when you least expect them, are not OUT of character - ever. That's the key to a surprise. It must be set up properly (without a reader or viewer) being aware that it is being set up. So that when the surprise happens, all these little 'clicks' happen in your brain that take you back through the events of the story and you realize that while this is a surprise to you, all the stepping stones were there - all the little clues to the character or the storyline - that you cannot (or should not) be aware of while you're reading the story. This kind of intricate, subtle story-telling leading to a surprise (or twist or whatever you want to call it) was also done exceptionally well in Crazy, Stupid, Love. I can't reveal the surprise (one minor one and one major one) but it's a beauty and it throws all the storylines together. It elevated an already highly enjoyable movie into an excellent one for me.

The other thing that a surprise can do for your story is save it. I'll be honest, by the middle of the third Martin book my interest was flagging. Too many characters, too many stories, taking too long. But then in the third book … the author does something to a character I was not expecting. It changes the character and the story and immediately my interest is peaked again. That kind of thing can make the difference between a reader putting down a book and never picking it up again or hanging on to see what else might be thrown at a character.

Understandably, you can't have a story filled with surprises and twists on every page and just for the sake of 'throwing something in there'. However, I would recommend having one or two surprises, set up nicely, timed to be revealed at a critical point in the story and making it a game-changer - where everything you thought about a character or a storyline now needs to be re-thought. As a writer, I've found the best surprises in a story are not necessarily planned. In ILLEGALLY BLONDE I have a surprise towards the end that when I wrote it I went, "Seriously? SHE's the one??" and it was perfect. Same with my current wip. I thought I was writing one character in a certain way and "Bam!" she pulls something on the hero and it's a game-changer - for her and the story. I had to go back and carefully re-read the story to that point and, in many instances subtly change some of her actions/thoughts in order for the reader not to say, "Okay. That is totally not in character." For, above all else, a surprise must be BELIEVABLE.

What about you? Hate or love surprises? And, if you're a writer, do you plan them or are you, you know, surprised when they happen?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Obsession: Good for Reading But What About Your Writing?

I'm back from a week at the cottage and, like every year, I planned on doing a lot of reading and, hopefully, some writing as well. Alas, I failed miserably on the writing front and I blame it entirely on my current reading obsession with George R.R. Martin's SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series. Most everyone knows it by the title of the first book A Game of Thrones.

I have been completely OBSESSED by this series. I devoured the first book, kind of went 'meh' on the second book, LOVED the third book and trudged through the fourth book. I am taking a pause before beginning the fifth book. My obsession may be waning - much like a torrid love affair that's run it's course. I still have interest, I'm still curious but ... I need a break. Reading four books with that many characters, that many story lines, that many PAGES ... well, I'm an avid reader, yes, but I'm a bit burnt out.

After finishing the fourth book and reading the first line of the author's acknowledgement page I wonder if his obsession wasn't getting to him too. The fourth book was a bit meandering, bringing in new characters, remaining totally silent on others and just seemed to have less, I don't know, spark? than the previous three books. In his acknowledgement page, Mr. Martin said "This one was a bitch." I had to laugh because I figured he suffered through it more than his readers did. He explained why he wrote the book this way and promised our old, faithful characters would be back in the fifth book.

The fourth book was written in 2005. His fifth book only came out this year. SIX years. That's a long time to spend with a book. You kind of need to be a bit obsessed to stay with a story this long. Which leads me to the question in the title of this post: is obsession with a story always a good thing for your writing? I know that when writers start off with a story idea that initial burst of obsession doesn't always stay. I know I can get tired of my story after working on it for a few months. I can't even imagine working on it for years! I know it's different when you build a world as complex as Mr. Martin has. But I wonder does he ever feel like chucking it all and writing a completely different story set in another world with other characters? Is he still obsessed or does he even need to be to write a good story? Can the passion for your story come through when you are sick to death of it?

A lot of questions I pose and I have no answers. What about you writers and readers out there? What do you think - is obsession with your story necessary to make it good?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Slow Progress Better than No Progress

I don't know about you but the concept of 'slow' is a real irritant for me. I've grown accustomed to fast-paced city life. I grew up in a rural farming community and, believe me, I know the concept of slow. There is nothing more frustrating than being caught behind a crawling tractor with a wide-load combine taking up most of the space on a rural road when you are running late for an English exam! When I moved to the city I was at first overwhelmed by how fast things sped by - both highway and people! The stereotype of rushing here and there, get 'er done yesterday, no time to waste really is a part of city life. Especially city life with 3 kids, full-time job, dog, and home renovation to contend with! But I adapted - even welcomed - that faster pace.

When I began the journey into book publishing people warned me how slow it could be at times and it's very true - and very frustrating. Weirdly, lately things in this business seem to be changing at the speed of light (e.g. self-publishing, agents getting into that part of the business, etc). But everyone still agrees that publishing slows down over the summer. For once, I'm glad there is slowness. I'll tell you why.

Per my blog post last week, I have a few goals to meet over the summer. And every one of them seems to be going slower than my never-ending house renovation (publishing isn't the only slow business, people. Construction - especially on my house! - is SLOW.) I've only been trying to lose ten pounds for one week and I only managed to lose 2. I wanted to revise a chunk of my wip and I only got through 4 chapters. I wanted to clear out the mess of paper in my office and I only got through one pile. I wanted to organize the stuff in my house for a yard sale and haven't come close. I wanted to get my wonky back straightened out and it's still wonky.

But slow progress is still better than nothing. Going slow has its benefits (as all those proponents of slow cooking will tell you). Losing weight slowly tends to stay off longer. Four chapters of revision is a start and there is no way a quick revision helps a book become better. One pile of paper is one less to go through. And those other two projects - well, a back is a complicated thing and miracles take time. A shot of cortizone is not going to help me in the long run. The yard sale organizing … well, I just have no excuse for that (beyond the fact I hate going through stuff and would just as soon send all of it to Goodwill. I may still end up doing that.)

My point (and I do have one) is that sometimes it's better to take things slowly - especially when that thing is important to you. The care with which we undertake to do something always shows up in the final product. There is a time and place for speed, certainly. But if something matters to you, taking the time to do it right is a hundred times better than a quick fix, get it off my desk, approach. Inevitably, those quick fixes break faster and you'll just have to re-do them later.

So, count this writer as one who is thankful that summertime is slow. The livin' may not exactly be easy but the pressure cooker doesn't need to be on when it's this hot outside!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Goals and Public Accountability

Well I'm back from vacation, have dumped the kids on my parents for ten days, and I suddenly find myself with TIME on my hands. Time? Time? Whah?? *cue Nelsa wandering aimlessly around wondering what to do with herself*

After the shock wears off I will realize that while I have some time NOW, there isn't a lot of time before September hits and the crazy of my life begins again. This is akin to those ticking clocks in the movies where you know a bomb is about to go off and the hero has only a certain amount of time to save the world. While I don't have a world to save I do have A LOT of unfinished projects I've been ignor - uh, waiting for the right time to get to them. So, no time like the present, right??

So, what does this mean? It means giving myself a good kick in the butt to get some things accomplished that's what! And here's where a good dose of public humiliation - uh, accountability - comes in.

There are 7 weeks until the beginning of September. Not a lot of time to get things done but that's why they call things a challenge, right? I am here to publicly vow the following:

1. I WILL finish my revision by September 1st and be ready to query it in the fall.
2. I WILL lose ten pounds by September 1st (no more potato chips this summer dammit!! I will also be stepping on that bathroom scale every morning now - no avoiding the horror any longer.)
3. I WILL go through all the boxes and cupboards and general JUNK we have carted with us at the rental and organize it for a yard sale.
4. I WILL clean up the towering piles of paper in my office. Shred and file will be my favourite words.
5. I WILL get my wonky back straightened out. Doctors, chiro, physio, exercise - whatever it takes. I'm tired of seizing up like an old car.

Okay. Five's enough. I'm already daunted by the prospect of what I have to do. Losing those 10 pounds seems the most impossible task of all. Gah.

But now that I've put it out publicly in the universe I can't take it back. Stampsies no erasies.

Oh. Thought of one more.

6. I WILL forgive myself if I don't accomplish all these goals. (Everyone needs a Plan B, okay??)

How about you? Do you prefer to keep your goals to yourself or is a little public shaming a big motivator?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Lost Art of Doing Nothing

I know adults tend to romanticize their childhoods somewhat. Especially our summers. Those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer where life was one long stretch of time with not enough stuff to do to fill it. Now I know that's not entirely true. Many kids had to work long hours on parents farms or family businesses. But, even though I do remember the work, I also remember that there wasn't this rush, rush kind of feeling that I think is happening too much with today's generation of kids. Get up early to get to this camp, come home and run to this practice, take this lesson, plan a play date, whatever but make sure every minute of every hour is scheduled with SOMETHING to do. Even when it's summer.

After a weekend getaway to the cottage I got to thinking about my kids and what they'll remember about their summers. My first daughter was put into a lot of summer camps up until she was thirteen or so. We don't have much family around here so all she got for down time in the summer was a one or two week stint on my parents farm or a one or two week vacation with us. Same thing with Daughter Two. By the time The Boy arrived the girls were sick of camps. The Boy went to a few but this year he rebelled. When we asked him what one or two week camps he wanted to attend (swimming? Golf? Tennis?) he said, "I just want to be bored this summer."

I totally get that. The Boy is so overscheduled during the school year I'm not surprised he's burnt out. Plus, he's more of an introvert and needs quiet down time to recharge his batteries. School takes a lot out of him and add to that the three times a week he's at Tae Kwon Do and the 4 or 5 times a week he's at hockey the kid gets wiped. So, when he wanted to do 'nothing' this summer I said okay. But nothing still includes three times a week Tae Kwon Do, a weekly hockey treadmill session to improve his stride, and one 3 on 3 hockey game Wednesday nights. Compared to his regular schedule that's cake. Still, during the day he's free (a minimal amount of chores notwithstanding).

Last night, I was supposed to take him to Tae Kwon Do but when I got home he wasn't there. His sister said he'd gone to a particular friend's house but when I called he wasn't there. Not unusual for The Boy to take off to one place on his bike and end up at another without calling us to let us know (a horrible habit we can't seem to break him of). So, with 15 minutes until the Tae Kwon Do class I'm driving through the neighbourhood searching for him, silently cursing his irresponsibility under my breath and trying not to let images of strangers kidnapping my son off the street enter my anxious brain. I find him at a local park. The sun is just about to lower behind the trees so the light is hazy and the park is speckled with shade from the surrounding trees. There are people playing tennis, a few mom's and their babies are in the playground area and there, sitting on the swings is The Boy dragging his flip flops through the sand, talking with a neighbourhood girl we haven't seen in a while. His friend is also beside him doing the same thing, staring into space. All their bikes are jumbled in a heap on the grass. It is one of those 'moments' that makes me flash back to a feeling of my childhood summers - that lazy, kind of bored, but comfortable sensation of not having to go anywhere, just hanging out, talking with a friend, probably asking each other "What do you guys want to do?" and no one having any idea. Just. Doing. Nothing.

I didn't make him go to Tae Kwon Do (for which I got heck from my husband. Oh, well.)

I did make him go home and cut the grass because he didn't tell me where he'd been since 2 p.m.

There is a time for doing nothing and I'm glad The Boy is experiencing that. There is also a time to do chores. After all, it's never too late to teach kids about trying to have balance in your life. :)

Monday, June 27, 2011

How Many Risks Are You Willing To Take?

I was pointed to this article via Debbie Ohi (@inkygirl on Twitter) written by the always brilliant Ms. Jane Friedman. It was full of helpful questions and thoughtful observations about what it takes to become a successful writer. And it's not always about talent. It is a lot about how how many risks you take and how you respond to failure.

There is one line that really caught my attention. Ms. Friedman says

"It’s the old cliché: Nothing risked, nothing gained. Playing it safe as a writer will lead to mediocre writing at best. If you’re not failing, you’re not shooting high enough."

Which made me think about the kind of person I am and whether I have enough courage to take the risks I need to challenge myself - both as a person and as a writer. I'm a cautious person by nature. I think things through and weigh the pros and cons of every decision. I'm a slow and steady wins the race kind of gal who is comfortable with a certain level of routine and a need to plan ahead so there are few to little surprises in store (did I mention I hate surprise birthday parties, too?) Makes me sound pretty dull and boring, no? Yeah, that's what I think too. But there is one thing about me that balances that cautionary nature out: once I make a decision, there is no looking back and re-assessing or regretting that decision. It is what it is and I will make the best of it and learn and grow from that decision.

Lately, I've been feeling the need to challenge myself more - and not only in writing but with other areas of life. I have felt that lack of challenge creating a restlessness within me. Now, with so many changes happening on the home front I am also looking to challenge myself on the writing front. How that will turn out, I don't know. But I do know that if I don't risk some things nothing will change and human beings have survived and dominated because they have adapted best to change.

Change, risk, failing, getting up again, trying something new, challenging the status quo, facing your fears, leaping into the great unknown - however you wish to describe it - is necessary and vital to keep you from becoming complacent and bored. And is that how you really want to feel on a daily basis? Not me. So, say it with me folks, a little risk is a good thing. If I fail it meant I at least tried.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Diary Writing and What it Can Teach You

How many of you were diary writers as kids? I know a few people who kept diaries but I wonder out of the writers I've met what percentage kept a diary and for how long? The reason I'm asking these questions was because I recently did an interview on Deb Marshall's blog and one of the questions she asked me was what advice I would give to young (and young as in 8-13 years old) writers. The first thing that immediately popped into my head was writing in a diary.

I used to keep a diary from about 11 years old until I was maybe, thirteen or so. Then I kept a diary all through my late twenties until I began writing fiction. I still have those diaries. I remember when I was in Grade 7 I wrote - whether I wanted to or not - in that diary every night for months. I often wonder whether that was the inception of my later discipline for writing regularly? What I am sure of is that it was the development of not only a good habit but it was also the early stirrings of developing craft.

Diary or journal entries allow us to describe our inner feelings, our daily activities, our friends and families, the events in our lives. Basically, it helps you to write character, emotion and plot. Kind of essential skills for a writer. I know it's hard (for some kids) to create a story out of thin air but they can all describe what happened to them on a given day. They can all describe how they felt at a particular moment or how someone looked when they dropped ice cream all over their new shirt. Diary writing skills are not self indulgent, navel gazing that is a waste of time. Diaries can tell us a lot about ourselves and our world. And, for this writer anyway, writing a diary was the start of a long, long love affair with the written word...

I guess I'm still writing a diary all these years later. We just call them 'blogs' now! :) How about you? Did you or do you still keep a diary? And what has it taught you?

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Hardest Writing Lesson to Learn

Of all the things that make up a good book - active dialogue, believable and empathetic characters, kick-ass plot, strong narrative structure, increasing conflict, external and internal goals, etc. etc. (put the next hundred important things in writing a book here ___) one of the most important is probably one of the simplest - yet hardest - to do.

Putting the book aside after you've drafted it and waiting.

I think waiting, and all its subtle torments, is especially hard for writers (see my older posts tagged 'waiting' and my own struggles with that elusive virtue). But, like the proverb says, good things do come to those who wait. Especially when you've finished your first draft or when you're about to tackle an editor's or agent's revision letter. I know, I know. It's so, so tempting to send the thing out there once you've drafted it. You can feel it. It's so close to perfect! You feel the passion of that book. You want it to be read! Why wait to revise after you've already spent months working on it? What more could you possibly do to those thousands of words? Well, in the immortal words of Yoda (who never said this but totally could have!) "Oh, young Skywalker. More you can do, yes."

Would you advocate your son or daughter marrying someone after only two or three dates? Heck, even two or three months worth of dates? No, you say. Of course not. To know someone - really know someone - takes time. How can you learn all the nuances of this complex person in such a short time? You only begin to understand someone through exploring their layers: first the superficial - the looks, the sound of the voice, the physical mannerisms. Then, after a time comes the deep conversations, the surprise revelations, the knowledge that there is good and maybe not so good in this book - I mean person! Anyway, you get my meaning, I hope? Time and distance can make you see a person more clearly. The same thing applies to a book.

I'm thinking about this now because I'm about to enter into my editor's revision for The Break. Since submitting and receiving word that it was accepted for publication I have not opened it. Not once. In 9 months. Because I knew that the time away from it would make me see it more clearly. So now I can look upon it with a slight detachment that will make it easier to make choices about it. That will, hopefully, make me fall in love with it again.

And as for the WIP I finished a couple of weeks ago? We're on a break right now for a couple of months. My WIP understands. It knows how important it is to explore other novels for a time. That way when we start seeing each other again, I'll know it's the one for me and what we have to in order to make the relationship work.

So, what about you? Do you take a break from your draft? And for how long?

Monday, June 6, 2011

The "Y" of Character in "X-Men: First Class"

I saw the latest installment of the X-men franchise on the weekend and I can't gush enough about it to people. Smart, funny screenplay. Great sets and action sequences. Love the 1960's setting. But the best part, for me, was the way the screenwriters developed the characters so that for those of us who have been fans of the whole franchise and have seen the older versions of the characters, we now get to see not just the "X" but the "Y" of the way they are. It's all about the motivation - why ("Y") a character does what he or she does sells the story - for me anyway. And the X-Men writers did a great selling job.

The two characters whose motivation are best revealed in First Class are the two that are the villains in the original movies: Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). Magneto is given such a rich history - Nazi concentration camp survivor, what the villain in this movie did to his mother, how it was done and how it affected Magneto, how the young Magneto's mind and emotions now work because of it, his complicated yet respectful friendship with Professor X. All of this was backstory in the earlier movies but now becomes its own story here. Each facet of this character's emotional make-up is done with action/tension and we are shown how all of what preceded in his life leads directly to his later actions. Because we are shown all of these bits and pieces of him - many not very pleasant - we understand "Y" he does what he does. He's not a typical hero character - how could he be when he becomes a villain later on? Yet he is definitely the hero of this movie. Nothing he says or does makes the viewer think, "Well, where did THAT come from?" We absolutely believe it when he finally becomes the Magneto we know at the end of this movie. And though we know he will do despicable things, we still have sympathy for him because the writers have shown the complexity of who he is - the good and the bad. THAT is great character building people.

Now, Mystique. Wow. I so loved what happened with this character. I was so surprised to find out what she was like as a child/teenager. The role in the earlier movies was so much more one-dimensional and, had I known her backstory in those movies, I would have been more sympathetic to her. I knew Mystique had this obsession/love/commitment to Magneto. But I never understood it because it was never really explained that well. "Y" was she was so devoted to this villain? In X-Men: First Class we are shown "Y" she became who she became. It was done in two or three small scenes with Magneto, it didn't take up a lot of screen time, but because the writers had shown her insecurities - had shown her weak spot - we could understand "Y" she would turn from the 'good' to the 'bad'. She did it because Magneto saw and loved the real her when everyone around her wanted her to 'fit in'. Magneto encouraged her to embrace her mutation - to be herself and proud of it. So we believed it when she made her choice. It was a natural evolution of her characters thoughts, feelings and, eventual, actions. Just so well done.

I love it when movies teach me how to evolve characters in writing. X-Men: First Class is a master class in character motivation. If you haven't already seen it go forth and enjoy.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Necessity of Scaling Back

You may or may not have noticed (or cared :) that for the last couple of weeks I've only been posting on the blog once per week. No, it's not me being lazy or forgetful. I made a conscious decision that for the next little while I need to scale back on a few activities - one of which is how often I really need to post on this blog.

I'm not advocating a complete retreat from social networking - far from it. I will still be on Twitter and Facebook and on Verla Kay's message boards. I don't think I overuse my time on those sites (well, Verla's can be an addiction, I must admit). I think every writer needs to have connectivity to other writers in order to survive, maintain sanity and impart and receive support. I will also still visit the blogs of fellow writers and gain knowledge, laughs, tears on whatever topic catches my interest that day. Again, this is not about complete retreat - it is about determining what is essential. It is about how much time I spend on what activity and, for me, the blog posts took up more thought and time space than those other things.

It is not a coincidence that I've finished the rough first draft of a WIP that's been a long time gestating in the same period that I scaled back on doing posts for the blog. I found I was thinking way too much about what to post every few days than what I needed to be worrying about - what to write so I could finish this damn book! So why, now that I have the first draft, am I not going to blog twice weekly again? Because, for me, the most important part of writing - the re-writing - is when I have to have the most focus. This revision is probably going to be the hardest one I've ever done. The book will expand and contract in numerous ways. Ultimately, what I have to remember is the philosophy of scaling back: there is too much unnecessary clutter in our lives and when we let go of those things that are not absolutely essential we are free to make the necessary things so much more important and meaningful in our lives.

Think about it. If you had to give up a few things related to your writing life what would they be? The only essential thing, really, is the writing. It is the water we all need to drink from in order to survive and thrive. So, yeah, I'll be drinking a lot more of it these days. :)

Monday, May 23, 2011

Why Does it Get Harder the Closer You are to Finishing?

For every writer who has ever written "The End" on a piece of work there is no greater thrill or sense of satisfaction during the whole process. I've missed that thrill for a great long while now. For a variety of reasons (my first book released last year, I submitted my option book last fall, I've had two WIP's that have stopped and started for a variety of reasons, my mom got cancer, we're in the middle of a major house reno, you know ... Life?) Anyway, I'm now approaching the last fifty pages of the book and I'm so close I can taste the end. So why the heck is it so hard to get there?

I'm thinking, for me, it's a couple of things. For this WIP I have a vague idea of the ending but it keeps shifting as my characters do unexpected things. That's okay, I can handle shifts but it means I need to add in another scene to get the right resolution. I can't just leave things hanging. I hate endings that don't feel complete. I'm okay with some open endedness but I need to close up some loops on a few characters and the action just hasn't stopped! I've had the first climax of one storyline and now I'm approaching the second climax. After that things get resolved fairly quickly. But approaching that climax? That's climbing the mountain, that's stretching the calf muscles a bit more than rolling down the hill toward the end. And that's always why it's harder for me to get to that finish line. There's the climb just before it.

How about you? Is reaching the end the easiest part of the book for you? Or is it a bit of a struggle?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Spring Cleaning Your Novel

I don't know if there's any truth to that whole spring cleaning frenzy people seem to enter when the days turn longer and warmer (it's certainly never affected me before) but the last couple of weeks I've really felt the urge to clean house. It's not just the basic laundry and vacuuming but I'm talking clean out the van, organize clothes, eliminate unnecessary 'stuff', even cleaning out old messages on my cell phone (and I hardly ever do that!). Just an overall less is more attitude has pervaded my consciousness. I've even pulled back from the little social networking I do attempt and, instead of logging on at night, I'm reading more, being more 'present' rather than distracted by endless web-searching for useless tidbits of information that clutter your brain and trying to live more in the moment. As for my writing, even though I haven't 'quite' finished my wip (but the end is in sight people! Yes it is!) I'm already thinking about how I can 'purge' some unnecessary 'stuff' in it.

Usually, my first drafts are lean - meaning after revision I end up with a few thousand more words because I add in more description, layer in more meaning, add a scene that deepens characterization, etc. But for this wip I'm now approaching the 65,000 word mark. My goal is to hit no more than 70,000 words. With what I know I still have left to write, I may inch over that mark. I also know that there are a couple of short scenes that I need to add in as a sub-plot. I may be heading into 75,000 words at that point. This is not a huge problem but it is heading towards the upper range for contempory YA. But then my wip is a fairy-tale inspired YA so maybe I have a bit more wiggle room because it's not exactly a contemporary - but it's not exactly a fantasy either and not exactly a paranormal. Yeah. I like to make my life difficult. :) Regardless, I really do not want to make this longer than 70,000-75,000 words. So, I know will have to purge.

I know that most of the purging will be done in the first half of the book. It took me awhile to get to the end of this wip and I took a few detours along the way that either have to be trimmed or cut altogether. A couple of secondary characters didn't pan into much by the end of the book so I'll have to lesson their importance at the beginning while beefing up the presence or changing some motivations for some others. There's always the little things that add up and are an easy clean: unnecessary words like 'that' and 'seemed'. Too many dialogue tags or repetition of information. Scenes that are 'filler' - don't progress the plot or deepen characterization. Combining scenes where one can do both of these things. Like any good spring cleaning, I know things have to get messier before they get cleaner so I really hope all my moving around and throwing things out won't end up making the wip messier than it is right now. But the urge to purge is still strong in me. I have a vision of a more organized, well-put together story that hopefully will appear seamless to a reader. Like the result of any good cleaning, when you enter a room you may not notice all the details like the plumped up pillows or dust-free tables but you will sense a peacefulness - a sense of zen - that allows you to enjoy the room as a whole. A good book should be the same - don't let clutter destroy what is essentially a really good story.

So, are any of you spring cleaning your novels? Any tips you can share to help clear away the mess?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

How Do You Measure Success as a Writer?

When I began writing - almost nine years ago now! - I hadn't made any kind of plan, or listed my goals or anything that many writing organizations or professional coaches tell their clients to do when embarking on a business. I suppose it was because I didn't consider my writing to be a business. It was - and still is - my artistic outlet in a life filled with non-artistic pursuits (well, except for my kids. I think they're pretty awesome works of art, myself. :) But once you publish - heck, even way before you publish - people are constantly reminding you that this is a business. And to be successful in it - and why would you deliberately set out to fail? - then it does make sense to have some measures by which you, as a writer, can define whether you feel you've been successful. The issue is: what exactly are those measures?

Now I'm not talking about other peoples measures of success. Other people's definition of success is theirs and shouldn't be applied to you because, like everything in this business, it is subjective. One person might say someone is successful only when they've achieved the fame and numbers of books sold of a J.K. Rowling or Suzanne Collins. If that's your measure then great! But, personally, my measures have always been less 'out there' and maybe not as obvious in the typical business definition of success (i.e. money). For me, my measures have been to make my writing stronger and better with each book and to put myself 'out there' in the social network arena as much as I can without making myself overly-stressed and too uncomfortable. Is that it, you say? How puny those measures seem to be! But I could have kept my writing to myself - I kept a journal for many years and could have continued to do that. But I needed to stretch myself and the only way to do that was to have my writing put out there for others to see. One of the first measures of success was letting others read my work without getting physically ill over the thought. Got over that so Yay! Successful!! Then it was querying agents and letting them judge my work. Got over that so Yay! Success number two. Actually landing an agent? Wow, I'm feeling pretty successful. Go me. Getting a book published. A dream. No way. But it happened. Another measure of success attained. The biggest yet. Yes!

So, then, after all that, I must be successful, right? And, by my measures, I am. By others? Maybe not. I'm not a household name. I haven't sold a gajillion books. Or gotten a movie deal or ______ (insert your measure of success here). But I've met mostly all the measures of success I set out to do plus a few more like gotten good reviews, a second book contract, I'm in lots of public libraries, and I just learned that I earned out my advance. As a bonus my independent publisher is supportive and believes in my work and continues to champion all their authors works so I've had a lovely publishing experience with them. These may not be huge measures of success for others but they are for me. I believe myself to be successful for the place I'm in now. But, by the same token, my measures are constantly changing as life happens and circumstances change. After all, evolution is the only way to survive in life and in business.

But what is the one constant measure of success that I know will never change for me? Writing the best book I am capable of at the time. For me, writing is a marathon, not a sprint and the only measure of success that matters is set by me and not others.

What about you? How do you define your success as a writer?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Self-Criticism and 5 Ways to Stop It from Paralyzing Your Writing

I am, like most writers I think, an extremely picky person about my writing. I don't know if it is a gene or if it's because we read so much and see so many amazing stories out there but this tendency to look so critically at our own work can absolutely paralyze us sometimes. And, for me, rather than losing this self-criticism over the years of writing it's gotten worse. Why? Because I have learned so much and I see, so much more clearly now, where the problems lie and, unlike a beginning writer, I'm no longer unaware of the pit falls that can crop up as I'm drafting a story. Things like weak story structure, shallow characterization, slow pacing, lack of plot … my God, the issues could go on and on. It's enough to make a person shut off their computer for life.

But we love stories. We should love writing them! Obviously, with so many stories out there, other writers have silenced their self-criticism (or, at the very least, put ear muffs on). So then how can we, as writers, stop those critical voices in the back of our heads telling us our writing/story is just not up to snuff? The following may not work for you but here are some of the things I do to become unstuck.

1. Study
When in doubt, take a class, read a writing book (two books I recommend and that always inspire and help me work through problems are Stephen King's On Writing and Jack Bickham's Scene and Structure), go to a conference or read a book you really admire and analyze why it's so darn good. I'm a big believer in researching information when something is scaring me or blocking me from progress. Store that information you obtain like a squirrel does acorns in a tree. When that awful winter of discontent (your self-criticism) hits you then you burrow into your nest and eat those acorns you've stored so you can survive the winter.

2. Get Critiqued
I know it's scary to let what you think is crappy writing be seen by people. This is the one bit of advice I struggle with the most. I only let my CP and then my agent see what I think is my best work. Maybe that's wrong - especially when I'm slogging through a rough patch. But what you should never do is assume that you can see your work clearly because what you think is crap could be gold. What you think is gold could be dreck. Yes, you make the final call but if your self-criticism is clouding your judgement then get someone else to give you fresh eyes.

3. Get Inspired By Other Writers
It's easy to let the progress of others make you feel like you're a sluggish writer who is not producing enough words or, worse yet, words that aren't worth reading. Yeah, how's that negativity working for you? Not so much? Then use their progress to inspire you. My CP is inspiring me with her progress on her first draft of a women's fiction novel. It's going really well for her and her excitement excites me and makes me remember what it's like to be on that finishing a novel wave that's cresting toward shore. Another writer I know is also finishing her book. She's struggling with it - especially as it's getting toward the end. So she's not exactly riding a wave but she's swimming against a current that seems determined to keep pushing her back. But she's not giving up and that inspires me too. If she can do it, even if she's hating that story right now, so can I. Remember: Fellow writers are not your competition - they are - or should be - your inspiration.

4. Work on Another Project
If you are truly hating the work, then start something else. Maybe it's just noodling out a new idea to work on later. Maybe it's a short story. Maybe it's a completely new genre you've always wanted to try. Whatever it is, use that to get excited again - sometimes the thrill of a new idea or new area is enough to smother those self-criticism creatures long enough for you to move forward again.

And the most important thing...

5. Whatever You Do - Don't Stop Writing
This is critical. I don't care if you have to tie yourself to a chair to stare at that screen or look at that journal the best thing you can do is force out the words. Even if it's one measley paragraph a day. Defeat is not when you write crap. Defeat is when you don't write at all. Those crappy words (or so you think) that you are putting down were not there before - that in itself should be celebrated, not criticized. Pushing through the hard part of writing makes you a better writer - even if you don't believe you are. Once those words are down celebrate that achievement. It's like when my son makes an ugly goal in hockey - lying on his stomach, stretching out his stick to shove that puck in the net. Yes, it's ugly. But he got the job done. He didn't give up and say, "Well, I'm lying on the ice. Why bother even trying?" Get those ugly words down. You never know which ones will become a goal.

I'm sure there are many other ways you may have to stop the voices of self-criticism. Please share! I'm always looking for inspiration.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Return of the Prodigal Daughter

Daughter One finished her last exam yesterday and I'll be picking her up from university tomorrow to bring her back home for the summer. I am both excited and apprehensive about this. Excited because I've missed her and our chats about movies, life, books, clothes and whatnot. Apprehensive because she's been away, living as an almost adult, for over 8 months now and is used to coming and going as she sees fit and not having a worried mom and dad looking over her shoulder every second of the day. Now, she'll be living with us again and we have to settle into a new family dynamic. I really don't know how this will turn out.

I've discovered in the time D1 has been away that a life of blissful ignorance for parents can be a really good thing. When she first left I'd be texting and calling frequently, mostly to see if all was going well and to be assured she was adjusting to life in the dorm and away from home. I needn't have worried. D1 was ready to leave home at 10. She has LOVED her first year at university and, I think, if she could she'd stay there year round and be perfectly happy to do so. It's not that she doesn't love us but she's had a fabulous year and is already excited and planning her involvement with the university for her second year coming up in September. The only thing she's really excited about in coming home for the summer is getting a job and making some money :)

So,in the past eight months I've become used to worrying about her from a distance which is a totally different kind of worry than when a child is home. The transition from child to adult is hard enough on the teen but, my God, as a parent I'm struggling with it now that she's coming home from such a long time away. How much do I get involved in her life now? What do I need to know about what she's doing while living under my roof? How do rules apply to her as opposed to her other two, younger siblings?

I've already promised her that I will try and be as laid back as my control-oriented personality will allow. All I told her was, "Please, just let me know if you'll be home late and text me if you are staying at a friend's house otherwise I'll get absolutely no sleep this summer." She assured me that since all her friends are of legal age now to go out to clubs and she's got to wait until later in the year not to worry she won't be out that late. Yeah, right. Like she'll be hanging out at the library when her friends are out partying. Uh-huh.

But, as any parent who is lucky enough to still have a decent relationship with their kids as they hit this young adulthood age, we have to remember that we are blessed to see them progressing not only in age but hopefully in wisdom. I only hope some of that wisdom rubs off on me too.

So as my prodigal daughter returns I ask the universe to grant me the following wishes:

Please let me have the wisdom to keep my mouth shut when I need to.
Please let me know when to prod and ask her to talk about things that may be bothering her.
Please let me understand that she won't want to talk to Mom about many things. And please let me be okay with that.
Please let me remember that I am also evolving as a mother and that our relationship is evolving (or should be) as well.
Please let me remember that she is still only 'almost' an adult and won't necessarily always speak or behave as one all the time.
Please let her do her own laundry.

Those are pretty reasonable wishes, right? Well, maybe I was pushing it on the laundry one ...

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Rainy Day Randomness and 7 Things You didn't Know About Me

I hope everyone's Easter weekend was lovely and restful. Mine was spent visiting my folks back on the farm. Only hubby had to stay here to deal with reno stuff and Daughter One had an exam on the Saturday so couldn't come down. I did briefly get to see her on the way back home Sunday night and she'll be home for the summer this Friday so that's good! What wasn't so good was my car battery dying while at my folks but that's okay - Dad charged it. What wasn't ok was me locking the keys in my van while cleaning the inside of it. Oi. Thank God for CAA. As a result of all the running/driving around/general craziness I didn't get to see my old buddy Jan (sorry bud! :( and I didn't really plan a blog post for today. Luckily I'm home on a planned vacation day and I found that one of my lovely fellow bloggers, Kelly Hashway, at awarded me the Stylish Blogger award! Thank you Kelly! And congrats to her on her just released picture book May The Best Dog Win!

But to receive this award I understand I must share 7 things about myself that you all may not have already known. I can't imagine what you don't already know about me but here goes:

1. I've travelled to Portugal, Spain, Florida, South Carolina, PEI, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, New York City, Las Vegas, Cuba, Bermuda, Dominican Republic, Mexico and Israel.
2. I REALLY want to travel to California, see the Grand Canyon, tour the Greek Islands, and visit Hawaii. Oh, and England and Ireland of course. Sigh. One day, one day...
3. When I was 29 I went to Israel to work as a volunteer on an archaelogical dig where we dug up a 3,000 year old Phoenician cemetary. We stayed on a kibbutz near the Lebanese border. Never got a chance to travel to Jerusalem. Big regret on that but that whole trip made me live out my childhood fantasy of becoming an archaelogist.
4. My favourite bad snack is Humpty Dumpty Bar-b-q chips (I think they're only available in Canada)
5. My favourite meal that requires no cooking is French bread, pate, olives and cheese. Put me on a Greek island with that meal and a good book and I've found nirvana.
6. My favourite meal that requires actual cooking - anything in a restaurant. (I know you all know I hate cooking)
7. My favourite TV mini-series is Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth. However, (and this is a momentous admission people) I think that might have been supplanted last night when I watched BBC's North and South for the first time with Richard Armitage. Holy smoldering dark romantic hero people! I'd seen Richard in the mini-series Robin Hood as Sir Guy of Gisbourne but this mini-series is what launched his career. The last ten minutes of the series is probably the most romantic thing you will watch. EVER. If you haven't seen it go forth immediately and watch.

'nuff said.

And that's it. Thanks for letting me be random on this rainy day!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Is Finishing Your Story Always a Good Thing?

So before you assume that the question in the title of this blog post is the result of my love-hate affair with my current wip, let me first state unequivocally that I absolutely believe that writers need to complete a novel before they can see whether the story works or not. You learn soooo much by writing the entire character and story arc of a novel that the question I just posed should probably never be posed. And yet...

As much as I believe in this in theory, and as much as I believe in this in practice (dear God, the PRACTICE you get from writing a complete novel - or several complete novels - is priceless)there sometimes comes a point when a writer thinks "I'm beating a dead horse here. The story is not coming together. The spark is gone." But when does a writer know when a story is truly dead? Maybe it's just in a coma. Let me offer a case in point.

My next novel, THE BREAK (coming out in Spring 2012), I'd abandoned in the murky middle before sending it to my agent along with another (complete but needing revision) novel. I wanted her advice as to which story should be the one I concentrate on. She felt THE BREAK had more potential. I turned back to it (after a good several months away)and something clicked. Not sure if it was the agent's validation, not sure if the break on THE BREAK (sorry, couldn't resist)was all I needed. Whatever it was, I forged on and finished it in a couple of months after that. Now it's being published next year after I'd initially abandoned it (can't really remember the reasons now. Probably the same frustrations I have whenever I get to the middle. But my point is, it was a good thing I finished it because it will see the light of day now. And yet...

I'm 3/4 's of the way through the first draft of two books. I'm having issues with both of them. I stopped one last fall to start work on a 'shiny new idea' and wrote to the murky middle on that one, edged past the middle, decided it wasn't working for me, went back to the one I'd abandoned, fell in love again, wrote to the almost end point, noticed a whole slew of flaws (the biggest one being that it's supposed to be a paranormal when there isn't enough paranormal in it) and I'm now thinking "What's the point? I'm beating a dead horse here. The story is not coming together. The spark is gone."

And yet...

I hate not finishing a story. I keep thinking if I just keep working at it, maybe the spark will ignite again. But then sometimes, maybe trying to work up a fire in a dead hearth just exhausts you. And maybe, sometimes, it would make more sense to gather up some new wood and get that crackling fire going without so much huffing and puffing to fire up that one, small coal buried under a lot of burnt out wood.

I guess my question to you all is: how do you know when the fire in your story is really out?