Another day to celebrate!

Read any poetry lately? Monday March 21st 2016 is World Poetry Day.

From the United Nations website:

Poetry reaffirms our common humanity by revealing to us that individuals, everywhere in the world, share the same questions and feelings.

Poetry is the mainstay of oral tradition and, over centuries, can communicate the innermost values of diverse cultures. In celebrating World Poetry Day, March 21, UNESCO recognizes the unique ability of poetry to capture the creative spirit of the human mind.

Do you still remember poems or rhymes from childhood?

Occasionally I even try to write the stuff but almost everything I create is only suitable for personal consumption. Sort of like my attempt to bake perfect bread.

I wrote one poem, through the eyes of the protagonist of Outback Promise. I know it’s not bad because it was published in Quills Canadian Poetry Magazine before that publication started specializing in erotic verse.

This is Rosalyn’s voice, at age 25, before she leaves her hometown of Vancouver forever:

Upward Mobility

A raven squats on the peeling roof

crows boil by, bleating and scolding,

      as cherry blossoms strain in crusted-green captivity

I schlep my heavy backpack up the hill

away from the white-capped water

      toward the tired building where boiled cabbage

      and constant sorrow linger in the hallway

Sunshine sprawls on distant mountains.

I lift my eyes from the gray sidewalk

      In a shimmering window my reflection smiles back

          A stranger in my clothes.

So what are you doing for poetry day? Reading your old favourites? Scratching out a limerick or two?

Photo from Wikimedia Commons by: Linda Bailey

What is your hummingbird?

There is one major problem with our new home. Hummingbirds. They come to feed on the fuchsia plant hanging outside my window. When they do I am lost. I have no hope but to sit and watch them dart in and out of the flowers.

Then I have to go online and read about them or watch videos made by local Eric Pittman Hummingbirds Up Close. And we all know what happens when a person when you start searching the next.

Word Count: 449                                                               Reading time: 1-2 minutes

While I’m on the subject of things that distract me at this new house, I’d like to add the following:

  • Cats. There are a few of them in this neighbourhood and it’s entertaining to watch them face off on the street out front or cadge a pat or two from someone walking by.
  • Raccoons. Aren’t they meant to be nocturnal? So what are they doing, cavorting in the driveway across the street, forcing me to lift my eyes from my work?
  • Dogs and their walkers. At least a dozen different breed and mixes of dogs walk past this house everyday. My favourite is what Aussies call a bitsa, bits of this, bits of that. His top half looks like a lab with a long, golden body and a handsome head. His legs are basset hound short. His winsome face charms me from thirty feet.
  • Deer. There were lots here in the spring but they seem to have found greener pastures now that we are close to summer. Just as well. I have work to do.
  • Characters. Different people in wonderful outfits parade past every day and often I want to do nothing more than watch them.
  • Cooper’s Hawks. Granted, I’ve only seen one (once) and that was just this week, but I hear them all the time so I’m on the constant lookout.
  • Lastly there is an occasional rabbit and I have to stop what I’m doing and wait to see where it’s come from and where it’s going to. I’m always in the mood for a tea party.

Sometimes it’s good to lose myself in the passing tide of life, to meditate while a frenetic green bird drinks nectar. Other times the imaginary world I’m creating blinds me to all but what is on my screen or in my notebook.

Where do you write? What are the distractions flicking into view that take you from your work? Do the distractions also serve as real life reminders of the magic you are trying to create? Does the man sitting across from you in the coffee shop figure into that scene you are writing now? Or does his image hover and dart out of view?

***

Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Annas Hummingbird, Calypte anna in flight by Calibas

Where to from here?

Stairs.jpg

At the bottom of a steep staircase, at the end of a twisted trail in a corner of West Vancouver, there is a spot that used to be one of my favourite places when I was a scuba diver. Copper Cove was a short drive from my West End apartment. Costs were limited to gas for the car and air for the tank. Once I was in the water, the wall on the right side of the cove was full of hidden treasures. To this day the dive site remains relatively under-utilized, which is extraordinary in a city of almost two and a half million people. To end the dive perfectly there is a lovely rocky beach with driftwood logs to sit on for the all-essential, post-dive debriefing.

Word count: 345Reading time: 1-2 minutes

I loved diving there but, to be truthful, I didn’t look forward to the long ascent afterward, hiking the hundred pounds or so of gear up those stairs and back to the car. If I wanted to get home, or more importantly to my next dive, I had to make that climb.

My book launch two weeks ago was like diving at Copper Cove. Getting there, although somewhat fraught with jittery nerves, wasn’t too bad. Once I entered the venue, there was no looking back. It was like putting the reg in my mouth and deflating my buoyancy compensator—there was only time to look around and enjoy the ride. Afterwards sitting and talking about it with friends helped me understand and appreciate the experience even more. Just like diving.

Something important happened two weeks ago. I had the uncommon experience of launching a professionally-published book into the public domain. That was a privilege and a delight. That initiation ritual is behind me. Now I’m climbing the staircase back to my next novel.

How did you feel after your first book launch? Did it energize you for your next writing project? Did you race up those stairs two at a time? Or did you feel slightly daunted at the new prospect of a secondary career in sales?

***

Photo from Wikipedia Commons: Concrete stairs 2007 by Diego Godoy

What is holding you back?


I understand why people live with peeling wallpaper and ancient kitchens with drawers that jam and stick. It takes courage to venture beyond the planning stage. Once a renovation starts, there is no turning back. The old bathroom gets ripped out, but what looked good on paper may not proceed according to plan. Electricians, plumbers, and builders come into the mix. They each have an opinion and they often contradict each other. Maybe it’s easier to live with the crack in the bathtub and the toilet that flushes away 13 litres / 4 gallons of potable water with each use.

Word count: 327                                                                                          Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Is an unknown result the reason some people fail to finish the big artistic projects they start? How many outlines of stories have I scribbled into my notebooks over the years? I love that playful stage. So I write the first scene. It’s satisfying to see the characters come to life, say and do things exactly the way I expected.

Deep into a manuscript, I often find that a story is not unfolding the way I expected. The electrician arrives on the scene and says that my protagonist has no spark. No one is getting a charge from her. The plumber informs me that my throughline is jammed and needs to be reworked. I need to rip out half of what I’ve written.

Sometimes the weaknesses are beyond repair. Better tear the old house down and salvage the parts. Other times I just need to pull out the rotted wall and replace it with something  more substantial. The urge to destroy is also a creative urge according to Picasso.  So really, when unexpected obstacles pop up in the narrative, isn’t that the time to muster the creative courage and smash what needs fixing?

Do you avoid writing your great novel because you know hard it’s going to be? Or do you have the perseverance to get through the project, so you lay out your blueprint and get started?

***

Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Bedroom and sitting room of the White House during the Renovation 2/27/1650 by Abbie Rowe from the US National Archives & Records Administration

Cleaned any cupboards recently?

For the past few weeks my life has slipped away in tiny increments. The decision to sell and move was sudden and immediate so what has to be done, has to be done quickly. I’ve spent many hours sorting through cupboards, closets, and filing cabinets. The tape gun has become an extra appendage. I’ve lost count of the number of boxes I’ve assembled and filled.

Word count: 446                                                                     Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Hours spent in manual labour are one of my favourite times to think about plot and characters. As an additional bonus, I’ve discovered that moving is actually very much like writing:

  • Just when I thought I’d found a place for everything, it was time to sort through it and toss all the excess. Stephen King aims to tighten ten percent out of his first drafts. The amount of stuff we’ve given to the thrift store, friends and neighbours surely must account for ten percent of our house. Editing my life, like editing my fiction, is a cathartic process.
  • Once I’m on a roll with packing, it can be hard to stop. Sometimes, around midnight, I think something ridiculous like I’ll just edit one more chapter. In moving it’s: just one more box.
  • Both writing and packing can lead to physical exhaustion if I don’t pace myself.
  • Both benefit from input of talented outsiders. Just like my writing improves with feedback from my critique partners, a skillful stager is helping us get the house looking its best.
  • Every step of the way dozens of decisions raise their troubling heads. Some solutions are easy and obvious. Sometimes easy is the wrong choice.
  • I have to resist the impulse to look too far ahead. When I’m packing, it’s disheartening to try to imagine the new home and how things will fit. That’s another job for another day, just like the clear ending of my novel may not be visible from the first chapters. I have to rein in my impatience to know exactly how everything is going to be resolved.

Soon enough we’ll be moved. Oh yeah there are all those small adventures ahead of us, like selling this place, working on the new one, and shifting everything from one home to another. Soon enough my current novel will be finished in spite of its current dishevelled state. It just needs me to pick up my tape gun, open the next chapter, and get on with the job.

When did you last do a deep clean of your writing, tossing out all the stuff you hang on to simply because you can? Should we all ‘move house’ on a regular basis just to keep our lives tidy?

 ***

Photo from Wikimedia Commons: house being moved from Colton & N Boylston Streets for construction of Hollywood Freeway, Calif. 1948

When is it time?

From the moment the days start to shrink each September, I look forward to winter’s darkness. Like Andrew Wyeth, I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape. Something waits beneath it; the whole structure doesn’t show.

To me, winter is the season of mystery and wonder, ideal starting points for any story.

Maybe this is why NaNoWriMo is such a successful annual event: as days shorten and shadows lengthen, we are reminded of nature shutting down. Plants die. Birds disappear from the garden. Food becomes scarce for the animals that do stay around. Imminent death is always an excellent theme for fiction.

In February, when the days stretch again and the first flowers of the year start to struggle out of the ground, the increased sunlight will energize me with new ideas. I’ll decide that spring is my season and let the vigorous growth inspire me. When the darling buds of May have blossomed into summer’s beautiful flowers, I’ll probably be persuaded that summer is the very best season to write. By the time autumn creeps in on the morning air in September I’ll be reminded just how much I love the fall and I’ll take long walks in the forest to enjoy the rich smells of the trees shutting down for the year.

However now it’s winter and I’m convinced this is the best season of them all. I loved the snow this week and I’m enjoying the long nights. During the day I look out at the barren garden and imagine what is going on just beyond the limits of my hearing and sight. There is a story brewing out there, I can sense it.

Do you have a favourite season for writing? Or can you sit down any time and work the words?

***

Picture from Wikimedia Commons: High Park Toronto by paul (dex) bica

What is staring you in the face?

Bright sunshine beckoned the other day and I tied on my runners and trotted outside. With my headset plugged into my iPhone, I hit the music button, ready for a brisk walk. Instead of Emeli Sandé, I got thundering silence. The bounce went out of my step and I stared at my phone dumfounded.

Word count: 334    Reading time: 1-2 minutes

I punched buttons as if simple determination would make the songs magically reappear. When I pulled out the ear buds and stood there, I heard nothing more than the autumn leaves that rasped along the pavement. I resigned myself to a technology-free hour and moved on.

Without the cocoon of music to separate me from ambient buzz, I walked. Although it would be glorious to report that I heard something so significant that it inspired a brilliant short story or chapter, that didn’t happen. But I caught conversations from people’s yards. Jays scolded in a cedar tree. When a car drove past, the doughy sounds of its tires on the warm road reached me. A normal Sunday morning on the edge of Mt. Fromme.

My sharpened hearing changed to more focused looking and I saw, for the first time, the way the Steller jays’ wings appeared translucent against the sun. I breathed deep the rich humus smell rising from the earth. I touched the springy young needles on a hemlock tree.

Susan Sontag said, “A writer is someone who pays attention to the world.” When I plug into my tunes, I deny myself a chance to do just that.

When the latest iPhone 4 upgrade deleted my entire iTunes library it may have given me an inadvertent gift: I discovered that music piped directly to my brain doesn’t turn off only my ability to hear, it also dulls my senses of sight, touch, and smell. Maybe it sweeps me into what Jason Perlow calls the Sea of Stupid.

Do you have a habit, particularly one that is technology-dependent, one that diminishes your powers of observation? How do you overcome it?

 ***

Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Leaves in autumn, Tapis de feuilles en automne by hamon jp

Do you conform?

In this week’s stack of junk mail, a window-and-door company’s brochure offered ‘an amazing deal, especially prepared for Current Homeowner.’ Was that supposed to make a customer feel particularly honoured? I felt more like I'd been caught in the splatter field of a marketing shotgun. That technique may be fine for selling doors and windows but I doubt it would work in trying to flog a book.

Word count: 327                                                          Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Diluting your product to make it more ‘commercial’ will just make people like it less according to Hugh MacLeod. Worse than that, it may make you like it less. What is the point of undertaking any artistic venture if there is no pride in how it evolves?

Not persuaded? Still want to know how to please everyone so you can churn out the next must-read book? Then surf over to this Huffington Post article by John Blumenthal. He offers invaluable tips on how to write a bestselling novel. Follow his formula and, please, let me know how it turns out.

If you’re still with me then I’m guessing that you’re a serious writer, working on producing the very best story you can. It has a good plot. Your writing skills are honed. The work has been edited, edited, and edited again. Beta readers have given their feedback and you’ve rewritten it once more. Through all its shaping and changing, the story has remained true to your original inspiration. It hasn’t been bent to please one person or another. You haven’t diluted it hoping to reach the lowest common denominator of reader to assure its success. You’re secure with what it is and who you are as a writer. Now you can hope for remarkable sales but there are no guarantees.

Are you tempted to load your writing shotgun and to try to hit a greater audience? If so what changes are you prepared to make? Conversely if you’re standing your ground, telling your story your way, what editorial arguments have you had to win?

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Picture from WikiMedia Commons: Men Marching by thegoldguys

Have you crossed the line?

Last week we had a family gathering where relatives who hadn’t seen each other in years shared a meal. Glory stories were told and there was probably a grain of truth in most of them. No constraints like correct grammar or good structure were imposed on the tall tales.

Word count: 477           Reading time: approx 2 minutes

At the writers’ panel last month, a man in the audience asked why editors were even necessary. Why can’t anyone who wants to write, just write? Sylvia Taylor fielded this question from the perspective of commercial publication. She said people’s stories are the rough stones that are dug from the earth. What makes a diamond shine is the cutting and polishing.

Anyone who wants to write can, and often does. There are over 750,000 ebooks for Kindle on Amazon right now. At least some of them, I’m sure, are written by people who just wanted to write without the constraint of an editor or a proofreader.  

At that family reunion two of the people at the table commented that they, too, have written books. Each had written one book that has since been shelved. Completing a novel is a commendable effort; not many people get that far. Still, the first draft is closer to the starting gate than the finish line.

A person doesn’t have to be published to be a serious writer but there are some signs that a line has been crossed between messing about with words and being committed to the long game. Here are some indicators that the writer has passed that point of no return:

  • Writes. Writes a lot. Writes often.
  • Has always written a lot. If not fiction then letters, emails, shopping lists – anything.
  • Cares about the pesky points of grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
  • Reads a lot and thinks about what she reads.
  • Is curious about the world at large. May be known to disappear from a party to check out the host’s bathroom cabinet or eavesdrop on the next door neighbours.
  • Makes choices that create time for writing.
  • Keeps learning through books, writing groups, conferences and coaches.
  • Realizes writing may never be a viable way of supporting herself but writes anyway.
  • Sets aside her ego and accepts critiques that will improve her writing.
  • Stands her ground when what she has written is true to her intent.
  • Thinks about her novel the last thing at night and the first thing in the morning.
  • Travels with a pen and paper to collect the precise words of conversations, the exact descriptions of landscapes.
  • Treats other writers with consideration and respect.
  • Considers the first draft of a manuscript the starting point of the work.
  • Knows to step back from the story, reflect on it and let it rest.
  • Writes with passion, succeeds with discipline (Shannon A Thompson).

What would you add to this list? What else tells you someone is serious about writing?

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Frédéric Bazille via Wikimedia Commons: Bazille Family Reunion 1868

Critical mess

Word count: 394            Reading time: 1-2 mins.

No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else's draft said HG Wells. I wish I’d known that quote when I sent my first short story to a competition. It was rated Highly Commended and one of the judges asked me if I’d like some help polishing it. Without so much as a by-your-leave, she rewrote it and read her version to the audience on the awards night. Her rewrite wasn’t wrong; it was just different. It wasn’t my voice.

Do-not-rewrite-someone-else’s-work was my first lesson in editing. Here are a few more I’ve picked up since:

  1. It takes courage to share your work; make sure the person who sees it is worthy of your trust.
  2. A good writing partner pinpoints the areas that might benefit with revision. She never replaces your words with hers but suggests solutions to problem areas.
  3. A constructive editor encourages your strengths. Note: I’ve paid for professional reviews where the readers seemed totally unfamiliar with classical thinking like: correction does much, but encouragement does more (Goethe). If you have to ask questions - like what parts worked better than others - it’s time to find someone else to help you.
  4. The more you study and learn about writing, the better your writing gets and the more you have to offer as a writing partner and editor.
  5. Some people want intensive feedback; others only want their typos caught. Remember Somerset Maugham’s words: [some] people ask for criticism but they only want praise. If you’re committed to doing a meaningful review, the latter will waste your time.  
  6. You don’t have to take onboard everyone’s suggestions but it doesn’t hurt to listen. You’re the creator; you decide whose opinions are most relevant.
  7. Still, even when you think you’ve absolutely nailed something, be receptive to the fact that it could be better.

Once books are published and hit the public domain, imperfect strangers emerge from the woodwork to criticize them. Until then, we can select readers who help us strengthen our voices, not drown them.

What are your expectations from an editor or writing partner? Is there something else you hope for that I haven’t listed? Do you use other writers, professional editors, or good friends - or a combination of all three - to help you improve?

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Artwork by: Tom Morris via Wiki Commons