Who is helping you?

Lucky writers have a network of friends who keep them going in this isolated occupation that breeds self-doubt. Those writers usually make their luck by going to conferences, courses, and writing groups. There is another way too – the internet offers a lot of places to find like-minded friends.

Last year I met Tess Woods after I signed my contract with HarperCollins Australia. We’ve never met in person but have built a friendship over great distance.

Tess is a human dynamo. Not only does she work as physiotherapist in her busy family practice, she’s a mother of two. She has a passion for social justice and in 2014 started the Meals By Mums group that cooks nutritious meals for Perth’s homeless people. On top of that she maintains a kickass website, sends out monthly newsletters, and is working on her second novel. Her first critically-acclaimed novel Love at First Flight is being prepared for a print release in August 2016.

So I was thrilled to be featured on her March Book Club Pick this month. She has reviewed my novel Outback Promise and is giving away three copies of it. If you click on this link and leave a comment, you’ll be in the running for one of those free copies.

I’ve been blessed with some strong friendships through my short writing career. Tess is one more and I’m grateful that she made time in her busy schedule to put the spotlight on my book this month. Someday I hope I can repay her in some small way. In the meantime I try to pay the gifts of friendship forward.

Where have you found your best writing friends? How have you helped each other along the way?

Are you giving thanks?

Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues it’s the parent of all the others – Marcus Tillius Cicero. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day in Canada and I want to list some of the things I’m grateful for, in my writing life:

  • For all my writing friends who share their wealth of knowledge, read what I write in its unpolished form, offer encouragement and hold my feet to the fire when it’s necessary.

  • For all the people who have pre-ordered a copy of Outback Promise for delivery on November 1st.

  • The people who bought and read my book Lockdown. Double gratitude to those who logged into Amazon and / or Goodreads and left a favourable review.

  • For the publishers, Great Plains Teen Fiction, who took a chance on me and published Lockdown. Thank you to the entire team and Anita Daher in particular.

  • HarperCollins Australia contracted Outback Promise for release as in e-book. Thank you Rochelle Fernandez for seeing the potential. Thank you Dianne Blacklock for the edits that helped realize it. And artist Michelle Payne for delivering a gorgeous cover.

  • Friends and family who believe enough in me to encourage me on this road.  

My love of writing started, like most writers, with a love of reading. Long before I dreamed of writing a novel, I had these gifts:

  • I learned to read early and had access to a good public library.

  • Every Christmas until I was eighteen I received a gift from great aunt in England, whom I never met. But hardcover books, wrapped in thin brown paper with my name on them, arrived every December. There were few books in our home and I treasured these ones that were mine and mine alone.

  • Having an English teacher in grades 9 and 10 (RIP Peter Seale) who improved my appreciation for the beauty of language and literature.

John Milton said gratitude bestows reverence…changing forever how we experience life and the world. Do you believe that? What are you thankful for now and in the past? Who or what helps you on your chosen path?

 

Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Fall Colours in Canada by Vlad Livinov from Toronto

 

 

 

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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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

Is your writing dying?

Every single cell in the human body replaces itself over a period of seven years. That means there's not even the smallest part of you now that was part of you seven years ago.  The Raw Shark Texts, Steven Hall.

Word count: 334    Reading time 1-2 mins.

This means that there is still hope for the novel that I started writing seven years ago. Over the course of time, it has been revised to the point that very little of the original text survives.

This novel has become a bit of an annual tradition that coincides with spring. When the cherry trees flower and sunny forsythia brightens even the dullest day, a sense of renewal, of a fresh start, buoys me. So I revisit the languishing saga. Every year, when I open it again, it feels like I am administering CPR to a failing body.

In December 2010 at the 92nd Street Y in New York City writer-artist Lynda Barry and illustrator Maira Kalman spoke about their artistic processes. In particular, they talked about how a piece can feel like it’s dying and how rescuing it is what makes it work.

“It’s literally every day, I’m dying, it’s dying,” Kalman said. “Then something happens and it’s like, 'OK, it’s going to be OK.'”

To me, that’s what perseverance and rewriting is about; it’s digging for the moment when everything feels OK again. Just this week my writing partner, who has probably read the entire seven-year-old novel three or four times, suggested a change at a pivotal point in the story. It wasn’t how I imagined the narrative unfolding but as I revised, new perspectives on the story opened. (Thanks, Allison!) The branch of the cherry tree that looked lifeless last week is now covered in blossoms.

Is there a manuscript sitting on your shelf that you have abandoned because it looked, to all appearances, dead? Should you try to breathe some air into its lungs and hope for a ROSC (return of spontaneous circulation)? Could yesterday’s fallow ground open with flowers?

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Photo: Cherry Blossom in Branch Brook Park, NJ by Siddharth Mallya from Wikimedia Commons

Is it better to give than receive?

 

From what we get, we can make a living; what we give, however, makes a life. Arthur Ashe.

Word count: 378    Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Consider Ashe's philosophy in view of the fact that February 14th is International Book Giving Day. While this campaign primarily aims to get more books into the hands of children, giving a book to an adult isn’t a bad idea either.

Reasons to participate:

  • If children develop a reading habit from an early age, who knows what might happen. They could become lifetime readers.
  • Giving is good for the soul. It forces us to look outside ourselves, to think about others.
  • Books are inexpensive gifts. In fact you don’t have to buy a new book for this special day; take one from your shelves or buy one cheaply at a second-hand store. The cost can be as low as you want to make it.
  • Books are easy to wrap.
  • If you decide to buy, you get to hang around a bookshop. Is there a better place to pass time? If you’re buying, please consider the One Book Pledge.
  • Books are gifts that stay with a person for an entire lifetime.
  • Both readers and writers benefit from the gift of books. After all, who are writers without readers?

Don’t know any children? Maybe you could speak to your local librarian and see if there are books the library cannot afford that you could donate. Maybe you could leave a book on a bus, in a waiting room, or at the local rec centre.

What books to buy? I’ve added my ideas to those from blogger North Wind:

  • Determine your reader’s interests. Fiction? Non fiction? Favourite genres?
  • What format do they prefer: e-books or paper and ink? Graphic novels or traditional?
  • How well developed is their vocabulary?
  • Check out goodreads for reviews and feedback.

When you give someone a book, you don’t give him paper, ink, and glue. You give him the possibility of a whole new life. Christopher Morley. That doesn’t mean you can’t still give them a chocolate heart also. It is Valentine’s Day after all.

Is there a better gift than a book? When you select a book for a friend, how do you choose which one?

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 other half of writing

Word count: 320                         Reading time: 1-2 minutes

This week the Vancouver Writers’ Festival is on. In Wednesday’s session called Word! with Ivan Coyote, Lemn Sissay, and C.R. Avery, I was doubled over with laughter one moment and swallowing the lump in my throat the next.

On the way out, of course I bought a couple of books and got them signed. It wasn’t an impulse purchase; I knew I’d buy Ivan Coyote’s latest. After seeing Lemn Sissay, I had to add his poetry my library. That got me thinking about reading as a writer. Some of the rules I try to follow are:

  • “Focus in on the genre you want to write, and read books in that genre.” Nicholas Sparks.
  • Read outside your genre.  Francine Prose: “A beautiful sentence transcends time and genre. […] This is just one of the many reasons it’s important to read outside of one’s own genre.”
  • Take advantage of the local library. North Vancouver has excellent libraries with knowledgeable librarians.  I know: I’m there every week.
  • Take the One Book Pledge. From Black Bond Books in Vancouver: “We are asking our customers to make one more of your book purchases at Black Bond Books, and one less from Amazon, or elsewhere. We are not asking you to buy all of your books from us, just one more at a Black Bond Books location.”  

That last one lets me support local businesses while I support the writing community. Some of my favourite people are writers. Some of my other favourite people are small business owners.

I’m going back to the Writers’ Festival on Friday and Saturday. I can’t wait to see Annabel Lyon, Chris Cleave, and Margaret Atwood, among others. I’m sure I’ll buy another book or two.

Are there any rules about reading that you follow? Do you have a favourite book store or are you more of a library person? Do you favour e-books over paper and ink?

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Photo by: Lucky Business