Do you know when to lie down?

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Earlier this month I went to the 152nd Highland Games in Victoria BC.  Arriving early we had excellent seats to watch the Border Collies work. I’ve seen these dogs in action on huge sheep properties in Australia and admired their skill and enthusiasm. Their talents, demonstrated in the video called Power of the Border Collie, are:

  • Speed
  • Concentration
  • Focus
  • Patience
  • Persistence

Word count: 374                                                            Reading time: 1-2 minutes

As I watched them at the Games, I thought of how their work was like a writer’s.

  • Writers need speed when attempting a NaNoWriMo challenge or simply trying to make an editorial deadline.
  • Swearing off the distractions of the internet and other social temptations is only possible by the sheer force of concentration.
  • Without focus, novels ramble and become weighted down by too many characters and random actions. Finding Focus in Your Fiction by the Literary Corner Café discusses the pitfalls of unfocused writing.
  • Patience, and a lot of it, is needed in the editing phase. Watch the Border Collies as they herd—they don’t run the entire time. Sometimes they seem to almost tiptoe around the mob. Other times they simply lie down and strong eye the stock.
  • Persistence—have I mentioned the need for this in writing before? Persistence is what carries me beyond the prosaic dull words that first fly off my fingers. It leads me to the occasional moment of that’s it! That’s what I’m striving for. Tobias Wolff said it best: “We are made to persist. That’s how we find out who we are.”

Of all these virtues, for me patience is the most difficult one. I want to chase those sheep until they’re rounded up and through the gate but that’s not how life works. Watch this champion dog Nell as she lies down and nudges the sheep to her will. Sometimes I need to just back off and strong eye my manuscript. Look for the stray story lines and extraneous characters that are cluttering up the scenes.

What is the hardest part of the writing discipline for you? Are you impatient? Do you focus on word count while giving character and plot development less time than they deserve? Do you need to get in front of your work, lie down, and give it the strong eye?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Sheep & Sheep Dog by Rosendahl

Merci! Gracias! and other thoughts about my book launch

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Friday May 2nd, fifty or so people gathered for the launch of Lockdown my debut novel. The weather was kind, the assistants from the Young Writers' Club were helpful and enthusiastic, and the mc's were wonderful.
Certain thank you's are in order -

  • to my two wonderful mc’s at Friday night’s book launch, Lisa Voisin and Lynn Crymble.
  • to the members of the Young Writers’ Club who helped set up the room and worked on the draw for the door prizes.
  • to my family who have encouraged me every step of the way. 
  • to all of you who showed up to support my launch.
  • to those who could not make it but sent congratulations and encouragement.
  • to my publisher, Great Plains Publications, without whom there would have been nothing to launch.
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What is shaking your tree?


When our house sold in February, it had only been on the market for a few days. The buyers wanted possession in three and a half weeks. My husband and I had anticipated the usual sixty to ninety days to ease ourselves out of our North Vancouver lives. However, we are nothing if not adaptable. A bird in the hand and all that. We went into overdrive, and last week packed up a trailer and said good-bye to the house on the hill.

Word count: 335                                                                           Reading time: 1-2 minutes

For the next few months, we will live out of the suitcases and few boxes we brought with us. Our new place is in its original thirty-year-old condition and needs many upgrades. We’ve rented a tiny apartment a ten minute drive away. Empty and bare, our home waits for the contractor to start ripping out walls and tearing up the stained carpets. The ordered, relatively predictable life I had in November has vanished into the ether.

To add spice to the mix, my novel Lockdown is ready for release. I have been given a budget by my publisher, Great Plains Publishing, and must start planning my first book launch. Next week I travel back to Vancouver to lead the March session of the Young Writers’ Club.

Recently I read this Nietzsche quote: You must have chaos to give birth to a dancing star. I have adopted it as my personal mantra. From all this upheaval some good writing will surely be born.

What is writing if it isn’t chaos anyway? Still, for two weeks I’ve barely written a word. Now I am shaking myself out of my stupor. It’s time to retreat to writing when everything gets a little crazy. For one thing, it’s much cheaper than therapy. Writing is one place where I can create a world that makes sense, at least to me. It’s a place to escape the turmoil of building codes and construction.

When your world gets turned upside down do you capture the madness in your writing? Or do you step away and wait for things to settle before you start the next chapter?

*** 

Photo from dreamstime by: Stuart Miles

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?

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Picture from Wikimedia Commons: Shhhh by Norrie Adamson

What lies ahead?

Perseverance of a decapitated tree by Wing Chi Poon

Nobody told me there’d be days like this sang John Lennon. When I looked at what lies ahead of me this week, I was reminded, once again, how little I knew about the publishing industry when I started. Here’s a mud map of what may be necessary, after you’ve polished your novel and got it fit for general consumption:

1. Master the art of writing a query letter, which is infinitely more difficult than writing the book itself. Writer’s Digest offers Ten Dos and Don’ts of Writing a Query Letter. Janet Reid’s Query Shark site gives examples of what turns agents off in actual submissions. Then there’s the whole question of whether you should seek an agent or go directly to a publishing house. Di Bates has a good discussion of Literary Agents on her site Writing for Children. One thing is certain, unless you intend to self publish, your query letter will open or close doors for you.

Word count: 474                                                                             Reading time: 1-2 minutes

2. Develop a web presence. Or should you? There’s a question for a search engine! It seems logical that if you want people to be interested in your work, it’s probably best if they can find you. It is sometimes suggested that this step should precede step 1, that agents and publishers are people too.

3. Familiarize yourself with the basics of contract law, or at least develop the tenacity to wade through legal documents. Even if you self publish you need to understand what to expect under the T&C’s (terms and conditions) of your contract.

4. Prepare yourself for editorial input. Allow time for more revision.

5. Before the book is published, assemble a press kit and gear up for what Jill Corcoran calls Book Marketing and Sell-Through.

6. Be prepared for a book launch or even a book tour. Start researching these events well before your launch date. If your publisher doesn't support these events, look for inexpensive ways of hosting your own.

7. Investigate the possibility of a blog tour which is a less physical way of creating buzz for your work but also very time consuming.

8. Between all this – start working on your next novel because if people like your voice, they’ll want more and you’ll want to deliver.

I’m on step four of this list and the road ahead looks exhilarating, to say the least. No one told me it would be so demanding at the outset but I would have soldiered on even if they had. I’m nothing if not perseverant. I’ve had setbacks and false hopes but I keep Winston Churchill’s advice – never never never give up – close to my heart.

What part of the writing journey has surprised you the most? Have you encountered obstacles that you just didn’t anticipate when you started the deceptively simple ambition of telling a story that was burning in your head?

 ***

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Been there, done that, what's next?

Last Saturday, for the first time, I appeared in public as a writer. Another milestone now behind me. Some people are attracted to such events like butterflies to bright flowers. I’m more like a unicorn; I’d rather not be seen. However, remaining anonymous is a luxury no 21st century writer can afford. In the Forbes’ article, Five Lessons For Authors and Self-Publishers, Neil Gaiman tells writers that you have to get out there, you have to be a part of your community, and you have to be the signal, not the noise.  

Word count: 600                                                        Reading time: 1-2 minutes

I accepted the invitation to join the panel because I knew I needed to. In days before the event, I reminded myself of Eleanor Roosevelt’s words: Do one thing every day that scares you.  It’s not like I’m naturally timid and desperately in need of that advice. I’ve travelled to Europe alone, I’ve moved across Canada by myself, I’ve moved across the Pacific. Twice. I’ve camped in the Outback and scuba dived in the icy waters of the Pacific Northwest. But none of those were as daunting as public speaking.

I prepared myself as best I could. I read aloud, into a voice recorder, and forced myself to listen to it. I asked the moderator if I needed to bring notes on any subject but she said no, it would just be informal questions and answers. I sang at the top of my lungs on my way to the library where the festival was held. This seemed to strengthen my vocal chords or at least clear the cobwebs. I couldn’t be more ready, or so I thought.

Then there was a moment of horror when the moderator asked us all to speak, for three to five minutes, on our journey to publication. If you’ve followed this blog, you know I’m not yet published. I have a contract to publish. I do not yet have a book in my hand but the organizers considered that an important point in the road and thus I was included. As the junior panel member, it was natural that I’d be first off the mark. But I hadn’t brought notes.

Being first meant I didn’t have the benefit of gathering my thoughts as others spoke. So I took the microphone (another first) and winged it. I tried to speak slowly, not my usual geyser rush of words. I made eye contact with members of the audience. The session went on for an hour and a half. I seem to remember being on my feet a fair bit of it. I wonder what I said. I really can’t remember.

As Robert Brockway states in the blog, Writing is the easy part, the burden of promotion and marketing now falls squarely on the writer’s shoulders. The North Shore Writers’ Festival was my first chance to test the waters of getting known, of a little self-promotion.

When it was all over, I realized I’d learned a lot:

  • People who attend writers’ festivals are incredibly supportive.
  • When a speaker makes eye contact with an audience member, and she nods in agreement, it’s incredibly helpful. It lets the speaker know she is understood.
  • People who go up to a speaker after a talk and say something like, “that was really interesting” make the speaker’s day.
  • I will be a better audience member from now on.

Have you ventured into some peripheral realm of writing that you dreaded, only to discover it wasn’t nearly as bad as you expected? Or was it even worse? Where have your greatest joys and biggest disappointments been?

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Photo by: Raksit

Are you a fair weather writer?

Word count: 374            Read time: 1-2 minutes

The skies over Vancouver cleared last week and the rainforest deluge stopped. These sunny winter days are stunning but I miss the downpour that traps me inside. Dark wet weather is the perfect backdrop for my writing. Regardless, I work every day because, A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” E.B. White

Today’s blinding sunshine didn't keep me from my novel even though I wanted to lace on my boots and hike through the forest. Instead I struck a compromise: once I’d broken through the rock wall in the plot in front of me - okay maybe chipped a little hole in it - I could go for a walk. But first I worked. "The fact is that writing is hard work, and sometimes you don't want to do it, and you can't think of what to write next, and you're fed up with the whole damn business. Of course there will be days when the stuff is not flowing freely. What you do then is MAKE IT UP. I like the reply of the composer Shostakovich to a student who complained that he couldn't find a theme for his second movement. 'Never mind the theme! Just write the movement!' he said." Philip Pullman

In our last seven weeks as residents of Australia, the LM and I toured our favourite spots, spending a few days here, a fortnight there, ten days with friends in the Hunter Valley. That was when I wrote my first YA novel. The weather was heavenly, the beaches were seductive and the wine flowed; it was Australia after all. Yet every day, no matter what distractions beckoned, I wrote for at least an hour. By the time we got on the plane to Canada, I had a viable first draft; it was that easy. Of course it would have been even easier not to have bothered but then I would only have had memories of those last weeks, not a SFD.

What propels you to stay on course with your project? When does the weather help you write and when does it offer a reason to play hooky? What deals do you make with yourself when temptation calls?

Time out

 Word count: 242  Reading time: 1 min.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jill a dull girl. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

Jack Torrance, that creepy character in The Shining, was onto something with this thinking. He wasn’t the only one who thought that way. Sir John Lubbock said, “Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass on a summer day listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is hardly a waste of time.”

Today I topped 34,500 words in my NaNoWriMo novel and I felt just a little depleted. So I did the obvious: I took a break. The sun was shining, bald eagles were congregating by Harrison River (this weekend is Eagle Fest), and the open road beckoned. While I may not have added to my word count during the long drive and brisk walks around different parks, I came home with a notebook full of scribbled thoughts. Tomorrow morning I will open the novel, refreshed and playful. If there was a better way to spend this fine autumn day, I can’t think what it might have been.

What have you done to revitalize your writing recently? Do you take a break? Go to a play or maybe just watch a good movie?

 ***

Noon: Rest From Work by Vincent Van Gogh

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

Signed, Sealed, Delivered

Word count: 437                                                           Reading time: 1-2 minutes 

How to get a book deal:

  • write a novel
  • give it to a few friends to read
  • revise accordingly
  • send a submission to an agent or publisher
  • sign the contract.

That’s how it works for some authors and there is an entire chapter devoted to them in the book Life’s Not Fair. If you google “how to get a book deal” (over a billion hits) you’ll quickly realize how elusive a contract can be.

Four weeks ago, on a cold, grey morning that was more like January than June, my phone rang as I was coming out of the dentist. When Anita Daher said that Great Plains Publications wanted to offer me a contract on my most recently-completed YA novel (tentatively titled Lockdown), I looked up at the cloud-shrouded mountains and decided that the weather had never been finer. Two nail-biting weeks later a soft copy of the contract arrived and there was my name, Maggie Bolitho, hereinafter called the Author.

 Last week, more thrilling still, the hard copy of the contract arrived. After another read, front-to-back, I signed page 8 and returned it. Scheduled release date for the book: Spring 2014.

I wrote the SFD of Lockdown just over 18 months ago (NaNoWritMo 2010). Unlike the lucky authors who hit their stride right out of the gate, it’s taken a while for me to get this manuscript ready for prime time. My warm-up included three or four dozen short stories, two other YA novels, two adult novels, and I even experimented with futuristic Sci Fi (the less said bout that, the better). When my energy stalled, I took courses and joined online and R/L groups. I paired up with a tireless writing partner who is both forthright with her insightful critiques as well as encouraging. For over a year I worked with writing coach, Bruce McAllister, who helped me polish my work and hone my query letter to the point where it finally became market-ready. I’ve scaled stout walls over the past few years. 

So now I’m at the next bend in the road and I can see a few hurdles ahead. I’m primed and ready. I’ve been preparing for this part of the adventure for a few years now.

Where are you in your writer’s journey? Are you laying track and looking forward to pulling the entire novel together? Are you finished and revising, getting as much feedback as you can before you submit the work to the market? Or are you in the arduous process called submission, waiting for your phone call?

Maggie Bolitho, Author