By Erin Thomas | November 29, 2013
There’s a production of Fiddler on the Roof on at St. Mark’s United Church in Whitby — my church. My daughter is in the show, which means I’ve seen a whole lot of Fiddler rehearsals over the past few months! I could probably sing most of the songs by heart… if I could sing, that is. It’s best for all concerned that I remain offstage.
I love this story. There’s so much in it — funny parts, sad parts. Parts where you want to kick the main character in the behind (I’m looking at you, Tevye, you stubborn fool). Parts that stay with you.
And I love this cast. Well, both of them. There are two, performing on alternate nights. They’ve each done one show now, and each have one more to go.
The interesting thing, I found, was how differently the two shows performed so far have been received.
The show ends with everyone leaving the village of Anatevka, which has been their home for generations. In our production, Tevye is last off the stage. He pushes his milk-cart, laden with the family’s belongings (how do you pack up a life?), slowly up the centre aisle. You can see the weight of history tugging at him as the lights dim. Bill Treadgold, our marvellous show-runner and pianist, plays three deep, dark chords on the piano and lets them echo around the church sanctuary and fade away. The sanctuary is barely lit; streetlights filter in through the stained glass windows. And that’s it. That’s the end of the show (except for the happily upbeat bows and final chorus of L’Chaim).
On Wednesday night, the audience sat in the dark in silence. The pause stretched out until one of our cast members started the applause, to let the audience know it was okay to clap. And to move, and to breathe. The lights came back on, and the applause lasted a long while, ending in a standing ovation.
On Thursday, applause was almost instantaneous, and the crowd barely waited for the whole chorus to run back onto the stage before jumping up into a standing ovation that lasted until after the last bow was taken. I stood on tiptoe and held my camera up high over my head to film the curtain calls from the back of the church.
Maybe the Thursday night group was just rowdier. Maybe it was because people came back to see the show again, to see the other cast, and knew from experience when to clap. Most obviously, maybe it was the slight differences in the way the different casts performed–lines delivered with different emphasis, different gestures; different personalities shining through. The play landed beautifully both nights, but it didn’t land the same.
I think it’s more than just the difference between the casts. I think that when I go back to see the play tonight, with Cast A performing again, I’ll see a show that I haven’t seen before. A show that’s ever-so-slightly different from the Wednesday and Thursday night ones. And ever-so-slightly different from the Saturday matinee that will follow.
The thing is, I saw them rehearsing. I saw them rehearsing many, many times. And they were fabulous in dress rehearsal. They nailed it. If they’d done the show just exactly the way they did it last weekend, it would have been great. But they didn’t do that. They made it even better. They dug deeper, made their characters more real, felt their lines more strongly. They brought it to life.
I don’t think they saved this energy for the performance on purpose. Nobody holds back during dress rehearsal; it’s just that something different and wonderful happens when you add the audience into the mix. Because the audience brings their own energy, and the actors sense that, and maybe even shape it, and build something new.
I don’t know how it works. But it seems as if something new was created at each show that was just that night, made out of just those circumstances and that combination of people. Those things can never be repeated, so the show will never be exactly the same again. It will be wonderful in new ways, but never exactly the same.
On Twitter yesterday, I came across a link to this picture, taken outside a bookstore in Australia. Humour me — this has been a big week for Doctor Who fans. The idea is that a book, like a Tardis, is bigger on the inside.
That’s something I think about a lot, in writing. A story is never the same twice; it depends so much on the person reading it. Sometimes I’m afraid to go back and read old favourites, in case they’re not the same. How can they be? I’m not the same person I was then.
The experience of story is created in the space between the words on the page and the mind of the person reading them. A book needs a reader. Maybe a play is like that, too; it needs an audience. I thought I’d seen the play in rehearsals, but I was wrong, because the real performance was something new, something entirely different.
St. Mark’s Players — thank you for all your hard work! I can’t wait to see what you do tonight and Saturday!
By Erin Thomas | August 29, 2013
For some time now, I’ve been working on a book about a teenaged magician. Magician as in sleight-of-hand, not as in Harry Potter. It’s slated for publication sometime in 2014, as part of Orca’s new performing arts-based series, Limelights.
And as I’ve been researching the book, I keep coming to the same conclusion: I really like magicians. As it happens, they’re a lot like writers. For one thing, there’s an awful lot of work behind the scenes before anything ever reaches an audience.
I’ve had the chance to interview a lot of people, about a lot of different things, over the past few years. Being a writer sometimes feels like a get-out-of-jail-free card for nosiness. And people are generally happy to talk about what they do for a living, or what they care about. But magicians… they go beyond that.
Magicians create wonder for a living. They learn how to connect with people. Because without that connection, there’s not nearly the same impact when you make the impossible happen.
But a lot of magicians are introverts at heart, so when you’re hanging out with them, it never feels like being at a sales convention (which is what I imagine a haven for extroverts must look like… in short, my vision of h-e-double-hockey-sticks). You’re not overwhelmed. They’re quite happy to practice their card handling off in the corner. The connection point is magic. Once you ask about that, they light up.
And of course they’ll show you a trick. They’ll show you five!
Today I had the incredible opportunity to visit Sorcerers Safari, a week-long camp for magicians that takes place in Ontario for one week each summer. Campers come from all around the world to attend. The camp is run by “Magic” Mike Segal and his wife, Jennifer.
It’s possible that I was the only Muggle in the place. Kids younger than my daughter quite gleefully fooled me with their card tricks. And despite months of researching magic and acquiring a passing familiarity with how these things are done, I fell for it every time.
Honestly, even when I knew the trick behind the trick, it didn’t matter. It was still astonishing to see it done, up close and out of nowhere, something impossible taking place before my eyes. To be holding a deck of cards while a ninth grader made one of them disappear and reappear somewhere else. To watch a pack of cards change colour. Or to see the card I was thinking of appear on a phone screen.
To quote one of the counsellors: “When was the last time something truly astonished you?” He emphasized the word time. More than once. To draw my sluggish attention to the fact that he had stolen my watch right off my wrist, during a card trick.
The White Queen’s line about six impossible things before breakfast could be a camp motto.
Here’s the thing, though: even though I was fooled at least six times within about ten minutes of arriving at camp, it never once felt that the kids (or counsellors) were having fun at my expense. Nothing was taken from me. Okay, except the watch, but that’s not what I mean. Each magic trick was a gift. Something cared about, something worked for, something shared. I felt honoured.
And all they wanted in return was a reaction — which I couldn’t have helped giving, anyhow.
It’s fascinating to hear magicians talk about their craft. It seems that each trick has a pedigree, and they want you to know who invented it. “This is from X by Person Y, by way of Person Z.” Which to me looks exactly like the other trick, which was from A by Person B, with a little flavour of Famous Routine C. But even though the end result is the same (missing card? found card!), the handling may be completely different, so it’s night and day to the magician.
Kind of the way writers feel about word choice. Sure the character crossed the room, but did he slink? Leap? Stride? Please tell me he didn’t walk quickly — adverbs can be so sloppy.
And sometimes the simplest stuff is what plays best to the audience. There’s a parallel to word choice there, too.
A magic routine can be strengthened by paring away what’s not essential. Slow down. Leave out some of the patter. Let the magic speak for itself. It sounds like my favourite editing advice, which I first heard from Kathy Stinson: what doesn’t add, subtracts.
There are other parallels too. The learning through critique groups. The deep respect for others in the craft, and the generosity in sharing knowledge. The passion and glorious, hard-core nerdiness with which magicians embrace their art. I really felt like I was with a group of writers, except that they all had Sharpies instead of pens, and playing cards instead of notebooks. And scarce a one of them wanted to talk books.
I wasn’t with my “tribe” today. Not exactly. But I was sure reminded of them in all the best possible ways.
So this is a preliminary thank you to all the magicians I’ve met or corresponded with, and especially to those who were at the camp today. Thank you for your help. Thank you for sharing your time, your experience and your magic.
You make the world a more wonderful place.
By Erin Thomas | June 13, 2013
I love Writer Unboxed. I do. It’s one of my favourite writing blogs.
Today’s article, though, has me a bit riled. It’s called “Why the Hero’s Journey is a Tourist Trap.” As it happens, I spent last weekend at a two-day seminar in Toronto, along with some very talented, dedicated writer friends. (Hello Anne Laurel Carter, Lena Coakley, Jennifer Gordon, Karen Krossing, Gwynn Scheltema, Rebecca Upjohn Snyder and Maaja Wentz!) The speaker was Christopher Vogler and the topic was, of course, the hero’s journey.
Since I’d been meaning to blog about some of what I learned, today seems as good a day as any!
For those of you who don’t know, Christopher Vogler is the author of two books on writing: The Writer’s Journey and Memo from the Story Dept.
The first, The Writer’s Journey, is about using mythic structure to support your writing. Also, as it happens, your writing life.
This was the first “real” book I ever read on structure — maybe even the first “real” book I ever read on writing. By that I mean it’s the first book I read cover-to-cover that went beyond the basics of how to put a sentence together. It was the first one that resonated and made me think there was more that I could learn about writing than what we learned in high school. That writing wasn’t just for the special few people who were born with the magical gift of being able to create books. That this was something that could be learned and that maybe, just possibly, I could learn it too.
In the past years, the hero’s journey hasn’t always been my go-to resource in terms of structure. I discovered others: Robert McKee, John Truby, Michael Hauge, Jack Bickham, even the late Blake Snyder. Like many novelists, I tend to expose myself to a lot of ideas and keep what works for me — which changes from year to year and from project to project.
But the hero’s journey made an impression. It matched up with some of what I learned in Psychology classes at university. It matched up with many of the fantasy books I loved so much as a teen. And parts of it just felt right.
Also: Star Wars. ‘Nuff said.
I’m not going to outline the steps of the journey here. Vogler’s book does a much better job of it than I ever could. But the gist of it is that the hero starts out in an ordinary, everyday world. He experiences some kind of trigger or “call to adventure,” and ends up having an experience in a new, “special” world, which brings him face-to-face with his greatest fears and transforms him. He then returns to the ordinary world bearing some kind of “elixir” — which might just be knowledge that he obtained or insight into a new way of living — which he shares with his community.
Does it even sound like it should be taken literally? Some books do that, granted, particularly in the fantasy genre, but the structure certainly doesn’t need to be used that way. A special world might be somewhere new and strange and magical, like Oz. It also might be a new circle of friends, or simply a new way of behaving in the world we live in every day. Trying on a new persona.
Christopher Vogler wasn’t up there at the front of the classroom encouraging us to churn out cookie-cutter stories. I think he’d cringe at the suggestion. (He comes across as an absolutely lovely person, by the way — warm and caring and genuine and passionate about his work.) He’s all for the cherry-picker approach. Use the pieces that work for your story, he said. Think about what insight you can gain into your characters by considering what archetype they are most closely linked to in a given scene. Double up on story points if you need to. Move them around. Play. Hamlet, he pointed out, can be seen as a series of calls to adventure and refusals that build and build until the end.
I can’t speak for the instructor in the Writer Unboxed article who insisted that a character needs to cross water at some point in the story. Sometimes having a physical barrier of some kind, or a line that needs to be crossed, can be effective. Sometimes not. It can’t possibly be a requirement of every story.
Sometimes it’s tempting to use these approaches to plot structure as checklists. They’re not that. I like having a conscious understanding of the different ways a plot can be put together because when I get into trouble, it helps me work it out. I’ll hold my manuscript’s saggy middle up against different suggestions that these story structure gurus have about what happens at the midpoint of a story, and see what I can learn. But I’m not going to have a hissy fit if my “midpoint” isn’t at page 100 of a 200-page novel. (Of course, if it comes on page 183, there might be a problem…) And I’m not going to slot in an event that doesn’t feel right just because a textbook told me to. What I can do, though, is consider the different suggestions. Try different ideas and see what works.
Character comes first. Story is about character. It’s about what they want and need, and what they’ll do to get it. It’s about how they interact with others, and what they learn. How they change.
It’s not the easiest thing in the world, creating a character and telling their story properly. I’ll give brain-space to anything that can help me do it better. Dismissing a strategy blindly, I think, is as bad as following it to the letter.
So, for my two cents’ worth, the hero’s journey is worth considering. Read up on it. Read Vogler’s book, and read Joseph Campbell. And tuck what you learn away, and bring it out when you need it. It won’t fit everything you write, but once in a while, it might just give you the insight that you need.
So that’s your “call to adventure.” Now, go!
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.
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