What's on your chicken list?

I have two TBR (to be read) lists.

The first is all the books I really, really, really want to read and already own. Many are in my eBook library and vie for my attention daily. The rest sit on the shelves beside my bed and are a constant physical reminder of the wonderful worlds that await me.

The other list is the classic books that I know I should read but have avoided for a number of reasons: 

  1. I worry I won’t be smart enough to understand the profound themes that make them so revered.

  2. I’m certain that the authors’ brilliance will wither my confidence and leave me unable to write.

  3. I dread the archaic language of some of the older books.

To put it bluntly I’ve avoided many books out of simple fear.

Prompted by the purchase of Steinbeck’s East of Eden in December, I’ve decided to go through my fear, not around it.   

Last month I read East of Eden and loved it. Yes, Steinbeck was brilliant. No, I will never write at his level. But I yellow-tagged dozens of pages to go back to and read again. There is so much to learn from his work.

This experience made me wonder: what am I missing in other classic novels in favour of something more contemporary?

Resolution: to balance my ‘should reads’ with my ‘want to reads.’

Do you have any reading resolutions for the 2016? How are they working out so far?

Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Baby meet Moominmama  3 Nov 05 by Phillip Capper

Will your Easter weekend be a taxing one?

Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work. Gustave Flaubert

Easter’s coming and so is the tax bunny. That means it’s time to gather together your tax papers and take them to your nearest tax professional. Or, if you’re adept at finance, it means organizing and filing your return. In another life long ago, I was a tax auditor. What follows is advice from those days and what I’ve learned since.

In some jurisdictions, writers and other artists have the opportunity to reduce income from other employment with the costs of their creative pursuits. I’ve blogged about this before but a reminder never hurts. Here are the good practises to develop an excellent file. These will help in preparing your tax return or defending expenses claimed in the event of an audit:

1.   Keep all receipts for all expenses incurred during the year. If you drive across town to watch a horse race because your character breeds and races thoroughbreds, keep a log book of the kilometres travelled. Keep the receipt when you talk to the trainer over espresso and cinnamon buns. Make a note on the receipt of which project it pertains to. Get receipts for everything.

2.   If you go to events or buy books at launches where receipts aren’t available, make notes of the date and cost. Take a photo of the event or keep a copy of the day’s agenda.

3.   Keep all your receipts together in a single file, shoebox, or shopping bag. If you’re not the organized type, that’s as much as you have to do for the current tax year—just keep it together.

4.   If you want the best work done on your tax file, take it to your tax professional as early as possible in the year. It’s always best to avoid the crush.

5.   If you want to be diligent in your record keeping, you could buy some basic bookkeeping software or record everything on a big spreadsheet.

The more work done at your end, the less you will have to pay for the professional tax preparer to do it for you.

Last practical advice: don't mess around with the tax office. Keep your claims reasonable. When you start to make a good income from your creative pursuits, don't try to avoid the tax bite. It's a fact of life.

Yes this is prosaic work, like doing laundry or cleaning the cat litter tray but it’s essential. When it’s properly taken care of, it can save you money and a lot of stress. 

How do you manage the business side of writing? Do you push it into a corner and hope it will go away? Or do you keep things in a neat accordion file, sorted by types of expenses?


Image from Wikimedia Commons: Evading the Toll by Thomas Rowlandson, created between 1805 and 1810, uploaded by DcoetzeeBot



Are you making time?

In all our deeds the proper value and respect for time determines success or failure, according to Malcolm X.

In 2014:

  • My YA novel Lockdown will be released in the spring. Before that happens, a press kit and a book launch must be organized.
  • My epic Australian novel is shaping up and should be moved to submission-ready status.
  • The Young Writers Club remains stronger than ever and still demands lots of time and preparation.
  • I have a handful of short stories to polish.
  • This writing blog and the earthquake blog must be maintained.
  • A rough draft of a new YA novel needs a month or more of work.

Word count: 370                                                                              Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Behind the scenes there are major changes going on in my personal life that wake me early every morning and occupy me until I drop into bed, late every night.

How easy it would be, in the midst of all this busyness, to think, “I’ll find time to write something new tomorrow.” Time is a slippery thing: one unproductive day becomes seven. A week drifts into a month. Experience warns me that if I let things slide, soon I won’t have created anything new in recent memory.

This year I will make time (because no one finds it) for all the competing priorities. Otherwise starting a new project, or even advancing a half-finished one, seems as feasible as scaling Mt. Everest. To avoid this pitfall, I will shake myself and remember that the only way to get things done is to quit talking about them and just do them.

A goal without a date is just a dream said Milton H. Erickson. So, before the days disappear like cherry blossoms in spring, I’m going to set deadlines and try to avoid the whooshing sound as they fly past. (with thanks to Douglas Adams). I don’t want 2014’s goals to end up as unrealized dreams. I have a calendar. I have dates for each goal. I really, really intend to stick with it. Unless, of course, there is another cute dog or cat video on YouTube…..

What are you doing this year to master the gift of time? Have you recorded your writing goals? Are they broken into small increments that aren’t overwhelming?


Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Wanduhr in Deutschland. Es ist 15:00 Uhr.

Are you losing it?

The best writing moments are when the characters speak to each other and the scenes unfold with surprising twists. When I work, these exhilarating moments occur at a rate of about one in a thousand. First I have to slog through many dull, prosaic hours before a gem glitters in the dust. 

Word count: 435                                                            Reading time: 1-2 minutes

I’ve looked around for ways to beat the odds, to increase the incidents of strong writing. So far the only thing that improves my writing is practice. By practice I mean work: working harder, working more, working with focus. I don’t worry about whether or not I have the talent to write. Instead I put my faith in people who have gone before me:

  •  Perseverance is a great substitute for talent.Steve Martin, Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life.
  • The real writer is one who really writes. Talent is an invention like phlogiston after the fact of fire. Work is its own cure. You have to like it better than being loved.Marge Piercy.

Work means sitting down to long, seemingly unproductive hours, even when inspiration is weak and I’d rather wash the kitchen floor. I have to be there, chipping away for the moments when inspiration ignites and talent erupts. I have to write the bad sentences to find what doesn’t work. I have to play the wrong notes so I can find the sweet ones. Yes there are demons: the empty page, the incomplete scene, the manuscript that is 95% written. These terrifying events often tempt me to throw up my hands, to stop writing altogether. Then I move past my panic and get to work.

One of the greatest ballerinas of the twentieth century, Dame Margot Fonteyn, overcame her stage fright with additional practice. In 1949, as she geared up for her dancing debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, she had a bad case of butterflies. Her solution? Two extra hours of drills besides her regular workday of classes, rehearsals and performances. Investors.com

Because talent—if you don't encourage it, if you don't train it, it dies. It might run wild for a little while, but it will never mean anything. Like a wild horse. If you don't tame it and teach it to run on track, to pace itself and bear a rider, it doesn't matter how fast it is. It's useless.Elizabeth Hand 

Talent doesn’t develop on its own. It needs practice, education, and a chance to run free. So how do you get past your stage fright to let it grow? How do you ensure your talent doesn’t atrophy?


Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Vinit Sharma practising violin by Rockwithvinit

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?


Picture from WikiMedia Commons: Men Marching by thegoldguys

What are you talking about?

Recently I went to see Neil Gaiman at the Vogue. It was festival seating so we arrived almost an hour ahead of time and stood patiently amidst the cigarette butts, blobs of gum, and other detritus that are now a permanent part of the Vancouver cityscape.

Word count: 452  Reading time: 1-2 minutes

The woman in front of me talked, at a high decibel level, about her writing. She spoke in great detail about her characters and plot. Given her volume and side glances, I was sure she wanted to be listened to so, of course, I obliged. All the while I kept thinking about William Baldwin’s adage: empty vessels make the most noise. I wondered if she had actually written a word or if she just loved to contemplate the novel she might one day complete.

The first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club. That’s the way I feel about writing. If I talk about what I’m doing with more than a very few people, it seems to dissipate before my very eyes, like a breath on a cold winter’s day. It’s as if I’m showing people how the smoke and mirrors work when I don’t actually know yet because I haven’t choreographed the entire magic show.

Years ago, a friend of mine wouldn’t buy a single thing for her first baby’s nursery before the birth because she thought it was bad luck. Somehow preparing for the baby would jinx its healthy arrival. I hold a similar belief about my novels and short stories. If too many people know about them, the spell will be broken and the spark that keeps them alive will be extinguished by the constant breeze of my voice talking about them.

In Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, the protagonist (who is either unnamed or called George – read and decide for yourself) as an adult artist (unspecified discipline) says his work is doing fine thank you. [I] never know how to talk about what I do. If I could talk about it, I would not have to do it.

That’s the way I feel every time someone says, ‘So. How is your writing going?’ I mumble a vague comment and then redirect the conversation to something about them. That usually silences any further questions.

Howard Ogden said writing is like sex: you should do it, not talk about it. Did he say that because he is as superstitious as I am? Or does he just want to be spared long-winded descriptions of stories that may never be fully realized?

What about you? Can you talk about your writing at length without harming it? Or do you need to be near completion before you share the treasure?


Picture from Wikimedia Commons: Shhhh by Norrie Adamson