Broken any speed records lately?

When Anne Giardini speaks, people listen.

A lawyer (QC) by training (UBC, Cambridge) she has also written a nationally-syndicated newspaper column. Mother of three, she’s president of Weyerhaeuser Canada. She sits on the board of The Writers’ Trust of Canada and the Vancouver International Writers Festival.

Word count: 475                               Reading time: Approx 2 mins.

In her spare time, she reads a book ‘every couple of days’ and, since 2005, has knocked out a novel of her own every three or four years. She is the oldest daughter of the late, great Carol Shields and grew up surrounded by literature. She knows a thing or two. This past week she addressed the North Shore Writers’ Association (NSWA) and kept us pinned to our seats.

Some of the wisdom she offered:

  • If you want to be a published writer, don’t write for yourself. Show your work to friends and neighbours. Workshop it. Get feedback. (My qualifier: be selective whose feedback you take to heart. One reader’s meat is another reader’s poison.)
  • Get out and meet people in the writing community. You never know where your contacts will lead you.
  • Writing is about problem-solving. What problem is your story trying to solve?
  • Put your work out there for external validation. If you’re writing a novel try to write at least one stand-alone chapter. Submit it as a short story to competitions and literary magazines.
  • Read a lot. Write a lot.
  • It’s not too late to start. A sixty-year-old member of Anne’s writing group launched his first book this year.
  • When writing, heed the words of Emily Dickinson, Tell all the truth but tell it slant.
  • Remember Michael Winter’s two dogs in the writing room. One is a puppy, beguiling and playful. The other is a dying dog that needs mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The puppy is the internet. The dying dog is your novel. The dying dog needs your attention most urgently.
  • Always read your work out loud before finalizing it.
  • Be vigilant with your time management. Set high expectations. Make choices.

In respect to the last point, Anne admitted she has given up TV, movies, and plays in order to fit writing and reading into her demanding life.

Hearing her formidable schedule made me feel a little weary, which shows how different the writing experience can be. If she and I were in a productivity race, she would run the track a hundred times for every lap of mine. But that’s fine. There is a place in the world for both the tortoise and the hare.  

Where are you in the energy spectrum of writing and life? What have you sacrificed to make time for your craft? Do you look at people like Anne Giardini and think, “I can’t do that so I may as well not try?” Or do you accept yourself and what you can do with philosophical calm?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Three Hermann’s Tortoises by Ranko

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PS Breaking news at the NSWA meeting: Anne made the first official announcement that her family are putting together a book on writing based on Carol Shields’s years as a professor at the University of Manitoba. The book will include personal anecdotes to illustrate the lessons, a la Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (one of Anne Giardini’s favourite books about writing).  

If not now - when?

The sun bloomed glorious and hot last Saturday, giving Vancouver the first sweet kiss of summer. Because the heavy drapes in the hotel conference room were slightly cracked, I saw some of that enticing sunlight. I would have preferred to be hking a forest trail or by the sea but I’d signed up for the SCBWI conference weeks before. I was committed.

Word count: 488                                                                        Reading time: approx. 2 mins.

To me, conferences and writing groups can be a bit of a gamble. At least one conference I went to was a complete waste of time. I’ve been to a writers’ group that was a thinly-disguised tea party. I continue to sign up anyway and remind myself that the doors aren't locked at these things. An early exit is always the fallback plan.

Last Saturday? It paid off:

  • Margriet Ruurs, a committed advocate for literacy, who has travelled around the world promoting this cause, talked about the Write Life. A picture book author, she discussed how the human journey was originally depicted through drawings (25,000 years ago) and how stories are the backbone of human life. She exhorted people to write with passion and with care.
  • Alison Acheson urged her audience to Build Your Own Box. Start with the dilemma of choices and work on the conflicts that arise with constraint. Then compress the story and eliminate the details that don’t work or aren’t important.
  • There was a First Page panel where people submitted the first page of their books and four writer/editors gave feedback.
  • In the session Truth, Lies and Standing on Chairs, Richard Scrimger reminded us there are no rules in writing. Start with a grain of truth. Then use lies to polish that truth and make it sing. The power of a story is in its internal truth.
  • Joan Marie Galat talked about The Business of Getting Published and what happens once the contract is signed.
  • There were portfolio/manuscript consultations, illustrator workshops and pitch sessions.

If I could redo the early years of my writing life, I would start going to these in-person events much sooner. Why didn’t I? I thought I wasn't a real writer because I didn’t have a vast portfolio of work or a commercial publishing contract. What I didn't realize, until I'd been to a few of them, is yes, conferences, book launches, writers' talks and groups do take away from the actual hours available for writing. At the same time, they energize, hone skills, and provide the chance to meet fellow travellers on an often difficult road.

I know now that it is never too soon (or too late) to sign up for the first in-person writers’ conference or group. If you can’t afford the registration fee, some conferences need volunteers to help with their functions. In return, volunteers may sit in on some of the sessions.

Have you been to your first conference yet? What’s holding you back?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Moonlight Castle Series Writers' Talks 2013-02-02

What does it take?

"If I could I would always work in silence and obscurity, and let my efforts be known by their results." Emily Brontë. How would she view the cyber arena of writing?

Word count: 374   Reading time 1-2 minutes

The internet has moved the goalposts for 21st century writers. Now, among other things, we are now supposed to:

  • Read a lot.
  • Write a lot.
  • Write a mission statement.
  • Join a writers’ group (for fellowship)
  • Join a critique group (for feedback).
  • Take courses.
  • Join a book club. At least one.
  • Attend writing conferences and festivals.
  • Build a platform, a brand: blog, tweet, join facebook, LinkedIn, read other blogs, comment on other blogs.  
  • Build a professional bio.
  • Be camera friendly.
  • Pitch books in live situations or, at the very least, start the bruising process of querying agents and publishers.

After the book deal:

  • Teach or mentor other writers.
  • Organize a book launch.
  • Organize appearances and book signings.
  • Visit booksellers and book buyers.
  • Organize a book tour.
  • Start again at the top of the list.

While these suggestions only scrape the surface of the recommendations I’ve found, this list, even in its pared-down form, triggers a breathless claustrophobia in me. It doesn’t seem to leave a lot of room for the two essentials of writing and reading. What are the choices? Few, as far as I can tell, so I pick and choose the things that I hope will build a robust writing career.

Still, that list makes me wonder how the 20th Century’s five most reclusive writers would fare if they were to publish their books today. Georgette Heyer, who sold her first book at age 17 and wrote 55 more over the next 50 years, granted only one interview in her entire life. Would she have flopped in the cyber age?

In the end, as interesting as it to compare the current writing world to days gone by, it’s best not to spend too much time thinking about it. As L.P. Hartley said, “The past is a foreign place. They do things differently there.”

What are you doing to build your writing career? Are all these things simply too much for one person? How do you choose and what do you choose?

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Photo from Wikimedia commons, Dan English

Learning through leading

Word count: 484    Reading time: 2 minutes

About a million years ago when I was immersed in all things karate, Sensei Wong told the intermediate class if we wanted to get our black belts then we had to teach the lower ranks at some point. He said that teaching developed a deeper proficiency. I recently read a similar sentiment expressed by Yogi Bhajan, “If you want to learn something, read about it. If you want to understand something, write about it. If you want to master something, teach it.”

I’ve been reading about the craft of writing fiction for years now. I’ve blogged about it for the past 18 months. When I took on the Young Writers’ Club, I wanted to give something back to the community. I didn’t know what a rich two-way process it would be.

Some of the early benefits have been:

  • Focused research. Each time I set a new exercise, I analyze what it entails and how to best approach it. This week I set a poetry-writing challenge so I had to clarify the techniques for my own understanding. Then I had to whittle that down to a few digestible sentences.
  • Improved organizational skills. Not only do I have to prepare enough material for the two-hour workshop, I also have to make sure I have a cheque for the facility rental, payments from the drop-ins, permission forms from all the parents, extra pencils, pens, and paper just in case, and snacks to perk everyone up at the end of the long school day. I have to set up the room in fifteen minutes. At the end of the session I have to quickly return it to its pre-YWC state.
  • Improved interpersonal skills. I’m really interested in the kids’ writing and love what they produce. However, they need to learn how to critique and encourage each other. In order for them to take the rudder, I have to step back a little.
  • Validation. I don’t ask the members to do anything I haven't tried myself. When they follow my methods and produce wonderful writing, it’s proof of the pudding.

I’m looking forward to a long association with the Young Writers’ Club. These kids cram the monthly meetings into their hugely crowded timetables because they love writing. They deserve all the encouragement they can get. Writing isn’t like dance, music, or sports. There are few if any public displays of accomplishment. There are no bright canvases or shiny sculptures to show off. As many writers know, recognition can be a long time in coming.

So the YWC members come only because of their commitment to write and then write even better. In return, I offer the commitment to help them follow those dreams. How lucky I am to master so much more about the craft of fiction (and now poetry) along the way.

Where and how do you share your love of writing? What are you learning as you do that?

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Photo by: strixcode

 

A horse of another colour

Word count: 424             Reading time: 1-2 minutes  

Early last month I went to borrow a cup of milk and came back with a cow.

By a cup of milk I mean I went in search of an answer to a simple question: where, locally, might a young writer hone her skills and get some encouragement?

Bad news: I couldn’t find such a place. Good news: I found the Lynn Valley Literary Society (LVLS) who, for five years, ran the highly-productive Young Writers’ Club (YWC). When other commitments began to conflict with the dedicated efforts of Peggy Trendell-Jensen and Laura Hoffman, the club went into hiatus. They asked if I’d like to revive it. For months I’d been thinking of ways to give something back to my community, the writing community in particular. I said yes. A nervous yes, but yes all the same.

Of course, before I could do anything, I needed a criminal background check. That was both free (LVLS is a registered non-profit organization) and fast through the local RCMP office. First hurdle cleared.

Then I read some of the work of the YWC members from prior years. Their poetry and stories showed a love of writing, skilful use of language, and good imagination. In other words: real talent.

Next there was the challenge of spreading the word that the YWC was starting up again and I had to decide what my version of the club would offer. I looked at the old format and decided against producing monthly newsletters. The thought of designing, editing, printing, and then trying to sell anthologies was also daunting. Similarly, I was disinclined to assemble large writing kits like the ones given out in past years. As admirable as those projects were, they clearly demanded a lot of administrative time. Too much for one person. An awful lot even for two!

Where did my experience lie? In recent years I’ve taken a number of writing classes. To me the greatest benefits came from:

  • finding a supportive environment in which to explore new ideas and techniques
  • breaking the isolation of writing
  • sharpening the skills of observation
  • working through writer’s block
  • trying creative exercises that help reach through conventional language to gain a fresh perspective on words and meanings

So, once a month, starting November 14th, the YWC will be doing some of those things. My cup of milk has morphed into a large, soft-eyed project that will keep me well-occupied for the months to come.

Have you ever run a young writers’ workshop? What hints or suggestions can you give me?

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Photo by: basmeelker

The Busy-ness of Writing

Word count: 376                        Reading time: 1-2 minutes

When I qualified as a Certified General Accountant I knew my education didn’t stop with the parchment handed out at the graduation ceremony. Being a member of the CGA Association meant that in addition to the usual long work week, I was expected to complete defined courses of professional development every year to keep my skills relevant. Then I chucked it all to become a writer.

My second career evolved slowly because there was no clear route to what ensures success as a writer. After a lot of time invested and an enormous amount of trial & error, the only thing I know for sure is that a writer needs, at some point, do some or all of the following:

  1. Write
  2. Research
  3. Read extensively
  4. Go back to school
  5. Find a trusted writing partner or two and share your work with them
  6. Rewrite
  7. Give generously of your time to other writers who need help and encouragement
  8. Revise
  9. Polish the revision
  10. Submit and track your submissions
  11. Repeat steps 1-10 – stick with it
  12. Join at least one writers’ group
  13. Attend writers’ talks (local library, university, writers’ festival – wherever)
  14. Build an online profile
  15. Build a profile in your local community
  16. Stay healthy
  17. Play; renew the energy that brings freshness to your writing
  18. Track related income (if you’re lucky) and expenses for your tax return
  19. Repeat any or all of the above as required.

Once my first novel is released, what then? Well I expect there’ll be a whole 'nother list that comes along. I’ll post it later, when I have a better sense of all that's involved.

When I did the mind map for this blog (thank you Daphne Gray-Grant), I was astonished at the commitment of time and resources involved in writing. My CGA training pales in comparison to what it takes to be a writer, but this is so much easier. You know why, don’t you? Because pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work. Aristotle said that and he knew a thing or two.

What's on your list and what's missing from mine? Is there something I should be doing that I’m not?  

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Photo by: Uschi Hering

The jury is out

Word count: 300                                 Reading time: 1-2 mins.

This spring, after years of avoiding it, I went to an open mike night. As I read the first poem I had written since high school, I clamped my hands together so they wouldn’t telegraph my nervousness. After that, I was invited to join Word Whips, a group led by the amazing poet Fran Bourassa. The challenge there was even greater: not only do writers read work aloud, they compose it on the spot.

“Speak only the truth even if your voice shakes,” sang The Blackout in Keep On Moving. That could easily be the motto of Word Whips as Fran’s free-writing exercises trigger deep emotional responses. Group members write powerful, often exquisite, pieces in five and ten minute sprints. In my inaugural session, both inspired and intimidated by the talent around me, I wrote a bitter poem to someone who once betrayed me. My voice quavered as I read it. When I finished, several people laughed, one even applauded. In being truthful, I had touched a universal chord.

No fear, no envy, no meanness Liam Clancy advised the young Bob Dylan in their early days in Greenwich Village[1]. There is so much to be learned from other artists, I have overcome my fear and envy and returned to Word Whips every month. When there, I remind myself it isn’t a critique group; it’s a sharing exercise, the chance to stretch artistic muscles. No fault-finding, no blame. The only thing anyone is guilty of is the desire to improve.

What are your experiences with reading your work aloud? Do you do it only in the privacy of your own home? Or have you taken the most difficult challenge and stormed through the barrier of your first public reading? Do you ever read out loud to anyone?

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Photo by: Kenny1


[1] No Direction Home

Take a deep breath

                                    

Word count: 285                             Reading time: 1-2 mins.

No man is an island entire of itself wrote John Donne. The advice-to-writers’ take on that quote is: if you want to succeed you must join a writers’ group. This advice pops up frequently and, for all the benefits group membership promises, there is a potentially disastrous downside: the destruction of your work.

I have seen a writer leave a meeting early, only to have another member of the group turn to the rest and say with a sneer, “Who’s going to want to read something like that?”

I sat speechless and wondered, “Is that how my prose will be discussed when I am out of earshot?”

Likewise I have had fiction shredded by members of an online group who felt that anyone else’s success detracted from theirs. I left that group quickly and didn’t bother to report back when the two much-criticized stories won awards.

Julia Cameron in her book The Writer’s Life says, “I have seen more good writing destroyed by bad criticism than I have ever seen bad writing helped by good criticism.”

Anyone who’s ever had the best from a writing group – support, companionship, and encouragement – may not understand the damage a bad group wreaks. Anyone who joins a group needs to proceed cautiously and remember the words of E.B. White A writer’s courage can easily fail him…I admire anybody who has the guts to write anything at all.

I agree writing does take courage but sharing it takes even more. How do you avoid feeling stranded at the edge of the world with your work? Do you share with a group or only let a few select readers have a look?

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Illustration by Harmsen Van der Beek