Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Fighting words

One of my favourite moments when I write is when I have to stop and search for the perfect word. This morning I was sitting at my desk, everything going well, and then a word stopped me. I looked out the window at the rose about to bloom on the arbour, sun splashing the grass, someone out for a morning run. The word that had come to mind wasn't quite the right one. In the scene, my character has the urge to punch someone. But punch isn't right. I sifted through the possibilities: smack, slug, wallop. None of those are right. It's 1968 and my character is a young man, not quite a hippie, but inclined that way.

I reached for my thesaurus, a weighty 1300 plus pages that has that rich well-used book smell when I crack it open.. And that's it. That's the moment I love: the pleasure of weighing the options. I leaf through the pages to find "punch." It leads me past n. alcoholic drink to v. hit. Some of the words I consider: smite (okay, not seriously); coldcock (maybe; first I have to look it up and confirm that it means what I think it does, which is to knock unconscious in a single blow, and it does); clobber (too comic book); pound; hammer; pummel (all possibilities); paste (maybe; it's a term we used in the 70s); crack; belt. I reflect that pound, hammer and pummel all suggest repetitive hitting which isn't what my character has in mind. I go back to coldcock. It seems too calculated. It's more what someone would say after someone else had done it. Eventually, I find the word I need. That's good. But it's the looking for it that I really love.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Just a love story

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

From a recent interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in the Guardian: "Don't we all in the end write about love? All literature is about love. When men do it, it's a political comment on human relations. When women do it, it's just a love story. So, although I wanted to do much more than a love story, a part of me wants to push back against the idea that love stories are not important. I wanted to use a love story to talk about other things. But really in the end, it's just a love story." 

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Gertrude Stein gets rejected

Gertrude Stein, 1935
Gertrude Stein must have been delighted to inspire this creative rejection letter.

Writers have to have tough skins. Even to share my new manuscript with my husband, I have to take a deep breath and be ready for pain. He's honest and I need honest. He's not a big lover of fiction, so he's impatient as a reader. That's why I like having him as my first reader. Also, I trust him.

Revision notes for my current novel.

Criticism can sting.  In my experience, when it stings the most, it's because it hits the mark. When I was working on the 54th revision of Shelter (or something like that), my agent, with her trademark candour, said, "The middle 80 pages is boring." I blanched, I denied, I agonized, but the thing is, I knew she was right. But you can't just re-write the middle 80 pages without also re-writing the pages that follow them. There was nothing to do, but get down to it. Ditch the hitchhiking trip to Vancouver, forget that well-read cowboy they met along the way, lose the parade down Hastings Street, all those carefully researched details that sidetracked the real story. But I sort of like re-writing. Usually, at least, I get the sense that I'm getting closer to what I meant to write. This is a photo of my bulletin boards beside my desk, with notes for the revisions I'm doing now for Sing a Worried Song, my current work-in-progress. I did a chapter-by-chapter "chart" so that I can keep track of what happens when. There's also a timeline and a map of Bridget and Joseph's farm.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Starting out

Beginnings are hard to write. I must have written and re-written the opening of Shelter twenty times at least. I write an opening, then I go on and write the rest of the novel, but while I'm working on the rest, I re-visit that opening many times, trying to get closer to something that captures what the novel is really about.

For a high school English class, my son is reading A Tale of Two Cities, with that famous opening about the best of times and the worst of times. No writer could get away with that now. Long and rambling, it starts with that wide, wide view, slowly narrowing. I'm not even sure I like it. But it got me wondering about what I do like.

I like the opening of Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451: "It was a pleasure to burn." So simple, startling and incongruous that it immediately makes me curious. But an opening is not just about a good first sentence. Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day starts more subtly, with a distinctive voice that puzzles me and draws me along. I'm currently reading John Steinbeck's notebooks written for his editor about his novel-in-progress, alongside the manuscript of East of Eden. Steinbeck's openings are slow and meandering, winding through the landscape of the Salinas Valley. When I begin on the first page of a Steinbeck novel, I know I'm entering that world and I'll be there for a long time. I like that feeling.

I've re-written the opening of Sing a Worried Song, the novel I'm currently working on, maybe ten times. It's getting closer.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

More writing advice

Margaret Atwood writing The Handmaid's Tale, Berlin
Though I didn't write this in my email advice note to Ian, it's been my experience that many emerging writers are paranoid about having their work stolen by some crafty agent or publisher.  

I understand this fear. You've poured yourself into your manuscript, it's likely the best work you've ever done and it's also probably taken years of your life to complete.

However, the fact is that publishers and agents aren't just looking for a good book. They're looking for a good author. What you do isn't easy. Not just anyone can do it. Lots of people have ideas for books. Fewer can actually follow through. That's why when Margaret Atwood (so I've read), talking to a brain surgeon at a dinner party, heard, for likely the umpteenth time, "I think I'll write a novel when I retire," she answered, "I think I'll be a brain surgeon when I retire." I imagine this comment accompanied by what my mother used to call "a withering look." It also explains why publishers and agents won't give any credibility to a query letter/outline of a novel from an inexperienced, unpublished writer. 

Step one: write the novel. Step two: try to get it published. Don't waste time trying to reverse these two steps.

Sometimes I've heard unpublished writers say that someone did steal their idea. While I doubt that's true for the simple reason that one person's idea is never another person's execution of the idea, I have noticed a phenomenon where similar subjects and themes find expression in the works of more than one author at one time, probably because they tap into some zeitgeist, especially true when the authors are about the same age and from the same region.

So my advice to nervous writers is to let it go. Know that a manuscript in a drawer is not nearly as satisfying as a novel in the hands of real readers.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Writing advice for Ian

Oh yeah and read books, many, many books
I got an email today from a writer named Ian who asked for some advice about getting published. Since I have a significantly expressed advice-giving gene, and (or therefore) I teach creative writing, I sent him a long reply that might be more than he wanted to know. And since I get asked these questions fairly often, I thought I'd post it here. I'm also going to post a follow-up in a couple of weeks about another question I get asked often. 

Dear Ian,

Thanks for your note. I'm not sure how much you already know, but I can give you a few pointers from what I've learned along the way. First of all, here is a really good website with all sorts of useful information: http://www.canauthors.org/  The various provincial writing guilds are also great, especially the Saskatchewan Writers Guild and the Writers Federation of Nova Scotia .

I assume from your note that you haven't had a novel published yet. If that's the case, you'll need to write the whole novel and be ready to send the completed manuscript out to a publisher. Even though I had already written two non-fiction books, I could only submit my novel when it was done (to the best of my ability). And even though I've got one novel published now, publishers want a complete manuscript of my next one (ie. no advance deal). There are rare exceptions to this, for example if you're a famous non-fiction writer, or Neil Young, or Princess Kate. (Either of whose novels I would buy.)

You don't need to worry about deciding genre exactly, although it is helpful to have a sense of it so you know which publisher or agent to send it to. This wasn't something I thought about, and it was decided (for me) that my novel was adult literary fiction with a young adult crossover.

Also, are you in Canada or the US? In either case, it's a very good idea to get an agent. You can find names of reputable ones on the Canadian Authors Association website (link above). I imagine there's a US equivalent. An agent, unfortunately, is almost as difficult to get as a publisher, but once you have one, he or she is your advocate and worth every penny. And, you don't pay her anything unless she sells your book. (that's an important sign of a legitimate agent.) 

A good idea is go to the websites (or the books) of authors you like, whose work is similar in style to yours, and see who their agents are. Then send the first three chapters of your manuscript with a synopsis of the rest to the agent, with a short cover letter giving any previous writing background you have. If you don't have any, don't worry. Tell them a couple of things that show you're a responsible, hard-working person. That's their main concern. They don't want to take on someone who is a) stubborn and difficult to work with and refuses to re-consider a single word of their manuscript and/or b) someone who doesn't deliver on their promises. But, and I can't stress this enough, have the manuscript complete before you send out anything and make sure the agent (or publisher) knows it is complete. Never give an indication that it isn't done. They won't even consider you. (Just as they still have doubts about my ability to deliver another novel, even though I'm working on my fourth book. And to be honest, I don't mind this. I want to take my time writing the book to the best of my ability and be satisfied that it works.) By the way, the process for finding an agent or a publisher is pretty much the same. Don't waste your time sending stuff to, for example, an adult publisher or agent if your work is for young adults.

Finally, with all the mergers recently in the publishing world, writers' options are narrowing. But there are still, thankfully, so many good small publishers that can do a wonderful job with your book. Consider and research these. The financial return is negligible, but a good, reputable, small publisher can do as much or more to help launch your writing career as a big one who thinks your book is small potatoes for them. 

I hope this is useful to you and not discouraging. As a writer, my main focus is the writing. That's where the joy is for me, the profound satisfaction of working things out, creating a world and peopling it with characters who haunt me. Do that first and enjoy it.

All the best to you.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Is it sad?

I feel like I've written about this before. It''s an obsession of mine, the question that many potential readers of Shelter have asked me, before reading: Is it sad? They don't like sad, they say. I try to be honest. I don't think Shelter is a sad novel. Sad things happen, but what life is free of sadness, even a young life? I remember my son's first experience of real, deep sadness, the kind that wouldn't go away in a few minutes. It was when he was about eight and one of his beloved cats, who he had grown up with his whole short life, died, presumably of a heart attack, while curled up in her favourite spot on his bed. I tried to tell him that as sad as it was, it was good to feel so deeply about something he had loved so dearly. I still tell him the same thing now, when he's sixteen. I believe he gets that. That's why he loves some profoundly sad songs that sing of experiences he's too young to really know yet. (He's in the next room right now listening to Mumford and Sons' Broken Crown, loud.)

To me, there is a beauty in sadness. It interests me. When I was writing Shelter, I used to go to my desk and turn up a Mozart Piano concerto, No. 17, something my grandpa and dad both loved. The album I have belonged to my grandfather and was passed down to my father and then to me. Alfred Brendel is on piano. (I can't find a link to the recording I have or I'd post it). I've heard other performances, but this one is special. During the andante movement, the music builds and builds to this tender, trembling beauty and then breaks in what seems to me almost like a sob. But it's a joyful kind of sob, of someone overwhelmed with the beauty of his world. I feel the same thing some early mornings on the shore of a small BC lake I love. The water is so still, the surface a skin of light and shadow. I think, I could have missed this. I will miss this.