Monday, November 1, 2010

Invitation to Q&Q

I'm at Goodreads November 1 to November 13, talking books, writing and how to get away with murder.

Be there or be square.

Nadine's Q&A on GoodReads

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

vigil: n. 1. night-time period of staying awake to look after a sick person, pray, etc.

My fledgling career as a writer is either on life support or growing healthier by the second--I have no way of knowing because I'm not there. Literary forces are at work in faraway lands.

Nothing to do but light a candle. Hold vigil. Seek solace in company of same in Rejection and Dejection at Absolute Write's Water Cooler. My personal favourite is: Purgatory's Pit of Doom.

It's funny like a heart attack. Speaking of heart attacks...

A gentleman called my home the other day looking for my Significant Other, but finding me in a weak moment of answering the bloody phone, said brightly: "I understand you're an author."
Me (deep in Slough of Despond): "Um, yep. I, yeah, wrote a book."
Gent: "That's wonderful. You know, a friend of mine--nice guy--had a triple bypass and when he came out of the surgery, he sat down and wrote like crazy every day for like 6 months. The words just poured out of him. And then..."(Gent gives a soft chuckle that speaks volumes) "He shows his writing to an agent and boy! He landed a huge contract with a big publishing house and I think there's even a movie deal. And it all happened in 6 months!"
Me (mercifully too sleep deprived from nightly vigils to feel much): "Wow. That's, um, swell."
Gent (after a respectful silence signalling he expected more enthusiasm from me for his triple-bypass buddy): "And so you're an author too?"

Lessons from the Pit: Writing is not for wimps and triple bypass guys have all the luck.

Monday, October 18, 2010

How's the writing going you ask?

Um. Slowly. Thanks for asking.

I have approximately 20 decent pages and the rest is crap--78 pages of crap. Non-writers don't get it. Why would we spend our day writing pages that we'll just throw out later? Why? Why?

How can I explain it? If we don't write the pages that will have to be tossed, we won't get to the story inside. Writing is a boring, painful process and anyone who tells you different is lying.

It's not that the sentences are terrible--they are but they can be fixed later. It's the story, the plot--my reason for living that is bogging me down under this growing pile of slag! So much that is of no use! I'm spinning my wheels, losing confidence that I'll ever know what this book is about.

A walk with the dog is in order.

The answer will come singing through the wilderness and I'll feel fabulous again. For at least one page.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Thank you Goodreads!

The Goodreads Giveaway has ended! Over 1100 readers entered to receive a signed copy of ICED UNDER and the winners are: (drum roll please....)

Mary De Maris,
Cassandra Fryer
Kathy Hormann
Amber Griffiths
Bree Lennox
Bertha Hammond
Cyd Bennett
Brooke DeSpain

The Giveaway was held over a two-week period, organized by Goodreads, and was easily the most fun I've had since ICED UNDER was launched. It was sort of like watching the Winter Olympics; I was glued to the Giveaway site, thrilling with each new member entered. I don't know what I'll do now that it's all over. One of the winners even lives in Wakefield, UK. I live in Wakefield, Canada! Coincidence? I think not.

I sincerely hope the winners enjoy ICED UNDER, and thank you to all who participated. I'll be hosting a Q&A at the beginning of November to discuss and I hope I meet some of you there.

Merci beaucoup, Goodreads!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Tired, Rejected, Broke and Depressed or How I Came to Write Iced Under

November, 2003. It was bitterly cold. We were renting a cottage on a large lake in Quebec, a four-season home that didn't quite cut it in the fourth season. My marriage had ended two years before, I had two school-age children and a new partner, Tim. We were planning to build a house, the cottage was meant to be a haven while we waded through the paper work to begin construction. I was unemployed, he was self-employed.You can imagine how happy the bank was to see us coming.

I'm not sure what it was exactly that tipped me over the edge. I was a struggling romance novelist, unpublished, and broke. I kept sending out manuscripts hoping a publishing contract would provide us with a financial cushion, and me with a career. The rejections kept rolling in. I applied for writing jobs and didn't get them, I applied for non-writing jobs and didn't get them. Christmas was coming and with no money for gifts, I made coupons for my children that they could redeem for time playing board games, baking cookies or going skating. I wrapped bottles of shampoo and put them under the tree. (My kids still call this the "Shampoo Christmas.")

Finally, I received a rejection that said my latest submission wasn't special enough after I'd come very close to acceptance. Then the bank delayed approving our building loan. My last stab at remaining positive in the face of calamity evaporated when I planned to go to an event and no one wanted to go with me. Such a small, trivial thing. But I curled up in a ball in my bed and didn't get up again. That was in mid-November.

My ex-husband had to take over caring for our children. My poor partner, Tim, didn't know what to think. I'd sleep, wake, cry, sleep, wake, cry. The ice was forming on the lake outside the cottage. I listened to that. No therapy, no anti-depressants -- just me and the ice.

Then on December 1st a local radio station had the bright idea of running Christmas music 24 hours a day. I must have heard every Christmas song ever recorded over and over and over again. I listened to that station 16 hours a day, 7 days a week; passively at first because I didn't care enough to change the station. But then the words of hope, peace and goodwill started to work on me. Maybe it was the message of giving, thinking of others and gratitude that pulled me out of my depression. I have no idea why it worked. Christmas music therapy isn't for everyone. Tim said if he had to listen to one more Christmas song he'd have lost it. The radio station never did it again--too many complaints.

I was still pretty fragile but I managed to get up and get dressed in time for Tim's mother to arrive Christmas Day. She brought everything we needed for dinner and my kids saw me for the first time in six weeks. They liked their coupons.

But I was broken. I'd been writing romances for five years. I wasn't really a writer -- I was a dabbler, an opportunist -- I didn't read romances, I just wanted to make some money. I didn't have stories in me.

Then Tim showed me the ice that had been forming on the lake all the time I was in bed. The ice I'd been listening to in the night. It was shiny black and clear to the bottom. A rare phenomenon that happens when there is little snow but the temperatures drop to freezing; the ice forms crystal clear. Black ice. As I looked down to the reeds, I said "Wouldn't it be terrible if we saw something down there like a body?"

A few days later I penned the words "The ice was clear that year, clear as rain straight down to the bottom..."

After several revisions and several rejections, Iced Under was published in November 2008.

The moral of the story? You're going to get rejected anyway -- you might as well get rejected writing something you love. I'm still broke but I'm a writer. A real writer. And that takes the sting out of just about everything.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Exercise and this writer

I never liked gym when I was in school. I liked Library.

However, I'm all grown up now and I have a dog. He's not quite the same as gym class. The dog doesn't taunt me or pick me last for team sports but he's annoying all the same. The dog expects to be walked. Every day. The dog doesn't understand anything about me as a writer--the need I have for space and time to loll about reading and doodling and...and...sloth. Brain work that has nothing to with the dog or what the dog wants or where the dog wants to go. The dog--an obvious jock--could care less about my writing life.

Dog guilt gets to me. Bloody exercise vital to health and well-being, blah, blah. Put on my coat and boots. Dog goes berserk with joy. No one in gym class was ever that happy to see me on their team.

Kind of flattering. Besides, walking is supposed to be good for inspiration.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Girl meets publisher, girl gets publisher, girl loses publisher...

My publisher, a small press in Calgary has informed me that due to financial constraints, he has to liquidate stock. ICED UNDER and a few other books have been turfed from his list. I was given the option of buying the remaining books from the distributor or they would be sent to the shredder.

The investment wasn't huge but as I'm not employed at the moment, it was a tough call. In the end I opted to buy the books thinking they were kind of an income, right? I can live on the sales, right? I had visions of me tootling along Quebec country roads, selling my book at fairs and at flea markets out of the back of the car. Just like Diane Keaton in Baby Boom. The spectacular fall colour, the crisp country air....

I have 10 boxes of books in my office. I'll be on the road for years selling it! I must have been out of my mind. This morning, attempting to address the situation, I listed with Alibris, a handy online service that helps with this sort of thing. They ensure the book remains listed on all the major bookstores websites and when an order comes in, I fulfill it. Me. From this office. You betcha.

I shouldn't complain. Before the Internet, there was no choice for writers but to spend hours on the road. Margaret Atwood described dragging copies of her newly published book of poetry to a reading on a sled in a severe snowstorm. And then only a couple of guys showed up just to get in out of the cold.

Now that's commitment.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

So this is what a writer does all day....

Thinking about characters, sprawled on my bed under a quilt, rain pummelling the roof. Tea and cookies on the nighttable. The dog is asleep in the bathroom having given up all hope of a walk. I've spent the morning thinking about the main character in the story I'm working on. Thinking about his name, what he looks like, what he wants and why he wants it. I didn't expect the main character to be a guy, so this is all news to me. I thought this story was about a young woman, but here he is, impossible to ignore.

He came to me when I was walking the dog earlier this week. The dog and I walk the trails behind my house to a nearby lake. At the very end of a dirt road is a cottage with a weather-beaten dock. No one is ever at the cottage so the dog and I have adopted the dock as our own personal goofing off space. It's a lonely spot. Silent, except for the wind and birds and the lake lapping the shore. Very peaceful. It was in a moment of not thinking, planning, plotting, that this character came along. A more intriguing, complex character than I could have devised on my own, bringing with him a more intricate and dangerous plotline.

My little critique group starts up again October 1st so I have to have the first 25 pages ready. I'm glad I didn't rush into what I thought I was going to write. Sometimes it pays to procrastinate.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Summer's over

 The September rains are upon us. The outside world has gone back to their jobs, the kids are in school, the cottagers are closing up and going home. A great time to hole up in the office and get into the new work. I've had an amazing summer, reading, walking, thinking about stuff. I took a parttime job working in an independent bookstore and discovered what it was like to be on the other side of the counter. Fun and tough at the same time. Fun talking books to customers and discovering some gems of my own with my employee discount; tough eavesdropping on customers who were planning to buy on their Kindle instead.

Even I could see the writing on the wall. The independent bookstore is on its way out as a place to buy books, particularly in cities, but perhaps they can be repurposed as literary salons, venues for readings, book clubs, discussions. Heck, they already have the coffee. I think more we'd sell more books, no matter what the format. 

Case in point: My bookstore hosted a reading at the end of August as part of Wakefest 2010, an arts event staged every year in my tiny town. This year's Authors on the Lawn featured Brenda Chapman, Tom Henighan and Diana Beresford-Kroeger whose book, The Global Forest is garnering international attention. Diana's presentation was so passionate, I couldn't hear her without wanting to leap into action to save our nation's forests. Isn't that the whole point to writing, publishing, bookselling? We are trying to get ideas across. We are trying to save the world.

This is me chatting about THE GREY LADY, my most recent manuscript. Trying to save the world, one murder at a time. Many thanks to mystery author, Brenda Chapman for taking this. 

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

I'm a guest at Mystery Writers Ink!

Jayne Barnard of Mystery Writers Ink invited me to blog about my experience on finding myself published; the highs, the lows, the crawl-under-the-desk days ... and I was happy to oblige her, thinking it cheaper than therapy. Check it out.

Not much writing is getting done this summer. It's too perfect outside to do anything but read and think. The real excitement was at my favourite used book sale. I found a signed copy of P.D. James's CHILDREN OF MEN, a signed copy of Alice Munro's OPEN SECRETS, and a copy, also signed, of Mordecai Richler's BARNEY'S VERSION.

These three writers are among a small clutch of my absolute must-have, read-over-and-over-again authors. To find these books signed was more joy than I could handle without screaming. So I did.

But just when I thought it couldn't get any better ... I found ... wait for it ... a first edition copy of Ernest Hemingway's THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA.

I know. I'm having trouble breathing too.

See? Books will rock your world.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Waiting to Hear

I'm waiting for a response to my manuscript from the Best Agent Ever whose office is across the Atlantic. Maybe I'll have fish and chips for dinner tonight to cheer me up, nourish hope.

Hanging out at Agent Query trying to penetrate the mind of the average agent is one way to kill time. There's consolation in the articles, the sage advice and the exhortations to be patient. Which I think is funny because if you ask any civilian, they'll tell you writers must be incredibly patient to sit there all day doing nothing but thinking. I'm fabulously patient with my work. Not so much with business. Writing the next book would help, but why do that when I can abuse my Internet minutes searching for an answer to the age-old question: Are we there yet?
Since I'm goofing off instead of writing deathless prose, I'll share what I've learned.

1. Agents are normal people just like you and me. We don't like crazies, they don't like crazies. Be normal. Be professional. Resist the temptation to drop the mask and reveal your inner crank if they reject your work. Do like I do: Take yourself off into the woods where no one can see or hear you, and release your inner crank there. Have at it. Rage aloud at the flaccid, gutless publishing industry. Then go home and eat a carton of ice cream.

2. Agents want to read good work just like us. Submit your best work. Don't blow your wad on weak stuff hoping Agent will see the diamond in the rough. Don't send until you know there is nothing more you can do with it. Even so, accept that it's not perfect; it's a work in progress that has to leave your hands to improve.

3. Agents have lives just like us. And loads and loads of submits to wade through. It's true. I just perused some pics of the Slush Pile at Agent Query. Terrifying. There are better things to do than vent your spleen on some poor agent for not responding to your submission ASAP. Vent your spleen on banks for charging criminally high service fees for no service. Seriously.

4. Agents want to know that you know what you're doing. New writers are often ambivalent about their work. Do you know what you want for your writing? Can you talk about it? Can you talk about it without resorting to language that suggests it's a bit of a lark or you're a bit of a loon for doing it? If you aren't passionate and serious about your work, I can't imagine an agent getting passionate for you. If you aren't sure what I mean by passion, you are not a writer. Better to find out now.

5. Agents like reading, thinking, making deals, and they like writers. Even if rejection comes in the mail, I'm grateful to this agent for giving me a shot. Don't take rejection personally. You were writing before you submitted to an agent and you'll be writing long after the rejection letter is filed in your scrapbook.

The Last Novel by David Markson
The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker
Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss
Telling Times by Nadine Gordimer

And visit Agent Query. It's good for what ails ya.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Bookselling 101

This post is coming to you from behind the sales counter of an independent bookstore. I have a part time job selling books to the public and I am getting first hand knowledge on selling books to the public.

I think I'd rather be left in the dark.

Lemme tell you. A crude, mercenary mind-set takes over a bookseller. Sure the unknown author has a title on the shelf but I'm pushing the latest Stieg Larsson and Jodi Picoult. Why? Because I have a better chance of making that sale. Today my priority is the survival of the independent bookstore, not growing some unknown author.

But darn it--why are the two mutually exclusive? Remember the 70's when radio stations were ordered to play a percentage of Canadian music? The result is that today we have internationally famous artists and a healthy music scene at home. It didn't happen by magic, it took legislation.

I'm not saying we need legislation to force booksellers to showcase Canadian books. But maybe, just maybe, booksellers could be encouraged to piggyback a lesser known author onto the fame of a bestseller. As it was with the radio stations--everyone tuned in because they wanted to hear the familiar U.S. and U.K. hits. The Canadian musicians who were given airplay piggybacked onto that popularity, becoming popular in their own right.

Here in Wakefield, local performers did just that. Last year they launched the Piggyback Festival a day after the larger, hugely popular Ottawa Fringe Festival closed. Theatre-goers, hungry for more fringe, flocked to tiny Wakefield to take in the smaller shows. Today, the Piggyback Festival is a hit, attracting a heavy share of media attention.

There's no reason why a bestselling author can't drag the rest of us into the limelight. Or at leastcast a bit of glow our way. It takes a year or more for a book to be written and get to the shelves, correct? In the meantime, fans of a bestselling author can be persuaded to try another, lesser known author. I discovered William Deverell while waiting for PD James. A friend handed me a Louise Penny one day. Penny led me to a world of Canadian mystery that makes me positively weak in the knees.

With this in mind, I pop some lesser known Canadian musicians into the CD player and set a couple of fine Canadian mysteries next to good old Stieg.

Will you take a Barbara Fradkin with your Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Working for a living...

Oh yeah. Working for the man.

Putting in a 9 to 5 for a couple of weeks to make peace with my bank account. But 9 to 5 is hell on a writing schedule. I have nothing left when I get home. I have to content myself these days with getting familiar with my latest character, a young woman half my age whose heart is breaking. Eventually there will be a murder and other plot elements but while I'm working a "real" job, all I can do right now is get to know this character.

I am only 12,000 words into the first draft; working title: BLOODY THOUGHTS AND VIOLENT PACE. I should be at 16,000 words.

If only I didn't have to eat or pay my mortgage. Life would be a dream....

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The dreaded first draft...

Plugging away at the new novel. I've found a title but for the first time since I started writing 15 years ago, I don't have a fix on the ending. I usually know how a story opens and how it ends. Today I had a glimmer of where my character is going but I'm not sure.

I don't write from an outline because it never, ever works. I'll spend days outlining a story only to have the whole thing go off the rails as soon as I begin writing. These days I begin with a character and try to follow the character's trajectory to the end.

But first drafts are hard. So much is unknown at this stage. Some writers edit as they go along or go back over the previous days work to carry them forward. I write in scenes. Once I know a bit about the character and what his or her problem is, the scenes start to take shape in my mind when I'm walking or doing housework. I write them down in longhand. Each scene reveals a bit more about character which in turn drives the plot. But as the plot isn't clear at this stage, lots of writing is done in the full knowledge most of it will be chucked out.

The first draft is called the Discovery Draft for a reason. The term is from The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray (Dell Publishing, 1994), a book I stumbled across when I first started writing and have used as a reference ever since. Ray breaks down the challenge of writing a novel, explains plotting using Aristotle's Incline and the value of writing your novel in scenes. He covers a number of other facets of the process one weekend at a time, and does so in clear, concise language.

Here's the power of words: by calling the first draft the Discovery Draft, I am liberated from needing to know what I'm doing. Whenever I'm tempted to figure it out, I remind myself this is a discovery, an adventure. Just keep writing and soon you'll know what you're writing about.

This is a challenge. Tossing a thousand words a day into the computer with the vague idea they'll add up to a story one day in the distant future is crazy.

But the even crazier thing is that they always do!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Research and Development

I did 3000 words today in 5 hours but I didn't write at all yesterday. I was dried up. Nothing.

I can't force it when it's like that. The problem was I wasn't emotionally involved with my characters. The danger of pushing for word count at a time like that is I get a lot of words that nobody cares about.

My remedy is movies. I watched 3 in a row. I called it research and development. I watched Ordinary People, the Best Picture for 1980. Tightly focused, nuanced human drama. I can't remember if Mary Tyler Moore won an Oscar for her performance. She should have.

After that, I popped in The Apartment, Billy Wilder's classic (Best Picture 1960) and finished off the day with Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow. Both magnificent films.

Overall theme? Human breaking points. In all three movies, suicide runs through them. In Ordinary People Timothy Hutton's character has attempted suicide and Judd Hirsch as his shrink tries to help him. Watching it now as a fully grown adult, it finally hit me how high the stakes were for Hirsch's character. His success with this boy was a matter of life and death.

In The Apartment Shirley McClain's character is heartbroken and swallows Jack Lemmon's sleeping pills. His timely intervention brings the two together and into a new life. And Sylvia is the story of Sylvia Plath who eventually gives in to the pull of suicide and ends her life.

Starting the new book, I found myself unemotional about my characters and one of them is suicidal. Life has been too good for me lately--I can't remember what it's like to be broken. But remembering, empathizing with, and translating the human experience into words is the stock in trade for a novelist. If I can't do that I might as well take up ditch digging.

Movies are like a pinch or a slap--they get the nerve endings zinging again. If you want to wreck your heart, watch Sylvia and then read Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters, the poems he wrote to Sylvia Plath after her suicide in 1963. I could barely walk.

Consequently, today, fully awake and every nerve ready to shatter, I remembered why I wanted to write in the first place. And wrote 3000 not bad words.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Eight Rules for Writing Fiction...

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character that he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them -- in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

--Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons 1999), 9-10

Cheers Kurt!

Monday, May 31, 2010

Replenishing the well...

Replenish might not be the right word for it, but I do feel restored.

Long lazy hours spent doing nothing but reading this weekend. Primarily non-fiction at the moment because biographies and memoirs are less work than fiction. My brain needs the rest. Although I did read Heather O'Neill's Lullabies for Little Criminals at long last. A gorgeous, tough, honest work. Not a new book but new to me. I never seem to read books in their prime. I always have to wait until the dust settles to appreciate them.

Books are dependable allies. A port in a storm. Heather O'Neill describes her very difficult childhood in the readers' notes at the back of Lullabies. She lists the books she loved to read as a kid and as an adult. I get the sense books saved her life. The main character in Lullabies depends heavily on books to get her through. Thinking of all those authors, long-dead some of them, rallying around this kid to guide her to safety and sanity moves me to my core.

Books save lives. I don't think that's overstating it. I used to read Jane Austen whenever I felt like jumping off a bridge. Settled me right down.

Resting on another author's words, absorbing their world view, calms, restores, and rejuvenates. Makes you feel rich and glad to be human. Now how many activities in life can boast a return like that?

I think I'm ready to start the new novel. To paraphrase the brilliant Margaret Laurence: "Get back to work, slob."

Friday, May 28, 2010

To promote or not to promote ...

On day two of This Writer's Life, I waste several hours mulling over the value of book promotion. I don't have the income to support attending conferences. I don't like Facebook and I don't understand Twitter.

There are cheap ways to promote oneself, I suppose. But I'd have to figure out what and how and where. The hours would fly by and I wouldn't get any writing done--the reason for all the promotion in the first place.

I'm not saying book promotion is not worth doing, but how much should a newly published writer devote to it if they have another book to write, kids to feed and money to earn? Some writers can work on planes or cram their writing in small spaces of time. I can't. I have a deep suspicion that the writers who can are very experienced and therefore better skilled. Much like a car mechanic can perform an oil change faster than I can. Experience grows skill.

As a writer once told me, your first book is your loss leader. It's out there, hopefully doing you proud, but it isn't the main event. The next book is. And then the next. The new author's reputation is built on good writing--not on how many bookmarks are handed out at Book Expo.

But don't take my word for it. Visit Donald Maass's site and download a free copy of his book The Career Novelist.

If you like to go to conferences and you have the time and money, enjoy! But if not, don't sweat it. For the new author the value of that investment is debatable in my opinion.

"Publishing is a very mysterious business. It is hard to predict what kind of sale or reception a book will have, and advertising seems to do very little good." Thomas Wolfe

Some writers come out of the gate like thoroughbreds and never look back. Others, not so much. For the newly published writer who is navigating book promotion, writing, money woes, and what happens next, this blog is for you.

I have no advice. We're in the same boat.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

I am launching...

Today is the first day of my blogging life.

I like this Blog Host whoever they are. This was not stressful.

I had a website but it disappeared. Since I prefer to read what other writers are doing and saying, and how their writing life is going, and as I rarely visit websites anymore, I thought: Hey! A blog might be the thing for me too.

Day One of This Writer's Life went something like this:

Put 300 page manuscript on thumb drive.
Drove to Bureau en Gros to have printed.
One hour and $40 later, picked up mss.
Drove to Canada Post, bought oversized bubble mailer.
$50 later, mss is off to London, England to be perused by agent.
Shell shocked and weak, I drive home to eat salt and vinegar chips
and drink tea. Channelling my inner Brit.

Decide to set up blog to ward off feelings of inadequacy.