It’s all About the Language

It’s about the language, as Stephen King says in his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000). I heartily agree. The craft of writing is certainly about the language – the way in which a few simple words can create understandings or misunderstandings, as the case may be.

Whenever I sit and listen to my granddaughter Emma talk, I become totally fascinated with what kids say and how they use language. There’s a pretty good reason Art Linkletter had a hit TV show on his hands years and years ago.

Emma, who is almost four, is a master at cracking me up with her expressive use of language. She threw three toys up in the air the other day and as they fell to the floor all around her, she asked me, “Did I do it, Grandma? Did I juggle?”

“Well, I think it’s still going to take a bit of practice, sweetie.”

“Daddy can juggle . . . apparently”, she told me.

The way she tagged the word apparently on the end with just the perfect tone to suggest he had said he could but she wasn’t sold – I just burst out laughing. I asked, “Have you ever seen him do it?” and she told me, “Yes – he juggled for me yesterday.”

Hmmm – apparently her Dad can juggle and he did in fact juggle for her. She’s got the expressive quality down to a tee but perhaps the comprehension needs a bit of work.

Language can also evoke powerful images, sights, smells, and atmosphere. Consider this handful of words – He was an enormously fat man who smelled of cats and loneliness. With any luck I have succeeded, with these few words, in plunging you into a total physical and emotional reaction. In a split second the language can put us in touch with the fact that we all know this man – we can actually see him, we can picture what he’s wearing. With a tad of imagination we can smell him. We can even visualize what his house might look like.

Think about those few words. They can take a writer just about anywhere. This character’s life of cats and loneliness is because he spent his best years caring for a dying parent or a crippled sibling. Or maybe it’s not as melodramatic as all that. Maybe it’s just the grindingly sad reality of some people’s lives – spinning out over time along a certain solitary trajectory and no one and nothing came along to change things. He didn’t want to end up enormously fat, alone, smelling like cats. It just sort of snuck up on him. Or maybe being fat and never bathing so he smells like a cat box is his one way of flipping the whole frigging world the finger and he gets a total charge out of every single face pulled in disgust that he encounters. Perhaps he’s not fat at all – maybe the giver of the description is suspect. Maybe he or she is paranoid about weight and has an overly sensitive nose. Maybe this suspect narrator is afraid of ending up alone.

This character could take us into the genre of horror – he has a hidden basement room that is sound-proofed – the story may start with his backyard being dug up by a forensic team. He can take us into the realm of the tragic as we explore just how lonely and stark his life has turned out to be. Or we could have him walk out of his house and somehow have a near death experience that totally changes his life – he gets rid of all the cats, becomes the guy who loses 150 pounds by eating one Subway sandwich a day. He runs into the prom queen from his old high school, gets married and lives happily ever-after. Or perhaps his whole lonely and tragic life might suddenly find meaning as he throws himself under a metro train to save a baby whose stroller has rolled onto the tracks. The possibilities are legion.

It’s all about the words, the language. Give it try – spin a yarn for this man. Or maybe spend some time really listening to how a child makes use of language. I’m betting you’ll end up laughing and appreciating language in a whole new way.

Emma the Thinker

Bloggers note – thanks Matt for being a Dad who can juggle and for overhearing such an excellent little snippet of language in your daily travels.

Creativity Takes a Special Kind of Focus – Doesn’t It?

The act of creating – no matter the medium or result – takes time and space. Creativity is a process that demands letting the mind wander around a bit – you need to start-up and down various paths, noodle about here and there. Wool gathering or day dreaming – whatever you want to call it. You need quiet time to be creative.

While loving every single second of my visit with kids and grandkids, I will say from the outset it is not an environment conducive to creativity. I have always considered spending time with my grown children and their families akin to travelling in a foreign land. Each generation just naturally lives in a somewhat different world. The culture our grown children maneuver with ease is often not that of their parents though they may have moved no further than up the street.

So, I tread lightly, do a lot of observing and tagging along and I try to immerse myself in this new culture. My mind does definitely wander around at times as I explore and sink in but I call it more of an endlessly spinning monkey mind that latches onto the most bizarre things.

I was in on a shopping trip to the State the other day. We drove past a somewhat seedy building with a sign that read, “lash bar.” My mind began spinning like a hamster in a wheel. Was it a place where you get your lashes done while having a drink?  Or maybe some type of S&M spot where you get lashed, hopefully still with the possibility of a drink? Perhaps it was a place that sold whips? Or – this is really out there – but could the first or last letters of the words have been missing – maybe the sign was meant to read – flash bar or slash barn. But neither of these options brought me any closer to understanding what might go on in such a place.

Then I became overly concerned about why they only sell cinnamon-fire jolly rancher candy in the States, but for some strange reason you can’t take Kindereggs from Canada across the border into the USA. I can’t imagine why Canadian citizens can’t have cinnamon-fire candy or the people of the USA can’t have Kindereggs.

Today, I tagged along to an indoor play place for kids – you know the type of place with tons of toys and play structures with long slides. I couldn’t keep my eyes or my mind from the sign on the wall that proclaimed, “ask about our grop rates” – hmmm – oddly disturbing.

Tonight I went to a local church bingo where a new bingo caller was making her debut. OMG – I guarantee one thing – you will not find a tougher crowd to please than a group of bingo players. The new caller’s voice was too sharp, she was too loud, she wasn’t loud enough, her timing was off, she didn’t wait long enough between when she placed the bingo ball up on the monitor and when she actually said the number – and on and on it went through the entire evening. The hisses and moans at every error the poor woman made led me to conclude that people who play bingo on a regular basis are hard-core candidates for a diagnosis of OCD or maybe just plain mean. I wondered if eggs or overly ripe tomatoes might get thrown. Then to my wonderment the crowd gave the woman a round of applause at the end of the night. No doubt a tribute to the fact that she was still standing by that time and not hiding in the corner with a bag over her head!

As you can probably deduce, none of this monkey mind wandering has helped me come up with a blog idea – or has it? Better qualify that – not the blog posting I thought I wanted to write. The next time I’m planning a trip into this very enjoyable and fascinating culture that is my grown children’s world, I am going to come prepared. I will do my creative wool-gathering ahead of time – come up with a few good ideas and brainstorm mini outlines for them.  Then I can just write in the little pockets of time that come available and not worry about coming up with the blog post I thought I wanted to write.

My Self-Publishing Decision

The act of beginning to write, trying to say anything of importance, as T.S. Eliot (1990) so aptly describes, feels to be “a raid on the inarticulate, with shabby equipment always deteriorating” (p. 203) and yet somehow I have forged on.

Yesterday I finished rewrites on Disappearing in Plain Sight and today I printed out yet another hard copy, which I have vowed to leave in pristine shape. I don’t want to restructure or rewrite anymore. Ya right – good luck with that one. I know I still have grammar edits to do and typos and unclear or overly run-on sentences to correct – I’ll work on those things with my copy editor, but when it comes to restructuring, moving pieces around, etc. etc. – no more – please. It felt positively traumatic to pull the whole thing apart and then carefully stitch it back together again – necessary, but painful.

I have decided to go with FriesenPress  ( ) for my adventure in self-publishing. A few things swayed me in their direction – some the result of solid research and reflection and some not. They are able to offer everything I want out of this self-publishing experience in one place, working with one person to overview the entire process. To me this means (and I sure hope it works out this way) that I will be able to establish a relationship with, what they call, my author account manager who is dedicated to the task of coordinating every aspect of my book project – and that is a direct quote!

I was also swayed by the personal touch – when I first filled out the author information form, on their website, in order to download their author’s guide, I was required to give my phone number.  Within a day I received a personal phone call. A follow-up call came after a few weeks and finally I was offered a number of extra services on top of the package I had already been leaning toward, for no extra cost.

FriesenPress also offers me distribution and marketing assistance. Going piecemeal about e-publishing, getting a book cover design, getting the manuscript formatted into print-on-demand shape, would have cost less for sure – but there would have been no help with marketing.

When I was teetering on the fence, I happened to check out their blog ( ) and I was very impressed – informative blog posts, a series of podcasts, and a great feel to the whole site. And finally – my non-researched swaying point – my mother’s maiden name was Friesen. I know even letting something like that enter into one’s consideration when making such an important choice is silly but still . . . remember my blog – My mother was a real writer ( – what can I say? FriesenPress it is!

Feel the fear and do it anyway!

Eliot,T.S. (1990). T.S. Eliot: Collected poems 1909-1962. London: Faber and Faber.

Gardening in the Wilderness

I’m going to shift gears a bit today and write about my garden. This is partly due to separation anxiety. I love my garden and I’m going to leave it for three weeks. I’m leaving at a time when there will be many wonderful and appealing things happening! Well – I love my kids and my grandkids more.Image

Gardening in the wilderness presents lots of challenges among the many, many rewards. Clearing for garden space is labour intensive – the ground is uneven and filled with roots and stumps. We aren’t immune to visitors who can cause havoc.

Billy Bob the bear wandering the garden paths

Every garden space has to be regularly augmented with soil we either need to provide through composting or bring in by the truckload. Building garden structures to set off the limits between garden and wilderness takes time. Perennial plants are far more expensive now than they used to be and forget about buying flats and flats of annuals like the old days. Way too costly. We also don’t have the time we used to have to grow all our annuals for the vegetable garden and flower baskets from scratch.       

Ahh – but the rewards and how we go about addressing these issues is worth noting. We have become very tolerant of working around stumps – they provide a nice contrast to tended beds and when we consider how hard it is to remove a stump – we pat ourselves on the back and tell each other how really great that old stump looks! The visitors may cause havoc but they sure did lend themselves to great pics.

Looks like a guy in a bear suit but it’s Billy Bob going after the huckleberries

Composting is good for the soul so it’s good to be motivated to actually do it. We love every single garden structure to such a degree that we immediately forget the work involved. Not buying so many perennials really has its advantages. Sometimes we have ended up with a backlog of plants in pots and no cleared areas to put them in. Not the best way to go about clearing – though that has advantages too – we’ve ended up concentrating on gardening when we didn’t think we had the time and loving the results. Lately we have been dividing our own perennials and asking for bits of things from other people’s gardens. Ask and you shall receive is a pretty good bet with most people who love gardening – they also love sharing! We’ve really become adept at looking around for bargains – this time of year you can find perennial prices just slashed. Annuals may be showy and nice but they are a lot of work for the amount of time you get to enjoy them – we concentrate more on the perennials that give quite the pay back year after year as they mature.

A garden in the wilderness has to look a bit wild so the contrast between the borders of the true wilderness and the cultivated areas blend and blur. Though we sure don’t want to see deer wandering  through the garden – it can be picturesque.

My garden is the template for Izzy’s garden(check out my board – Izzy’s garden –  on Pinterest )  in Disappearing in Plain Sight – though I was able to make her garden at least three times the size! Oh – the freedom of fiction. But fiction can cross the line into reality just as truly as reality can cross the line into fiction. After reading about Izzy’s garden we wanted garden art for our own garden.  

I’ll miss this garden over the next three weeks. At the same time one of the great things about gardening in the wilderness with a partner is that someone will keep an eye on things. I look forward to the changes I will see from the perspective of not looking for a while.

(Bloggers note: I use the word “we” pretty loosely in this blog – the hard labour work in the garden as well as the actual building falls, almost exclusively, to my husband Bruce – I am the partner who wanders the garden trails enjoying what I see and pointing out what needs to be done – not a bad gig – I don’t think I’ll trade spots with him! But I do want to thank him!)

A husband and a granddaughter – pretty cute

Writing about Writing turns out to be Writing about Everything

I started this blog with zero research. Now maybe this isn’t something to brag about, but I’m not convinced it was a bad thing either. Someone told me that if I wanted to self-publish it might be a good idea to have a blog to promote my book. I said – what would I write about? I’m not the type of person who is comfortable with self-promotion, so I couldn’t see myself doing ongoing writing about how much everyone needs to read my book. The person said – write about what you’ve just been telling me – the process you’re going through as you proceed to self-publish your first novel. OK – I said. So, away I went, writing this blog – somewhat like an innocent lamb going to the slaughter.

Imagine my surprise when I actually got out in the blog world and read an entry in Kristen Lamb’s blog entitled, Tipping Sacred Cows – Why writing about writing is bad. ( Naturally the title caught my attention – who doesn’t love tipping sacred cows and the subtitle of my own blog is, writing about writing – I was curious about what she had to say about how what I was doing was bad. Another shock came when I realized that there are apparently many blogs with writing about writing as their theme – hmmmm – perhaps that would have been a good thing to know.

Lamb mentions five points. If our blog is just about writing we will, first – limit our following; second – limit our own content and lead to our own burn-out; third – our whole blog is in danger of collapse if we decide to change topics; fourth – just increase the competition to sell our own book since writers (who are, by the way, trying to sell their books) tend to group around other writing blogs; and finally – writing blogs aren’t creative.

Lamb elaborates on each of these points and I urge you to read her stuff – it’s engaging and in your face. What I took from her blog post was that we could write about writing if we wanted to but we better also write about everything else, so why not expand our reader base from the start by not declaring that we will be writing about writing. Confused yet? I was – sort of.

Writing about writing, for me, is already about everything else because my writing seems to be  about every single thing that has ever happened to me. I start at one point, with one idea, and very quickly I jump all over the map, throwing in everything including that proverbial kitchen sink. That has been a fairly natural process for me.

I do quibble with Lamb’s last point – writing blogs aren’t creative. That just depends – doesn’t it? I think a blogger can be creative with any topic. Not everyone is interested in writing, or the writing process, or even the process of trying to self-publish – fair enough. Lamb suggests making a blog attractive to the widest possible audience.

My novel – Disappearing in Plain Sight – is about a group of people who live in a fairly isolated area, on a lake – one of the main characters is a trauma counsellor who works with young people. Another couple of characters run an organic bakery with an outdoor wood-burning oven. One likes to drink wine, garden, and cook. Many of the characters are dealing with issues related to grief and how you begin to live again when you’ve lost someone who has been pivotal in your life. Desire is a major theme – and how we can’t always control who we desire or who we attract.

I see lots of room for expanding my blog along the lines of any of the above topics. To say nothing of what it’s actually like to live in a cabin in a semi-isolated area, on a lake, with an independent power system, a husband, a dog (an 8-year-old rescue dog who came from East L.A. of all places) – visiting kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews – constant building and renovations and gardening. The sky is the limit.

Sunset at Crater Lake

A Smooth Style can only compliment Personal Style

Before I was taken over (literally) by the need to write this novel, I had done a lot of a different type of writing. I completed seven years of graduate school with an above average number of term papers, reports, and APA style journal articles to show for the effort. I am proud of my accomplishments in this arena but I must say – at the end of the day, it’s hard to feel an emotional connection to a lot of that writing. I was ready for a change.

That is my way of explaining why I approached the act of fiction writing with the attitude that no reference material was required. I wanted only my own thoughts to be recorded on the computer screen. Except for the Anne Lamott book, bird by bird, that I recommended in an earlier blog – the idea that I could benefit from books related to writing style never flew anywhere near my radar. I didn’t want other people’s ideas.

Well – the things we need come to us when we need them or when we’re finally ready to see they’ve been there all along. Once I had developed a smidgen of confidence in my ability to create, I was ready to access a few second opinions. I purchased three books I highly recommend: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King; The Creative Writer’s Style Guide by Christopher T. Leland; and a classic – The Elements of Style by William Strunk & E.B. White.

Each of these books has devastated and enlightened me in equal measure. I realized almost immediately that I had committed every hackneyed, amateur, lacking in confidence, or ability, fiction-writing error, mentioned in all three books – thus my devastation. On the up side – having stuck my foot in my mouth to such a degree, and still having a 400 page manuscript, which more than a few people managed to wade through and enjoy, must mean something. I was open to being enlightened.

These are the major issues I have attempted to address in my most recent draft of Disappearing in Plain Sight.

  1. Resisting the urge to repeat myself – this is a huge one for me. It’s difficult to just let go and trust that readers will understand exactly what I want them to understand. But there is the rub, for sure – interpretation is in the hands of the reader.
  2. Letting dialogue speak for itself – there’s no need to say – she said sarcastically – if the dialogue doesn’t convey that then go back and change the dialogue (thanks for telling me this ages ago, Sarah!)
  3. Not telling too much too soon – give only as much information out as needed to keep the story moving (another thing someone told me from the very start – thanks Doug – now I’m ready to hear)
  4. Make very strategic and careful decisions related to moving the reader out of the present action to provide back-story details – another difficult thing for me. I just want the reader to understand these characters the way I do!
  5. Cleaning up point of view issues – it’s not a good idea to switch between the different characters’ inner point of view too quickly. The book I’m writing does involve a lot of inner dialogue and this has made this point a real challenge for me. I’ve had to make tough choices. Some pieces had to move around and some had to go in order to keep the point of view clear
  6. Being ruthless about the amount of detail I believe is needed to get my point across – I am really getting the idea now that broad brush strokes are better than endless fine detailing.

I don’t regret waiting until this later date in my fiction-writing life to work on the above issues. After innumerable drafts of this novel I have a clear sense of my own style. That’s not something I would have wanted to miss. Now I can benefit from the tips I have picked up from reading fiction style books. Although we all want a smooth fiction-writer’s style, no one should give up their own style. One must compliment the other.

A statue garden in a gallery outside of Tucson, Arizona

Attention to a smoother writing style has resulted in a detailed rewrite that is still ongoing. That, combined with the line-by-line style and grammar editing, means the actual publishing of the novel will not occur until early spring of 2013, but things are in the works to ensure it definitely will happen then.

I will share more about that in my next blog. For now, I am back to the rewrites.