Getting inside a Writer’s Head

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Now, if that title doesn’t scare you, it should – the venue can be a crowded one. A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to be interviewed on The Flying Pony Blog about my writer’s process. Pamela Cook knows how to ask some great questions. Welcome to Part 1 of that interview.

What activities (other than writing) get your creative juices flowing?

For me, creativity has a lot to do with carving out a space where silence reigns. I need alone time and quiet to allow my thoughts to percolate.

Walking has always been the time when I mull over ideas. For years, I thought of this as nothing more than daydreaming. When I started to write my first novel, the daydreaming became extremely focused on a group of characters (and, believe me, I’m still asking myself where they came from) and how they might handle being tossed into a variety of situations.

On a more abstract scale, I think my creativity comes from my curiosity. I’m always wondering – what if? This trait has made me a people watcher and every observation becomes more grist to the mill.

What kind of writing routine do you have – disciplined or undisciplined, regular or irregular, focused or easily distracted?

If I’m on my own, I can write twelve hours at a stretch. I might spend the whole day in my PJ’s, eating over the keyboard, and forgetting to allow the elderly dog out until she makes her needs rather vocal. I wouldn’t say this equals discipline; it feels more like obsession. But it is what it is.

When I’m alone, I feel extremely focused. I can dislike the dog, the ringing of the phone, and the need for bathroom and stretching breaks. When other people are around it’s easy to get distracted, but I am also thankful for a good reason to quiet the voices in my head for a time.

When I’m actively writing, I write every day. But I can’t maintain a pace like that for too long. I need extended breaks every couple of months. It’s necessary to leave the seclusion of a cabin by the lake and go out into the world, if for no other reason than the need for new material.

Do you ever suffer from writer’s block and if so what do you do about it?

I am happy to say that since I started writing fiction, I have rarely had a serious writer’s block. I did have the experience many times with academic writing, and it was excruciating.

When I get in a tangle with fiction writing, it’s because I’ve strayed off course. I’m zipping along the writing freeway and whiz down an exit ramp I wasn’t planning to take. The writing bogs down. I have to stop and figure out where I’ve ended up in terms of where I thought I wanted to go. This doesn’t always mean retracing my path – sometimes it means rethinking what has come before or what I have envisioned for later.

Which aspects of the writing life do you most love?

Hands down, I love the experience of being caught up completely in the lives’ of my characters. Having them become so real to me that I can’t let them go. I actually dream about them. They become part of my life. When this happens, the writing flows. It’s as if I can’t take down what the characters are doing and saying fast enough. I hear their voices. I know what they would say in a given situation and how they would say it.

What books and writers have most influenced your own writing?

I’ve been influenced by Canadian authors whose novels are firmly rooted in a specific place. Reading these novels gives me a felt sense of what it would be like to live in that area of my country. There is also the sense of understanding how people are formed by that particular environment. Some of my favourite Canadian authors who write in this way are: Alistair MacLeod (Cape Breton), Eden Robinson (Pacific Coast), Timothy Taylor (city of Vancouver) Jane Urquhart (rural Ontario), Elizabeth Hay (city of Ottawa, the Canadian North and the prairies), and Wayne Johnson (Newfoundland).

I think it has been this influence that made me strive to provide the readers of my novel with an understanding of what rural life, on the Northern part of Vancouver Island, on the Pacific coast of British Columbia, might be like and how that geographical area could affect the people.

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Reassessment Time

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If you’re over the age of two, I’m guessing the essential process of reassessment rolls around periodically. I admit to never enjoying this turn at the wheel of life. Think about it. The root word here is assessment . . . not such a terrific start. Add the revisiting prefix and you see what I mean . . . like it wasn’t bad enough the first time around. Just saying . . . .

This blog started out with the purpose of sharing my self-publishing journey. Was the intention to inspire and inform? I’m not sure. I’m a bit too ego conscious to make such claims. I wanted to write the kind of blog that I might want to read.

With that in mind, I’ve had a few struggles since Disappearing in Plain Sight was published, and these relate to the self-publishing route I chose. I’m not going to go on a rant. I will provide two enlightening links to material that I wished I had read before skipping, gleefully down my chosen path.

A discussion forum related to the various claims made by Friesen Press

Alliance of Independent Authors – and informative post on Agent Assisted Publishing

Suffice to say that I am now saddled with just about every negative part of the assisted publishing process they describe. I’ll let you, my astute readers, connect the dots.

One should always strive for balance when in the process of reassessment. My book is available through a number of distributor channels, the trade paperback and hardcover books are of good quality for the price point, the book is selling, the marketing guy I worked with was very friendly (well, to be honest, almost everything he gave me I could have gotten from the internet, but still – friendly does count for something), I may have spent a lot of money in my opinion of things, but it was only a fraction of how bad it could have been.

Have you ever had the experience where your priorities for choosing something were the entirely inappropriate things to be focusing on? (i.e. I grew up in the era of Trudeau mania and so I’m all gaga for Justin Trudeau, or Christy Clarke is a woman, and we should have more women as Premiers in Canada, so I’ll vote for her. Hmmm . . . maybe not the best logic.)

Setting out on the self-publishing journey, I was nervous. I wanted someone to hold my hand and lead me through the process. As it turns out, there was a high price tag for that service (upfront and ongoing) and the hand holding didn’t turn out to be all it was cracked up to be – like many such promises in life.

Here’s the crux of my reassessment: I didn’t know what I didn’t know, so I didn’t know what questions to ask when I went out Googling for information. I’m not sure what the answer to that dilemma might be. I’m sure blog posts like the one I’m writing now were out there.  

One kind person told me that every self-published writer has gone down a road or two they wished they hadn’t. It’s comforting to be in such good company.

Writing update: I wrote close to 5000 words yesterday and the first draft of The Light Never Lies is almost ready to be printed out in hard copy. When that happens, I’ll let it rest a bit before plunging through the pages on the lookout for glaring inconsistencies, parts that stretch the believability quotient, redundancies, and the vital emergence of themes that I didn’t even realize were there. I find it hard to believe that I can write something and actually miss what it is I’m writing – but it happens.

Epilogue – I am actively seeking a new road for the publication of The Light Never Lies. Insights welcome.

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The Value of Education

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As a student and an educator, I have spent many years in tune with the cycles of the school year. The sunny spring days of late April and May always make me think about the current school year winding down. Elementary schools look forward to outdoor sporting events and field trips. Teachers accept that concepts not hammered in by this time probably won’t take hold.

The university session is already completed, and intercession and summer courses are anticipated. There will be a different tone to those courses – good weather does something to the higher reaches of academia. (A reflection that obviously pertains more to areas where foul weather is a distinct possibility – as in most of Canada – maybe it doesn’t play out in California!)

This time of the year will always have me thinking freedom while September inevitably brings thoughts of new beginnings.

I came across a couple of quotes related to education that I want to share.

Nelson Mandela wrote, “Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.” I think Mandela would know what of what he speaks.

Here is a gem from the pen of Mary Jo Leddy – a Canadian writer, speaker, theologian and social activist. Leddy is widely recognized for her work with refugees at Toronto’s Romero House. “Education is about learning to hope. I invite you to anticipate this; that your education is for the sake of hope. It is meant to give hope to someone, somewhere, at some point in the future. Sometimes, somewhere, someone will ask you for a reason to hope. And then everything you have learned, every talent and skill you possess, all that you have become will be questioned and summoned forth. I know this will happen, at least once in your life.”

Marshall McLuhan, writes, “Is not the essence of education civil defense against media fallout.” McLuhan was a Canadian philosopher of communication theory; his work is viewed as one of the cornerstones of the study of media theory, as well as having practical applications in the advertising and television industries.

Paulo Freire, Brazilian educator, philosopher, and influential theorist of critical pedagogy, tells us that education can become, “. . . the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

The final word goes to Jean Vanier, a Canadian, Catholic, philosopher turned theologian, humanitarian, and founder of L’Arche, an international federation of group homes for people with developmental disabilities, who wrote that the purpose of education was to make people of peace.

Education as a means of change, education for the sake of hope, education as a means of defense against the almighty media voice that hums away below our conscious level of thinking, education for freedom and the transformation of the world, education to make people of peace.

I encourage all students and educators to reflect on the powerful role education has in our world; realize that each one of you is part of a strong wave of change that sweeps further and wider than you can ever imagine. By the very fact that you seek to know, to understand, to teach, and to learn, you are hope, defense, freedom, transformation, and peace. You are the change in the world that we all hope to see.

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(The top photo was taken on a 2009 trip across the country to attend my son’s wedding in Ottawa. We were in south western Minnesota and had to stop and take photos of this old, abandoned school house. The whole building was full of pigeons. The bottom photo was taken at the Fort William historical site in Thunder Bay, Ontario.)

I Go Public with Disappearing in Plain Sight

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Yesterday, I partnered up with my wonderfully extroverted friend, Marion, at the mall in the nearby community of Port Hardy. We rented adjacent tables, and she sold her beautiful, handcrafted scarfs and hats, and I sold my book.

What an experience. I wish you could meet Marion. She knows everyone there is to know197577_18156494096_8734_n[1] in Port Hardy. She called people over to the table and introduced, “her writer friend, Fran.” She told everyone she was reading the book, and it was fantastic. People she regularly has coffee with at a local diner, gathered around to talk and even buy a book.

 

I heard all about a new phenomenon in Port Hardy – wind mill guys (but there are also gals). A large wind farm is being installed on Knob Hill, near Cape Scott on the Northern tip of Vancouver Island. The project employs a lot of people from far and wide. Marion’s friend pointed a few of them out to me as they cruised through the mall on their way to the local grocery store. She nodded knowingly and said, “Wind mill guys”. She told of a fellow who showed up at the local Legion’s turkey dinner wearing a pair of $3000.00 shoes. She gave another sage nod. “A wind mill guy.”

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(One of the windmill blades being moved across the highway outside of Port Hardy on route to the site)

My writer’s imagination went wild with thoughts of a book about what happens to a small community when an influx of wind mill guys blow into town.

I chatted with a woman who is writing her own book with surprisingly similar themes. Thank the stars I have read widely because I was able to talk knowledgeably about various books people mentioned that they were currently reading. I had a chance to catch up with a woman I have known forever. She was in the mall with her oldest daughter and two adorable grandchildren. She bought a book and then her daughter bought one, as well.

People stopped and talked about health concerns, the local council, and the previous night’s very wild and crazy event at a local pub that featured a Newfoundland band.

I also heard a captivating story about some guys someone had once met who had been hauling a load of bathtubs across the prairies. They had some engine trouble and ended up stranded in a small town waiting for a part. One thing led to the other, and they were still there three days later. There was a heat wave going on, and a local blues festival had the camp grounds overloaded. The enterprising men had unloaded the bathtubs and set them up in a row by the river. They were filling them up and selling baths. According to the storyteller, people had lined up around the bend, dropping their towels by the open-air tubs and hopping right in. Only on the Canadians prairies, you might well conclude that. Once again my imagination was working overtime thinking about how I could work that story into a book sometime.

For my first public appearance to promote and sell my book, it went exceptionally well. I wasP1060756 thrilled with the way the book looked, copies of it stacked on the table. I enjoyed talking about the fact that I had written a novel and what it was about. I loved watching and interacting with “the locals” – remembering that I am a North Islander, too. It was delightful to ask people, “Did you want me to sign your copy?” And having them respond, “Of course.”

 

One comment about my photos for the event – I brought my camera with every intention of getting all kinds of terrific candid shots. I only took two pictures, and those were when we were setting up. If you want pictures of any event, don’t imagine you will have the time to take them yourself. Make sure you assign the task of taking photos to someone else. Lesson learned and noted.

Thank you, Marion and thank you Port Hardy for a great day!

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(Photo of me on Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles, enjoying the best ever Margarita. I felt this happy last night. I offer up a toast to everyone who made me first book outing so great.)

Baby Brit’s Bad Rep

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One day, while I was visiting with my two beautiful granddaughters, the following incident occurred. Emma (the four-year-old one) and I walked into the room I was staying in to see Brit (the twenty-month-old one) throwing my folded laundry off the hide-a-bed. Emma shook her head and said, “It’s always the quiet ones, Grandma.”

I burst out laughing whenever I think of Emma’s serious little face as she reflected on her baby sister’s antics. To say nothing of Brit’s determination to throw every item on the floor before we could stop her.

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Brit has a bit of a bad-ass rep. I know this is hard to imagine, what with those gorgeous baby blue eyes. I ask you – could two little girls look further apart in the eye department? Anyway, I think it is we adults who saddle kids with personality.

 

 

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Point in fact: Emma’s signature song is Bruno Mars – You’re Beautiful . . . just the way you are. This is how she got associated, at least in my mind, with this song. When she was under two, the song came on the radio, and we heard her singing in her cute little voice – just the way you are. We literally had tears in our eyes. The dye was cast.

 

 

 

P1060405Brit’s experience was different. She was trying to see if she could head plant off the hide-a-bed when the Olly Mur song, Troublemaker came on. Well – there you go. That is her signature song. “You’re giving me a heart attack, troublemaker.” Whenever the song comes on, we chase Brit around, laugh wildly, sing that line, and give her a good tickle.

 

 

The other day the song came on while the two girls were in the van with their mom. I was here at home, writing away. They started singing the song and pointing at Brit, who was all smiles. Emma’s mom looked at her, after the song was over, and saw tears running down her face. She asked her what on earth was wrong. Emma replied, “I miss Grandma.” Ohhhhh (you can all take a short break while I go and blow my nose.)

Moral of the story – timing is everything. You might end up being thought of as beautiful, just the way you are, or you might end up a troublemaker. It’s all a game of chance. But maybe having a bad-ass rep is good for a baby sister. As far as I can see, Brit is enjoying the attention.

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Give it all, Give it Now

“Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.”

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I was grateful to come across Annie Dillard’s quote this morning. As I work on The Light Never Lies, now and then I glance down at the word count and number of pages. I start a series of mental calculations related to how much is left to write, how many words that will amount to, and then add that to what I already have. This sends me into a tailspin. My fingers freeze over the keyboard. Due, I’m sure, as much to the problems I have with doing math in my head as to the final word count.

Writing a second novel is a new experience. I know how long Disappearing in Plain Sight was in manuscript form and the size of the printed book that ensued. Having that measuring stick in mind is difficult. I keep thinking that this next book should end up the same size and it doesn’t seem to want to play ball with me on that issue – it seems determined to be longer.  

I comfort myself with the fact that J.K. Rowlings’ last two Harry Potter books were massive compared to her first two. That doesn’t help. I suspect that it was the popularity of the first books that allowed her free rein to make the last two so much longer.

I start down the road of thinking I must cut characters and storylines immediately. That makes sense. If I keep on writing things that need to be cut, it will be so much more work to dig around and get it all out later.

Then I flip-flop to the other side of the case, and say to hell with this type of thinking. I curse the editing hat as it attempts to squish itself atop my creative hat. At its most innocent, this is bad fashion sense, at its worst, chaos.

Annie Dillard’s words set me back on the right course. The first time through, I’ll write the story that I want to write. I’ll allow characters to push themselves into the story, gaining a prominence that wasn’t outlined. I’ll allow storylines to come out that I never expected. I’ll include dialogue that shocks even me. I’ll stop worrying about being maudlin or cracking jokes that don’t seem funny to anyone but me. I’ll give it, give it all, and give it now.

Stephen King tells us that the first draft is for the writer, the following drafts are for the reader. I have learned the truth of that statement. I need the first draft. It is there that I find themes I didn’t recognize as I wrote. I find the tiny gems I want to tweak or subtly twist. Without the freedom of expression in this first draft, the further drafts will be crippled. 

I’ll end with a gardening analogy. If you radically weed too early in the year, you risk pulling out the tiny new plants right along with the weeds.

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A Glass of Wine and a Chat about Disappearing in Plain Sight

I have a treat for my readers today. Gwen Stephens, from the 4 A.M. Writer, has stopped by to ask a few questions about my recently released novel, Disappearing in Plain Sight. We grabbed a bottle of wine and made our way out to the cliff deck to admire the view as we chatted.

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af195236a2498a7558d173d00197c7ce[1]Gwen: The characters of Disappearing in Plain Sight struggle with a wide range of issues: alcoholism, infidelity, promiscuity, to name a few. Your background in professional counselling made me wonder if your characters are a composite of clients you’ve worked with in the past.

DSC_0035Me: Maybe, probably – yes and no – it’s a tough question to answer. By virtue of getting to a certain stage in life, anyone of us has interacted with, been close to, or loved people who experience a wide range of challenges when it comes to coping.

Counsellors, because of the type of work they do, hear a great many stories. I think the experience of that kind of focused listening made it possible for me to have a wide imagination for the types of things that can happen to people and how those past events echo into current thoughts and feelings.

The counselling experience may have broadened my perspective, but ultimately, it’s all of a writer’s life that contributes. Does that make any sense?

Gwen: Dan is a misguided Catholic priest whose character traits defy the public stereotype. That made him so much fun to read. In recent years, controversies within the Church have proliferated in the media. Did you draw upon this when creating Dan?

Me: Whew! If this is a common type of question for readers to ask, I might be in trouble. Take a deep breath here, Fran! In a past life – no folks, not that kind of past life – I worked within the Catholic Church as an educator and organizer. Being employed by the Church, as opposed to being a person sitting in the pew every Sunday, is a different reality. You see the people you work with in a different light, you hear stories you might not otherwise hear. The gloves come off, so to speak. No matter where we are employed, I think it’s the same. We get to see an underbelly we wouldn’t normally be exposed to.

Gwen: Liam is one of my favourite characters. He interacts with one of the other characters in a way that many readers would deem inappropriate, if not shocking. As a writer, you took a big risk with this plot thread. Did you grapple with whether or not to include it? Did earlier drafts take a different direction?

Me: Liam’s story arc was set in my mind from the beginning. That is not to say it wasn’t a risky thing to write or that I didn’t struggle to pull it off. There are parts of the book involving him that were rewritten so many times I despaired that I would ever manage to capture the tone and nuances I wanted.

I guess the real challenge was to coax the reader along, slowly revealing the layers of Liam’s character in such a way that when he missteps (which is complicated), you can understand – though not necessarily agree with his logic. He is undeniably the person who will make people think about the concepts of right and wrong.

In Disappearing in Plain Sight, Liam has found a peace of sorts, but it’s based on the fact that he doesn’t have a lot to lose anymore. Up the ante for him, give him a life that he wants desperately to hold onto (The Light Never Lies) and the type of guy he made himself into (quiet, easy-going, non-advice giving) will be sorely tested.

Gwen: Caleb’s untimely death had a deep and lasting impact on Liam, Izzy, and Beulah. From a writing standpoint, why did you decide to include his death as backstory, rather than as a “live” chapter or scene?

Me: One reviewer described Caleb as the moral compass of the group – he’s a strong character, even when you know from the very beginning of the book that he has been dead for two years. It’s only in retrospect of the writing that I realize the answer to this question. I wanted the reader to grapple with the same issues the characters do – Caleb is gone, he isn’t coming back. He’s a man of the past. Life has moved on beyond him.

Gwen: I loved the Lisa-Marie/Justin/Izzy romance triangle for its complicated, unrequited feelings. Can readers look forward to this storyline’s continuation in your sequel, The Light Never Lies?

Me: Most definitely!

A reviewer wrote that Disappearing in Plain Sight, rather than centering on one protagonist, follows a group of people. Many will argue that is no way to write a book. The first character the reader meets should be the main character.

Lisa-Marie jumps to life on the opening pages of Disappearing in Plain Sight and lo and behold, there she is at the beginning of the Light Never Lies, as well. Does that make her the protagonist? I guess time will tell.

Lisa-Marie and Justin’s story isn’t over; then again, neither is Liam and Izzy’s.

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The sun has set, and the wine is gone. It’s time for Gwen to head back over to her 4 A.M. Writer blog. I hope you have enjoyed our conversation as much as we have. The only thing you missed was the wine and the view!