Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Anything can be story if it matters to you …

This will be the last post about what I learned from the Surrey International Writers Conference. Yes, I hear you, it was in October. Why, you ask, has it taken you so long to tell us what you learned? Well, there was Halloween, the launch of my debut novel Dead Frog on the Porch, cups of chai to drink, lentil soup to eat, the endless extraction of my cat’s paw from my cup of tea, and, of course, my never ending fascination with the Sasquatch – it’s time consuming let me tell you.

The last workshop I attended was given by Independent Editor Lisa Rector, of Third Draft New York City. She works with advanced fiction writers. She talked about the 11th Hour Checklist. The following was taken from my notes.

The last 10 per cent is the hardest and trickiest, when you have a ‘near ready novel.’ Look at what you are resistant to doing. Are you putting your soul on the first page? What are you holding back from us? Put a little bit of yourself on that page. How has your own personal growth been reflected on the page?

Take a look at your opening sentence. Can you get it down to six words? If you can summarize your book in six words you can sell it. Do that with every chapter. Pick a random sentence from the middle of a scene – does it suggest tension or conflict or animosity? You may have a better first line in the middle of a chapter.

Look at the last lines of your chapters. Do they pose questions? Do they set up someone or a plot point? Do they set up a counter point or ask a question of another character?

Ask yourself: if I were to write that book today, what would be the first thing I would say to my reader? Look at your response and then look at your first page and chapter. You can always add more passion, excitement and fear if you genuinely believe in the book. If I were a reader, what would be the one detail about his book that would catch my attention?

If you don’t know the answers to these questions then the manuscript is not ready to go out.

The first line introduces us to conflict or change that pulls us into the story. Find a way to make the reader care. Anything can be story if it matters to you – then it will matter to readers. The unexpected rather than the familiar gets our attention. Do you have that on the page, and in more than one place? Can I raise more questions?

The style of the writing gets our attention but the substance sustains the story. Style alone is not story. Substance alone is not story – they have to work in tandem.

As something starts to resolve set something else in motion. Often the consequences are too small, too local, and they don’t affect us in a deep and meaningful way. Minor characters don’t have to be insignificant.

How are you sustaining conflict and complicating the plot? Can your conflict hold up through the length of the novel? Is your character still questioning something up until the end? The moment your character stops questioning things, your story is over.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Sasquatch as Santa Claus

I was heartened to hear that there was a decrease in Sasquatch sightings in 2009. This is according to the Canadian Sasquatch Research Organization (based in my home town of Calgary, no less). I take that to mean that all those Writers as Sasquatch were hunkered down in their writing caves scribbling away with a mug of milky tea at their sides (or in the case of the real Sasquatch - a decapitated deer - yikes).

I also discovered that there appears to be a link between the Sasquatch and Santa Claus – who knew? I guess it’s because one of them is a mythical creature (sorry Santa). The links are explored in this book: Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men: The Origins and Evolution of Saint Nicholas, Spanning 50,000 Years by Phyllis Siefker. Turns out, ancient European stories of the Wildpeople, Snowmen and the Yeti developed into the myth of Santa Claus. The 'Wildman of the Middle Ages’ was described as an ape-like creature with a beard, its body covered in thick matted hair and smelled of a foul odor (maybe from descending chimneys?) The habitat of the Wildman was the northern woods, where he lived in a cave or den and relied on the reindeer. I believe the natural evolution would be Sasquatch, the Grinch who stole Christmas, and Santa Claus. The Grinch was a hairy, bigfoot like creature that lived in a cave in the mountains, and ended up giving out presents ... just saying.

Here’s to 2010, the year of the Writer as Sasquatch, may we be spotted even less frequently … and may we get much more writing done.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Diorama Dan and Tofu Man

All those hours, days, weeks, and months of sitting in my Sasquatch writing cave - sweating in the summer and shivering under my buffalo throw in the winter - while writing my novel Dead Frog on the Porch, I dreamed of many things. I dreamed that the manuscript would become a novel (which it did), an e-book and an iphone app (which it will shortly), a movie, a Japanese anime movie, and a book on tape. But I never dreamed it would become a diorama.

In fact I never knew what a diorama was until someone told me about the Torrington Gopher Hole Museum (yes, you read that correctly) in Torrington, Alberta. The museum has dioramas of stuffed gophers in town scenes. Like the diorama of the gophers in the barber shop. Can you imagine the person who pitched that idea to the town council (“It’ll be great, we take the road kill gophers, stuff them, dress them up as town folk and put them in dioramas of town scenes.”)

Well my book has been made into a diorama by a young reader I call Diorama Dan. Dan made the diorama for a book report of DFOTP (Hope you got an A+ Dan!). It's awesome!

Dan is not only an avid reader, but he’s a writer. He wrote a short story called Tofu Man. It seems that Tofu Man is fighting Martians who are pummeling earth with hams.

Tofu Man teams up with Soba (noodle) Man and they build a shield to protect the earth from the Martian hams. Saving vegetarians the world over … earth vegetarians live another day to eat tofu and soba.

Other wacky, er, unique and interesting attractions in Alberta (apart from the Rockie mountains) are the giant perogy in Glendon, Alberta and the Star Trek Space Ship landing pad in Vulcan, Alberta ... just saying.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

DFOTP review and random thoughts ...

Dead Frog on the Porch was reviewed by Lindsey Carmichael on her blog 10storiesup. Leslie is a bookseller, reviewer and writer. She loves children's and young adult literature and created a review blog. She's also pretty good at wrangling cats - the pics on her blog are her cats!
She is aka Dr. Carmichael since she has a PhD in genetics. That made her particularly interested in what Dr. Bert Tallbot (aka The Cheese Pie Man) was doing cooking up giant frogs in the lab!
You can read the review here and an interview with moi here
If you are an author and would like Leslie to consider reviewing your book email her at:lindsey@foxtalk.ca She is partial to Canadian authors but she is open to reviewing works by authors outside of Canada.
Under the heading of random thoughts I keep forgetting to let people know that I will be teaching two writing courses through the Chinook Learning Services (Continuing Education Calgary Board of Education) in 2010. The first one is called Writing with Humour and the second is called Writing Queries that Pop (I wanted to call it Writing Kick-Butt Query Letters - but they wouldn't let me use the word butt ... just saying).
There are various dates for the courses in the winter and spring. The courses run either a full day or two evenings in a week.
If you're interested, check out the links.
Next blog post: Diorama Dan and Tofu Man. Curious? I know I am! ;-j

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Stories are lies and it’s all about me …

Yes, I know, lately it’s been all about me. My book launches, my book tour, my school visits … me, me, me! (As I’ve told my bosses over the years, if they can get that it’s all about me, then their lives will be so much easier).

I promised to share the things I learned at the Surrey International Writers Conference and I’ve taken a break from that due to the all-about-me-ness of the blog lately, but I’m back at it.

Children’s Author Richard Scrimger presented a workshop called Scrimger on Story. This guy is awesome – he’s writes novels about a kid who has an alien from Jupiter living up his nose (I hate when that happens), he’s got crazy Einstein hair and calls the writers he mentors his mentos (just don't mix them with diet coke - the mentos, not the writers). He brings a lot of passion and energy to his writing, which was evident when he jumped on and off the table during his presentation (you had to be there).

Here’s some of what I learned.

Stories are lies. The best lies start with the truth. The truth is a piece of grit at the heart of the story. The outside, the smooth pearl shell, is the lie. You need the truth and polish it up with the lie. The truth inside will drive your story. A dark truth is an irritant piece of grit that is a dark emotion. A dark truth can still have humour. Fear has to be a specific tangible thing you are afraid of. Anger is a great place to build a story from – when you tell lies about anger you can make it different, anger can turn into revenge. Revenge and anger can fuel the story and give it edge. All plots come from anger, fear and loss.

Stories are about people. The character has to rule and drive the book. All stories have secrets. Give the character a secret, something that not every character knows. Secrets have the power to draw us into the story. Weave the lies around the truth

Richard believes that writing is like a prayer and a striptease. Like a striptease, it is important to slow down your writing and it is all about technique. You are revealing yourself. Nothing gives you away like the lies you tell.

Writing is an act of faith. When you are a writer you are offering up a prayer to someone bigger than you are. The prayer is in the talking, the listening and the writing.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The day the RCMP told me to leave town and what I learned about writing from a grade sixer …

It's not everyday the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP for those in the know) tell me to leave town.

On Friday we had the storm of the century – snow that is. Really people – bald prairies? Put up a few trees, it might shelter the highway from the blowing snow … just saying.

I was scheduled to do two school visits, one in Brooks, Alberta and the other in Bassano.

When I left Friday morning it was clear, dry and sunny. I saw the second Sundog that I’ve seen in my life (last time was in Brooks as well).

It was pajama day at Brooks Eastbrook and I was met at the door by two girls (one was Kate who emailed me beforehand about how excited she was to meet an author).

I took two classes through a writing exercise and when I presented to the second class, the teacher asked one girl to read what she wrote. The girl said no. The teacher really wanted to hear what the girl wrote and asked if she would be comfortable if someone else read it. The girl said no. I totally got what was going on.

When the girl came up to buy a book we had a chat.

Me: You’re a writer aren’t you.

Girl: Yes, I’m a very, very good writer.

Me: Why didn’t you want to read what you wrote?

Girl: Because it wasn’t very good.

Me: Never say your writing isn’t good. Writing is a process. The first draft that any writer writes isn’t very good.

This is something that all writers need to learn. Writing is a process. It’s not meant to be a finished product after the first draft. That’s why they call it the first draft. I never worry about first drafts because I know that through the process of writing the subsequent drafts it will get to where it needs to be. I know writers who stall out after a few chapters and refuse to keep writing. Write through to the end. Then go back and start editing.

Mind you, I don’t always show that draft to anyone. She was in grade six, and she already knew that you don’t share your work with just anyone, and you might not want to share the first draft. I like to get it to a place where the feedback I get will take it to the next level.

Then I drove to Bassano – the storm was moving in. We agreed I’d only do one session and then leave. That session was interrupted by a teacher who announced that the RCMP said if I wanted to get out of town that I needed to leave now.

Thanks to teacher Linda and her husband Sid who let me follow behind their truck until they turned off at the Siksika First Nation. If you happen to be in that area (when there isn’t a winter storm) check out the Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park. It’s where Treaty 7 was signed between the Blackfoot and the Great White Mother Across the Ocean. There is a wonderful museum/interpretive centre, powwow grounds and a teepee campground.

Here’s an email I got the next day from Kate in the Brooks class (totally unedited):

Man! Your book is great! I've been reading it when ever I can but thats just not enough!

I love the names Cheese Pie Man, and Cheese Omelette. I migh posibly be done by the end of the weekend. I'm so excited to find out the end. Your writting rules! You could write an entire book on food and I would read it! You're my new favorit aouther!

Kate :)

Awwww, thanks Kate!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Toronto book launch, hip checks and school visits

I’ve been off line lately due to an epic fail on the part of apple (and I don’t mean the one that falls too close to the tree, I mean the computer). Seems my imac set up a force field that blocked the internet from entering it (too bad I don’t write science fiction!). That was the technical diagnosis, in lay person’s terms it was a manufacture's defect of the Ethernet port. An open letter to Steve jobs is writing itself in my head….

This is a bowl of Fiesta Chicken Soup (aka my pre-Toronto book launh bowl of soup). It was created by my DFOTP Toronto team consisting of Nancy M2 (I know a lot of Nancys so we need to catalogue them) and her daughters Diane and Lydia. Nancy’s sister Virginia (a vice principle of a school I visited) was also part of the team, but wasn’t part of the soup creation. Without all of their logistical talents and enthusiasm I wouldn’t have been able to pull off a launch in Toronto.

In fact, they have been planning my tour for years. I remember a couple of years ago (before I got the contract, but while I was getting closer) I phoned Nancy. I was droning on about everyday things like watching my neighbour’s house get robbed, convincing the same elderly neighbour to remove a dead rabbit from my backyard, and stealing raspberries over the other neighbour’s fence (my neighbours love me BTW) and she interrupted my dissertation.

“Wait a minute – I thought you were calling to tell me that you are getting published.”

“Ahhhh, no, but I’m getting close.”

“Yeah, but we have your book tour all planned out!”

Now that’s enthusiasm!

Thanks to all the familiar and new faces at my Toronto launch of Dead Frog on the Porch. It was at Scooter Girl Toys. Here's a pic of me, Nancy M2 and my writer friend Rukshana, author of Wanting Mor.

I went to a school in a town called Courtice and did two sessions. The librarian, Christine, is involved in the Battle of the Books a reading program for the Peterborough school district.

I’ve done a few school visits now and this is what I’ve experienced so far:

You get recess!

If it’s pajama day they let you wear your pajamas (now that’s my kind of casual Friday).

And you get to meet some awesome kids.

Here’s what happened at Fern Public School in Toronto where I presented to a few grade three and four classes. The librarian Ellen (who has a blog about kids books called Fern Folio) organized my visit. Before the bell rang the library was abuzz with activity. Ellen had purchased 6 copies of my book and they were on the check out counter. Then the bell rang. Everyone scurried out, including the librarian. I was alone, in the overheated, hundred year old school library. A grade three girl ran in. She grabbed one of my books and turned to run back out. She stopped dead when she saw me.

Girl: “Can I borrow this book to show my teacher? She’s in the hallway. This author is coming to our school today. There are posters up all over the school and I wanted to show my teacher the book. I‘m going to meet this author today!”

Me: Honey, you just met her. I’m the author!

The look on her face was as if she had just met Santa Claus, the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy all in one. She was super excited.

I took the classes through a writing exercise – here’s the pic.

In another school visit, the kids had started on the writing exercise and a grade three girl came up to me and said: “Jan this isn’t going to be my best work because I had a hockey game yesterday and got hip checked into the boards.”

To my bloggowers outside of Canada – this is what a hip check looks like.

Ouch, I wouldn’t be doing my best writing either after that.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

I apologize to my fellow flight mates

I've taken a few flights over the last two months while I
was promoting my debut novel Dead Frog on the Porch
and I have to apologize to those who were unlucky
enough to sit beside me, in front of me or behind me on
the plane. No, I'm not one of those who abuses the seat
reclining button and I'm not an armrest hog. But I could
have easily been accused and charged as a laugh out loud
offender.
It's not often I laugh out loud at a show but in the case
of The IT Crowd it was spontaneous and unavoidable.
The show is a great example of how characters are
revealed through action and dialogue. In fact the
characters reveal themselves through action before there
is any dialogue. It is brilliant.
I only wish the airline had more than two episodes.
Enjoy and observe how well developed the characters are.
The embedding function was disabled, the link above will get
you to a you tube video clip of the show.