On the Run? Why not have Some Dinner?
It has become very clear to me that I struggle with a certain plot problem. It may not be all that common, but please let me know if you suffer from the same thing. I love writing books with action scenes, where characters are in danger, and perhaps the very future of the planet is at stake. My alpha reader, the first to look at early drafts of my work, has pointed out to me that just when the stakes are highest, I derail the whole thing. How? By having my characters do one of the following:
A. Talk about how hungry they are.
B. Discuss when dinner should be.
C. Ask if anyone has a snack on hand.
D. Find a hiding spot and make a hearty meal.
As I write this out, I realize how ridiculous it is. My problem stems from the fact that, with a slight twist on the love song, ‘You Are Always On My Mind,’ I just substitute ‘you’ with food. High quality stuff, too. My characters rarely eat junk food. No. They’re cooking up braised chicken breasts on a bed of lightly sautéed kale. I’ve mentioned to my alpha reader, who gives her time so generously, that I’m a little bothered by how infrequently people eat in other author’s dystopian situations. (And how infrequently they go to the bathroom. But that’s a whole other concern.)
If my world was collapsing, after grabbing a winter parka, because I live in the north, I would pack every single food item I could carry. If I was driving a car, the thing would be filled until I could barely see out the window. But my alpha reader who is also a writer, says, “Just stop it, mom.” (Did I mention she’s my daughter?) Aliens/bad guys/monsters are everywhere and you’re pulling out a stove to cook? You’re describing the freshness of the tomatoes they came across when running through the yard of a neighbor who’d been gutted? Do you seriously think they’d even notice the tomatoes?” I stop and think about that.
“I would,” I reply.
“You’re the only one. And you can’t put it in your book, because it starts reading like a cooking show.”
“Fine,” I mutter, and go back for round two or three. I try to counter argue, but she remains firm on the point. I know she’s right. But I have a certain amount of food insecurity. By that, I don’t mean that I’m starving. Or even hungry. I never let it get that far. But I grew up with six other children and dinner time was like competing with all the other hyenas for the dead zebra on the table. It haunts my writing.
I’m trying to change that, though. The four course meals are down to a quick bowl of soup eaten at the side of the road (my characters are very fond of a good thermos.) Or there’s a sandwich clapped together at the last minute in a house where all the people have been slaughtered but they left the baloney out and my protagonist doesn’t want it to go to waste.
“Don’t you think it’s very Quentin Tarrantino,” I ask. The answer is no. Anyway. If you other writers have a similar problem, please share. And dear readers, would this bother you, if I left it in? Really? Okay. (deep sigh, interrupted by the crunch of an apple.)
This may surprise readers who don’t moonlight as writers, but getting one’s manuscript finished, every comma checked and every deep thought vetted by a quirky philosophical beta reader, is the easy part of being an author. The true difficulty lies in garnering enough publicity to attract buyers. This is not just an indie author problem, either. Traditionally published writers not named Stephen King or JK Rowling must also enter the international busking contest of attention gathering. “I’m in love with my new environmentally friendly bamboo flooring!’ one might gush on Twitter, and post the appropriate photo on Instagram, followed by, “And my second book in the series, ‘Why I Married my Cat,’ is out in two weeks…here’s the link!”
Some people are fabulous at social media. They can make an event out of buying a coffee at Starbucks, throw witty repartee around the internet and have people nodding their digital heads in agreement. I am not like that.
I use Facebook for friends and family, and have an author page that hosts blog entries. I have a Twitter account with about four followers and an Instagram account I couldn’t access until someone pointed out that it wasn’t for laptops, just phones. By now you’re probably estimating my age in the mid eighties. Nope. I just find the whole thing exhausting. And confusing. And time consuming. I’d rather be writing, really. Which is why I’m ranting here.
I can be interesting. I’m almost certain of it. But it never occurs to me to share the funny or irritating stuff that happens at four in the morning. ‘Just tipped over my water glass for the 5th time. By the way, catch my breakdancing act at the Forks this Friday!’ Is that how people do it? Talk about their lives and then throw in their work as a sneaky kind of follow up? I talk about my life all the time on my website, but have never promoted my novels within it. I guess that’s a mistake. But I never bother clicking through when author’s do that.
Dear writers, in case you’re getting your hopes up, here’s the deal. This blog post is not about how to properly handle a social medial campaign. It’s just a rant. I long to be a writer back in the eighties when nobody knew who you were, even if you had your photo on the back of your book jacket. Nowadays everyone is striving for this social media popularity contest while I am stuck in junior high with the same gormless look on my face and a new Christmas sweater that’s decidedly uncool in the harsh light of my classroom.
Can’t I just write? I whine this to myself many times a month. The answer is no. You can’t just write…not anymore. You must juggle your social media skills like one of those plate spinners you see on a talent show contest. Just keep adding plates, because it never ends. ‘Put on your big girl panties,’ I tell myself sternly. But really, there are no panties big enough for someone who has never wanted to be popular. I never wanted fame, or to walk into a building and have everyone know my name. It happens, of course, because I live in a small town. But that’s different.
Does this mean I don’t want readers? Not at all. Having someone read my work is a validating experience much different than what I imagine fame can bring. Even if they didn’t like everything about my novel, just being able to discuss a part of it is exhilarating. ‘You thought that chase through the woods was scary? Hmm.) It’s worth doing it for free, which is a good thing because almost all writers need other work to pay the bills.
I have started supporting authors in my own way. When I head to the library once a week, besides tracking down my favorites, I pick a new book at random and take it home. I’m giving myself a chance to fall in love with other, unfamiliar writers. It’s happened already with Richard Wagamese, who I hadn’t ever heard of, and who writes like God would if she weren’t too busy doing other things.
And here’s another suggestion, dear reader. When you find a book you love, talk about it. Place a short review on Goodreads or Amazon, or Indigo. For authors, this is huge, and I can’t be the only helpless writer who needs a lift up. At least, I hope not. To end my whining, I’ll leave you with a link to my latest piece of journalism, ‘How a Brazilian Wax Job Saved my Marriage.’ (Just kidding. Unless you were going to click through. You were? Well, damn.)
Dear Agents at the Literary Ball,
We’re looking for the perfect partner, dear agent. Longing for contact and maybe even a dance or two. We check out our clothes on your mirrored walls that accent every one of our flaws and wonder why we have on the same outfits we wore in grade nine. We feel like freshman, suddenly, even if we’re not. For many of us, it’s not our first dance. We stare at each other uncertainly, realizing once again that its our job to make the first move. Check me out, we practice saying. Am I a good fit? Eagerly or timidly, we tap a few shoulders. ‘Beat it,’ comes about ten immediate responses. ‘Work on your moves a little first,’ someone else might say. Then check back with me.’ Our hearts flutter at this bit of encouragement.
And so we do it. We work on our pieces until we’re almost certain we have what you want. Maybe it’s the tango. Or the fox trot. The tarantella? Whatever it is, we want to make you happy. And when we do, when you ask us to dance, or even better, to spend the whole evening with you, the resulting surge of energy inspires us to journey on. To keep tapping out those short stories and picking away at our next novel.
We approach once more those we’ve danced with. The ones who’ve been holding our hearts in their hands for at least six months. Will we be together forever, we wonder, quivering with expectation. Then the truth comes out. ‘Not this time,’ you say. We appreciate your directness and relatively quick response. Because it’s better to know. And there are no hard feelings. We know there’s another dance when you might say yes and mean it.
Unless you’re that agent. The one who drifts through the dance floor throwing out smiles, giving us a twirl or two while promising more. But even though you took our hearts with you, we never heard back. Do you hate us now? It feels like that because you left the dance and never told us why. My friend told me this is called ghosting. But to ask for everything and never dance again is just cruel. So, dear agents, here is my recommendation.
No matter what, once you’ve asked us to dance, whether it be partial or full, give us something. Even if its just a three word message like, it’s a no. That will do. Otherwise, we can’t move on. And in spite of our unrequited love for you, we need to keep searching for that perfect dance partner. So let us off the hook, even if its cruel. You can even say, ‘Never ask me to dance again!’ As long as you let us know.
Listening to CBC radio is one of my favorite things to do on a Sunday. Today, on Tapestry, I heard Tim Harford discuss his new book, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform our Lives. My first thought was, ‘Hell, no!’ I fight to be organized, since the lack of it has been a lifelong problem. As a child, I routinely forgot my homework, lost various articles of clothing, and misplaced boots, skis, and, as a teenager, my mother’s car. I’ve gotten better, but I crave the life of the naturally organized. Their neat desks, immaculately maintained purses, even their hair looks more manageable than mine. I’m their groupie, always on the outside looking in. But this book has changed my mind.
Harford is not talking about dwelling in a filthy house or letting your children live in squalor. The connections he makes are between constructive mess and creativity. Aha! I thought, as I entered the bathroom, a potato masher clutched in my hand. I was about to clean the room thoroughly, but I was so intent on listening that I picked up the wrong implement. I often do that. And here’s what I realized. When I’m wandering around, mouth ajar, knowing there is something I’m meant to do but forgetting what it is? Well. That’s when I get my best ideas. When I realize what I need to move my novel forward. All my nanowrimo.org plots come to me, every single one, when I’m completely lost in thought and walking around like a complete moron.
So I will continue my quest to keep track of my life. But I will also celebrate my crazy imagination. It’s a gift I’ve always appreciated, even before I heard about this book. It takes me out of myself so thoroughly that it’s like I’m occupying a completely different universe and have shed my body like a snake skin. So what if I occasionally lock myself out of the house without my coat? That’s where I got the idea for a dystopian novel about the environment. Tim Harford says that a certain amount of chaos is good for the creative process. Now, I feel like a genius instead of a loser who needs to attend Disorganized People Anonymous.
For those curious to hear more, here is the link to the Tapestry show on CBC. Enjoy!
Here’s a link to a terrific article by Kristen Lamb, about 13 things mentally strong writer’s don’t do.
Crawling to the Finish Line
For those of us who joined nanowrimo.org (write a novel in the month of November) the end is close. Even as it rears its unwieldy head, it offers the relief of knowing we’re almost done. We’re almost there! If you’re anything like me, your characters are busying themselves with inane conversations, long dinners (food descriptions included) and scenic walks. Pretty much anything that will pump up the word count. At this point, desperation is the name of the game. Eventually you’ll throw in a cliff hanger, just to keep yourself from weeping into your pillow.
Whatever it is, just do it. Because the point is to end up with 50,000 words. A beautiful, hard earned first draft of a novel. Now, everyone knows that first drafts are shite. But you’ll deal with the content later, during the editing process. I’ve noticed (since I started this in 2008) that whenever I let my nano novel sit quietly until spring, it always turns out to be better than I thought it was. By then, I’m ready to start again, adding in details and colour, perhaps a better ending.
Nano is not for the faint of heart. But even those of us who are faint of heart will jump in anyway, tackling our novels one day at a time while dreaming of the finish line. Because the payoff isn’t only belonging to an international movement of writers. It’s the reward that comes with the hard earned discipline of writing every day. That realization that we have what it takes. Being accountable to others means we end up being true to ourselves. And that’s the best reward ever. Although the crown is a very nice touch.
It Was a Dark and Stormy Night
Here’s the thing about writers. They’re not what you think. Sure, some of them own sweaters with suede patched elbows, or sit at antique desks looking off into the distance while chewing pensively on feathered quills. But not usually. Most writers are like the people I meet at conferences.
Vague looking, mostly old, and holding intense conversations about the strangest things. Ask a fellow attendee about their book and the answer may be accompanied by a thoughtful frown or goofy grin. “Well,” they’ll say, drawing the word out so it has four syllables. “Its about a dwarf who wants to be king. But first, he must travel to the extra solar planet, Alpha Centauri, to rescue the gamine maiden XYGMSSTYO, held captive by an alien wizard, the great Wartzshnogger.”
For some reason, three quarters of the people I meet tend to be fantasy writers. (George R. Martin has a lot to answer for.) My overwhelming feeling at these gatherings is one of belonging. Of being home. Sometimes, when I’m waiting in line for a pitch session or an overpriced drink, I long to turn and hug the person behind me. “I know its hard,” I’d say. “But everything will be all right. You’re going to finish your book and find an agent.” (I actually don’t advise being quite that friendly. When I tried it at a writer’s conference in Calgary, a guy thought I was trying to pick him up.)
When I’m with my fellow writers, I feel encouraged. Supported. And vastly entertained. Because the most interesting conversations are the ones inside our own heads. We may be thinking about plot or character development or chuckling over an inside joke. I tell you this so you’ll recognize our slightly dazed, inward turned expressions. The vacant gaze. The fall down a flight of stairs while puzzling over a new plot device.
November is national novel writing month, or, Nanowrimo. In thirty days, aspiring writers will attempt to put fifty thousand words on paper. There’ll be real sweat involved, plus lots of hand wringing and the occasional crying jag. This world wide movement has almost four hundred thousand participants. Famous writers will send out funny, original pep talks that leave us feeling like we woke up popular in high school, a geek bonus.
If you have a bucket list, becoming a novelist would be a well earned addition to it. And an opportunity to be part of something global. In Flin Flon, the Nanos meet weekly in November at the Orange Toad for refreshments, encouragement and a chance to brag about our word count. Please consider this your official invitation. And welcome to the in crowd. http://www.nanowrimo.org (reprinted from November, 2015)
Falling Into Nano
I was reading a book to my three year old granddaughter when I noticed something peculiar. About every second page, she would press her forehead against the pictures. Memories from my own childhood came flooding back as I realized what she was doing.
‘You’re trying to fall into the story!’ I said, remembering all the times I’d entered a favorite writer’s world. Since my mind would not acknowledge the impossible, I fought my way through Dr. Seuss’s Oobleck, adventured with Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, traveled the world with Dr. Doolittle and wept uncontrollably at Beth’s death in Little Women. I realized at a very young age that the best books aren’t read. They’re lived.
I plan on having the same experience with National Novel Writing Month in November. Several ideas are warring for top billing, so I’ll let my imagination pick the winner. Once I settle on a particular theme, I’ll fall head first into my story and pretty much live there for the next thirty days.
Writing fifty thousand words in one month is no small feat. Signing up is the first step in making sure it happens. Then there’s the sweat equity. For me, there’s always some weeping involved, especially after the second week. Working past the middle of my manuscript feels a bit like slogging through a bug infested swamp. But being part of a world wide effort with thousands of others helps a lot.
November’s draft will take magnificent effort and a leap of faith. Trust me, newbies. It’s a whole new way of throwing words at the page. A Jackson Pollock-like dance, often joyful, sometimes terrifying. But entering December as a winner will save us months of dithering and procrastination. Yes, there’ll be loads of editing in the new year. But also a whole new family of characters for company.
I hope to see you at nanowrimo.org. Together, we’ll read encouraging letters from other writers, take part in forums and, of course, write. If you happen to be in Flin Flon in November, join us Thursdays at the Orange Toad.
For now, I wish you happy Writing. And I’ll see you on the other side.
An Apology of Canadians
There’s a writer’s conference in Calgary called ‘When Words Collide.’ An affordable opportunity for mingling, learning, and pitching one’s book, it’s also a poster child for the quirkiest of Canadian behavior. Step into any elevator in the Delta Hotel and the apologies are flying through the air. “So sorry for making you step on my foot.” “Please, after you. No, you.” People beg forgiveness for making the elevator stop at certain floors. A writer I met at lunch smilingly handed me this blog title after I apologized for sitting down at his table. He said, ‘A murder of crows, a herd of cows, an apology of Canadians.’
Then, there was the conversation about my troublesome website. Attendees offered all kinds of ideas, including their email addresses in case I needed more direction. Editors I pitched and writers offering Blue Pencil sessions gave plenty of excellent advice. Just a few words about my novel made all the difference, like someone handed me a clear pair of glasses so I could finally see.
Writers are a distracted bunch at the best of times. It’s not unusual for folks to practice their pitches while walking down the hallway. My daughter and I liked to find a quiet room, although I did stop a stranger on Saturday and ask them to check out my delivery. They did, with a smile and an encouraging back pat. I considered myself successful when I didn’t cry or laugh hysterically during my five minute time slot. I was aided in this by the kind expressions of the agents and editors who cast off their tired expressions and welcomed me with warm words.
There should be a bonus prize for the excellent volunteers who sold tickets, promoted other people’s books and spent months organizing things. Then there are those who sat outside the pitching and blue pencil rooms, escorting hopeful writers in one by one. They offered words of encouragement during the wait, and would probably have held my hand if I’d asked, which I’ve come close to doing. Perhaps this is the way it is everywhere. But I think it has something to do with the innate kindness of the folks who host the conference. That shining quality, along with all the apologizing, had a Canadian feel to it, and was the best welcome any of us could receive. For those interested in this annual August event, here is the link.
And did I mention it’s only fifty bucks? Canadian, of course.
The Wallflower at the Query Dance
Trying to find an agent makes me feel like a lovesick teenager. I dream about certain ones on a daily basis, longing for them with all the desperation of a first crush. I stalk them through the internet, reading all their interviews and blog posts. We’re so much alike, I find myself thinking. I, too, love chocolate, dogs, wine and good books. If only they could see the kindred spirit on the other end of my email query. I know (like a real stalker would) that if I could just tie them up in a basement somewhere, I could make a very good case for my book.
Just kidding. A query letter should be able to express a novel’s uniqueness without the agent having to fake enthusiasm at gunpoint. The words should rip right through all the other queries like a pair of snapping fingers, saying, ‘Look at me! I’m the one you’ve been searching for!’
However. I can dance about like a chicken, and glide like a python sliding towards its prey, but I can’t seem to make a magical query letter. And I am not alone. There are huge numbers of us out there, our lonely hearts circling the dance floor, desperately seeking our perfect match.
Life may be perfect for us in every other respect. A satisfying family life, fulfilling career, good friends, and a world of books just waiting to be read. But still. We long to find the one who really understands us. Like our beta readers, but with more authority. With that seal of approval that says, ‘Yes! You are officially a writer! And I want you for my own.’
In our disappointment, we writers may become a little depressed. We worry that we’re not practicing the ancient magic of that bestselling book, ‘The Secret,’ thus preventing our happy energy from shooting out into the universe. If we get a little glum, well, no wonder we haven’t found our perfect match. Right? It’s our own fault.
But we don’t stop writing. We fill pages with our words, managing our existential angst with the act of creating. I take comfort from the characters that exist in my head and on my computer screen. I am their God, and they mostly obey me. It’s very gratifying. So, dear agent, I will continue sending you queries. You, the popular kid that everyone wants to dance with. Did you know this would happen? Is this why you became an agent?
Whatever the reason, please pick me. And don’t be put off by this sweaty and desperate petition. I can be very cool, I promise. Now sit still while I untie your hands.
No Problem. It’s Just My Soul
The odd incidents that make up my life often end up on the page of my other blog, This Northern Life. Random events, like accidentally feeling up a stranger in an elevator, or getting the runs in the lobby of a nice hotel. To some, this may seem like oversharing. Compared to writing fiction, it feels tight lipped.
It’s one thing to allow people into your life, with all its missteps and awkward moments. It’s another to let it all hang out in your novel or short story. There are those whose voices change with each novel. They slip in and out of their books like ghosts, leaving no a trace of themselves behind. Some, like me, have no poker face. We have a tendency to show our hands, never mind our cellulite and…not that I’m speaking personally… at least… Dammit.
In spite of story lines born of fevered imagination. the reader occasionally spies the real us lurking behind our words. Even when writing about elves and giants or power hungry presidential wannabees, the ink of our own personality spills into the story. This is the writer’s voice. The dialogue we assign to characters, the clothing they wear, (which is a tell for me, since I hate shopping. If my protagonist wore high fashion, she’d be laughed off the page.) All of it is a peep show into our psyches. Who we are comes creeping out in spite of our best intentions. ‘Why yes. That is how I picture sex between cannibals.’
We all deal with critics at some point. Beta readers. Bloggers. Literary critics you pine over like a pimply freshman longing for a dream date. No one knows better than writers that words can wound. ‘Don’t talk smack about my baby,’ we think. Don’t talk smack about me.
Writing takes courage. Putting the words on the page, sending them out into the world, it bares the soul in an uncomfortable way. But life is full of risks, and it’s better to be courageous than to hide in your writing room, fussing over your story like Gollum with his precious ring. Put your heart and soul on the line. Do the best job you can, take a deep breath and click send. Otherwise, what’s the point?
It’s the Apocalypse. What Now?
It’s happened. The world as we know it is over. Those still alive have banded together in make shift towns with high, high walls. It’s yes, please, for doctors, carpenters engineers and mechanics. Come on in, seamstresses, hunters and hair dressers. The rest of us? Show up with some home repair books or survivor know how, and maybe you’re in. For the writers of the world, with our atrophied muscles, our vacant gazes and day dreaming brains, there’s always the Soylent Green vat.
But in a world without Netflix, where every book has been lost to the Armageddon trash heap, you know what people really want? A great story. Probably more than one. Picture yourself strolling up to the high gate and knocking. You own nothing and you’re feeling uncomfortably thin. A bizarre looking character on top of the wall shakes his bone scepter threateningly. Picture a poor Donald Trump with hardly any teeth left. And his hair…well. That’s the guy you have to win over.
If you can entertain the crowds after their long day of pillaging and bringing home the bacon, then you’re in. Free meals, shelter, and the relief of knowing you’re not the bacon. Sure, there may be real actors left in the world. But you have something they don’t; an original story that only you can tell. We all need food and shelter, but we also need stories to distract us during those post-apocalyptic barbecues.
Learn to tell your story like you mean it. Channel your inner Meryl Streep or Al Pacino and embody your characters. This is no time for under acting. At your next book signing or pitch session, skills you’ve built during your fear filled preparations will serve you well. Not only will you dazzle, or at the very least, startle your audience, you may end up selling a lot of books. And when the apocalypse finally happens, (and in that deep pit, your writer’s imagination, you know it will) you’ll have an audience already convinced of your story telling skills. As we doomsday preppers with our sling shots and our clichés can tell you, that’s two birds with one stone.
Say It. Don’t Spray It.
Last night, I stayed up past my bedtime reading Hugh Howey’s Jan. 20th blog post. I made up my mind, right then, to become one of the Thousand. A pamphlet flinging, nose to the grindstone, fanatical member. I will make cults looks uncommitted. For those of you wondering what all the fuss is about, here is the link. The blog is called, ‘So You Want to Be a Writer.’ Hell, yeah! http://www.hughhowey.com/so-you-want-to-be-a-writer/
The first great bit of advice I read after making my commitment (I cut my thumb and left a bloody mark on my computer as a sign) was that plot trumps prose. Well. I love prose. I can read a thousand page book about two guys having dinner and weep over the beautiful language. However, it seems I’m not able to do that. The beautiful words don’t flow for me. Perhaps I’m not deep enough. Maybe I’m too new at the game.
Whatever it is, I’m allowing my writing director (that guy who sits in the corner of the brain and hollers loudly) to guide me. For example. Yesterday I was writing a tense scene where two teenagers were making a desperate escape in a car in the middle of the night. Today, while trying to move the scene along, my director showed up.
“Cut! We need to redo this part. You two, stop smelling the flowers and commenting on the clouds and pungent night air. Just get in the car.” Hmmm. Just get in the car. A novel (pardon the pun) idea. So, that’s what they did. They got in the car. They didn’t hold onto the door and look wistfully up at the northern lights. There were no loving glances between them. Not anymore. They just got in the car. As any desperate teenager on the lam will tell you, there is a time for prose. And it’s never when you’re being chased by the bad guy.
This will seem obvious to most of you. For me, it was the slap upside the head that I needed. Just say it. Don’t spray it. Thank you, Hugh. Or should I call you Master? You’re the one leading the group, I guess you can pick the title.