Friday, November 27, 2009

One Year of Blogging...thanks for hanging out with me.

It's exactly one year since my first writing blog post. Since then, I've blogged about three works-in-progress, completed two, chased agents,  and moaned about that a lot, secured a contract with an agent for the first book, and a "we'll see" for the second, from the same agent. My gut feeling is that they want to find a publisher for Hafan Deg before they consider Strachan's Attic. The agent wasn't sure about Strachan for the first three chapters, set in modern day Toronto, but then decided it was okay once the World War ll England chapters unfolded. They haven't said they love it, as they did with Hafan Deg, but they haven't rejected it out of hand, either. No news is...etc.

Meanwhile, I'm bowling along with Summer Must End, and can't help wondering how many books I'll finish before I publish. I will publish, you know - it's just a question of when, and whether it will be posthumous or not. I'm a very fast writer, and work as quickly as any of those one- or two-books-a-year novelists out there - Jonathan Kellerman, for instance. After years of writing, I no longer slog over the words. I'm getting a handle on how to map out the structure, and almost understand the the rules of the game. In an article in the Guardian by Darrah McManus on November 16, celebrating Margaret Atwood's 70th birthday, the following caught my eye:

"I believe that most writers get better as they get older. Unlike, say, rock musicians, exploding in a star-burst of youthful inspiration, novelists take their time. They grow into and with the act of writing; over decades, over thousands of hours and millions of words."
Well, it's certainly been decades, although I'm not certain how many words I've written in total, but I have a large box that contains everything I've done, and it looks rather a lot. Averaging 100,000 words each for the full length books, plus dozens of poems, short stories, plays, and novellas, I'm guessing I've done at least a million words. Perhaps they weren't particularly brilliant words, and this could still be true. Can we ever really know when we've reached excellence? There's so much doubt, often eclipsed by enormous certainty;  I'm somewhat bi-polar, figuratively speaking, about my writing. Is it really any good?  Have I found my unique style, my true voice? I only decided to find that out for sure last year, when I figured it was now or never to publish, and it was time to announce that I was ready. But publishing was never a real goal. I was simply having fun with words and enjoying the process.  But this year, I need to know if anyone gives a toss.

It's been a fantastic year, sharing all of my thoughts on writing with you. I've made so many real friends, people I know I can count on when I'm down, people who lift me up, and spur me on, regardless of where their own journey is taking them.  In a crazy fantasy, I imagine us all sitting down one day, face to face, in a comfortable living room somewhere, sharing some wine, perhaps, and able to voice those ideas that were so difficult to express in emails, despite the fact that we think of ourselves as good writers. Whoever gets rich from their writing first can arrange it. Which is why it's a fantasy. Getting rich can never be a goal.

I've been reading a first novel by Jonathan Bennett, a Canadian with Australian ties, like me, who writes lyrically about Sydney and Toronto, and whose words spurred me to email him. I've mentioned many times how generous published writers have been in responding. I think of dear SarahBeth Purcell, and Martha Moody, Ben Nightingale, Bonnie Kozek, Darcy Pattison, all of whom have shared their thoughts on the process of being published and were unstinting with their time.

Now here's Jonathan Bennett.

I only wrote to say how much I like his book, After Battersea Park, and certainly expecting nothing in return from  him. And now he's looked at my sample chapters at my website, offered solid feedback on them, and even made nice noises about my paintings! I got his permission to print the following, the last paragraph in his first email (we've exchanged several since):

"Good luck with your own work. I wouldn't worry about the agent and publishing part. Getting a book into print might feel good, but it isn't sustaining. The writing must be all that matters. ABP, for example, is long out of print. For all I know you'll be its only reader this year. So, if not for the deep importance of the act of writing to my sense of self, I can't say I'd bother. There are simpler ways to punish oneself!"

And then this, later:

"If publishing is important, then sure, pursue it with the zeal it last paragraph was just a caution, that, well, a book is just a book. It's not some kind of metaphysical deliverance. I think I once thought it would be. I think many writers who want to get published think that too."
Jonathan's second highly-received novel is available: "Entitlement: A Novel".  Take a look at the reviews, both here and at the Jonathan Bennett website.

Thanks for hanging out with me this past year. Writing is a solitary occupation, yet I never feel entirely alone.  I imagine you all out there, creating your own precious words, and we are like a closely-knit club, a small,  exclusive network, and able to reach out for support at the touch of a few keys. How has blogging or communicating with other bloggers affected you? For me, it's been inspirational.

Late, but wonderful news: SarahBeth has received enough financial help to get that treatment for Willow Fern. Perfect Thanksgiving message to receive.

Friday, November 20, 2009

On Writing a Canadian Novel - Are We So Different to the States?

Summer Must End is at the 63% point now, a big jump from two weeks ago. I've been writing and editing every day, and I'm happy with where the story is going. This is the first time I've written something set in one place, in this case, my local area, here in south eastern Ontario.  I tend to incorporate a couple of countries in my books because I personally enjoy the change of venue, but I wanted to explore what makes Canada - particularly Ontario - unique, in this novel.

In fact, I could be writing about New England, when you get right down to it.  Our terrains and weather are the same, our people have much the same accents, we love coffee and doughnuts, drive on the right side of the road. You watch a movie set in Chicago, or New York, and, if you're very astute, you could well discover it was made in Toronto.  If you were plonked down in some unidentified small town in the north, the only way you'd know which nation you were in is by the flag flying on the public buildings. The restaurants and superstores will look much the same, although there could be some unfamiliar supermarkets. And the guy who was responsible for the design of those 1900s houses with the front porches was just as prolific here as in Buffalo, Detroit, and Baltimore, et al.

Only that arbitrary line, drawn by surveyors without the benefit of today's technology when our nations formed, dictated that this is Canada, and, a couple of inches over, that is the United States. There is a town in Quebec which is evenly divided right through its center, so that even the public library has a line painted across its floor to indicate it's an international border.  People exiting from the wrong door are technically liable to be charged as illegal immigrants! Before the border clampdown, this was one village, and now it's divided, with metal gates manned by border agents.  It's a microcosm of Berlin in the 60s. And there are other towns like this sprinkled along our shared border, including four airports!

They say Canadians don't stand out in any memorable way when they travel overseas because they sound American, so they're lumped in as coming from one of the fifty US states, unless they're questioned more closely. That's okay, I guess, because we're a low-key, modest bunch, most of the time, and comfortable with who we are. On the whole, Canadians are softer-spoken, reserved rather than conservative, unconventional in many ways, and less hung up on money than most Americans, but this will barely be seen in a casual meeting. We're statistically much less violent here, so we make up for it by playing ice hockey, where almost anything goes. It's also a secular nation, with less emphasis on church-inspired doctrines.

Of course, there are other clear constitutional and philosophical differences between the countries, and I'm certainly not going there in this blog, although it would make very interesting reading, were I that clever. But the point I'm getting at is that it's difficult to write the all-Canadian novel. I could toss in a few 'eh?'s in some dialogue, and mention the Toronto Maple Leafs, but that doesn't do it. Instead, in creating my Ontario characters, I'm writing about our North American sameness, our common flora and fauna, our weather, the human experience.

And so I'm left trying to make sense of all of this through my characters. As I said, it's not easy, really, and perhaps that's the point. We are so alike.

If I wanted to snag that New York agent, I would be wise to set this whole thing somewhere north of Boston, say, instead of Belleville. But I can't. This is my tribute to Canada. It's perhaps not the Great Canadian Novel, but it will be my small offering.

Please check out SarahBeth's blog again. She's doing all right with her Art Sales for Willow campaign, but she's not there yet, around $400 short. She has less than a month to pull this veterinary expense together to save her dear cat-baby. I know you'll want to help.

Have a great weekend. Oh, and enjoy a fine American Thanksgiving on Thursday. There's one of our differences. We celebrated ours on October 12.  Give a poor turkey a break, if you can.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Publishing World Is Cruel, But Kinder Than Broadway

Since my list of grumbles a couple of week's back, I've written another 10% of Summer Must End, and I'm over that awkward spot and past the 50% mark. It's flowing nicely, the characters are solid, and I believe I know where the plot is heading. I say 'I believe' because we just never know. An impulsive piece of dialogue, a character suddenly shoving forward to take precedence, could cause the navigation to fail, and I'll end up somewhere entirely unexpected, which isn't the end of the world, but I like to have some control. This is one of the frustrations and joys of writing fiction, of course - the surprise of it - and I'm not complaining.

I'm confident enough with this first half of the book to send it to my friend in Australia for her comments; until now, I wasn't sure if other changes would be necessary. I know she won't care for this book. It's not her genre. But this doesn't matter, because she's a great reader, appreciates good writing, and will look at it as a lot of agents would - with the cold, hard eye of practicality.  In other words, she will see (I hope) that it's good, regardless of her own personal preferences, and she'll undoubtedly pick up some absurdity that I missed. This is good. I am indebted to her, once again, for reading something she otherwise wouldn't consider.

Already I have another plot bouncing around in my head. I so wanted to attempt a humorous book next time, just for a change, but, sad to say, this new idea is steeped in mystery, shadows, and a fair chunk of the supernatural. Instead of falling asleep at night thinking about the book I'm working on, I've been running through this new one. Is this crazy?  It's one thing to have more than one painting on the go, but fiction?  But what do I know? Perhaps it's more common than I realize. It really makes sense, when the writing is going slowly on one, that you could switch to the other for a while. Have any of you done this? Anyway, I'm itching to get to it, after I've finished the current one, and, after that one, then I'll tackle the humor.  That's a really tough genre, in case you didn't know, and a huge challenge. I think I can be funny, but can I write it?

SarahBeth Purcell has been receiving some help with her art sales and other fund-raising, I'm happy to tell you. I'm not assuming my blogs had anything to do with this, because she's been hugely active herself in raising the money she desperately needs to treat her poor, sick cat, Willow Fern. The fantastic news is that the treatment has tentatively been booked for December 15, and could be slightly less expensive than the original quote. How amazing is that? It's so rewarding to be a part of this, and I'm keeping a close eye on the little meter SarahBeth has put up on her blog page.  She's almost at the half-way mark, based on the new cost, and it's only a week since she started, I think. If you missed her plea for help, take a look at her link above, and my blog last Friday.

I've had a number of doubts, fears, and questions about my current agented book, Hafan Deg. I blythely tell you guys about the patience needed in snaring an agent, and the excruciating time they can take in finding a publisher. But, naturally, I don't listen to myself.  The truth is, I've been really frustrated because it's four months since I found my agent and nothing has happened yet. So I wrote to SarahBeth, who's been through all of this more than once, and with British agents.  She set me straight with a wealth of information, but essentially she said I should hang in. (For a little while longer, at least.) I knew it would be a hard slog - I told you that, didn't I? Physician heal thyself.

I was going to remind you how tough this writing business is (as if you didn't know), but I watched a documentary the other night on the production torments of Broadway shows  - how hard they work, the preview process, refining the script, re-writing music and lyrics, the stress of First Night and the ultimate bete noire - the critic. The odds of failing are astronomical. Imagine the heartbreak - for everyone in the company - to be forced to close after a couple of months, a couple of weeks, or even one night. Makes me feel a lot better about my choice of artistic endeavor.

I'm not using my Boadicea avatar here today, because I'm not in battle mode, and I don't need Edna either, as I'm feeling quite sane, for a change. I am doggedly resolute and no-nonsense, in fact, and just need to get on with things. This granny image says it all.
Have a good weekend (definitely soup weather) and be kind to one another.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Writer and Artist SarahBeth Purcell Really Needs Our Help

I featured SarahBeth Purcell on my writing blog some time back. She is a young, published writer of enormous talent, who deals with heart-rending emotional issues that many of us wouldn't have the courage to tackle.  Her books are available at Amazon, and their page alone is so worth reading. 

But SarahBeth, like me, also paints. She's going through a rough time right now, and in desperation is now offering discounts on her paintings, in a last ditch effort to raise some cash to save her beloved cat's life.

It takes humility and guts to reach out like this, but she has been coping with huge expense because of her ailing baby, Willow Fern, for months, even selling her car, but has now run out of funds.  Another book is in the works, but won't bear fruit for ages.  (We all know about that part of the business.) She has nowhere else to turn but to her followers and kindhearted strangers. Now, perhaps you don't know SarahBeth, but I do. She would never ask for help like this unless she was at her wit's end. This lady is usually out there donating time and money to other animal care agencies.

If you're in a position to help, please go to SarahBeth's art page and check out her paintings. They are usually quite pricey, but she's now offering the largest at $100, and the price goes down relative to size. This is not only a great opportunity to own a piece of highly-collectible art, but to do some real good.

Alternatively, as sensitive, caring people - and don't most artists and writers fit this category? -consider donating a small amount of $5, $10 or $20 to help her through this.  The cost of healing her cat once and for all, using a specialized Radioactive IodineTherapy,  is around $1500.  Seventy-five people donating $20 each would cover this. Anyway, this is my route. $20 is small change these days - coffee and muffins for a very few guys at the office, a paperback, whatever. And if $20 is too much, consider $5 or $10. SarahBeth and Willow Fern will be so grateful.

Like SarahBeth, I have no modesty when it comes to helping animals.  And this little animal is part of the family - our collective art and writing family. Please try to help.

You can purchase SarahBeth's art, or simply donate, through PayPal (citing her email address), or you can arrange an alternative method, by emailing SarahBeth here.

I'd like to think that we all could expect support from our fellow blogger friends if we were in a similar situation. This is a reminder that we are all in this together, and should never be shy about reaching out for help when we need it.

Have a good weekend, guys. See you next week. (I did achieve some writing this week, by the way.)

Quotes to Consider

"If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, Either write things worth reading, or do things worth writing." ~Benjamin Franklin

"Well behaved women rarely make history."~Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”~William G.T. Shedd (1820-1894), theologian, teacher, pastor

"It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something." ~Franklin D Roosevelt (1882-1945), 32nd U.S. president

“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.”
~Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), essayist, poet, philosopher

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." ~Mark Twain

"You miss 100% of the shots you don't take."
~ Wayne Gretzky