Category Archives: Writing Life

Beanbags are the Answer: Treadmill Desk

This is my first official “treadmill desk” post. I’m walking as I write this. I still haven’t quite got the brain/body connection going, though. My typing isn’t quite up to par, and I caught myself trying to write “I’m writing as I walk this.” But I’ll get it with practice.

The first treadmill desk-er I met was Arthur Slade. That was less than a year ago; I’ve been thinking about it and working my way up to it ever since. Take a look at Arthur Slade’s treadmill desk here. I haven’t got a fancy helmet like his, though.

I like the idea of walking while I write. I’d been standing at my desk for a few months now (I elevated the keyboard and monitor with pop cans), and it felt pretty natural. I fidgeted a lot, though, and would get a sore back if I stayed in one position too long.

For me, part of the appeal is the energy aspect of it. I want to keep my blood (and hopefully the ideas) flowing, and avoid that mid-afternoon slow-brain period. Walking slowly isn’t a lot of exercise, but it beats sitting in one place. I’m not sure how many calories I’ll burn this way, but I hope it will help me stay at my desk, and stay alert, longer.

My treadmill is a Horizon CT 5.1 It was on sale at Canadian Tire last week. It’s quiet and stable and I have enough room that I don’t need to worry too much about where I put my feet (useful for us clumsy types). It also folds up when I’m not using it — it’s not exactly compact, but at least I can run a vaccuum under it that way. I built the “desk” to work with the treadmill.

My monitor sits on a wall shelf. Since I couldn’t find quite the size shelf I needed, I built it. Same with the keyboard tray. They’re both cut from the same sheet of birch plywood, and I used glue-on wood edging to finish them. My shelf clips came from Solutions.

The keyboard try sits on two large beanbags, also homemade (filled with dried yellow peas, in case anyone’s curious). I had originally planned to stuff them into the cup holders and set the tray on them there, but that covered all the treadmill controls. The handrails were too far back, but with the beanbags tied to the spot where the handrails meet the console, it seems to work. I can reach the treadmill controls and see the monitor just fine, and everything is at the right height.

Eventually, I’ll use velcro to fix the keyboard tray to the beanbags, but I want to wait a while and make sure that this is the way I’m going to keep things. And, of course, my sit-down desk is still intact (with my laptop), because I know there will be times when I want to work that way. I still use paper for a lot of my editing.

It’s only day one, but so far, so good. I’m going to go write a chapter or three now; I feel like my characters should be walking somewhere slowly, on a journey of sorts. Gee, where did that idea come from?

Razorbills, Cupcakes and Kindred Spirits

Last night, I was part of a focus group at Penguin Canada (thank you, Twitter!), talking about books and marketing and specifically about Penguin’s new YA imprint, Razorbill. This morning I’m still giddy and wired with that after-prom feeling. Maybe it was the giant cupcake, slathered with enough icing to skyrocket the blood sugar levels of an elephant. But I think it was the pleasure of sitting with like-minded strangers and talking about books.

You know when you’re with a real bookworm. The minute you click on a shared story, one you both love, their eyes light up. And when they’re excited, telling you about a book they’ve read and you haven’t, they wave their hands in the air as if they’re turning pages. And you lean in closer, and ask them to spell the author’s name again so you can go look up the book first chance you get — because this person cares about books the way you do, and if they recommend a title, it’s worth checking out.

Besides, who wouldn’t love to wander around inside the real, honest-to-goodness offices of a publishing house? It’s better than Disneyland. Books everywhere. Kind of like my house, come to think of it. I admit, I was nervous until I walked in and saw so many old friends on the boardroom bookshelves. (Ah — Guy Kay is here. This must be a good place.)

There were around ten of us. Most were women around my age, which is strange when you consider that we were there to talk about a YA imprint. But let’s face it — grown-ups read YA. And those of us ignoring the pizza and drooling over the books on the boardroom table were big-time YA readers, and some of us are raising little readers of our own.

After pizza and chit-chat, we moved into a larger boardroom. This time, there was a woman there to lead the discussion and ask us questions. The Penguin team, we were told, was watching us through a camera on the wall — very Big Brother. But we forgot about that, because the first order of business was to introduce ourselves by name, and by the last book we read. As soon as we were talking books, we were off.

For me, the interesting part (other than the kid-in-a-candy-store aspect) was seeing how much effort and research Penguin puts into reaching their readers. They want to know where we’re finding books and how we choose them. They want to know what readers want, what drives them to choose one website or book over another, what they’re looking for. Before the event, I filled in a four-page questionnaire about my reading, viewing and Internet habits. At one point, we were asked to pretend that we were in charge of marketing a new website: What, specifically, would we do to reach our target audience?

As a reader, I appreciate being asked for input. As a writer, I loved the peek behind the scenes. Sometimes it feels like the publishers have all the answers; it’s nice to know that they’re working just as hard as we writers are to find and reach an audience. They’re working with and for their writers, as well as for their readers, finding out what works and what doesn’t.

For me, the hardest question of the night was “what do you want from a publisher?” It was hard because I can answer it as a writer (help! guidance! great editing to make my book the best it can be!), but I was there last night as a reader. As a reader, I’m not sure that I think about publishers much, other than as a quality control. As a reader, I want good stories. It wouldn’t occur to me to look for more than that from a publisher, but Penguin is trying to find a way to offer more regardless. They want to bring readers and writers together.

I can’t help thinking that, from either side of the connection, it’s a good thing.

Thank you, Penguin, for a lovely evening. Thank you for the pizza and the giant cupcakes, and for the armload of free books. Thank you for the movie passes. That wasn’t necessary, but it made my husband happy. Thanks for soliciting my input. And thank you for the opportunity to talk about books and publishing with a room full of interesting, intelligent people.

I’m going to share some Twitter recommendations here, because these women know their books, and are very much worth following:

Nicole: @Nicoleabouttown

Wendy: @gwenythlove

Jenn: @lostingreatbook

Brenna: @everafteresther

Jackie: @seolmara

Mel: @hefollowedme

And, of course, Bronwyn: @B_Kienapple, Penguin’s online marketing coordinator

(If those of you who have book blogs want to send me the links, I’ll be happy to post those here as well! It was wonderful to meet you.)

Exciting News and an Upcoming Course

I’m excited about my friend Lena’s upcoming book, Witchlanders! Take a look at her cool new book trailer.

Boarder Patrol one of CCBC’s “Best Books for Kids & Teens 2011”

In other exciting news, I learned last week that Boarder Patrol had been chosen as a Canadian Children’s Book Centre’s “Best Books for Kids & Teens 2011” selection. I’m thrilled that my book was included because so many of my favourite authors are in there, too.

I wanted to do cartwheels. The trauma of the OAC grant is still fresh in my mind, though — my leaps of joy resulted in the premature death of my husband’s desk lamp. I’m working on a more reserved demeanour these days. When you’re clumsy, it really is the best way to go.

New Course in Writing for Children, based in Oshawa

I’m also teaming up with Writescape’s own Gwynn Scheltema to teach an introductory-level course on writing for children, right here in Durham. Gwynn and I have had fun working on this course together. The hard part is going to be fitting it into only six weeks. Course information can be found here.

I’m not wavering from my stance on the Mabel’s Fables courses — if you can get to Toronto, you need to be there. Ted Staunton is a wonderful instructor. We’re all going to miss Peter Carver now that he’s retired from the level two course, but I think it’s going to remain a great writing environment and supportive group for children’s writers under Ted’s guidance. But some of my Durham Region friends find that commute a bit off-putting, so I decided we needed a more local starting point.

Between my kid-lit fanaticism and Gwynn’s teaching expertise and experience, I think we’ve managed to put together something special. I’m looking forward to it, and if you’re a Durham Region writer who wants to learn more about writing for chidren, I hope to see you there.

(And then, of course, I’ll recruit you to Mabel’s and to CANSCAIP and all the rest of it, bwa-ha-ha. Kid-lit is an addictive world. Enjoy it.)

Standing Up

I’m trying something new this month. Following in the footsteps of Arthur Slade and many other writers, I’ve decided that Bum In Chair is no longer the way to go. I’m standing up to work.

There are supposed to be lots of health and energy benefits to this. It’s a bit soon for me to tell, but so far, I report no ill effects (at least, not once I caved in and started wearing shoes). I like standing up to work, when I think about it. Most of the time, and it’s only been a couple of days, I don’t even notice. Not once I get going, at least.

I didn’t want to make a big investment, and the jury is still out as to whether a treadmill desk is even practical for my office (although it would be really cool), but I used a couple of abandoned bookshelves and some cases of pop to bring my monitor and keyboard up to the right heights. I didn’t want to look at pop cans for the next few months, hence the wrapping paper.

And why, you ask, does a writer have spare bookshelves hanging around? I know, I know, it’s wrong. But here’s the thing. We had this cat. He was a wonderful cat, but he was nervous (he’d been bullied as a kitten, we think. These childhood traumas are difficult to overcome). And his nervousness came out in unfortunate ways. Like spray.

Too much information, you say? Yes, well. That happens on blogs.

Anyhow, this one bookcase bore the brunt of it. We loved him enough to deal with the constant clean-up, but I’m afraid there was no saving the bookcase. Still, the top shelves were fine.

But I digress. If you don’t happen to have a spare bookshelves lying around, I’m sure you can work something out with a lumber store.

The top of the monitor, apparently, should be about level with your eyes. A good typing height is when your arms are somewhere past ninety degrees. I dunno. Two layers of mini pop cans plus a couple of Jane Austen novels feels about right for me, and I’m five foot six. Not my favourite Jane Austen novels, obviously. Those ones, I need regular access to.

And there you have it. A homemade standing desk. It’s not very original, I’m afraid. You can find examples of this sort of thing all over the web. I like to think of the wrapping paper as my own personal touch, though.

Is it working? So far, so good. I like it. If you want to try it yourself, though, I recommend wearing a good pair of shoes. And buying a brand of pop that you won’t be tempted to drink.

Just for fun: my first attempt was with Lego. I couldn’t find enough of the really big-sized Lego, and it didn’t feel stable enough. But it sure was colourful.

Open Letter to my MP

I live in Whitby, Conservative stronghold and home to our current Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty. He’s our MP. And I figure, whatever the outcome of the election Federally, he’s pretty safe.

But I don’t know who I’m voting for yet. Because the issue that had me worried before the election has kind of vanished, and nobody’s talking about it. Let’s face it, copyright law isn’t exactly interesting. Not the sexy sort of issue that makes headlines.

But after the election, it’ll be back. So here’s the main body of the letter that I just wrote to Mr. Flaherty.

And I promise: I will not make a habit of getting political on this blog. But this one’s for the children’s writers among us.

* * *

My letter is about a bill that I expect will resurface in one form or another after the election. Bill C-32.

I’ve been a resident of Whitby for nearly all of my life… and I have the wonderful fortune to be in the early stages of a career doing what I love.

I write books for children. My third was just published, and I have two more books under contract for publication in Spring 2012. I have several other manuscripts in the works, including a juvenile historical novel set in Whitby in the 1880s.

In particular, I write books for reluctant readers and for the hi-low (high interest, low vocabulary) market. These are books for children who are not reading at grade level. For example, a boy in sixth grade might be reading at a third grade level. These books give him an opportunity to read stories written with his age group in mind, but written at a reading level that he can access. The idea is to provide an enjoyable reading experience, which will hopefully encourage him to read more in the future.

Needless to say, one of the places that my books find a home is in school libraries.

There was a clause in Bill C-32 that established “educational use” as one of the legitimate cases where a work could be copied without penalty. I believe that “private study” was another. For myself and for other creators of books, art and other media for children, this represents a real threat.

I’m not Margaret Atwood or Kenneth Oppel. I’m not J.K. Rowling. I will not, in all likelihood, rise to fortune through writing. I make approximately 8% of the cover price on each book sold, and a share of that goes to my agent. My books are priced in the neighbourhood of $10-$13, which means I make around a dollar each time one is sold.

I doubt that anyone who writes books for children is in it for the money. I do this because I love it and because I think it matters. But I cannot afford to give my books away, either. My understanding of Bill C-32 was that a school, or even a school board, could buy one copy of my book and then photocopy it (or, in this age of technology, scan it and make electronic copies) for use throughout the school system. Or, if we take this example to an extreme, that one copy of the book could be copied once and shared electronically through Canada’s education systems.

Can you see how a prospective reimbursement of one dollar for the many hours of researching, writing and rewriting a book, not to mention the time spent learning the craft of writing, would be detrimental to any writer’s career?

I feel optimistic about my writing. I am doing well. By this time next year, I’ll have published five books, and I have several other manuscripts close to a submission-ready state. I am building a career in baby steps. I have even had the good fortune to receive a grant from the Ontario Arts’ Council, for which I am extremely grateful.

But in truth, I’d rather earn my money by selling books than have it come from grants. I’m old-fashioned that way. The grant helps me get started, and as I said, I’m extremely grateful. But Canada needs to move toward an economy in which artists and creative types can support themselves. Bill C-32 was in direct opposition to that.

There is value in having new material, written by Canadians, in the school system. Kids want to read about characters that reflect them and their values. A body of literature set in the 1980s, before cell phones and computers changed the world, will lose immediacy. Yes, there are core values and classic works of literature that should never be forgotten, but for some children, the easiest stories to connect with are contemporary ones. By making it possible for writers to continue to write, you ensure that readers, and the teachers who work so hard and care so deeply about literacy, have the materials they need for a positive learning experience.

When the time comes to reconsider Copyright legislation, my sincere hope is that you will keep in mind that you are balancing the needs of many people. And I hope that you will keep in mind, Mr. Flaherty, that some of those people are creators.

Scribbling Women: who inspired you to write?

Last week I asked some of my favourite female children’s writers if there were any “scribbling women” (authors or otherwise) who inspired them to write.

We’ll start with Marthe Jocelyn. Tomorrow I’ll be posting an interview with her, so this is a preview.

The question: Are there any “scribbling women” (in your book, but especially in your own life) who helped inspire you to write?

Marthe’s answer: “I’m not conscious of direct inspiration or influence except that every book I read – more than half written by women – leaves a tiny trace behind. A diligent scholar could probably trace the effects that certain other people’s writing had upon my own, but I am thankfully not aware of it myself.”

Lena Coakley, author of the upcoming YA fantasy novel The Witchlanders, remembered one woman in particular.

“When I was growing up, we had a border named Miss Hurka who lived in the attic apartment of our house. She was a retired secretary and an aspiring novelist. I would hear her typewriter late at night as I was going to sleep. Miss Hurka always wore black and made frequent trips to New York City (about 40 minutes by train, but to me, a world away).

“Most of my family was a little afraid of her, but when I was young, I often called up the stairs and asked to visit her. Miss Hurka would feed me dry cookies and tell me highly age-inappropriate stories. Her three favorite topics were: The grand affair she had during the war with a married man; her loathing of Richard Nixon; and the (then) sad history of the Czech Republic.

“As far as I know, Miss Hurka was never published, but the portrait in my mind of what it means to be a woman writer will always be a little coloured by her.”

Lena will be writing more about Miss Hurka in her blog entry this week. I can’t wait to read it!

Cheryl Rainfield, whose GG Award-nominated YA novel Scars draws on her own experience of abuse and self harm, looked at reading as a refuge. She says that she loved most of the books she read, and I suspect that included a lot of books! But some stood out.

“I especially loved LM Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables because I identified with her so much — initially unloved, unwanted, searching for a family; she had strong swings of emotion (when she was happy she was SO high, and when she was depressed, she was SO down) like I did; AND she was super creative, almost like dissociation the way I was, AND wanted to be (and became) a writer. That was one of my faves.

“Also Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, because they wrote The Courage to Heal, about incest, which I read over and over as a teen, and needed to know others were breaking the silence; it helped me with my breaking the silence.

“And Lois Duncan, because I loved her books SO much, and read and reread and reread them.”

Cheryl says that all these women writers helped her to want to be a writer, along with the other writers she has since discovered and loved along the way. She’s also grateful to the English teachers who encouraged her.

Wide-ranging children’s writer Kathy Stinson talks about feeling encouraged to try new forms.

“New Zealand writer Margaret Mahy, with her writing across many genres and age groups, encouraged me to try my hand at anything I felt remotely inclined to write. With her wonderful collection The Leaving, Budge Wilson ensured that short stories would be in that category.”

And Karen Krossing, like Marthe Jocelyn, had trouble choosing just one “scribbling woman” who influenced her, but is grateful to many writers.

“Rather than being inspired to write by any one woman, I feel that I’m inspired by the ‘grand collective.’ Over the years, I’ve drawn insights from a wide range of female scribblers whom I admire, like Ursula K. LeGuin and Margaret Atwood. When I read The Life of Margaret Laurence, by James King, I bemoaned the heartache that seems to be part of the creative process. I obtained ‘permission’ (if you can call it that) to pursue a writer’s life from women like Julia Cameron (author of The Artist’s Way) and Natalie Goldberg (author of Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within). But I have to say that my original inspiration is likely my mother, who is not a scribbler, but a teller of rich and diverse family stories. The love of a good story captured me young and I know that, as long as I have a pencil and notebook, I will be content.”

Like some of the others, I have trouble choosing a female writer who inspired me to write. As a kid, I read everything I could get my hands on. Since my dad was a sci-fi fan, that included a lot of Andre Norton’s books. I didn’t know she was female, though, until my friend Jonathon started moaning about it one day in high school. He was devastated — or else pretending to be, to get a laugh. I hadn’t known Andre Norton was female, either — to be honest, writers were pretty much invisible to me back then. I just wanted to read the stories. I wasn’t picky about who wrote them. But hearing Jonathon talk about it, I remember smiling. Andre Norton wasn’t my favourite author, not by a long shot, but all those planets, all those worlds, they came from a woman? Someone who had been a girl. Someone like me. It felt like a delicious secret. It felt empowering.

It doesn’t always have to be a writer, either, as Karen Krossing pointed out. Most of the women in Marthe’s book weren’t. I had the amazing experience of seeing Sarah McLachlan in concert last Saturday night. In Oshawa! Who’d have thought? She was recovering from laryngitis, but I’d never have known it. She sounded incredible. Her passion and drive and professionalism made me want to dig deeper as a novelist, to write better. To try harder. (Also to sing more, but nobody wants to hear that. Really.)

The inspiration to write can come from anywhere. From books we read. From people we talk to. I think in the end, what matters is that we act on it. Pick up a pen, tell a story. Scribble away.

You never know whose life you’re going to touch.