Writing in the Time of COVID
December 31, 2020
Well, this is it. After today, 2020 becomes hindsight. I think I speak for the World when I say it can't come soon enough. No, we're not going to wake up tomorrow and find life as we once knew it has returned. COVID and all the misery and hardship it has brought will still be with us, but because we have had ten months of learning-to-live-with-it and because a new year comes wrapped in hope, we will dig in and move forward with fresh resolve.
My sister believes there is something positive to be gleaned from even the worst experiences as long as we allow ourselves to learn from them. So, on this final day of 2020, I shall defer to her wisdom and reflect on how this year of challenges has helped me grow as a writer.
When January 2020 came to town, I was excited. I was working on a fantasy trilogy for middle-grade readers -- a new genre for me. Book l, The Druid and the Dragon was in revisions and I had a contract for Book ll. The writing of the new novel was going well and I was already making launch plans for D&D. In February I went to Vancouver to visit my sister and start spreading the word for the fall release of D&D. I spoke to the manager of Kidsbooks in North Van (wonderful little bookshop), hoping to set up a signing or launch. Encouraged by her enthusiasm, I began thinking about launch themes on the ferry ride home and returned to my writing.
Then March arrived, and the bottom fell out. In less time than it takes to tell, the entire country was in lockdown and we were suddenly obsessed with handwashing, hoarding toilet paper, and hiding from our neighbours. And to my great dismay, the writing dried up. The momentum I had established was gone. Writing is a solitary activity at the best of times, so it wasn't as if my lifestyle had changed all that much, but my head wasn't in the game. It was too full of the pandemic. I couldn't concentrate. It took me seven weeks to write the next chapter, and since I had an October 15th deadline for the first draft, that pace simply wasn't going to cut it.
So I made a conscious change. Instead of having my morning coffee with Justin Trudeau and CNN, I banished all newscasts from my day. Oh, I caught up after supper, but the state of the world was no longer front and centre in my brain, and that meant I could focus on my writing again. It worked and I was able to get back in the writing groove.
But as March became April and then May and the pandemic showed no signs of leaving, I realized the success of the new book -- and subsequently the entire trilogy -- was at risk. If I couldn't find an audience for D&D, the other two books were doomed, and since traditional methods of promotion were no longer an option, it was time to think outside the box.
My publisher, Crwth Press was on top of things. It's a new publishing house, but Melanie Jeffs, the publisher, is not new to the business, and right away, she was busy finding ways of getting titles out to the public. She allowed free access to books online and even arranged for a professional reading of Isobel's Stanley Cup, a chapter book published with Crwth in 2018. In addition, she arranged a Facebook Live event featuring Crwth authors talking about books and writing in general. She also set up links between all the Crwth titles and various non-profit organizations, so that a percentage of sales from each book went to support these organizations. As a result of Isobel's Stanley Cup link with Fast and Female, I was the November Spotlight Supporter on the organization's website and an interview with me appeared there.
Social distancing precluded public launches, signings, and appearances. Promotion would have to be through the written word and the Internet. I don't really care for social media -- too much scamming, spamming, and dirty laundry for my liking, but I didn't see that I had any other options. I was already on Instagram and Goodreads -- I find them the least invasive of the lot and they allow me to keep my toe in the literary loop. But it seemed I was going to have to join Facebook once again. This time though it was to be for the sole purpose of promoting my books. No personal posts. It's been four months now, and I've stuck to my guns. I've posted covers, excerpts, artwork, reviews, announcements, pertinent videos, etc. I'm happy to report that it seems to be working. I have reconnected with old friends and made many new ones. And those friends have helped me promote my new book and the trilogy in a myriad of ways such as: reposting, sharing on other social media, buying the book, reviewing the book, word of mouth recommendations, and general cheerleading. One Instagram friend (fellow author Paul Coccia) even made a short book trailer for The Druid and the Dragon. To all of you I offer my heartfelt thanks. You have made a world of difference.
One of the things I did which was totally out of my wheelhouse was contact people personally and ask for their help. I am so not comfortable doing that, but to my surprise and delight, everyone came to my aid. EVERYONE! Teacher and librarian friends, former students, relatives, community acquaintances -- they all tapped their networks and spread the word. I was really touched.
Everytime I thought of a way to get my book in the public eye, I acted on it. I contacted the local newspaper and asked them to do an article. They did and it resulted in several sales. In fact, the local bookstore (Coho Books) sold out on the very first day. I had bookplates made to mail to readers so that they could have autographed books. I began a monthly Seer Trilogy newsletter updating readers on the progress of the coming books as well as the one already out there. It also provides trivia, games, and contests. I made writing tip videos and a book trailer for a library group. I expanded my website, devoting two whole pages to The Seer Trilogy, which I update regularly. I made a map for D&D, and what a good idea that was. I can't tell you how many people have remarked about it. I took a one day course on how to make better use of Goodreads and acted upon what I learned.
One of the best things I did was to create trilogy cards -- quick sketches of the characters, settings, and notable items in The Druid and the Dragon.
Everyday I would post one on Facebook and Instagram along with a brief explanation of its importance to the story. These little drawings caught people's attention and intrigued many enough to want to read the book. I have since had the sketches made into cards (52 of them) as well as another 52 with clues to the story. They make a great accompaniment to the book and are simply fun to collect. Each set includes the rules for a couple of games too. Even better news -- there will be cards for Books ll and lll too!
I know I have done other things to promote D&D and the trilogy, but my mind is so full right now, I can't think what they are. Marketing is not my thing; I'm a writer. But to survive this calamitous year, I've had to adapt. It hasn't been comfortable, but it makes me feel good to know I accepted the challenge.
Take that, 2020!
The Art of Transition
November 21, 2020
I am currently in the throes of revisions for The Bridge of Whispers, Book II of The Seer Trilogy, and I have to confess I am finding the process immensely challenging. When my publisher/editor sent me her notes, she said the manuscript was in good shape and the changes needed weren't major. After reading her observations and suggestions, I tended to agree -- delete a scene here, add a scene there, move some stuff around, clarify some details, and that was basically it. Oh, and lose 10,000 words, but that could be easily done (she said).
I got straight to work. The first bits were a snap -- all I had to do was accept or reject text changes. It meant I had to let go of a major scene, but it had been something we'd already discussed and I had resigned myself to the fact that it had to go.
Then began the process of rejigging and rearranging scenes. You'd think that is a small matter of cut and paste, but no. It's like moving a guest from a dinner party and plunking her at a baseball game. Leave her as is, and she sticks out like a sore thumb. Her garb, her mindset, her manner are all out of whack. Add to that the challenge of having her break down the game for readers when she only saw one inning, and the task becomes harder. Unlike the character originally given the task of imparting this information, her knowledge of the situation is limited. And she can't share what she does know in the same way. Consequently some parts of the story need to be omitted and new bits added, which means some details are lost or have to be included through other means. It's a massive juggling act, and at the moment I'm trying to keep about ten balls up in the air while steering my unicycle through a narrow, twisted gauntlet lined with blazing torches.
My head is spinning. I agree that having a specific scene moved so that it occurs before another scene will add to the suspense, but the question is where to reinsert it. It's like trying to hop into a moving car. There is no clear place to put it, and that means I am forced to rewrite a ton. At the moment I feel like I'm working on a patchwork quilt. The story which had flowed so nicely before is now ...?
The key to managing all these changes is transition -- the means of moving the story from one situation to the next. These triggers alert readers to changes in place, time, or tone. In live theatre, transitions often take place by closing the curtain and opening it again. In movies, the screen fades from one scene to another. In a book, transitions are told to readers. Sometimes they are as easy as a single word or phrase -- suddenly, finally, the next day. I wish it were always so simple. But it's not, and what I'm realizing as I tackle this novel revision is that it's going to take all my skill as a writer to ensure these transitions are seamless and my readers never suspect all the rearranging I've done.
Please don't tell them.
Murder Your Darlings
September 11, 2020
Murder your darlings is an axiom long accepted and followed -- but nevertheless hated -- by most writers. Basically what it means is don't fall in love with your own words because they are likely a detriment to the piece you're working on.
Which is one of the primary reasons writers need editors. Somewhere during the course of a WIP (work in progress), we writers lose our objectivity. We become so involved in the story and characters we've created, that we can no longer tell if what we're writing is good, bad, or even if it makes sense. We can't tell if we've put everything on the paper or if we merely think we have.
Sometimes it's a matter of putting too much on the paper, a pitfall I have recently fallen into and which my editor/publisher pointed out to me yesterday during a telephone conversation about the draft of the second book of the fantasy trilogy Im writing. It seems I included a scene which does nothing to enhance the story. Even before submitting the manuscript I had wondered if the scene was 'appropriate' for middle-grade readers, but I hadn't considered that is was nothing more than window-dressing. But when my editor pointed out that it seemed like something the writer simply wanted to write, I knew she was right.
I did like the scene, and I wrote it well. (Even my editor admits that.) But the scene doesn't do a lot for the story as a whole, and so it will have to go. When I argued that the scene achieved two things very necessary to the story, my editor calmly pointed out that we would find another more expedient means of establishing those elements.
Yes, I shall have to murder my darling. But I've been in this business long enough to know it's for the best. The story will be stronger for it, and in the end I'll be glad I did it. Experience is what you get when you don't get what you want, so hopefully I will have learned something about my craft that will serve me well moving forward -- not to mention result in fewer rewrites in the future.
A Change Is As Good As a Rest
June 23, 2020
Well, it took a while, but I finally got my head back in the game, and work on the current WIP is coming along nicely. I am now working on Chapter 13, which means I'm past the halfway point and really getting into the meat of the story.
I'm a visual person so it helps to put me in a writing frame of mind when I have images to inspire me. My current desktop photo puts me in the perfect mood as soon as I turn on the computer. It is a Waterlogue app interpretation of a photo I found on the Internet. It represents an important setting in the story -- an idyllic spot called the Bridge of Whispers. I didn't know it was important until I wrote it into the story, but there you go -- the magic of writing.
These days a writer has to be so much more than a spinner of stories. One must also be a marketer. I am so bad at that. My mother always told me self-praise was no recommendation, and yet tooting one's own horn seems to be exactly what publishers want. Enter social media. I'm pretty bad at that too. In fact, the only platform I'm on is Instagram. Twitter was too overwhelming and Facebook could get too negative and political. Instagram I can handle. I still don't like pushing my stuff at people, but periodically I post something to remind them that I have a series in the works, the first book of which comes out on October 15th. So a while back I posted this entry from the publisher's catalogue.
And then yesterday, because I want to whet readers' appetites for the next book in the trilogy, I posted a bit of book bait. This is not the actual cover -- simply an image that fits the story. (Thank you to Unsplash for allowing my to use the following photo.)
Even when the writing is going really well, which it is at the moment, every now and then I need an art fix. Here's one in which I thumb my nose at social distancing. (Actually, I'm not that much of a rebel -- it's really just pre-COVID.) I started with a reference photo courtesy of PxHere, but altered it a fair bit to tell my own story.
And then, because my first love is pencil work, I took a couple of days to draw this lady paddler. (Photo courtesy of Unsplash.)
And now back to writing.
It Was the Best of Times ... It Was the Worst of Times
May 21, 2020
Wow! COVID-19 -- a global pandemic ... I didn't see that coming. I haven't even really come up for air yet, which is why I haven't posted a blog since February 1st. But if you're feeling it like I am, you won't even have noticed. The ramblings of a fiction writer probably aren't high on your current list of priorities.
Aside from having to postpone until next year a 10-day trip to a beautiful little lake, as well as reschedule a writing workshop, and miss out on having my son and his family visit during the summer, my life hasn't changed much. Fortunately for me, my income remains the same (I work from home so no change there), and I don't have money worries to compound the health concerns brought on by the virus. So my daily life is pretty much as it's always been. I miss my weekly scrabble group as well as my writing critique group, but otherwise it's same old, same old. Except that I feel I'm walking around with a 20-pound weight on each shoulder, and I'm trying to push through thigh-deep mud. And I can cry at the drop of a hat.
From discussions I've had with other people (texts/emails/phone conversations--all from a safe distance), I gather my feelings are pretty standard. Most everyone else feels the same way I do. That's because like the Prime Minister says, we're all in this together. And we'll get through this together. It's not forever; it's just for now. If we stay home and stay safe, and physical distance when we have to venture out, we'll flatten the curve and prevail. But for now, this is the new normal.
So many buzz words and catch phrases. I don't think I've watched as much news in years. I know all the journalists on all the networks (except Fox), and I know all the politicians and their portfolios. I'm also on a first name basis with all the health officials in Canada and around the world.
I am well-informed. Sometimes too well-informed I think. If I turn on Trudeau first thing in the morning, my mind is like a piece of soggy toast for the rest of the day. I lose my drive and one hour blurs into the next. It took me six weeks to write one chapter of my current work in progress. And since the first draft is due on my publisher's desk October 1st, that kind of work schedule isn't going to cut it. Therefore, I've taken to blocking out all news until the evening. My husband has taken the totally opposite tack -- he'll tune in during the day, but after supper, he avoids all news programmes. Otherwise he doesn't sleep well.
But we both know we're very lucky. As I've already said, our financial situation hasn't changed, we have a roof over our heads, food on the table, and thus far we have our health. There are too many people who can't say that, and I truly worry for them.
I'm sure when/if this time ends, there will be many books devoted to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some will be novels; some will be reflections, others will be histories, psychological studies, societal investigations and on and on ad infinitum. And that's because this pandemic has affected the world and its people in a myriad of ways. It has brought out the best in some, and the worst in others. I guess water really does rise to its own level.
Worry and grief have led to increased crime and demonstrations of anger and frustration through public protests armed and otherwise, flagrant disregard for political guidance, hoarding, money scams, domestic abuse, at risk mental health, racial hate crimes, theft, arson, assault, and even murder. There have been too many instances at all levels of name-calling and laying of blame. I could go on, but all of this sickens me, and I don't want to dwell on it -- but it's definitely the worst side of humanity.
At the same time, there have been so many good, heart-warming things happening, so many instances of people helping people in big ways and small. Old and young alike finding ways to ease the hurt and worry of others, the hunger, sickness, and desperation. Food banks, hotels becoming shelters for the homeless, individuals and companies finding ways to produce PPE, virtual concerts, go-fund drives, evening salutes to frontline workers, new safety protocols in the workplace, neighbours helping neighbours, kids mailing smiles, sharing jokes, writers sharing books online, heartfelt thank yous at the grocery store, and despite all the uncertainty -- encouraging words and air hugs. People are getting in touch more often and in ways they haven't for years. It's as if it took a pandemic to make us realize how important people really are. That is happening around the world as well as on a personal level. Instead of killing each other, disparate countries are putting aside their grievances and helping one another. And environmentally, the world is working at healing itself too. Scientists are seeing cleaner air and water. Animals are returning to habitats they haven't visited in years. In that regard, this is the best of times.
The question is will people learn from this experience. Will we take forward what we're learning and apply it to the future? Right now Mother Nature is unloading big-time on the world. As if the corona virus weren't enough to deal with, natural disasters the like of which we have never seen before -- floods, tornadoes, fires, earthquakes -- are bringing the world to its knees. Nature is trying to tell us something. For the sake of the entire world and everyone in it, I sure hope we're listening.
Lost in Translation
February 1, 2020
When my first book was published way back in 1997, it was exciting just to see it sitting on the shelf in my local bookstore alongside the likes of Judy Blume and Betsy Byars. Tick another item off the bucket list.
Friends who found out I had written a book that was actually going to be published, often asked if I planned to use my real name or a pen name. I had never even considered a pen name. I mean, how would anyone know the author was me? They might not even believe me if I told them.
That concept led me to another thought -- after many more published books, I went into a bookstore in a city I was visiting and asked the salesclerk if she wanted me to sign the copies of my books the shop had in stock. She retrieved them, and I inked my name, but while I was waiting, I thought, "Wouldn't it be fun to say I was some other author and sign their books?" The clerk would probably never know, because aside from famous faces like JK Rowling and Stephen King, most writers are recognized only by their names and their books.
But when the foreign rights for my very first book (The Runaways/Kids Can Press) were sold to a publisher in the Netherlands, a whole new question of personal recognition arose.
Yes, I was thrilled to have my book translated into another language, and yes, the cover was the same, and my name appeared on it, but the contents were a complete mystery. About a year after its Dutch release, I met a fellow from the Netherlands at a party, and I asked him the literal translation to English of De vluchtelingen. He told me it meant Asylum Seekers. Interesting -- similar to the English title, but not exactly the same.
That's when it dawned on me, that the translation of the story itself would not be exactly the same either, and that was somewhat troubling, because I had spent so much time and thought choosing the right words and constructing the sentences that would showcase the images, dialogue, and emotion! Those things were what made the story mine. What if they were lost in translation?
The thing is, I had no way of knowing -- ever! I just had to trust that the person who had translated my book had stayed as true to my way of telling the story as was possible. That meant that the translator had to not only be proficient in both languages, but also had to be a good writer. I just had to have faith.
Over the years -- especially every time another of my books is translated, I think about the unheralded role of the translator. For the most part, we writers receive little recognition for what we do, but the translator receives even less. I couldn't even tell you who translated my books. All I know is that those books are a collaboration between them and me. It's a big responsibility to retell a story accurately and artfully in another language, so that the style of the original writer is still there, and the narrative has the same flavour.
Zee's Way/Orca Book Publishers in English, Spanish, and Slovenian.
The Trouble With Liberty/Orca Book Publishers in English and Swedish.
Pharaohs and Foot Soldiers/Annick Press in English and Korean
Cheat/Orca Book Publishers in English, French, and Korean.
Caching In/Orca Book Publishers in English and Swedish.
As you can see, sometimes the covers change, and sometimes I can't even tell if my name is there. It's all about faith, and I have more of that after reading a translation of a novel by another writer.
Du Mercure Sous La Langue/Les Allusifs in French and English.
I read the English translation, and I was blown away by the beautiful way it was written. The language was exquisite. It was one of those books you read for the way it was written as much as for the story. I have no way of knowing if Sylvain Trudel's original book was equally well-written, or if Sheila Fischman, the translator, elevated the text. I choose to believe both writers did an excellent job.
I also choose to believe that the translators of my books have done my stories justice as well. So, to all you under-appreciated people who choose to use your talent to forward the efforts of writers like me, I thank you.
Happy New Year
January 8, 2020
How can it possibly be 2020 already? Where did 2019 go? I was just getting used to it.
But it seems we're barely a week into the next decade, and I'm already running behind. Okay, maybe not behind, but I'm having to pedal pretty fast just to keep up. I have a portrait commission due for February 4th and novel revisions due for February 18th. I'm also working on another novel -- the second in a series -- the first draft of which is due in the fall of 2020.
Seriously though, I wouldn't have it any other way. Keep me busy. Put too much on my plate. I'll find a way, and while I'm doing that, a hundred other ideas and projects will be worming their way into my brain.
And I'm completely fine with that. I am a procrastinator by nature, though I'm also goal-oriented, and I've never missed a deadline in my life. I have more ideas for novels, paintings, quilts, and other things than I shall ever be able to bring to life. And more ideas come daily. I need two -- maybe three of me just to keep up.
It makes me sad to think that at my life's end, I shall be leaving something unfinished, but there's really no alternative. I try to fool myself into thinking I can live forever if I always have something midway to completion. How can I die before it's finished? But there will always be something in the works, so I simply must keep running as fast as I can.
Happy New Year--may you have been blessed with new running shoes for Christmas.
A Change is as Good as a Rest
November 4, 2019
I am a writer. That's how I earn my living. The fact that I love doing it is a bonus. Long after I cease to be published, I shall still be writing. But every now and again, I need a break.
Not to do nothing. I waste a lot of time, but I am always doing something, even if it's just playing computer games. I have a lot of interests, but in the past few years, the two that take up the bulk of my time are writing and making art. And art usually gets short-changed, because I have a contractual commitment for a book.
Well, at the moment, I am between writing projects -- sort of. I had a book come out in August (Girls Like Me -- Orca Book Publishers), and I have a new book coming out in October of 2020, (The Druid and the Dragon -- Crwth Press), but revisions don't begin on that until February, so I almost have some free time. I say 'almost', because I've begun work on a sequel to the D&D novel, but there's no deadline yet.
It's the perfect time to stretch my artistic muscles. I have a new medium -- graphite powder, that I need to learn how to use, and I want to work on loosening up my watercolour work, so off I go.
I gave myself about a week, and this is what I came up with. And now that I have that out of my system for a while, it's back to writing.
How Can I Know What I Think
Until I See What I Say?
July 29, 2019
I believe it was E.M. Forster who came up with that little nugget, and as far as I'm concerned, he hit the nail on the head. At least he did for me when it comes to writing.
A publisher recently asked me to submit an outline and the opening chapters for a novel I'm writing. Normally I do an outline before I begin the actual writing of the story, but this time I was working straight from plot points I had arranged in an arbitrary order. I had a handle on the general premise of the story, but some of the details were a bit hazy. I think that's why I'd skipped the outline. But suddenly I had no choice, so away I went.
The first 12 chapters were easy to outline, because I'd already written them. It was the next 11 that were going to be a challenge. But as always seems to happen, once I got writing, the ideas walked out of the fog in my brain and showed themselves. "So that's what this story is about!", I found myself saying over and over. Bits and pieces I'd written into the story for no other reason than to bring life to a scene, suddenly showed themselves to be integral to the rest of the story. (I so love it when that happens!) In two days I had an outline, and I felt so much more confident about what I was writing as a result.
But it gets better. I have worked many times with the publisher who asked for the outline, which is an advantage in as much as I don't have to submit as detailed an outline as might be asked of an unknown writer. For me that means I provide the main events of each chapter but no detail. Each outlined chapter is approximately 3-4 sentences. The publisher is fine with that. The details happen when I write the story, and the truth is I don't really know what they are until I'm tapping at the keyboard. It is the details that make a story memorable, but even as I sit down to work, I don't know what they are. For instance, I am currently working on Chapter 13. The outline says:
On the way back to camp, Bradan shares a vision he has had to see if Maeve can make sense of it (an exercise in her training). When she offers her interpretation, he says it was a good try, but incorrect and proceeds to tell her that it actually means the chiefs and kings of the land are gathering and Bradan's presence is required there. Maeve expresses her amazement at how such a vision could mean that. Bradan explains what each image symbolizes, and then when Maeve's awe has reached new heights, he confesses that he actually received word from the King's messenger on the previous day while Maeve was picking mushrooms. He says he'll be leaving the following morning and Maeve is to accompany him.
I'm 2/3 of the way through the writing of the chapter, and I haven't touched on anything in the outline. Instead, I've been laying groundwork for what will happen near the end of the story, as well as working on character arc. I had no idea this was going to happen until it did, but I as I look upon what I've written so far in the chapter, I can see that it was necessary. The other information in the outline is also necessary, but I've changed the weight of it in the actual writing.
This is one of the reasons I love writing so much. Gut instinct inevitably takes over, meaning the end result is always a surprise, regardless of the outline.
Am I having fun yet? You betcha!
July 17, 2019
I guess you noticed I have a new website. I usually upgrade every 3 - 5 years, but this time it's only been a year. Part of the reason is because I wasn't all that happy with how I'd put together my last site. I had wanted to keep it simple, and I'd wanted to include a page for genealogy, both of which I did, but in cutting out some other pages, I discovered that I simply didn't have a natural place to put some things that needed to be included, which meant I've been 'making do', and I hate that. I have also become somewhat disenchanted with my website-building company. I just don't seem to be getting the same service that I used to.
All of which led me to start searching for something new -- and this is it! I'm really happy with the new site-builder. There are more templates than I can fathom, and I have access to so many bells and whistles, that my mind is boggled. The company I'm now with is highly rated (I did my research) and is priced competitively. Best of all, it has made it easy for me to build a good website. I am a definite luddite, so when I'm impressed, you know the process has to be simple.
I shall continue to tweak things, but so far I'm really pleased. Take a look around and let me know what you think.