By Erin Thomas | May 7, 2013
YA Authors Ellen Hopkins and Sara Zarr. Middle-grade author Kimberly Griffiths Little. Susan Rich, the editor behind the Lemony Snicket books (yes, she knows the actual, real Lemony Snicket). Laura Biagi and Susan Hawk, literary agents working in the United States. And editor and writing instructor Lorin Oberweger.
Actually, I already knew Lorin, but she’s absolutely brilliant, and her talk on the Hero’s Journey in children’s literature was about half the reason I signed up for the conference. That, and the fact that it was such a wonderful learning experience last year.
Jackie Pynaert is the mastermind behind the whole thing. She is… well, the word ‘powerhouse’ comes to mind. Jackie has a knack for bringing people together from all around North America,and for making things work by sheer force of will alone. She’s astonishing.
So here’s some of what I learned.
The story you need to tell is the one that keeps you awake at night. The one that you’re scared of, the one you can’t not tell. (Ellen Hopkins)
One way to edit is to read aloud only the dialogue in the scene. Can it stand alone? If not, strengthen it and make sure all the voices are clear. (Jackie Pynaert)
Know the industry. Know what’s selling, know who is publishing what; learn the “personalities” of the different publishers. Read everything you can get your hands on, and have opinions about it. And pay especially close attention to the books you like and love, and who is working on them. (Susan Rich)
The Hero’s Journey is really about the transformation of the character’s psyche as a result of the experience they undergo. (Lorin Oberweger)
The change in a character doesn’t have to be a huge thing. It can be a shift. A course alteration of two degrees isn’t much in the moment, but in the long term, will take you to a very different place. (Sara Zarr)
Picture a bead necklace. The events in the story are the beads, but that’s not the plot. The thread that holds them all together is the plot. It needs to be kept taut. (Susan Rich)
Cultivate a reckless optimism! (Sara Zarr)
At a good conference, there will be a moment when it feels like someone opened a window in your mind. At a great conference, there will be several of those moments. I learned a lot this weekend. Some of it was exciting, some affirming, and some downright mind-blowing. And some of it was rather difficult to hear.
One thing that I was told was that although my writing is strong (yay!), it may be time to put the book I’ve been working on away. Not for a little while. Away. And write something new. Ouch.
I trust the woman who told me this. She’s probably right. I started this book a long time ago, and I’ve learned a lot since then, and revised it every year or so for rather too long. It’s a bit of a jumbled mess in places. But I’m not quite ready to walk away from it yet. I want to finish my current revision, and there’s a technique I learned at the conference that I want to try.
After that, yeah. It’s time. It will go to my agent, who will have more perspective on it than I do by now (which is zero). And if she says it’s time to send it out, that’s what we’ll do. That’s what I’ll hope for. But if she agrees that it’s time for it to go Into The Drawer, then I have a whole lot of other stories I’ve been waiting to write. Some of them are pretty exciting.
And there are all these new ideas from the Niagara conference that I’d love to play with…
By Erin Thomas | April 5, 2013
A squirrel recently moved into our house, between the first floor ceiling and the second floor floorboards. We didn’t know what it was, of course, only that my husband, Aaron, was hearing loud, scrabbling footsteps overhead while he was at work in his office. So we called Paul, a local animal removal expert, to help us re-home the critter.
Paul worked out where they were getting in, and set a “live trap.” It’s like a little cage, and the critter goes in to get the food but their weight triggers a door to fall shut behind them. Scary for them, I’m sure, but then Paul releases the animals into a more appropriate setting.
The first attempt at live trapping failed. Apparently our garage (attached to the house, but with no door into the house) is home to mice as well, and they stole the food without triggering the trap. So then the live traps were set outside, one on the fence, one on the garage roof.
On the garage roof, we did catch a squirrel. My daughter and I drove home one night from swimming or choir or piano or who-knows-what, and saw it up there — a poor, wee black squirrel going absolutely frantic. It was heartbreaking.
It was also coming on nightfall, and terribly cold and windy. We called Paul, and he said he’d come by in the morning to collect it. It would be fine overnight, he promised.
Sure. Probably. But I wouldn’t like to be in a cage, on a roof, in the wind.
Aaron pulled our ladder out of the garage and climbed up to bring down the squirrel. We left it in the trap, but set it in the garage, out of the wind, and draped a beach towel over the cage for warmth. I’m not sure what Paul thought, when he came to collect it and found “hotel squirrel.”
Paul took the squirrel to its new home and set the traps out again. This time, my daughter and I watched in delight as a bird entered the trap and enjoyed the food without triggering the door release. Clever!
The next bird wasn’t so lucky. That was last night, and Aaron climbed up on his ladder again and released the bird. My daughter and I cheered when it flew away. There was no bait left, so the trap sat empty.
Paul came by this morning. He thinks that the squirrel we caught was the one who had moved in. There haven’t been any more rustlings or scrabblings between the floors. He sealed up the opening where they had gotten in. And then he asked us a favour.
Would we consider loaning out our garage to a family of raccoons overnight?
He had caught a mother and her new babies earlier this morning. My brother had a raccoon family in the attic once, in his old house. Based on his story, I was impressed that Paul didn’t look like he had gone three rounds with a furry, clawed Mike Tyson.
These babies, Paul estimates, were only born Monday. He had warmed them up and given them some milk, and he brought them into our house in a little thermos lunch pail, which our daughter was happy to guard from the dog. He was — is — going to release the family into the local Lynde Shores conservation area, but this morning it was still too cold. He wondered if they could spend the rest of today and tonight in our garage, to get the family settled together again. Tomorrow, later in the day, he’ll come by and bring them to their new home.
We gathered some old towels and cloths, for Mama Raccoon to build into a nest. Paul got her settled, then dropped the tiny, bald, squirming babies in one by one. There’s a can in there, too, which Mama Raccoon will apparently open later and have for a snack. I didn’t know raccoons could do that.
So there’s a raccoon family in our garage now, nestled into old towels in their cage, covered up by Noah’s Ark bedsheets that date back to when my brother and I were kids. And my daughter is absolutely delighted to play host to a raccoon family, and I’m sure her friends at school are hearing all about it, even now.
And this has absolutely nothing to do with writing, except that it’s cool. It’s the sort of thing that would make a good picture book, if one felt inclined to play fast and loose with the facts. There, see? Always a writing angle.
I expect that later tonight, we’ll be having a talk about why wild animals (particularly raccoons) don’t make good pets. That one’s a bit of a family legend, since my mother and her siblings adopted a baby raccoon once, back in the early fifties. Eventually “Rocky” had to be rehomed, just as our overnight guests will. Maybe we’ll call up Grandma and let her tell the story herself.
We’re not going to have much to do with the raccoons. They’re better left alone, I think. We’ve given them a warm, safe place, and now we should stay the heck out of their business — much as it would be tempting to go take pictures and ooh and aah over the babies. I’m not even going to take a picture for this blog post — an Internet raccoon will have to do.
But my husband did take a video, as Paul was setting them up in our garage. You can see it here. Don’t mind the mess. The old-fashioned blue bicycle in the background is mine, and her name is Sadie.
So there you have it. Now my family has our own raccoon story to tell.
I hope it has a happy ending.
By Erin Thomas | March 20, 2013
You’re jealous, aren’t you? I don’t blame you. I’ve been feeling jealous of trip-Erin, too, this past week while it’s been blustery and damp and cold. Shovelling heavy, wet snow. Driving my daughter to choir practice in an impromptu blizzard. Working through mountains of laundry and folding shorts and tank tops that won’t be worn again for months.
But the snowdrop flowers are up in my garden, so I know it won’t be long now before the snow disappears.
I wouldn’t trade it, though. I like having seasons. And St. Thomas, lovely as it was to visit, is not somewhere I’d want to live. (Even putting aside the logistical difficulties of going through an entire bottle of SPF 8000 sunscreen every three days and wearing a hat the size of a satellite dish.)
It would make one heck of a setting, though. Here is some sunny-weather fuel for you writerly types.
Lizards. Iguanas are everywhere. Like squirrels! And little geckos, too, which are breathtakingly cute, but it was the big, clumsy, bearded iguanas that we really loved. Except maybe my mother-in-law, when one of them fell out of a tree and nearly landed on her head.
The lizards are important, though, because they help control the bug population. And St. Thomas has some nasty bugs, including scorpions and tarantulas. We didn’t see any of those, though. Except maybe that one thing that might have been… never mind.
Anyhow, the security guard at the airport told my daughter that the tarantulas only come out at night. They only tend to see them in the morning, on the road, if one got squished by a car. And I want to feel sorry for the poor little tarantulas, I do, but I’m really struggling with this one.
There was a teeny gecko lizard hanging out on the ceiling of our bedroom one night. I was happy to see him there.
This, apparently, was Blackbeard’s lookout tower. My husband and I climbed it and looked out through the wee windows all around. Some nice girls took our picture together.
There’s a beautiful beach at Magen’s Bay, but that’s not why the pirates showed up. Magen’s Bay is a lovely, deep natural harbour. And back in the days when Pirates of the Caribbean meant more than just a Johnny Depp vehicle, St. Thomas did a roaring trade in Jolly Rogers and buried treasure.
Or so goes the line in the tourist shops.
St. Thomas makes a big deal of its pirate-y past, because that sort of thing plays well for visitors. There’s another history, though, and it’s a dark one; St. Thomas was a slave trading port. So this was the place where, when families were brought over from Africa, they were split up and sent their different ways.
There isn’t so much about that in the touristy places.
We ate at a fancy restaurant one night. It used to be a plantation. There weren’t a lot of them on the island; St. Thomas is very hilly and not great for agriculture. Not like St. John, next door. But there were enough low-lying lands that there were some plantations, and there are a few colonial-style buildings left from that time.
Anyhow, eating at the plantation was a strange, split experience. I kept looking around and trying to see it the way it was before, and thinking about what that would have meant for the different people involved.
It was hard to get at the island’s history. My husband and I went on a walking tour, but it was a bit jumbled, and a lot of the places that were posted as museums turned out just to be shops inside old buildings. Maybe that’s what most visitors are looking for. A few hours off a cruise ship isn’t enough to get the feel of a place. A week isn’t either. Not nearly.
Amber. I saw some beautiful things, and learned some cool stuff. There’s an amber waterfall there, the biggest in the world, we were told. It’s two stories high. This is my husband standing in front of it.
The amber museum was actually one of the most interesting stops. The guide there was a lovely woman who knew lots and was happy to share it.
Some of what she told us wasn’t even about the Caribbean, exactly. Apparently there was an Amber Room in Russia, in the palace of Peter the Great. After World War II, the room was looted and most of the artifacts went missing. There were a couple of replicas in the amber museum, which was what prompted the story.
She gave me a large piece of amber to hold, and pointed out how light it was–like plastic. “These things show up at yard sales,” she said. “Keep your eyes open. You never know.” Apparently there are huge rewards for the return of the artifacts, and people who have invested years in searching for them. So there’s a story starter. Go ahead. You’re welcome.
Something more scientifically interesting was that the Caribbean is one of the only places where green amber is formed. Usually, different colours of amber come from inclusions or from the different types of tree sap that fossilized. Maple trees, apparently, create a rich, red amber. Yay, Canada!
But in this case, the green colour comes from a chemical interaction between the tree sap and volcanic ash, as the amber is forming.
The amber museum was fabulous. There was a dinosaur footprint there, in amber. I loved that! And there were some giant, crazy pieces of jewellery-meets-art, which were interesting to look at but I can’t imagine anyone actually wearing. Probably that’s not the point of them.
There was a giant bee sculpture made of amber, which I tried and failed to get a good picture of for my sister-in-law. And something I though was quite beautiful, a sculpture of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, all sailing on a glowing amber sea.
We’re back with the tall ships now, and the pirates. I do like pirates, as long as they’re safely in storybooks.
A Dry Island. My brother is a firefighter. So when we saw the fire station in Charlotte Amalie, I had to go take pictures of the trucks for him. Aaron and I ended up talking with some of the firefighters there.
In St. Thomas, after a certain point up the mountain, there’s no water supply. The lowlands have hydrants, but for all the villas up high were the views are so beautiful, water supply is dependant on rainfall. Instead of basements, houses have giant cisterns where rainwater is collected and saved. That’s what comes out of the taps and showers, what flushes the toilets. You have to be careful not to use too much, especially when you’re there just after a dry spell, as we were, because you can’t know how long it will last.
As you can imagine, this presents a problem for firefighting.
My father-in-law, a contractor, pointed out that there’s not much in the villa we stayed in that would burn. The furniture, certainly, but all of the walls were concrete. Even so, there had to be an answer. I asked.
They drive the water up. Giant trucks, heavy with water, on those twisty, windy, mountain roads. If there’s a fire on the mountain, water trucks from all the fire stations on the island come (there are four, I think they said), and they take turns running for water.
They also use a chemical fire suppressant mixed with the water, which starves the fire for oxygen and makes it so they don’t need as much water to put out a fire.
Also, because this is a tourist island, they had United States Virgin Island Fire Department t-shirts for sale. In the fire station.
I bought one for my brother. Why fight the inevitable?
That’s all the St. Thomas info for now. But if winter lingers, I’ll rummage through the beach photos and come up with another blog post!
By Erin Thomas | January 16, 2013
Sarah is a swimmer — a pretty good one. She’s involved with the local swimming team’s pre-competitive program. Last month she tried out for the competitive team and was accepted, although the practice times don’t work out for us. We decided to keep her in the pre-competitive program instead, because hey — any swimming is better than no swimming.
So here’s the story. Class started up again last week, and as it happened, I was busy in Toronto that night, so my wonderful mother came to the rescue and drove Sarah to swimming instead. Once they were suited up, Sarah and her friend, also a strong swimmer, made their way from the locker room onto the pool deck and looked around for their new class.
There are six lanes in the large pool at the local swimming complex. The first two had younger kids in them… or so Sarah decided. The other four lanes had older kids. That looked more promising. Sarah and her friend joined the big kids.
Did I mention that my daughter and her friend are also very tall for their age?
To make a long story short, they invaded the senior competitive team’s swim practice. So not only were these kids regular, experienced, competitive swimmers, they were also several years older.
Sure, these older kids were better and faster. And yes, it was a problem, having two slower swimmers in their midst. A big problem — Sarah and her friend ended up being given a lane to themselves, which worked out great for them, but wasn’t so wonderful for the other, already-overcrowded senior swimmers.
Sarah and her friend were hopelessly outmatched, of course, but they were tall enough and managed well enough with the lengths and exercises that it never occurred to the coach that they actually belonged in the pre-competitive class a couple of lanes over. And it never occurred to Sarah and her friend that they were in the wrong place, either. That’s the part I find interesting.
That tells me that a kid can be in completely over his or her head, and still muddle along. It tells me that it’s not so far-fetched to write about kids who think they can be detectives, or spies, or rocket scientists — not someday, not when they’re grown up, but right now, in the moment of your story. The thing is, kids don’t see themselves as little. They don’t see themselves as too young, or too small, or incapable. As far as they’re concerned, legal driving age is a mere technicality — give them a chance, they could win the Indy. How hard can it be?
The swimming mess is all straightened out now. Sarah’s back in the pre-competitive level where she belongs. Those kids aren’t really so much smaller than her, not really. Not to my eye. A lot of them look to be her age or even older, given the crazy giraffe height thing my daughter has going on. (She didn’t get it from me, that’s all I can say.) And yeah, she passes them in the water a lot of the time, but not always.
Put her with the slower kids, she’ll swim with the slower kids. But put her with the big kids, and she’s darn well going to do everything in her power to keep up. And doesn’t that make for the more interesting story?
Put your characters in the wrong lane. Put them with the big kids; put them where they can’t keep up. See if they swim.
They might surprise you.
* * *
(Pool photo by Patrik Affentrager on Stock Exchange.)
By Erin Thomas | December 14, 2012
There are things I was thinking of blogging about today — about the mess that is my manuscript and the folly of posting goals in a space as public as a blog. About a large publisher’s recent decision to take on a self-publishing imprint, with possible publication by one of the publisher’s traditional lines as the ever-present carrot for authors. About reading Charlotte’s Web with my daughter — we finished last night — and being overwhelmed by the beauty and simplicity and perfection of White’s language.
And then my husband came home and asked if I’d heard about what happened in Connecticut.
So he told me, and I kissed my daughter on the head about eighteen times without telling her why, and now she’s downstairs and safe and I’m up here in my office. I cried. It feels like a bit of a presumption to do that, since I didn’t know anyone involved, but I couldn’t help it.
Somewhere, parents and families are dealing with the worst thing imaginable.
My thoughts and prayers go out to them.
I’m going to go sit with my daughter now.
By Erin Thomas | November 27, 2012
It’s getting close to submission time for Tyler’s Intergalactic Spy Squad. (Title change!) And as a result, I’ve been something of a non-productive, panicky mess for the past few weeks.
On the plus side, I got lots of Christmas knitting done.
Here’s the thing. Most of the books that I’ve submitted to publishers (except for one not-quite-ready effort very early in my writing career when I didn’t know better), and all of my published books, came with deadlines already attached.
But this one is different. Nobody’s waiting for it, except maybe my agent — and I wasn’t even sure of that until yesterday. There’s no real due date, except for the one in my head. Which, for the record, was last December.
So it’s really easy to keep working on it and working on it. A book can always get better. Always. There are changes I wish I could make to my published novels… but, of course, they’re off-limits. This one isn’t.
But there’s also a point when you have to shove a manuscript out the door and get on with something else, and I’m very close to that point. And that’s scary. So I stopped working on it for a while.
I’ve seen this happen to my writing friends, but somehow, with my deadline-driven past, I figured I’d be immune. Ha!
There’s an Erica Jong quotation: “I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged.” That probably ties into it. When I stop making my book better and start sending it out, it can be rejected. Before that, it can’t.
And let’s face it, rejections are inevitable. If I’m lucky, there’ll be someone somewhere along the line who says yes, but there will probably be a lot of no’s before it gets to that point. That’s the nature of the business.
Anyhow, I’m back on the writing wagon now, and I have a finish line in mind. On December 7 it goes to my agent and to another trusted friend (thanks, Sue!). That should give me time to address the last few things I want to deal with, and to do a read-aloud and tighten the manuscript. It might be close, but it’s doable.
And then… back to the Christmas knitting to avoid fretting while I wait for feedback. After all, these procrastination projects have to be good for something!
By Erin Thomas | November 12, 2012
Yesterday was CANSCAIP’s annual Packaging Your Imagination conference in Toronto. I try to make it every year if I can–even the year that I was eight-and-three-quarters months pregnant and not at all sure I’d be able to pop myself free of the desk, once I had wedged myself into it.
This year’s PYI Conference was fabulous, as ever. Tim Wynne-Jones gave the welcome address and had us all laughing. I heard Lena Coakley on Writing Fantasy, Tim Wynne-Jones on the Mechanics of Dialogue, and Allan Stratton on Character. Finally, Richard Scrimger wrapped it all up with a keynote.
Blogging about someone else’s presentation is always a bit awkward. I want to give useful information, but not be unfair to the presenters. I usually try to share one writing tip from each presentation. Today, though, I’m going to be a little bit unfair to Lena, just because she had a series of writing exercises that went together really wonderfully and showed me how ideas can be found in unlikely places. (The rest of her talk was incredible, too–if you ever have the chance to hear her talk about writing craft, don’t miss it!)
Lena had us each make a list of things we thought were “cool.” No parameters other than that. I had favourite colours and foods on my list, as well as Doctor Who, mechanical pencils, teacups, the Edwardian period, dogs, Santorini, knitting with bright yarn, violins, and stained glass. And cowboys–I was thinking about Firefly (when am I not?), and about Ghost Medicine, a fabulous book by Andrew Smith that I recently finished.
Our next job was to pick two that seemed unlikely to go together. We were to come up with a few different combinations. For me, the best/worst fit was cowboys and knitting with bright yarn. But I really didn’t know what to do with that, other than maybe a really corny picture book.
But Lena made us think harder. What would be a situation where those two things went together? And who would be in that situation, or for whom would it be the biggest problem? And after listening to Lena and working through the exercises, my cowboy knitting circle (dusty coats and hats sitting around a campfire on a cold desert night, with the splat of chewing tobacco being spit into the fire, and the steady clack-clack of knitting needles and bright scarves and socks taking form, and everyone’s secretly a little jealous because Trigger-Finger Eddie can do cables…) actually turned into the start of a post-apocalyptic Wild West scenario with a girl in disguise trying to get her brother safely across the prairies to… well, somewhere.
In case you’re wondering, the reason they’re knitting is that a plague wiped out most of the women. The ones that survived are locked away for their own safety, which is all well and good so long as you’re not the one stuck in a “safe house” and used as a glorified breeding mare. Yeah, not exactly original, but what do you want from a thirty-second exercise?
Now I’m not sure the world needs another post-apocalyptic YA right now, and it certainly doesn’t need one written by me, featuring cowboys, when I barely know one end of a horse from another. And honestly, having thought it through, I bet those wild-westers really did know basic knitting, and sewing, and all sorts of skills that they’d need when they were out there on cattle drives and had to do repairs, so my idea probably wasn’t as out-there as I had imagined. But the thing is, this crazy idea that I wasn’t taking very seriously actually sort of turned into something. And I like this girl character; I’m interested in her. And it all came from mashing together two things that didn’t belong.
So thanks, Lena! I’m going to try this again sometime. I wonder what I can get from dogs, teacups and mechanical pencils…
Tim Wynne-Jones made me think about the tiny words we insert into dialogue exchanges. I had never really thought about them consciously before, but it’s true–”she sighed” as a pause is two beats shorter than “she looked away,” and when you start thinking about these things in beats and manipulating them consciously, your brain kind of twists a little. In a good way. It was dialogue as I’d never seen it before, and I’ll be poring through my notes and re-organizing my writing brain for a good long while yet.
Allan Stratton drew on his acting background to share some tips on getting into character. To be honest, the information wasn’t as in-depth or new as I would have liked, but it was a good reminder to always keep a character’s motivations in mind. What are they trying to accomplish, and what will they do to make it happen?
And Richard Scrimger was funny and sometimes shocking, and sometimes real and true in a way that made me wish I could write fast enough to get down everything he said.
It was a great day. I’m already looking forward to next year.
By Erin Thomas | October 30, 2012
I’m learning how to knit socks. It’s still very much a work in progress. In the picture, you can see my two current projects. The one on the right is for my mom. She has knit me some lovely socks, which are on my feet as often as they’re out of the laundry. I figured it was time to return the favour.
The one on the left is for my long-suffering husband. Because he deserves some cheery footwear, too.
Why two projects? That’s easy. I ran out of things to do on the first one, at least until I can learn the next step; my good friend and knitting teacher, Jocelyne, lives in Peterborough. And I couldn’t start Mom’s second sock, because those knitting needles were all tied up in her first one. So, last night while watching Sarah’s choir practice, I started a second pair.
Starting another sock was a good reminder. That little chunk of knitting took me a good three or four tries to get started. Once I’ve done a round or two, I’m mostly okay, but getting it going is a bit tricky. I was proud of myself for getting that far; when I started the first sock, it took me weeks to get it to the point where I wasn’t tearing it out every second try.
It felt a lot more achievable this time. So I think this will be my strategy–learn something new on the Mom sock, then practice it (before I learn too many new things and have time to forget) on the Aaron sock.
I wonder if part of the reason why it felt more achievable was just that I knew it was. Because I had done it before. That’s what I’ve found with writing. Before I started writing for children, I had attempted the start of a romance novel. Apart from being terrible (first novel, and not really my genre, as it turns out), it’s unfinished. It felt like such a huge undertaking; I don’t think I even got halfway.
My first completed novel came about as the result of a novel marathon. I put myself in a position where I’d be forced to write to the end, and to write quickly, without overthinking it. It’s pretty terrible, too, although salvageable, I think. I might go back to it one day. But the thing that novel taught me, which kick-started my writing as a career, was that I was capable of finishing.
That’s it. Nothing fancy. It’s not published; it’s not even something I’d bring out to my writing groups, these days. Not without a lot of work, first. But after I reached the end once, I knew I could do it again, so I did, with another novel. And then another one. And eventually, they got to be a bit better.
I’m working the opposite way now; trying to slow down, and go for better quality in early drafts. But I can do that because I’m confident that, one way or another, I have the ability to tell a story from beginning to end. I know I can get there, because I’ve gotten there before.
I’ll let you know if the same can be said of knitting socks…
By Erin Thomas | October 16, 2012
Last weekend my daughter and I took a road trip. A good friend of mine was celebrating his fortieth birthday. This friend, Paul, is someone I’ve known my entire life; his parents are my parents’ best friends. He and his younger brother, and my younger brother and I, were pretty much raised as siblings. Cousins at the very least.
It’s a strange thing, having these cousin-brothers that I don’t see very often. Whitby and Ottawa aren’t exactly next door. Still, we get together when we can, and I’m always struck by the way it’s a strange blend of knowing someone very well and not knowing them at all.
I have only the vaguest idea of what Paul does at work, for example. I know that he goes in very late (he never did mornings) and stays late. I know he’s crazy-smart and works with computers. But I don’t know who his friends are there, or what matters to him most about his job, or what he would change if he could.
I’ve met a few of his friends over the years. He’s met a few of mine. But we don’t talk about them much, and I don’t know how they fit into the jigsaw-puzzle of his life and relationships. Not the way I do with my real brother.
But we were kids together, and that’s a different kind of knowing. I know what makes him laugh, and what jokes not to make. I know the house he grew up in as well as I know my own. I know what computer games they had, and the shade of the shag carpet in the living room. There was a pole in the basement, supporting one of the roof beams, and it was close enough to the open-sided stairs that we could grab onto it and swing down. Like ninjas. I know that his mom stocked skim milk in the fridge, and his father makes wicked scrambled eggs. I know him with mullet-hair, and he knows me with braces and glasses.
So maybe there’s a kid-Paul in there somewhere, and that’s the person I know. We don’t really get rid of our kid selves, we just add layers on top.
Sometimes I think that’s how I know my characters. I don’t fill in fact sheets for them, not unless I have to. I don’t do personality quizzes for them, or draw family trees. So I couldn’t always tell you what my character’s favourite colour is, or even his middle name. But I have a sense of who he is, underneath, and I work out the rest as I need it. The way you learn about a person by spending time with her, but that initial connection can happen quickly.
Layers matter too. Our experience matters, and informs the choices we make. But it’s the person underneath who matters most.
And Paul, if you read this–you’ll always be one of my favourite real-life characters. Happy 40th!
By Erin Thomas | September 25, 2012
Today my friend Sue and I had a random meeting with Maggie Stiefvater! We were at Mabel’s Fables, one of our favourite children’s bookstores in Toronto, planning to look at books and then go for lunch together. On the way up the stairs, we noticed a beautiful new book poster on the wall — it had a raven on it.
It took me a moment to realize it was for a new Maggie Stiefvater book — I hadn’t realized she had one coming out. I love her books. I turned to Sue. “Do you think they’ll have it?”
Upstairs, we found a schmancy cardboard display stand filled with copies of her new book, The Raven Boys, each one sporting a ‘Staff Picks’ sticker. We each grabbed one and started reading the cover flap (after admiring the cover — it really is gorgeous. Kind of spooky and painted-looking).
A woman who works at Mabel’s came by and said how much she had loved the book. Scorpio Races is still her favourite Maggie Stiefvater book, but she really enjoyed the new one, too. I’ve been a Maggie fan since Shiver, so I was sold right then and there. Then, she casually mentioned that Maggie would be stopping by in about twenty minutes to sign copies.
Seriously? Maggie’s American — she lives in Virginia, I think she said. Not exactly a local author!
Sue and I very happily retired to a corner to gossip and wait for Maggie Stiefvater to appear. I had to work at disguising my fan-girly glee; I’m pushing forty, after all.
Maggie was lovely. It’s always nice when an author you admire is as friendly in person as you hope they will be. We each got a book signed (The Raven Boys for me, Scorpio Races for Sue), and took a photo with Maggie. It wasn’t her usual crowd of zillions; it wasn’t an official event, so there weren’t a lot of people there. Just us and the people from Mabel’s.
I felt very, very lucky to have the chance to meet her like that.
The Mabel’s staff, apparently, told Maggie when she arrived that she had two ‘lady-fans’ waiting upstairs. A polite way of saying that Sue and I are on the old side compared to the usual YA demographic. Works for us!
We talked a little bit about writing. Not much; I felt a bit self conscious about the whole thing, to be honest. She talked about world-building with Sue, and how important it is to know more about the world than appears in the book. For her, though, the story is defined by the characters. She isn’t planning a sequel to Scorpio Races, although she’d love to spend some more time in that world, because those characters are where they need to be for now.
That’s the story, so far, that’s closest to her heart. The one with the most of her in it. Which was interesting to hear, because that seems to be the one that resonates most with readers, as well. Something to think about, there.
I did manage to ask her what she likes to read — strong characters and a bit of magic, apparently. Not so much high fantasy anymore, although she used to read it. She loved The Night Circus. (Me too.)
Sue and I didn’t want to take up too much of her time; we went downstairs and then headed out for lunch. But I’ve been feeling bouncy all day, because authors are my movie stars and rock stars, all rolled into one. I’m grateful that both Maggie and the Mabel’s staff were so friendly and gracious, and that Sue and I had the chance to visit with her.
My daughter nodded solemnly and summed it up very nicely when I picked her up from school and told her about it. “It’s as if (name of Daughter’s friend) met Justin Bieber, right?”
Yes. That’s it.
That’s it exactly.
« Previous Entries