Catching Up

Marigold magic

In bygone days when money was tight, we used to talk about getting ahead. No sooner would we feel like extra cash was on hand than an unexpected expense would loom on the horizon. We came to believe that anticipating the moment we would get ahead was a harbinger of disaster. Lately, the idea of catching up begins to feel somewhat the same.

I’ve been home for almost three weeks from a month of travel right after the regular busy summer schedule of visitors and gardening. And the summer did seem busy! With an ever-expanding garden, bears in the fruit trees, replacing our wood-burning stove, contemplating the purchase of a new vehicle and planning to reroof a section of the cabin – we were hopping.

Moving in the new stove

New roof

September is not usually a month I would choose for travelling. But with the garden produce at a steady trickle rather than a tidal wave due to cool weather and rain early in the season, I risked it. Of course, the garden took off the minute I was out the door. Bruce was kept busy with freezing blackberries and green beans and eating ten plus tomatoes a day.

Since my return, canning has been priority number one. Jars of dilly beans, stewed tomatoes, salsa, green tomato chutney, blackberry jam and relish have made their way to the pantry. And we have been enjoying the harvest with multiple veggie selections at every meal – green beans, squash, carrots, potatoes, the last of the cucumbers and zucchini as well as fresh parsley and basil.

Green cherry tomato pickles                    Salsa

Blackberry jam

We did manage a wonderful Thanksgiving turkey dinner here with guests from around the lake. A squash custard, green beans, carrots, fresh salad greens dotted with cherry tomatoes, newly dug potatoes, parsley in the dressing – all from the garden – competed for attention on a turkey laden table. And we got in a trip down Island to have our generator serviced. It was a gorgeous day and we took a lovely walk down at the spit in Campbell River.

Campbell River spit

A very dry September and the early part of October has meant a slow start to our micro-hydro system but what a bonus for the last of the garden produce. To say nothing of our local foraging for chanterelle mushrooms. They are coming in so crisp and bright!

Chanterelle bounty

So, lately I am not feeling like Francis Guenette, author of the Crater Lake Series. I’ve hardly had a moment to consider writing! That brings me to something I’ve learned over the course of the last five years of writing, self-publishing, marketing and just plain living. The living part matters. I can’t bring all that I am to the writing if all that I am is a writer.

MosaiCanada 150

This morning I woke up with an idea for how book five will end. That’s progress. Soon all the garden will be laid to rest with late fall storms, all that can be consumed will have made its way through the door, the lights will be bright with excess power and I will be writing again. The ebb and flow of life continues. I won’t be caught up but I begin to think that catching up is not an ideal I need to pursue.

Squirrel on the deck

Issues of Plot

Chemanius murals - Guenette photo

I’ve been pondering issues of plot. I often describe my novels as character driven rather than plot driven. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to say my books have no plot.

I recently read a post on Writers Helping Writers that has me thinking – why the emphasis on character over plot? Guest poster Dario Ciriello quotes C.J. Cherryh, a multiple award-winning science fiction and fantasy author, defining plot. “… a webwork of tension-lines between characters and sets of characters. You pull one [line] and one yanks several characters. It’s not events [that drive plot]. It’s tensions.”

Okay – music to the ears of the writer of self-defined character driven novels! The tension between characters drives plot. A character driven novel with enough tension is by it’s very nature developing plot as it goes.

The Writer’s dictionary defines plot as the way an author structures a series of events into a story. Typically, an author works at organizing events in a way that will pique the reader’s interest. Usually events are not resolved until near the end of the story. “A good plot is one that has well-developed characters who are engaging in several conflicts.”

Literary devices website   describes the five main elements of a plot. Before I list their points and add my thoughts, remember that plots are often broken into sub-plots and maybe even sub-sub plots. The whole idea of the web works well for me.

1. The exposition or introduction – characters and settings are established. The conflict or main problem is put on the table. I usually think of getting all the players on the board.

2. Rising action – series of events build tension and increase conflict. Once all my characters are on the playing board, it is inevitable that they interact and create tensions.

3. Climax – main point of the plot. This is where all the tension has been leading. I often envision the climax as a set of waves. I might have three or so climaxes before the main one, each wave crashing on the shore of the story a bit harder than the last.

4. Falling action – the winding up of the story. With a character driven novel that creates tension between sets of characters, this is a challenging stage. All the loose ends need to tie up. Well, except for those I choose to leave open-ended.

5. Resolution – good or bad, up or down, happy or sad. Endings should be satisfying. That doesn’t necessarily mean the reader agrees with how everything went down. It’s more about knowing I did a good job of making the events believable. Given what I described and the characters I let the reader know – the story makes sense.

I’m going to keep considering the idea of plot. But for now, I’m going to keep doing what works for me – multiple characters, multiple points-of-view and character interactions driving untold tensions. Let me know what you think on the issue of plot.

Wildflowers in Chemanius - Guenette photo

What Sort of Writer are You?

Little hummer takes a break

Recurring theme – someone asked me a question the other day: What are you working on now? I just stared. With a definite uncomfortable squirm in my chair, I responded, “Nothing.”

In another era, I wanted to be one of those women who had specific days when they did household tasks. You know the type – geez, you might be the type! Bathrooms on Monday, floors on Tuesday, dusting on Wednesday. I was more the madly try to clean up everything on the same day because company was coming woman. I could be seen running around in a state, dusting with one hand and pushing a wet rag with my foot over the dirty floor. Hoping for the best – cleaning with a lick and prayer, so to speak.

When I’m confronted with the question of what I’m currently working on and the answer is – nothing – I get a similar feeling. I want to be one of those writers who writes consistently. Like Stephen Leacock out in his boathouse every single day from eight until noon without fail. But I’m not. I’m the write until I drop and then fall into the doldrums believing that I will never write again type.

At the beginning of my master’s program, I read a book about writing your thesis or dissertation in fifteen minutes a day. It sounded wise but it was something I knew in my heart I could never accomplish.

My grandma used to say – You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. There is truth to the belief that one thing can’t be another no matter the effort put into transformation. I can no more write on a consistent and specific daily schedule than I could clean that way or create a dissertation in fifteen-minute blocks. It simply isn’t me.

When I’m not feeling uncomfortable with this state of affairs, I celebrate it. This is the fallow time. This is the gathering time. This is the time when impressions, ideas and connections incubate and grow until they burst forth in writing fury.

But there is still a part of me that feels like the sow’s ear and not the silk purse. What do you think? How do you manage your writing? Is it a daily, disciplined endeavour or is it an all out writing fury? And let me know how your garden is growing? Ours is doing not too bad Smile 

How is your garden growing

Where do you get your ideas?

Glass half full - Guenette photo

Recently, I was asked this question – How do you come up with the ideas for your books? The person asking was sincere in a desire to understand the inner workings of a novelist’s process. My first thought was that ideas are a dime a dozen. They’re everywhere, free for the taking. As Amy Tan wrote, “It’s a luxury being a writer, because all you ever think about is life.”

Neil Gaimon talks of how every profession has its pitfalls. Doctors are asked for medical advice, lawyers are asked for legal information, morticians are told how interesting their profession must be before the subject is quickly changed. Writers must bear the burden of being asked where we get our ideas from.

I scrambled to pull my thoughts together and make an adequate reply. I considered answering as Hemingway would. “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” From there all will flow. I rejected that idea. By quoting Hemingway I ran the risk of sounding like a literary snob and such an answer would have been unsatisfying to a sincere questioner.

Instead, I talked of how I spend a lot of time getting to know my characters. They are the ones who have all the ideas. I’m with Stephen King when he says that the best stories always end up being about the people, not the events. The only problem with this answer is that it begged the next question. Where do the characters come from?

Where indeed? Even after five forays into creating characters and stories that fill whole books, the process is as much a mystery to me as it might be to someone who has never done it. Fair to say, as Chuck Palahniuk notes, “My writing process isn’t a very organized thing.”

The more I think about how the books came to be, the more the indefinable nature of the work strikes me. It’s almost as if I have fallen victim to a strange reflective amnesia. Where on earth did those first characters in Disappearing in Plain Sight come from? I just don’t know. E.L Doctorow tells us, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights but you can make the whole trip that way.” He might have been wise to add that when looking in the rear-view mirror, one can see nothing at all.

The writing process is a hard thing to discuss. Virginia Wolfe had it right when she reflected that, “Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of … life, every quality of … mind is written large in his [or her] words.”

All I know for sure is that all my life I’ve wondered about people. I’ve always been curious and I’ve always been prone to wild bouts of speculation. Questions of ‘what if’ have often driven my thoughts.

Maybe George Orwell has the answer. “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one weren’t driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” Orwell could have also noted that having to talk about such a process is worse than going through it!

A new bird in town - Guenette photo

Enjoying the Forest

Spruce Bay old growth forest, April 10, 2010 - bruce witzel photo

When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest. (Stephen King)

Forest trail - Guenette photo

Stephen King’s words caught my eye this morning. I’m gearing up for life after the completion of my latest novel and I feel plagued by all the emotions that go along with the ending of any major project. I brought a ragtag and often chaotic assortment of threads, ideas and character voices into being through writing, rewriting, editing, proofing and formatting. I produced a book that I feel confident to launch into the world. Finishing such an endeavour is cause for celebration and, at the same time, leaves me feeling at loose ends. It is indeed time to step back from scanning and identifying the trees to look at the forest.

View from the repeater tower (2)- Bruce Witzel photo

Time to enjoy the fruits of my labour, celebrate the accomplishments and move on! Sounds like a plan.

Crater Lake Series promo photo

How do you cope with the ending of a major project? Jubilation, conflicted emotions, uplifted, let down?

Ode to Joy–Holding My New Book

Me and the new book - back cover

I suppose the picture says it all Smile 

The proof copy of No Compass to Right arrived and, on first blush, it seems everything I hoped for. Of course, with proof copies, the devil is in the details. I discovered that uncomfortable truth the hard way with a previous release. I’ll be pouring over this one for a couple of days before placing my bulk order.

If you read e-books, you can pre-order a copy of No Compass to Right for release on June 1st. The big day is coming, folks!

Large NCR release banner (2)

And if all of that is not enough cause for celebration, I received another wonderful surprise in the mail yesterday. Delayed Mother’s Day gift – Bear Paw oven mitts. Many thanks to Kristen, Matt, Emma and Britney. Can you imagine a greater gift for out here at the lake? Now I can lift hot pans with my bear hands while watching bears stroll by – LOL. Wow – two goofy, happy pictures of me in one post. What is this world coming to?

Me and my mother's day gift

Bad Reviews – How do you handle them?

Misty morning spiderweb - Guenette photo

Okay – let’s be honest, folks …if you’ve ever written anything that you let loose in the public realm, you’ve found out first hand that not everyone loves what you have struggled to produce. It proves that old maxim – you can please some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time but you sure can’t please all the people, all the time.

Check out any of your favourite authors on Amazon – I mean the big-name favourites. They will have more than a few stinker reviews. Bad reviews are like taxes and death – inevitable.

So, how do you handle the one and two star reviews that really sting? I know of what I speak. Consider these recent reader opinions of Disappearing in Plain Sight:

Quit reading. Drag-you-drama, vile adults, helpless and hopeless teenagers. Too depressing. No desire to finish this story or follow the series.

Or what about this:

This reads like a first draft by a complete amateur … I tried. I couldn’t … if you told me this book was a high school student’s creative writing homework, I’d believe it.

Ouch! I thought of titling this post – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – after that one!

I read all my reviews … of course, I do. I share the one and two star ones with close friends and family who almost always give me a pep talk that ends with – ignore that review, the person is obviously a troll. I know that assessment is not true but a bruised ego will take comfort where it is to be found.

What I never do is interact with the reader who has given a less than salutary review. A good maxim here is: never explain, never apologize. I proceed from the belief that every review is some reader’s legitimate opinion and thus deserves to be respected. There’s a lot of books available through Amazon and a reader chose mine. This someone read, reacted and recorded his or her thoughts. That’s what the review system is for.

Listen up, now, because this part is important – not all bad reviews are written by people with axes to grind. Don’t take it personally. The best thing to do is accept legitimate criticism seriously and leave the rest.

I do my job when I create a story, do the work of rewriting, editing and formatting to the best of my ability so I can offer my novel to the public. Readers do their job by reading and sometimes sharing their opinions. The system works best when writers and readers stick to their jobs.

Let me know what you think.

Misty morning flowers - Guenette photo