Getting there (I hope)

Word count: 252               Reading time: 1-2 mins.

“How long does getting thin take?” asked Pooh anxiously. He’s stuck in the door of Rabbit’s house and wants to be free.

I’m suspended in the land of commercially unpublished authors and I want to be free of this place. How long does getting published take? How long should it take?

 In the book Outliers Malcolm Gladwell asserts that acquiring greatness demands a huge investment of time, about 10,000 hours. Okay maybe I can’t aspire to greatness but I do want to create the very best fiction I can. Perhaps my apprenticeship isn’t complete yet.

Gladwell also points out that success "is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky.” Maybe 2012 will be the year when the planets will align in my favour.

When I am discouraged at how long the getting-published process takes, I search for perspective. The Crime Fiction Blog has a list of ironically-named overnight success stories that can take the edge off an emerging writer’s anxiety. Another source of comfort is reading rejection letters that were sent to famous authors. In the meantime I remind myself of Robert Heinlein's fifth rule of writing: keep it on the market until it is sold.

So I look to the shiny New Year with fresh hope and determination. Something’s got to give.

All you struggling apprentices out there, are you in it for the long haul? How do you handle those bruising rejection letters? 

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Artwork: E.H. Shepard

Tell me a story

Word count: 290         Reading time: 2 mins.

Christmas! Does any other holiday inspire so many stories? If you live in the Western world it’s hard to be untouched by the manic net of this season. What a rich opportunity for writers.

We could start with the ancient stories, the Christian ones that blended with existing pagan myths. These tales could be retold. There are many websites that provide different versions of the evolution of modern traditions and all of them are open to interpretation and flights of fancy. (the real origin of Christmas).

Stories might come to us come from the shimmering pages of the recent past. If you think that a holiday recollection is bound to be prosaic then maybe Dylan Thomas reading A Child's Christmas in Wales will change your mind.

Contemporary stories might float past us, muffled by the ringing of bells or the impatient growl of traffic. This week the crowds jostled me into two people who were speaking quietly. I caught partial sentences. He: “No one should complain about death.” She, with strong feeling: “Not in the morgue!” I’ll never know what came before or after that intriguing exchange so I may just have to invent it.

Maybe your Christmas story is one of exclusion because of faith. Maybe you have no family or no friends with whom to celebrate, so yours is an orphan’s tale. Maybe the conflict of Christmases past makes you shun the holiday: another starting point for a story.

If Christmas dinner is ruined or you’re snowed in for forty-eight straight hours without power, will those events inspire a future scene in your work? Can you turn this year’s roses and thorns into fine tension?

Enjoy the holiday but don’t forget your notebook.

Operation: salvage

Word count: 305                                                   Reading time: 2 mins.

We prepare our fruitcake in September. The ritual goes like this: drown dried fruit in rum, allow alcohol to evaporate, add more rum, repeat several times. Bake, wrap it in layers of cheesecloth, christen with a little more rum, and then store in a cool corner of the basement. Open it once a month to top up the rum level.

This year we seem to have been carried away by Christmas spirit. Literally. When we opened it today, three months later, it was sodden. It buckled under its own weight as we lifted it onto the serving platter. The bottom is more like pudding than cake. Lots of work and lots of waiting – to produce something that looks like a bakery reject.

Sometimes that’s how it feels with writing. Over the past four years I’ve devoted a good chunk of my life to a sweeping novel set in Australia. I work on it, ask for opinions, revise it, and then store it in a cool corner of my laptop to mellow.

I took that novel out again earlier this year but had to admit it’s still a bit of a bakery reject. I can see the cracks in it and its feet are muddy, but the flavour is still rich and spirited. Unlike this cake, my novel can be salvaged. The beauty of writing is that there’s no single point of failure; there’s always an opportunity to revise and improve. I’m going to open the Aussie adventure early in the New Year. I know it’s going to be a little bit stronger than the last time I looked. Watch this space. It may even be ready to submit to the market in 2012.

What’s cooking in your writing kitchen? Is there a rich fruitcake hidden on a pantry shelf?

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photo by: Alan Bolitho

Making it alone

 Word count: 324                                Reading time: 2 mins

Until I met my husband I was unaccustomed to asking for help with anything. Ever. Years together taught me to accept his assistance with challenges that I would formerly have considered mine and mine alone.  However, Alan’s not a writer so he couldn’t help much with this compulsion once it was unleashed.

Never mind, I thought. I’ll embrace the cliché; I’ll be a writer scribbling away in a small dark room with little help from the outside world. <sigh> It always amazes me that as I get older I remain chronically naïve, clueless even, about some aspects of life. When I broke out of my self-imposed isolation and started taking courses in 2009 my writing improved in leaps and bounds.

As a recent article in the New Yorker pointed out, there will be no Maxwell Perkins to encourage today’s writers to reach for the sky. The days of publishers grooming new talent are long gone. We have to find our own mentors, usually at a real financial cost. But find them we must. Just like musicians need external ears, writers need independent eyes to excel. And, as always with writing, we must remember this is a highly subjective business. The top mentors and coaches in all disciplines have blind spots. It’s up to the mentee to listen, learn, and then choose the best path. 

Case in point: the gold medal high jumper from the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. If Dick Fosbury hadn’t defied his coaches, high jumpers might still be using the Straddle technique to clear the bar. He revolutionized the sport by hanging on to his vision and developing the Fosbury Flop.

Fosbury’s achievement also illustrates an irony in all this; coaches and mentors can help us reach our potential but when we jump, we jump alone.

What are the roses and thorns of working alone? Of working with a mentor or a coach? What did you look for when you chose your coach or mentor?

Hoping for serendipity

 

Word count: 281                                              Reading time: 2 mins. 

All last night I dreamt about lost animals: finding a litter of tiny kittens strewn in garbage heaps in an alley, a hungry coonhound pup pawing at the back door. These sweet animals weaved themselves into my subconscious and I didn’t sleep well for worrying. This morning I opened the newspaper to the headline that a local dog rescue group has been linked to dog-napping. Vancouver Sun

Bad surprise.

Years ago I went scuba diving with a girlfriend in the chilly waters off Horseshoe Bay, West Vancouver. On the beach that day was an Aussie diver who set his sights on me. I rebuffed him, he held his course. Five years later I married him. Happily ever after.

Good surprise.

In real life I hope for only serendipity, inadvertent good luck. As a reader I love sinister twists and turns, especially if the end of a story is uplifting.

As I careened through NaNoWriMo 2011 a revelation rocked me at 36,000 words. I tripped over a central theme to the story that I hadn’t seen at the outset. Good surprise.

This week I looked at another novel that has been resting for the past month. The voice isn’t quite right yet. Bad surprise. I reminded myself that the revisions need time. Randy Susan Meyers and Roz Morris

Solution: I’m using literature to wake me from “the sleepwalk of self-involvement” (William Deresiewicz). In other words, I’m reading lots. I’m also listening to music and getting outdoors to enjoy the scenery. Both of these activities trigger images that no other process can release.

What surprises are shaking your world right now? How do you manage them and how do they influence your writing? 

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 Photo of Salt Spring Island by: Aidan Cassie