Tag Archives: Writing Life

Happy Birthday: We’re Not in this Alone

chocolate cakeToday is my husband’s birthday. He doesn’t know I’m writing this.

In On Writing, Stephen King talks a lot about his wife, Tabitha. He says that whenever he sees a first novel dedicated to the writer’s spouse, he thinks to himself, “They get it.” Because it takes a special kind of person to put up with a writer as a partner.

I haven’t dedicated a novel to Aaron yet, but that’s only because I haven’t published any of his favourites. When I get the right book out there, it will have his name on the dedication page, count on it. It’ll be one that’s been in the works for years, and that probably wouldn’t have been finished without his cheerleading and support. And, let’s face it, nagging. But I mean that in a good way.

Things Aaron puts up with:

  • Vague, daydreamy wife trying to sort out storylines.
    Aaron: So, I took the car in for repair…
    me: Mm-hmm.
    Aaron: And it looks like it needs new brakes…
    me: …
    Aaron: And also the Warp Reactor is defective. Are you even listening?
  • Cranky, scary wife when the writing isn’t going well. Or when I’ve had to go too many days without writing.
    Aaron: Honey?
    red-eyed, messy-haired me: Grrrrrrrrowwwwl.
    Aaron: Never mind.
  • Absent wife when my writing group meets, or when there’s a seminar or course on, or when I have the chance to meet with or present to a group, or interview a subject matter expert,  or when there’s a CANSCAIP or WCDR meeting, or when I have the chance to go away and write for a few days. Some weeks, he’s more surprised when I am home for dinner than when I’m not.
  • And these are just the things I’m willing to admit to on a blog.

He’s an entrepreneur, so he knows how to work hard and navigate an uncertain future, and he knows that the rewards are (usually) worth the risks. He’s helping me learn that.

He reads my work. He lets me talk through plot problems with him. He offers clever ideas and sometimes gets grumpy when I don’t use them. (It works both ways — he also talks through his development projects with me —  but I’m not sure that my answers are as insightful as his.)

We watch movies and television shows together and he lets me dissect them, even though it must be annoying.

We work in the same house, all day, every day, and like it that way. He makes the tea more often than I do. When I hear him hang up the phone and start grumbling or swearing, I wander downstairs to see what’s going on. When I obsess over an email message for six hours, he reads it and tells me to send the darned thing already and get back to writing. We trust each other.

He encourages me. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to express how important that is or how grateful I am for it. If you write and if you have someone supportive in your life (I hope you do), you’ll understand. That’s the best thing I can wish for any writer, really.

So here’s my suggestion for today: if you’re a writer, and if there’s someone in your life that you’re feeling grateful for, take a few minutes and let them know. The world’s a much nicer place when we’re in it with people we care about.

And me, well, I’ve got a cake to decorate.

The Right Advice at the Right Time

Shakespeare Statue in Central ParkSometimes things come together. Thanks to my good friend Susan Blakeney, I had an out-of-the-blue opportunity last week to attend a free writing workshop hosted by Driftwood Theatre. I don’t write plays, but I do like to learn about different types of writing whenever I get the chance. You never know what will come in handy. What cinched it for me, though, was the name of the presenter: Rob Corbett.

Rob was part of my first writing group, years ago. We all eventually moved too far away from each other to make meeting up viable, but we keep in touch. Rob wrote novels and plays — really funny novels and plays. Sometimes darkly funny. He’s a talented writer and an insightful critiquer, and someone I like and respect very much. He also lives deep enough in Toronto that we don’t see each other very often. So if he was coming out to Clarington to host a writing workshop, there was no way I was going to miss it.

I don’t want to give away too much of Rob’s talk here. It’s a good one. He gives bits of writing advice that he picked up from reading Shakespeare. True to form, he’s funny and insightful, all at the same time. One awkward bit: he usually uses me as an example when he gives this talk. Something about perseverance and the fact that writers write. I had to correct some of his facts, though; it seems I make a better anecdote when I’m not listening in. Poor Rob.

(Another strange moment: realizing that the two other writers in class with me were the grown children of two of my writing friends. I felt terribly, painfully old.)

I learned some things about Shakespeare that I didn’t know (should have attended that third year Shakespeare seminar more often), and was reminded of some things about writing that I do know. One fun fact: Troilus and Cressida was registered in 1603, but never produced during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Why not? Because it’s just not a good play, and Shakespeare must have known it. Rob spent months of his life trying to prove otherwise for an academic paper and was forced to concede the point. Even Shakespeare wrote a dog now and then.

That’s oddly comforting.

Rob talked about story structure. It wasn’t new to me, since I’ve done a lot of reading on the subject, but every teacher presents things in a different way. Sometimes old advice can sound new. Rob talked about the midpoint as the point of full commitment. That fits in with other things I had read, but somehow seems clearer.

He talked about focus. The hook of any story is a question, and that question is not answered until the end. If you don’t answer the question, or if you answer it too soon, the reader will be disappointed. For me, this comes back to remembering what the story is about.

He also gave some advice that resonated for me because I’m still struggling with the ending of one of my works-in-progress. For an “up” ending, it’s best if the reader first thinks the character has lost. For a “down” ending, it’s best if the fall comes right after a moment of triumph. The greater the contrast, the greater the impact.

I want an “up” ending, but right now things are just falling flat. Maybe what I need to do is think about what it would look like if the main character lost. Maybe I need to find a way to make that happen, or seem like it does. When we talked about our projects, Rob asked me a question that feels like something straight out of Don Maass. “What is your character most afraid of?” Figure it out, he said, and make it happen.

Wow, I miss having Rob in my critique group.

I’m going away for a couple of days next week, holing up with a friend to write. I’m going to bring that problem manuscript with me, and Rob’s suggestions. Because something about it just feels right, and I think maybe this is the puzzle piece that will solve it.

It’s funny how these chances sometimes come out of nowhere. It was tricky, cramming that workshop into an already-full day, but I’m glad I went, and not just for the chance to catch up with Rob again (although that was lovely). Rob, if you read this, please bring Lou and the kids out to Whitby soon. We can do the Starr Burger thing.

But I digress.

Really, all I can say is, if you have a chance to learn or to do something new, take it. If someone offers you advice, listen. Try it, even it it seems basic or obvious. Hear it, even if you’ve heard it before. You never know when something will click.

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.)

Rock Star Writers

Today Maggie Stiefvater visited the Oshawa Chapters location. I found out via Twitter, half an hour before the event, and turned puppy dog eyes on Husband and Daughter. “Can we go? Can we, can we, can we?”

I loved Shiver. And after Linger, I was on edge, waiting for the third book to come out. I have it on my shelf now and will probably start reading it next week. I love this woman’s characters, and I think she’s an extremely talented writer. I ran out to see her like I would run out to see Holly Black, and that’s saying something.

So please keep that in mind when I say that the whole thing left me feeling… uneasy.

The stage was my first clue that something different was going on. I’ve been to lots of signings and book launches before, even ones at Chapters. There’s never been a stage. And there was loud music. Rev-up-the-crowd type music.

The rows of folding chairs were filled, so I joined the leftover people standing at the back. The crowd was mostly female and largely older teens, but there were enough adults there that I didn’t feel too out of place. Not like the beleaguered-looking husbands who kept glancing around to make sure no one saw them standing in the estrogen crowd. (I released Husband and Daughter to another part of the store.)

Maggie was wonderful. Entertaining and funny, friendly and seemingly perfectly comfortable in front of the crowd. She told funny stories about her book tours and got us all laughing. She talked a little about her book, but mostly about “life of an author” type stuff (you know — the phone calls on airplanes about hitting the NYT bestseller list; the visits to wolf sanctuaries in Hungary; everyday things).

But that was when my stomach started dropping. Because she was up there and entertaining and wonderful for a solid twenty or thirty minutes; just like a stand-up comedian, only classier. And while in theory it was about the books, really it was about her. She was a Personality. A really wonderful, charming, interesting one.

For me, that’s the scary part. I could never pull that off. Talk about the writing process? Sure! Just try and shut me up. I love that stuff. Talk about books? Absolutely, especially if they’re someone else’s books. I’ll happily do school visits; it’s not that far off from teaching, and besides, I can keep the focus on the writing process. But to get up there and just… be?

It left me thinking about a few months ago, when I saw Sarah McLachlan in concert and was amazed by how warm and personal and just plain brilliant at the the whole thing she was. Not just the singing. The in-between parts, too. Pure, polished, professional showmanship.

Now, let’s face it. I’m not exactly in danger of going on tour. The NYT Bestseller list is, thus far, not a going concern in my life. I’m still at that point in my career where I aspire to the midlist. I’m okay with that; I’m learning.

Next spring I’ll have two books coming out; I’m thinking of getting in touch with independent booksellers within about a two-hour radius of my house and seeing if I can put together some kind of an event schedule. Maybe little free seminars, maybe signings. And at those events, there will probably be a small table and me, and maybe one or two friends if I happen to know people in town. I’ll bring candy to bribe people to come close. I’ll smile at them and hand out bookmarks. And for me, that’s good. That’s practice. That’s success.

Or I thought it was.

Don’t get me wrong, Maggie was amazing. Friendly and gracious and funny. I’m glad I went, and I look forward to reading the third book in her trilogy. Even more so, now that I’ve heard her talk about it a little bit.

But this was my first glimpse of Writer as Rock Star, and I think it scared me a little.

Compost

“Write what you know.” We’re told that a lot, aren’t we?

Something bad happened in my extended family recently. I’m not going to go into detail because it’s not my story to tell, and never will be. I love and respect the people involved too much for that. But I’ve learned a little about different ways you can lose people, ways I hadn’t thought about before. And I know how it feels when life goes on anyhow, because it has to.

I suppose it will probably surface somewhere. These things usually do. The subconscious is a great big compost heap, and things just roll around in there and grow.

Sometimes, when I sit back and squint at my work, I can recognize the themes and figure out where they came from. It takes time and distance to do that. (I had one story published before I ever figured out what it was really about. Just as well; I might have decided it was too personal.) For the most part, it just happens. Things appear in our stories, and we don’t know why they’re there. Characters grapple with the same issue over and over again, story after story. Stephen King’s “On Writing” discusses this with brutal honesty, and is worth reading for that as well as for all of his insights into craft.

Sometimes I try to “write safe” on purpose. I’m a bit of a coward that way. Still, the world we live in informs the world of our stories. I don’t care how fantastical the setting is or how many eyeballs there are on your slimy alien antagonist. It’s you. In some small way, it’s you. Why yes, your Freudian slip is showing — why do you ask?

Like many writers, I tell a lot of stories about outsiders. Outsiders are usually different, after all, and differences make for interesting characters. I wouldn’t like to say to what extent that tendency draws upon my nerdy, nerdy childhood. Let’s just say that if I ever write a picture book about an ironing board hiding behind thick glasses, there are those who would recognize the character.

“Life gets better,” indeed. That advice can apply to a lot of people, in a lot of situations.

Families matter in my stories. I was asked once why my Boarder Patrol character Ryan keeps coming to his cousin’s rescue, over and over again, even when he’s mad at him. I’d have thought that was obvious. It’s his cousin! That’s what you do.

When family needs you, you’re there. Whenever I’ve needed mine, they always have been, and I’m grateful for that. Right now it’s someone else’s turn, and I’m trying to work out a way to help. I might not get it right; I often don’t. Screw-ups happen. Sometimes they don’t get forgotten or even completely forgiven, but family is family.

That’s going to be in my stories, too, obvious or else buried somewhere. Floating around. Because that’s part of my worldview, the one that comes from deep inside, where all the compost is. And I’m glad it is.

I’m writing something new now. I don’t have much of a plan for this one, which is strange. I tend to be more plotter than pantser. That’s okay. I’ll see where it goes. And later, much later, I might try to look at the story with new eyes and work out where the pieces came from.

Or maybe I’ll choose not to know.

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.

The Wrong Book

After I shared this story in class last week, Lena Coakley suggested that I blog about it. Our assignment was to identify the one children’s book that influenced us most, either as a reader or as a writer. Not an easy question at the best of times, and I admit, I was caught a bit flat-footed, being asked on the second night of class. So I talked about the time I read the wrong book, and why that experience has stayed with me.

Character

This is me in grade eight: bad hair. Braces. Coke-bottle glasses. A chest that would make an ironing board proud. Brains, yes, I’ve got those in spades, but just catch me raising my hand — not gonna happen. Let’s just say I wasn’t winning any prizes for self esteem back then.

And oh yes, this is an important bit. Nose usually buried in a book. Often fantasy or sci-fi borrowed from Dad’s collection, but really, I’d read just about anything.

Also, I was convinced that the world was going to end in fiery nuclear disaster. I believe I wrote to the Prime Minister (it was Mulroney back then) once or twice to address the issue.

Situation

My grade-eight teacher, Miss Beaton, was either a saint or a martyr. There were 33 of us in my year; usually a full class with a few left over for a split grade. She decided that it was important that we all graduate to high school together, so she took us all on. She had experience on her side, and a student teacher for the second term, but still — a mammoth undertaking.

I don’t know if this was an experiment in self-sorting or if she was just too tired out by Spring to do things any differently, but for the final novel study of the year, she offered each of us a choice. Janet Lunn’s newly-published Shadow in Hawthorn Bay, a “challenging” historical novel with a girly pink cover, or Robert O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah, a much shorter read with some kind of spaceman on the front cover and promises of post-apocalyptic adventure.

She talked about each book. I had already made up my mind.

Choice

It was a no-brainer. I fidgeted, waiting for her to get to the end of the alphabet (T for Thomas), and when she did, I snatched up a copy of Z for Zachariah, relieved that there were still a few left. Funny thing, most people seemed to want Shadow in Hawthorn Bay. Even some of the boys.

Maybe I hadn’t been listening properly when Miss Beaton described it. Maybe I’d been busy staring at the spaceman on the cover of the other book. It didn’t matter.

I had my book. I tucked it into the opening of my desk and started reading.

Fallout

I think it was recess that day when Miss Beaton asked to speak with me. She wanted to know why I had chosen Z for Zachariah. It wasn’t because it was a shorter book, was it? Because she didn’t think I was one to back away from a reading challenge. Really, she thought I would find the other novel a more suitable reading experience.

I still remember how my face heated up. I loved Miss Beaton. I didn’t want to displease her, but I was already partway into Z for Zachariah and fully hooked. Memory says I gripped the tiny paperback, prepared to defend it with the safety pins in my jeans if need be. (Don’t ask. It was an 80s thing.) More likely, I stared at my shoes and stammered something about really wanting to read this book.

She let me read it. When we broke into our novel study groups, I understood better that I had picked the group that didn’t “fit.”

Most of the stronger students and nearly all of the girls were in the other, larger group, reading Shadow in Hawthorn Bay. I was in a smaller group, a handful of students led by the student teacher. It was the reluctant reader group, to use today’s terminology.

These were the kids who got detention, the kids who got into fights. The kids who skipped class to smoke… or at least said they did. Several of them I barely knew, despite having attended school together for eight years. Remarkable and sad when I think of it now, but at the time, I didn’t question it. We were all far-flung planets, but my orbit was on the opposite side of the social sun from theirs.

But the thing is, I really loved the book. And I remember the novel study as a positive experience. And while there were no friendship bracelets or phone numbers exchanged, I had one or two interesting conversations with people I hadn’t had conversations with before. And that was a good thing.

I’ve read Shadow in Hawthorn Bay since, of course. It’s a fine book. But it wouldn’t have spoken to my 13-year-old self the way Z for Zachariah did. So even decades later, I can’t regret having chosen the wrong book. It was the right book for me at the time, and it brought me into contact with people I hadn’t spoken with much before. We traded ideas and talked about nuclear disaster and survival.

I’m glad I read it. I’m glad I had that experience. And I’m glad that I stood up for my choice and read what I wanted to read, and didn’t let the judgemental vibes I was picking up dissuade me. That wasn’t exactly a characteristic move back then. I’m proud for that geeky little eighth grader.

And, as my friend Susan Blakeney pointed out, what do I write now? Books for reluctant readers. Books for boys. Science fiction.

I guess your literary home is where your heart is.

How my Writing Group is like a Bumblebee

Because we’re always buzzing about something?

No. I was actually thinking about that old saying about how a bumble shouldn’t be able to fly, but the bee doesn’t know that, so it flies anyhow. However, a quick Google search put paid to that theory. I’m going to write my blog post anyhow.

Bumblebee at flower, photo by kmg (stock.xchng)

Keep flapping those wings!

My writing group is big. Ten people, give or take, with sometimes a member or two on leave of absence. It can, at times, be hard to get a word in edgewise. Sometimes, when a lot of people have work ready to bring to the table, we have to schedule our critique turns months in advance. It should be cumbersome. It should implode.

It flies.

So lately I’ve been wondering about that — about what makes a writing group work or not work. This is my second writing group. My first died of natural causes… six of us met in a writing course and decided to form a group. Over the course of a couple of years many of us moved away from the city, in opposite directions. Several of us had babies. The group drifted. I still adore them, and we still keep loosely in touch, but it just became impractical to meet up.

My current writing group, Critical Ms., has a fluid membership base. People come and go. Sometimes we have a waiting list. Sometimes we’re scrambling for members. Sometimes people leave, sometimes they come back. I think this flexibility is part of what has allowed the group to stay alive. It isn’t the same collection of people it was when I joined, but in all the ways that matter, it’s the same group.

Not everyone in the group is published. Not everyone in the group is interested in the same kind of writing. Sometimes we have to stretch a little, when someone wants to explore a form of writing that’s new to us. I don’t write poems, songs or non-fiction, but I’ve critiqued all three, and learned from the experiences.

We meet every second Tuesday. Same time, same place. We don’t change our meeting night if someone can’t make it. The group keeps going.

We each read the work being critiqued ahead of time. We each independently print off the pages and write comments on them, and usually write a sort of editorial letter to the author as well. But the magic happens at the meeting. Somehow, when those ten people around the table start discussing the work, ideas and insights arise that didn’t come from any one person at the table, but from the discussion itself.

Someone made a joke one week about the critique being greater than the sum of its parts. I’m not sure it’s a joke after all.

I don’t know if it’s the format that makes the group work. I think that’s part of it. I think that’s why Critical Ms. didn’t dissolve, like my first writing group, when the first members started to drift away. But that makes it sound like the group functions independently of the people in it, and that’s not the case.

The reason the group works is that we care. Every person in that room cares about his or her own writing, and cares about the writing of the other people in the room. We’re all committed to learning more about the craft. We all believe that writing works best when it’s not a solitary endeavour. We support each other… even when that support needs to take the form of (*ahem*) nagging. (That’s usually my job. I’m good at it.)

We critique thoroughly, but with respect. If one of us learns something useful or stumbles across a great resource or opportunity, you can bet that by the next meeting, we’ll all know about it. We celebrate each other’s victories. We secretly (editors, don’t read this part) boo each other’s rejection letters. Except the nice ones. Those ones count as victories, so we cheer those. Then we roll up our sleeves and get to work and figure out how to make the next submission count.

We’re choosy about who comes into the group, because this “play nice” strategy needs to be nurtured, but we each know that the group exists independently of any one of us. I think, in that sense, it becomes something of a privilege to belong. And maybe that helps us take the commitment more seriously.

I’ve been part of this group for a while now. Five years, maybe? I’m not sure. Some people have been there longer, others not as long. I missed some time when the whole cancer thing happened. Carole Enahoro, the woman who brought me into the group, flew off to England ages ago. A few times I’ve seen the group waver, and worried that even this solid little ship could shake apart, but somehow we always work it out.

When I joined Critical Ms., my writing life changed for the better. I started taking it more seriously. I learned a lot — so much — from the other writers in the group. I think that if and when you’re ready to get serious about your writing, the best step you can take is to find yourself a supportive, solid critique group. I’ll always be grateful to Carole for inviting me into hers.

If you can’t find one, make one — writing courses are a great place to find like-minded people, and CANSCAIP offers a bulletin-board-style page on its website for Members and Friends to post calls for writing groups. The Writers’ Community of Durham Region (WCDR) will be forming some kind of support system for starting up writing groups over the next year or so. Your local writing organization might have some kind of system in place as well.

Heck, you can use the comment space below to post a “writing group wanted” ad if you want, although you might do better on Twitter. There are online groups as well. That format didn’t work for me when I tried it, but for many people, it’s a great option. The important thing is that you find a group that supports and cares about what you’re doing.

I’d love to hear from you. Are you part of a writing group? Has it made a difference to your writing? How does your group work? And most of all, what do you think makes it fly?

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.

Cows and the YA Mafia

I don’t keep up on Twitter very well. I follow too many people. When I’m away for a few hours (say, writing) I end up scrolling past a great number of comments that I’ve missed. Every now and then, though, a combination of words will hit me between the eyeballs and make me want to click.

YA Mafia, it turns out, is such a word combination.

The YA Mafia is apparently a collection of high-powered YA writers who will use their influence for nefarious purposes such as anti-recommending writers who cross them. You can read rebuttals of it here (Justine Larbalestier) and here (Holly Black).

This made me laugh. I don’t know a lot of high-powered writers. Lots of writers, yes, but few in the same stratosphere as Holly Black. Still, I’ve had my share of ga-ga moments with Canadian writers whose books I loved… silly, fangirly moments like “Omigod, that’s Jean Little over there,” or “I’m sitting on a couch, at a party, with Barbara Greenwood!”

I’ve shared pizza with Arthur Slade and it’s possible that, due to large ocean waves and faulty bathing suit construction, Kathy Stinson and I may have seen more of each other than is entirely proper. All of these are people whose books I love. And without exception, every one of them has been friendly, kind and supportive.

I was talking about this with a librarian the other day. I can’t remember how it came up, but she was surprised to hear the extent to which writers help one another. I can’t vouch for the grown-up writers. But in Canadian children’s lit, I have never had a bad experience.

Some examples: just today, I emailed Arthur Slade to ask a really stupid question about dairy cow farming. I had misremembered. He grew up on a ranch, not a dairy farm. Still, he took the time to pass my question along to his father and to write back with an answer. He even included this picture.

Cow and calfCute calf, isn’t it? I think I shall name it Arthur.

A few months ago, at my publisher’s Christmas party, I met Barbara Greenwood. Yup, that was the couch incident. And once I got over my tongue-swallowing and managed to talk with her, I was amazed by how gracious she was. Not gracious like the queen, although I think in my mind she should be wearing some kind of CanLit crown. Gracious and approachable and friendly.

We talked about a time period I was researching, and she mentioned reading several mystery novels set in that time. Later, I followed up by asking her if she could recommend one or two. She send a two thousand word email listing a dozen different series and giving me specific suggestions within each.

And when the time came to paint Cheryl Rainfield’s apartment and help her move, who was there? Yup–fellow writers. We swapped rollers and book recommendations.

This is what I’ve come to expect from my fellow writers. Friendly faces. A general acknowledgement that we’re all in this business together and while it isn’t always easy, it is rewarding. A shared passion. Joy over one another’s accomplishments. Help when asked or needed. And I always, always try to offer the same.

So if there is a YA Mafia out there… let’s just say that to me, it sounds more like somebody’s novel premise than like an actual snapshot of the world of children’s writing. I might be just getting started, but I know I’m proud to be part of this group.