Do you remember doing that weird thing with your arms when you were a young teenager? You know, the trick where you took turns with your friends standing in a doorway with your arms by your side and the back of your hands pressed hard against the frame? You applied pressure for a full minute then released it and stepped from the doorway. Letting your arms go slack you impressed your friends and yourself when your arms began to slowly rise all on their own.
It was as if someone had cast a magic spell on your body, wasn’t it?
I shocked myself yesterday. I was eating lunch, taking a break from writing my genealogy column when it struck me: I hadn’t included my writing job.
Let me back track to explain. While at the farm store yesterday morning, I saw a poster looking for Canada census takers. I decided it would be an interesting experience, and since I write a genealogy column, I could write about it.
Once the decision to self-publish was made, I had to change my way of thinking. Instead of trying to get noticed by traditional publishers, I had to learn how to do what they did.
I began searching the Internet for stories about indie authors. Actually, in May 2010 I hadn’t yet heard the term indie author. That came several months later. Before then, I referred to those who published their books as self-publishers.
Last Sunday, my daughter and I went to the theatre to see Gnomeo and Juliet. I’m not a Shakespeare fan, but I am a gnome fan. As a writer and reader of books on how to keep readers involved and excited about a story, I watched the tale unfold through my 3D writer’s glasses.
I studied the first meeting of the young lovers in the dilapidated greenhouse and noted the use of the ‘keep the action moving’ method utilized to tease movie goers and entice them to watch for the outcome. It’s a short scene, but highlights the essential tools authors can also use to keep the pages turning.
Although we see it played out in movie after movie, many of us don’t grasp the idea of getting our characters in trouble then deeper trouble then even more trouble to keep the action rolling, the suspense building and readers reading.
For example, the director of the movie could have had the two characters stumble upon each other, fall into the greenhouse and argue over the beautiful flower. Boring. Instead, the characters teased each other by claiming the flower as their own. Each time a character nabbed the flower and tried to get away, a piece of the greenhouse broke, causing them to fall or lose their balance. This gives the other the opportunity to grab the prize and try to escape. But they, too, fall victim to the greenhouse’s weak state and lose the flower. Eventually, no one gets the flower, but through this sequence of action, we observe the two strangers falling in love.
This scene is well balanced and ends before viewers receive too much back and forth action. For certain, this type of ‘attention grabbing’ can be overdone. I use all the Ice Age movies as examples. If I see one more clip where that squirrel is chasing the nut he’s always losing, I’m going to throw myself off a bridge. It’s over done to the point it’s sickening. It’s a cheap money grab by people who have no idea when enough is enough or how to fill 90 minutes with quality story.
Some may disagree with the character being pushed from a plane, their parachute not opening, the emergency chute failing 50 feet above an old shack, them crashing through the roof, sliding off a pile of hay, being chased by a mean dog, tripping over a water bucket, being shot at by a wily hermit, being wacked in the head by a garden rake and landing in a the pig muck . . . but others love it.
Many times over the past twelve years, I’ve been asked, “How do you do it?”
The it referred to is the amount of words I can write in any given time frame. Usually, my answer is, “I don’t know. I just sit and write.” Or “I’m addicted to writing and easily inspired, so can’t help but write every day.”
But perhaps there is more to this answer.
On Friday night, my co-workers and I watched the wind, rain and snow storm sweep across the Atlantic Canada on the Weather Network. Supper had been busy, but as 9 o’clock neared, business dropped off; people didn’t want to leave home for a pizza. Still, the odd order came in for delivery. The driver would return, wetter than before, commenting on the wind and the rain.
We all knew the temperature was predicted to drop, and we all hoped it would wait until after we closed. But it didn’t.
Around 12:30 am, the temperature at the airport was still at 7 degrees Celsius, where it hung most of the evening. By 12:45, I noticed it had dropped a degree. By 1:00 am, it was zero. We stepped outside to check the conditions. The rain that had created large pools of water on the roadway and had gushed up through man holes had turned to snow, flying in the high winds as if late for an important dinner date.
By the time we closed around 2:20 am, the roads were covered, door knobs were frozen and white-outs lurched in the shadows created by the street lights. The 17-minute drive home on the rural roads of Nova Scotia was going to be a wee bit longer tonight.
With the cars cleaned off, and one final customer who blew in as we were locking the door served, we started our journey home. Right about now, some drivers might have been gripping the wheel with white knuckles, peering through the windshield into the dark night and wishing to be anywhere but there.
That was me last winter. But after driving through so many storms, getting home from work or getting to work, I don’t feel that way any longer. One might say I have been conditioned for the road conditions.
Instead, I settled into the driver’s seat, heard I’m a Wildflower by the Janedear Girls on the radio and turned it up. I was instantly transported to a summer’s day where I was running through wildflowers in barefeet. The snow-covered roads melted away and the white-outs conditions disappeared.
Mind over matter: if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.
I put my speed on 40 km/h and by 2:50 am, I was pulling into my driveway, safe and sound with no extra worry lines.
Although skill has a lot to do with arriving home safely in a snow storm, there are many things that contribute to success: good winter tires, a well-operating vehicle, proper windshield wipers, winter boots and mitts in the back seat and a cell phone just in case.
Writing is a lot like driving in a snow storm. Some skill is needed, but other things contribute to success: a good dictionary, an eagerness to learn, a willingness to accept advice, books on various aspects of writing, keen eyes and ears, ability to wear another’s shoes, endurance, writing groups and workshops.
Not everyone begins with all these items in their tickle trunk, and for even those who do, they may not find the ability to write consistently. However, by utilizing these tools over and over again, a writer conditions himself to write more and more often. Whereas writing two hours a week may have seemed daunting, after a period of condition, a writer may write two hours a day without breaking a sweat.
Training to hike ten miles, learning to drive through snow storms and writing regularly every day is all in the condition.
The writing world is filled with pleasant surprises, disappointments and moments you may want to remember and forget. Sometimes you can expect that something different will happen. Other times, when you’re doing something for the first time, you’re caught off guard by something that is done to you or something that you must do.
One of those ‘strange to me’ moments happened Monday when I hand-delivered a copy of Mystery Light in Cranberry Cove to my daughter’s school. It all began quite innocently enough. While picking her up for an appointment, I thought it’d be a great time to donate my book to her school library. The office secretary pointed me in the right direction and asked if the book she carried was of special importance to me.
“Yes,” I said with way too little confidence. I hesitated to say more, hoping I’d escape without fanfare. See, I really don’t like fanfare, being the centre of attention. I know it’s something I should get used to. After all, this business dictates that I meet others and show off what I’ve done.
Taking the plunge, I said, “I wrote it.”
That’s where a simple drop off turned into something more. I was introduced to the librarian as the author. She produced a camera and wanted to take a picture of me and my book.
Gosh, I know I said I like old photographs of me, but I really don’t like getting my picture taken. Still, I took a deep breath, pulled my daughter under my arm and smiled. I smiled as though the librarian wasn’t going to steal my soul with that digital device. I smiled as if I had just been handed an award for my book. I smiled like I was never going to see that picture . . . ever.
Last fall, my sister gave me a 4×6 photograph I had never seen before. At least I didn’t remember seeing it before. It was of me and my sister, taken on a summer day at Liscomb Mills. If I had seen this picture shortly after it was taken, I probably wouldn’t have liked it. I never liked pictures of myself. However, time and forgetfulness has changed my opinion. I do like this picture now.
This change of heart reminded me of a folder of writing I had found not long ago. I had begun reading one of the stories and was impressed with how well it was written. I didn’t remember writing it, but it had to be mine. It was with other stories I had written. Although it wasn’t finished, it had great potential.
While reading another story in the file, one I was familiar with, I made a different discovery. It wasn’t as great as I had originally thought it was twenty years ago. It was filled with bookisms, bad dialogue and shallow characters. The spelling was fairly good, but the punctuation needed work.
The other stories in the folder were similar – some better than I remembered and some worse than I could imagine. Being able to read these stories with an open mind was a great exercise. Ideally, we should all put ten years between our so-called final draft and the copy we submit to an editor, but that’s not practical.
Many how-to books and writing websites recommend putting distance between you and your writing, snipping that umbilical cord to gain some perspective. Almost every writer becomes emotionally attached to their writing. It is why we fight against any changes, scoff at negative comments and roll our eyes at helpful suggestions.
But we shouldn’t ignore comments by others. Helpful criticism is just that – helpful. If you feel like rejecting comments without considering them, put them away for a while. Comments, like our own stories, need time to ripen, time to become void of emotions.
After a week or two or a month, read the comments again and then read your story. Try and imagine the suggestions put into action. Does it make your story better? Or have the suggestions missed the mark? If you disagree with the suggestions, see if something can be tweaked to see avoid any future similar suggestions.
For example, the person reading one of my stories added a few words to describe how a character was feeling. It was a simple addition in place of a missing emotion, but the emotion the person added was the opposite of what I had in mind. So instead of ignoring or adding the suggestion, I added my own, giving the character the emotions I wanted her to have to avoid future misunderstandings.
You don’t have to toss things in the closet and forget about them, but . . . who knows, after several years, you might discover a gem, a gripping story or a photograph you’d love to share with the world.
Some days I feel cursed. Other days, I can’t believe I’m this lucky. As the tenth of eleven children raised by parents both born in the 1920s, I was exposed to many different genres of music. As a result, on my MP3 player, you’ll find John Denver snuggled beside Bonnie Tyler, Loverboy and Rod Stewart squished between Donna Fargo and Buddy Wasisname, and Anne Murray rubbing shoulders with Helix and Andy Stewart.
Music has always influenced me in one way or another. It can enhance or change my mood depending on the day and the attention I give it. The melody of a song can set a mood, but it’s the words that can make me laugh, dance or shed a tear. The degrees of these emotions depend on whether I’m listening to the song or singing along.
But let’s get this out of the way first: I don’t sing well. However, I sing often.
Hearing someone sing their heart out may not tug on your aorta, but that may change if you put their words in your mouth. Personally, I can sit and listen to Son Run to the Spring by Cal Smith and ignore the story within the melody, but I can’t sing it with a dry eye. I become that boy who must run to the spring for water while my mother spares me from witnessing her silent death due to a long term illness.
Feeling the music can only be accomplished by putting yourself in the shoes of the song’s character. That’s not to say you’re Dean Brody, standing on stage in front of thousands of fans. You are the boy who must watch your older brother go off to war and wait for him to return (Brothers) and the young man who wonders about the lives of his high school girlfriend, his college friends and the girl who gave him up for adoption (Trail of Life).
Of course, you get the good parts, too. You’re basking in the sun on the Santa Maria (Trooper) and bragging about Who Wouldn’t Wanna be Me (Keith Urban).
Sure, you can just sit and listen, but you won’t feel the full effects of getting into character unless you sing those words.
Breathing life into the words you’ve written is done exactly the same way.
Before I submit anything, I always read it aloud. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 400-word blog or a 100,000-word novel, reading every word is the last step in editing. Actually, if I get stuck on a section of writing, I read it aloud. Often, it is all that’s needed to find that perfect word or the next sentence.
When I read, I take on the characteristics of the character. If I’m angry, I speak with anger. If I’m stumbling over my dialogue, then I stutter. Sometimes, I’ll use a Scottish or English accent, just to hear the story with fresh ears. It doesn’t matter if I get the accent right; the point is to make it different than how I usually speak.
Reading it aloud will point out problems in rhythm, uncover those words that sound too much alike and find words that have been accidentally left out.
In my novel, Mystery Light in Cranberry Cove, two of the main characters were Ellis and Alice. On paper, these names are easily distinguished. However, when you read them out loud in a sentence, they sound very similar – too similar for characters who will spend a lot of time together in a novel. In the end, I changed Alice’s name to Shona.
If reading your words doesn’t create the emotions you want to convey, then consider making changes. You don’t want to giggle in the middle of a tragedy and you don’t want readers to think a character is angry when he’s really trying to sweet talk his lover.
If you’ve never read your work aloud, give it a shot. Feel those words, make them yours. Guaranteed you’ll hear things from a new prospective – your character’s.
I love rambling along the garden path but a list reminds me I have important things to do.
More than a dozen years ago while taking a break from installing vinyl siding on a building we were renovating on the Shearwater Air Force Base, I took out a list I was following. Another worker – the fellow who amazed me by driving his motorcycle ten months of the year – leaned over and asked me what I was doing. I told him I was checking my weekly list.
He chuckled and said, “I used to make lists, but I’d never follow them. I’d have to make a note to remind me to look at the list.”
To this day I think about his comment every time I make a new list. He was right in many ways. People make lists all the time only to forget about them the moment they’ve been made. I’m guilty of that. I’ve made many lists over the years that were useless, useless in the fact that I didn’t follow them.
Still, it doesn’t mean lists are useless. Sometimes life gets in the way. Sometimes the things on the list weren’t as important as first believed.
In fact, lists are very important to me. They remind me of what I need to do. Without them, I ramble, dilly-dally, believing there’s nothing important to do, and I daydream, wondering what I might do.
Sometimes it takes a few weeks for me to realise I’ve been without a list for too long. It’s when it suddenly occurs to me that nothing is done on an assignment and the deadline is fast approaching, or a project I intended to start was forgotten about.
Making a list of things to do gets me moving forward. I check them off when completed, and if I finish the list, I feel as though I’ve accomplished something.
Do you find yourself floundering, wondering why you can’t get things done? Then maybe a list will help you get back on track.
Something caught my attention this morning while filling the bird feeder at the kitchen window; a crow with a grey collar. No, the crow wasn’t carrying a collar; it was wearing it. Let me clarify this further. It wasn’t a collar that could be removed. It was a collar of grey feathers.
The crow swooped by the window so quick, a glimpse was all I managed. I cocked my head, stared out at the frosty branch tips of the trees and reviewed my memory files, trying to remember if I had seen such a thing before. No, I hadn’t.
I stretched my neck to see if the strange crow had landed where I throw food for these feathered friends. It hadn’t. No surprise, I hadn’t yet tossed the green bread or left-over pancake outside.
Then, from across the field, the crow with the distinguished grey collar flew in and landed on the large evergreen beside the driveway. I stared at it. I was in awe. I had never seen a crow like that before. The two-inch wide grey feathers flowed neatly into the black feathers and completely encircled its neck.
Another crow flew in and perched on a branch just above Mr. Grey Collar. I leaned toward the window and squinted in the early morning light. That crow had grey feathers, too, except his were covering the entire back of his head. Another crow flew in. You guessed it; he, too, wore grey feathers.
All these grey-feathered crows began the cogs turning in my head. Regardless of what my eyes told my brain, it wouldn’t believe them. My brain wanted more information. So I stared and I watched and I observed, looking this way and that. Then I saw it; the rays of the morning sun sparkled on the grey feathers. Squinting more, I realised the feathers weren’t grey at all. They were frost covered. Given the -20 degree temperature, this was plausible.
After more watching, I realised my latest observations proved my hypothesis correct. Mr. Grey Collar was really Mr. Frosty Neck. I finished filling the bird feeder, hung it and the suet in the trees, then threw out the bread and pancake for the frosty crows.
Receiving a critique from someone is a lot like these frosty crows – sometimes it takes thought and observation to see the truth.
Two friends and I exchange short writing passages weekly. Sometimes when I receive a critique, I express my disapproval by throwing my arms in the air, doing laps around the kitchen and blurting out things. If I really disagree, I close the message and go on to something else, trying to forget about it.
After time has passed, I return to the message, reading it with a more opened mind. Sometimes I’ll agree with the suggestions. Other times I see why the suggestions won’t work. And then there’s that stubborn streak that won’t let me accept a change because I really – for some reason – want it the way I wrote it.
But just like that grey-collared crow, my brain won’t accept my answer. Something keeps needling me every time I read over the passage I refused to change for no good reason. In the end, I usually give in to the original suggestion.
After almost three years of exchanging critiques, I think I’ve finally got this stubborn thing under control . . . almost