Saturday, November 22, 2014

Pondering the next set of writing projects

As the end of November starts to slide into view and the sales process for the new Christmas novella swings into the automatic phase of appearance after appearance after appearance, I start to turn my mind to the next writing project.

As anyone who has read my earlier posts on this blog will know, I have been considering a number of different possibilities for 2015: a comic novel, a more serious novel that seems to be developing to of the comic novel, another collection of Abigail Massey historical stories for children, perhaps another Abigail Massey novel, and even a play project that would be developed out of A McAdam Station Christmas.

That's a long list, I know. And it may just end up that I actually pursue two, three, even four of them in the new year.

I have written about 15 pretty good pages of the comic/serious novel and I find myself continuously developing it as I wonder through my life.

I had a nice coffee with a friend the other day, a friend who has been strongly involved in the Abigail project over the past two years, and she has expressed an interest in creating a writers' group specifically to work on new Abigail children's stories. The idea would be that we find two more strong writers, toss around stories ideas together, then each of us go away and write a story for the others to review.

There are a lot of real advantages to this kind of approach, including the fact that it would become less a work project and more a social project and the fact that having four writers involved in the project would mean that we had four people helping to promote the new book once it is published.

The possibility of a new Abigail novel, meanwhile, got a jump start when, in response to a very simple story suggestion sent to me by a friend, I pumped out a fully developed plot proposal of more than 500 words for a possible novel. It surprised me that it came so easily: clearly I have been considering the possibility, at least in my subconscious, for some time.

And the play idea... well, that one might actually be the first on the list. A friend at work has earned a degree in screen-writing and is very interested in working with me on a play. And I think that, if we can write a decent stage play out of the Christmas novella, we could have it performed next Christmas at the McAdam Station or perhaps at a local theatre. That would provide a boost not just to the Station but to the sale of the Abigail books themselves.

These are interesting times... with lots of decisions to be made and lots of writing work to be done.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Leading up to launch

Launch day.

This afternoon at 2, we send my latest work out into the world with high hopes and the usual set of doubts and worries.

The weather is cooperating. Last Sunday, we were hit with a nasty winter storm, the first of the season, complete with rain, hail, snow and high winds. If our launch had taken place last weekend, no one would have shown up.

Today, however, the forecasters call for a mix of sun and cloud and a high near 10. That works for me. Works well.

Funny the kinds of things you worry about when you are about to launch a new book.

I've tweeted about the launch again this morning and I've facebooked about it. I have appeared in two local newspapers (photos in both, with big articles -- hooray!) and I have been interviewed on a local pop music radio station. Perfect timing on that one: Friday morning, just in time to advertise today's launch.

I think I can be confident that I have done everything I can possibly do to make this launch a success. Now it's just the nervous hours leading up to the beginning of the event. Five hours of pacing and wondering and hoping and trying to think of ways to pass the time.

I've already planned out my own remarks and I think I can count on the host of the event and the person I've asked to read a section of the book to the crowd to do a good job. As for me, I'm more nervous now (five hours ahead of time) than I am at the event itself.

If all goes well, we'll have a good crowd turnout, maybe even some media, and we'll sell a bunch of books. My favourite part is after the event when I get to sit at a table, meet the people and sign their books. It's fun and invigorating and interesting and many good things.

I just have to get through the next five hours.

Monday, October 27, 2014

A press release comes to life

So here's what I've been doing of late: writing press releases and other promotional material.

What do you think of this one?

New Brunswick Christmas novel supports McAdam Railway Station restoration

When he sat down to begin writing his latest work of fiction, Fredericton author Mark Walma knew he wanted to create a Christmas story “about New Brunswick, for New Brunswickers”.

The 49-year-old transplanted Ontarian is responsible for the successful Abigail Massey at McAdam Station children’s stories which, over the past two years, have sold more than 2,000 copies in support of the restoration of the historic McAdam Railway Station and Hotel in southwestern New Brunswick.

When it came to penning the next instalment in the Abigail Massey series, however, Walma decided he wanted to write a broader tale that not only would feature the characters he brought to life in the original three story books but would also bring together New Brunswick’s three major cultural groups – French, English and First Nations – in a Christmas story.

“This province has a rich literary tradition, with many wonderful poets, playwrights and authors, both past and present,” Walma explained. “I’m hopeful that my new Abigail Christmas novel will be considered worthy of taking its place with some of the wonderful New Brunswick Christmas stories that have been written in the past.”

Mark spent much of the latter part of 2013 researching and planning his new novel, culminating in A McAdam Station Christmas, a thrilling but heart-warming tale set against the background of a blizzard that paralyzes the province the day before Christmas.

The new book is, like the earlier Abigail Massey books, beautifully designed and illustrated by the author’s sister, Lynn Walma. Net proceeds, after printing costs have been paid, go to the McAdam Historical Restoration Commission.

“It’s an adventure story, first and foremost,” Walma said. “As a result of the massive storm, a varied group of people from different backgrounds is thrown together and forced to work together to attempt a daring rescue.”

Like all of the Abigail stories, the new novel takes place in 1941, with Canada at war and the McAdam Station serving as the gateway to the east for Canada’s war effort. It is written for young people (ages 8 and up) but, Walma hopes, adults will enjoy it too.

“I like to think it has something for everyone,” he said with a smile. “And the proceeds are still going to help restore one of New Brunswick’s historic and architectural treasures – the McAdam Station – so everybody wins.”

The novel is priced at $15, GST included, and is available at Artful Persuasion (York Street) and Covey Basics (Prospect Street) in Fredericton, at Simply Local, Eh (Water Street) in Saint John, in Woodstock at the Farm and Craft Market and Covey Basics, at W.W.E. Smith Store in Harvey Station and at several locations in McAdam (the Village Office, the Scotiabank and the Station itself).

There will be a pre-launch event, held in cooperation with Artful Persuasion and NB Liquor’s Saturday Sips wine-tasting event, on Saturday, November 1 from 11 to 3 at The Station on York Street in Fredericton.

The official launch of A McAdam Station Christmas will take place the following week, on Sunday, November 9 at 2 p.m. at the McAdam Railway Station and Hotel.

The author will also be making book-signing appearances on specific dates in November and December at the Boyce Farmers’ Market in Fredericton and at the special Sunday Christmas Markets, also at the Boyce Market. Check out for details.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Alumni magazines might just want to feature you...

Here's an idea on how to promote your writing: contact the alumni magazine of any and all colleges or universities with which you have been affiliated and see if they'd be interested in writing a feature about you and your creative endeavours.

Even if they're not, they will likely want to mention you in their "Books by XXX School Authors" section.

It's cheap and fairly easy. And I'm as surprised as anyone to find myself writing that.

I was back in Ontario this past week, you see, and thought, "Why not?" So first I dropped in on the editorial people at the alumni magazine for the law school I attended in the early 1990s. I expected yawns and suspicion.

What I got was keen interest, a modicum of excitement and a tape recorder dropped on the table in front of me for an on-the-spot interview. How exciting!

And when the editor told me that, once the article was written and published (both online and in the print magazine), it would be her job to try to interest other media in the story, including national media like the Globe and Mail and CBC TV and Radio.

Wow. I never thought they'd take that on for me.

Emboldened by that success, I then approached the alumni magazine of the University where I earned my undergraduate and graduate degrees in English. Would they be interested? Certainly would. It might not be until sometime next year but still...

I know the fact that my books are published to raise money to support a historic and architectural gem probably makes the story all that more enticing but I think it is still worth a try even if you're writing and publishing for your own benefit.

And you get to meet some interesting, talented writers along the way!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

I'd rather be writing

If there's one thing I really struggle with as a writer is how to begin working on my next writing project when the current one is in the publish/promote stage.

I recently read an article about Dick Francis, the highly successful English jockey and author who managed to write a mystery every year for more than 40 years. That alone is worth a major wow.

The new novel (left) with its elder siblings
Francis described his writing process in the article. If I remember correctly, he said he generally wrote each novel during the first six months of the year, then sent the manuscript to his publisher and, while the publisher was doing its work, he would begin to plan the next novel. In the fall, he would be out promoting the just published novel while researching and preparing to write the next one. Then the new year would come and he'd start writing again.

I find that amazing. I can multi-task in just about every other aspect of my life but I don't seem to be able to get myself working on the next novel while the last book is still in process.

For example, right now the Abigail Christmas novel is with the printer. We've just received the proof copy and approved it so now, while the printer actually produces the one-thousand copies we've ordered, I have to start into the promotions cycle: writing press releases, planning pre-launch and launch events, contacting sales outlets, and things like that.

That's all fun and interesting but it isn't the creative work that I so much enjoy. In simple words, "I'd rather be writing". So why can't I get myself to sit down and write?

All of that being said, I have been able to use up a couple of lunch hours at work to start, in a very minor way, a new novel. This one has nothing to do with the Abigail project but is completely new: a literary novel, if you will.

The problem is, every time I want to sit down and work on the novel, I remind myself of all the things I have to do to promote the current one. If only I had Dick Francis' publisher! (and his skill, creativity, audience...)

Monday, September 8, 2014

Rankin myself among the big names

In 2007, Orion Books published a 20th anniversary edition of Ian Rankin’s original Rebus novel, Knots & Crosses. I tell you this because I just picked up a copy at the local library book sale.

What attracted me to the book was the fact that, inside both the front and back covers, Orion included facsimiles of what appeared to be Rankin’s original notes and drafts for this life-changing novel.

As a wannabe writer myself, I am always interested in reading about how the most successful of my colleagues (yeah, right, I can include the likes of Ian Rankin, Dick Francis or Joanne Rowling as “colleagues”… that’s rich) got their start.

Rankin kindly includes a brief introduction in this edition in which he explains how this novel came into being. It’s an interesting bit of reading, as much for the information it provides about his inspiration and process as for the insights it gives into how he, 20 years later, looks back on his first Rebus novel with at least a small degree of embarrassment.

“I was a young man in love with language,” he writes of his 1987 self, “striving for a voice and sometimes overreaching.”

I read that and found myself nodding. Yeah, I know that feeling. I can’t look back at some of my earliest literary efforts without feeling a bit of a blush come over me. Did I really write that? Was I really that caught up in Joyce/Dickens/Woolf/Eliot that I would try to write just like them?

But I was also struck by Rankin’s description of the process by which Knots & Crosses came to be. “[L]ooking back,” he says in 2007, “what amazes me is that the idea of the book came so quickly and fluently, and that even those first few hand-written pages of text show few changes from the version that would see eventual publication.”

It’s at that point that the differences between Rankin and me as writers shine with such startling clarity: I struggle to find plots and have to work hard to establish layers of depth for my characters; exceptionally vivid characters flow naturally from him and evocative, effective lots seem to develop fluently for him.

Does that mean I can’t ever be successful? Of course not. Does it mean I will envy Ian Rankin and his natural brilliance? Maybe just a little bit.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Promoting the promotional video...

It's finally finished. Once again, in order to support my work as a writer, I've had to learn a whole pile of new skills. This time, to create a new video trailer for my Christmas novella.

To my own amazement, it's done and I'm actually pretty happy about it. Check it out here.

In order to create this strange little, happily flawed little gem, I had to continue to perfect my understanding of, and skills with, a number of computer programs that come standard with my iMacs: Garageband, iMovie,  and iTunes. I also had to practice my announcing voice and my piano skills.

It ended up being quite a challenge but also a lot of fun. Especially since I'm so happy with the result.

Now, as I've said before, I have to figure out how to promote the video I've created to promote my book. So I am actually promoting my promotional materials.

I don't think I've ever begged so often and so hard for people to "favourite", "share" and "retweet" my messages.

So far, so good, however. The Facebook announcement I posted has been viewed by more than 300 people in the couple of hours since I posted it. And we're already past 15 views on the video itself, which isn't too bad.

Still, I'll keep working on promoting it. And I'll keep working on putting the novella to bed with our new on-line printer and on setting up our pre-launch party in my home town.

At some point, I wouldn't mind getting back to writing.

Friday, September 5, 2014

You find writers in the strangest places

I work for the government. Although the job I do involves a lot of writing, I cannot call myself a “professional writer” by any stretch of the imagination. I do government work and that’s the beginning and end of it. My writing is a side-bar, a diversion, a hobby. Sure, I would love it if it could become more someday but, for now at least, writing is secondary for me.

But I’m amazed how many people I’ve met in government who consider themselves writers too (if only on a part-time basis). Just by telling them about my various writing projects, I seem to induce so many people to share with me their various exploits in writing, their successes and their dreams.

Just recently, for example, I was in a meeting with a new colleague and, once the business matters were worked through, we started chatting about our interests. I told her in some detail about my Abigail Massey stories and she asked, without a hint of a smile, if I planned one day to produce a screen-play based on my new Abigail Christmas novella.

I said, no, not really, since I haven’t the faintest idea of how to write or market a screenplay.

And she said, as serious and dead-pan as you please, “Well, I do. I have a degree in screen-writing from UCLA.”

My jaw hit the floor. Here she is, a government bureaucrat of significant achievement and high stature, sitting on a degree in screen-writing from a well-known and respected school.

She sent me a link to a trailer for one of her short films and, I have to say, I was impressed. It was extremely well done.

Which of course leads me to start to speculate on how I can benefit from this new-found connection, mercenary that I am. I mean, my hope of course would be to enter into a mutually beneficial relationship but one of the quiet goals of my Abigail project has been to convince some production company and television outlet to turn my stories into a family-oriented historical television series, of the kind the CBC likes to show on Sunday evenings.

And here was a wonderful opportunity to partner with a person who appears to have the talent, training and skills needed to help me push even further toward that goal.

And I met her in the context of my job as a civil servant. Amazing.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Experimenting with novel trailers

I have had a great idea for a promotional video for my new young adult novella. Writers' Digest suggests novel trailers are the latest thing and, while my idea isn't for a "trailer" per se, I still think it will do great things for my book.

The idea came from the plethora of election advertisements we've been seeing on TV of late. You see, we here in NB are facing a provincial vote in September and we're being inundated by television ads for the various candidates.

The commercials all follow a similar pattern and it's that pattern, including the language and imagery, that I have copied for the Abigail video. I hate to admit it but I think it's pretty clever and, if I can pull it off, it might just help the sales of the book.

Today, I spent the afternoon creating the visuals on my home computer. Yet another skill I have been forced, with delight, to acquire. Tomorrow, I do the voice-over.

And then, the launch of this new video. Followed by the anxious moments, days, even weeks of wondering if it will have any effect.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

A video trailer for my novel? Hmmm...

The most recent edition of Writer's Digest has an interesting suggestion: authors should create a video trailer for their novel similar to the movie trailers that are so much a part of our culture.


I have to admit. I like it.

But, as good as the idea is, it also makes me want to vomit, just a little bit.

Now, on top of being a writer, a publicist, a public speaker, an event planner, a promoter and marketer, a web-developer and web-site administrator, I also have to be a videographer, video editor, sound technician and who knows what else?

And then I have to figure out how to promote this too?

Ohh, how I long for the days when I writer could just, you know, write.

On the other hand, I have gotten pretty handy with the iMovie program on my iMac. And I have recently purchased a tiny HD video-camera. And I do have my own Youtube channel on top of a series of blogs and two websites.

Maybe this could work.

And what better way to introduce myself to the lucrative world of script writing than to write a script for my own novel trailer?

It will be a lot of work, for sure. And it might not be any more successful than the variety of other avenues I've explored. But who knows?

And, if I try to approach it as yet another adventure in learning and creating, maybe I'll find a way to enjoy it.

Maybe. Once the taste of vomit clears up.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Learning from Francis...

On an extended break from writing, I am attempting to catch up on reading things that inspire me, that help me as a writer.

So I've started to read the entire collection of Dick Francis all over again. I own the first 40 or so of Francis' horse-racing-based thrillers in used paperback format and find I re-read them, in order, once every four or five years.

I call them "environmentally friendly" books: they leave absolutely no residue in my brain. I can read them, then go back to them three or four years later and remember very little about any one of them.

That's not because they are awful books. It's because they are so cleanly, effortlessly written and offer such intensely paced plots that I rend to race right through them, just like one of Francis' jockeys on a championship hurdler races through a steeplechase course.

Francis' novels are all well-written, carefully plotted mysteries with sympathetic characters. I find I learn a lot about writing from his books and a lot about the many different careers/interests his characters enjoy.

I'm trying to slow myself down this time around, to be sensitive to why his books work so well. It's a useful exercise, attempting to learn from one of the best, most successful authors of our time.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Positive reinforcement from my local library

I'm a writer, for sure, but I am not sure my behaviour is normal for your average writer of middling success.

For example, on my lunch hour today, I made my way to the central branch of our city's public library system to browse their ongoing, and always interesting, used book sale.

I found nothing I was willing to buy, even at the ridiculously low prices they offer, but then I remembered that the library system had purchased about a half dozen copies of my first collection of children's stories.

Wouldn't it be neat, I thought to myself, to see my book in situ in a real library? On the shelves, among the other children's books? Like my self-published little gem was actually the real thing?

So I wandered down to the children's section and started to browse. Now, you have to realise, when you're a middle-aged man, you can't simply stroll into the children's section of a public library without being noticed.

I couldn't immediately find my book on the shelves and, after a few moments, the librarian came over to enquire if she could help me. I couldn't help but feel her helpfulness was driven, at least partially, by suspicion. You can't blame her, and it was probably all in my head, but....

What do you do? How do you answer that question?

Any answer but the truth -- that I'm an author with an ego issue who wants to see his own little book on the shelves of the library -- is likely going to make me look pretty creepy and result in a call to security. But the truth itself is pretty embarrassing.

I chose embarrassment over creepy and told her that I was the author of a children's book, that I understood the library system had purchased a number of copies of it, and that I had decided I wanted to treat myself to the thrill of seeing it right there on the shelves.

I'm grateful to say that, instead of mocking or pitying me, she helped me find the book.

Boy, did it ever look nice right there on the shelves. It looked like a real book and it made me feel like a real author.

"Do you want to sign it?" the librarian asked. "We like our books to be signed where possible."

So, after a little hesitation, I agreed to sign the book. While I was doing that, and feeling pretty good about myself in the process, this kind librarian handed me another gem.

"Wow," she said. "I'm looking up the borrowing history of your book. We've only had it on the shelves for 11 months and it's been borrowed 10 times. When you figure each person can borrow it for up to three weeks, add a week for processing when it is returned, that makes your book pretty much out 100% of the time."

Awesome. What started as a potentially embarrassing situation turned into a fantastic ego boost. Thanks Fredericton Public Library.

Monday, July 28, 2014

There's nothing like some positive words from strangers...

The author, left, chats with appreciative readers
This is what it's all about. Writing is, at its heart, an act of communication and, in my humble opinion, nothing is more thrilling for a writer (for this writer at least) than having the chance to communicate directly with people who are interested in his work.

I was invited to attend a book signing event on Sunday at the McAdam Railway Station and Hotel, the historical edifice in which I have set my collections of stories for young readers.

Held in conjunction with the Station's very popular "Railway Pie Sunday" event, the book signing proved to be a tremendous success, with surprisingly strong sale of the three existing volumes of stories and plenty of interest in the upcoming release of the Christmas novella.

I even sold a couple of the audio book version of the first volume of stories.

Even more exciting for me as a writer, however, was getting the chance to talk to dozens of people who have actually read the books. The feedback I received was consistently positive and supportive. And people who were new to the project proved to be very excited by what we are trying to accomplish through the sale of these books and eager to get reading.

It's a wonderful feeling for a writer to receive such positive feedback from people he's never met. Sure, our families and friends say nice things about our writing and we appreciate their kindness in doing so. But to have complete strangers come forward to tell you how much they like your stories, how excited they are to learn that another novella is on the way... that's a fantastic, inspiring feeling.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Anne Perry -- Billionaire???

What writers of middling success put up with. Episode 1.

I'm in the local public library, perusing the collection of books they have for sale and there's a guy standing next to me, smelling of cigarettes, also checking out the books on offer.

"Man," he says to me after a second, "there writers must be <expletive deleted> rich. Every <expletive deleted> one of them."

I take a moment to consider my own current financial situation, find it to be incompatible with his assertion, and say, "How do you mean?"

He points to an entire shelf of Anne Perry novels that are up for sale. "Look at all of them," he says, half-envious, half-contemptuous. "Don't tell me she's not <ed> rich. And then they'll go and make movies of all of them <ed> books and she'll be a billionaire."

The lineup of Anne Perry hardcovers was indeed impressive. All of them in great condition and to be had for just $2 per book. I have nothing against Ms. Perry -- in fact, I don't even really know the kind of books she writes -- but I am certainly not inspired to shell out the $30 or so required to acquire the entire collection on offer.

So I say to him. "Well, why don't you get on that gravy train yourself?"

He shrugs. "I ain't got the patience. I guess it would take a lot of time to write a book. Like a whole month. Maybe even two."

He wanders away.

I wonder away. Wish I could write a novel as good as Anne Perry's novels no doubt are. Wish I could write any novel in a month... and become a billionaire in the process.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A change of writing direction

Change of direction.

I seem to have lost momentum on the comic novel so I'm turning my attention back to Phillip Gold in Fredericton.

This is one of those odd moments a writer often faces when he or she has several projects percolating in the brain but has to decide, finally, to focus on just one.

For me, the choices were another Abigail Massey set of stories, the comic novel that I've planned and actually begun to write and the revision of my latest (but unpublished) courtroom thriller to change its location and bring it to life in my new home town.

These decisions are never easy. First of all, any one of the projects from which I have to choose involves a great deal of work and a massive commitment of time and energy. Once you commit, you've committed for a year or more.

And you have to throw yourself into the chosen project fully and completely, without looking back and without backtracking.

What went into the decision for me?

Most of all, the fact that I have missed writing Phillip Gold. He is where I started as a mature writer and he is the creation that most fascinates and interests me.

The Abigail stories have been a lot of fun and I don't doubt I will do more but, with the new novella coming out this fall, I have a window of opportunity to focus on something else. I don't have to move right into writing more Abigail stories simply to continue the momentum of the project.

And the comic novel? Well, to be honest, it still scares me a bit. I haven't been able to force myself to sit down to work on it because, I think, I have little confidence in myself as a comic writer.

Maybe someday I'll find that confidence. The plan is a good one and the characters seem interesting.

But for now, I'll focus on my first writing love.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

So where do we go next?

Decisions. Decisions.

I've long been committed to spending the next year writing my comic novel. It's all planned out in my head and I've even written a pretty decent first (second?) chapter.

But, as time has passed, I've moved further and further away from the initial inspiration and I'm less and less sure I want to dedicate my precious time to it.

And I'm starting to find my thoughts turning back to the central love of my writing life: my mystery/courtroom drama novels.

I've written three such novels, featuring my lawyer protagonist Phillip Gold, and have even come fairly close to getting the third one published. Close, but, of course, still not published.

But I love writing these books and I'm wondering if I might find better luck in the publishing world if I lift the events of the last novel out of their original setting (Hamilton, Ontario) and drop them, revised of course, into a small Maritime City. There are a number of publishing houses in the Atlantic Provinces that specialize in local writers with local subjects and I might just be able to tap into one of them.

If I can capture a more maritime feeling in the novel.

And then, of course, there are the Abigail stories to think about.

Ahh, decisions... life-changing decisions.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Arriving at a creative crossroads...

I have to admit it. I'm at something of a crossroads.

I have been working to promote my children's books, written, self-published and sold with all proceeds going to support the renovation of a local historical landmark, in every way possible.

With my sister and the rest of our team of volunteers, I've done everything the writers' magazines and websites have advised:

  • We've made public appearances;
  • We've worked hard to stir up interest in the media (with moderate success);
  • We've created a website, a Facebook site, and a Twitter account for the books and our main character;
  • I personally have been on the web as much as possible, trying to promote my own brand;
  • I am writing regularly for at least four different blogs, including this one
  • We've produced promotional mugs and fridge magnets, advertising posters and free bookmarks promoting the stories;
  • We've designed and created an interesting point-of-sale display to help sell books in the various shops that offer them to the public; and
  • Now, finally, we've produced an audio book of the stories in the first book.

Frankly, I don't know what more I can do.

The response has been very positive in a lot of ways. To our surprise, the first volume of stories sold more than 1,200 copies very quickly.

We were on a high. We were riding a wave. The media was interested, people were coming out to our public appearances. It was all good.

Sales of the second and third volumes, however, were not quite as overwhelming. Sure, selling 500 copies of each one is pretty good. Outstanding, to be honest, if you figure we don't have a publisher with a promotions arm to support us and we're only for sale at a small number of outlets in a limited geographic area.

But I just don't know where to go from here. How do we push this project to the next level?

How do we break out of the geographic limitations we're facing to reach a wider audience? How do we get national media interested? How do we reach readers who don't even know our books exist?

Or do I simply publish the fourth book (a Christmas novella, coming this November), promote it as best I can, and then move on to other projects?

After all, I've got an idea for a comic novel that is just itching to get out of my brain and onto the page. Should I call it a day on the children's story project and move on?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Amazing, humbling moments of feedback

Every once in a while you need to have a day that reminds you why you spend so much time and energy writing.

I had such a day yesterday. I was invited down to the Village of McAdam to take part in its Canada Day celebrations, talk to the people and maybe sell a few books.

It was a hot, humid, glorious day and the crowds at the event were surprisingly large, considering the heat and humidity.

I met a lot of really nice people and received a great deal of enthusiastic feedback on my writing. That, in itself, was fantastic. I have often said that writers of middling success, like me, don't get enough feedback (positive or negative) on the writing itself. We're not often reviewed in newspapers, online or in magazines and we don't have massive online presences to which our readers can submit questions or comment (and, believe me, I have tried very hard to build an online presence but it is slow slow going).

But two incidents from the six hours I spent yesterday in McAdam stand out in a really positive, almost overwhelming way.

Early in the day, a neat, prim woman with silver grey hair and glasses approached the table, a smile illuminating her face. I expected her to tell me that she had purchased the Abigail books for her grandchildren or that she had visited the Station many times, as is usually how such conversations go.

Instead, this very kindly looking woman saw the poster advertising the publication of the A McAdam Station Christmas scheduled for this coming November and actually did a little dance.

"So there's going to another book?" she said to me, beaming.

I confirmed that the story has already been written and work is currently underway on the illustrations and design for the new book.

She did another little jig, her arms waving with controlled delight.

"I have read every one of your stories," she then told me. "I just love them. I was so hoping there would be more."

I was stunned, to be honest, and honoured and a bit overwhelmed. I had written these stories for children and yet here was clear evidence that adults were reading and enjoying them too. And to see her excitement and delight... well, that was an amazing feeling for me as a writer. The best feedback I could ever hope for.

Then, a short while later, another woman stopped by my table with her young daughter. She smiled at me, looked over the display and noted the posters that said the next Abigail Massey book is coming out in November. "That's great news," she said. "My son will be so happy."

I thanked her for her kind words.

"Are you the author?" she asked, her eyes brightening even further.

I said I am, indeed, the author.

She told me she and her family are from Toronto, Ontario but have connections to McAdam. She explained that a family friend had sent copies of all three of the Abigail story books to both her daughter and her son and that her son, in particular, had loved them.

"He's here somewhere with my husband," she said. "I'll have to find him and bring him over to meet you. He'll be so excited."

A short while later, the woman was back, with her entire family this time. Her son was shy but looked with wide eyes at the books on the display. We had created a placeholder in the display for the next book (an appropriately sized box with the mock-up cover pasted to the front) and the young lad saw it, broke into a huge smile and gabbed the placeholder off the display.

Realising he wasn't holding an actual book, he looked up at his mom in confusion.

"It won't be published until November," his mother said, smiling. "You'll have to wait."

The boy looked suddenly downcast, as if waiting until November for the next Abigail adventure was simply too much to ask. I felt a sense of awe at that moment, seeing how much the books that I had written and my sister had designed and illustrated have come to mean to this sweet young boy from a thousand miles away.

"Is there something else you want?" his mother asked, directing his attention to our selection of Abigail mugs, fridge magnets and audio books.

The boy mumbled something, which I didn't catch, but his mother laughed. "I have no doubt we can take a picture of you with Mark!"

He glanced shyly up at me and, with an immense feeling of wonder and gratitude, I came around the table and posed with this young man. The feeling of excitement radiated from him as his mother clicked away with her smart phone.

I shook his hand at the end of it and thanked him for reading my books. His mother asked if I would be okay with her posting the photo on Twitter. And then they were gone.

It was an amazing, humbling moment for me. I have no great expectation that I will be the next J.K. Rowling or that the Abigail books will become New Brunswick's answer to Anne of Green Gables but, for that brief interlude at least, I got a taste of what that must feel like and a feeling of how important what we write can be for our readers.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The cellars of my computer

It has been months since I actually found the time (or the inclination) to sit down and do some real writing.

Sure, I've written any number of blog posts on my various blogs. Yes, I've done a heck of a lot of writing in the course of my job.

And, okay, I've been working on other projects associated with my writing: recording, editing and burning podcast CDs, preparing for an appearance on Canada Day, stuff like that.

But no writing. The comic novel, its first chapter completed, lies dormant in the cellars of my computer.

That's not good. It's frustrating. And it has to change.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Our relationship with books...

Is it possible to be a great, or even a good, writer without also being an avid reader?

Is it possible to write books without loving books?

I know, these are two entirely separate questions.

Most people would agree (I believe) that reading widely helps a writer learn the craft of writing. The better read you are, the better able you are to write well.

And how you write is influenced by what you read. Over your lifetime and in the moment. I can remember spending a summer, for example, reading everything James Joyce ever wrote in anticipation of a course I was taking that fall at University. I was immersed in Joyce for four full months (if you've ever tried to read Finnegan's Wake, you'll understand how it took me four months!) and my own writing from that summer shows clear signs of the Irish master, in its structure, its characters, its language and rhythm.

Joyce's influence, of course, has faded over time but he is still there when I write. More subtly, less directly. But there.

The second question cannot be so clearly answered. In fact, I would think that a great many writers probably don't really like books in and of themselves. They like their own books, to be sure, and they probably have favourite authors whose works line their shelves. They may even have a much-loved autographed first edition of a particularly influential book in their possession.

But do they love books as physical entities?

I do and that's why I was so particularly struck by this passage from The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, Allison Hoover Bartlett's 2009 docudrama about a book thief:
Walking by a booth with an impressive selection of dust jacket art [at a rare book fair], I heard a dealer say to a passerby, "Don't judge a book by its content!" I had read enough about book collectors before the fair to get the joke: Many collectors don't actually read their books. At first, I was surprised, but having given it some thought, it's not so shocking. After all, much of the fondness avid readers, and certainly collectors, have for their books is related to the books' physical bodies. As much as they are vessels for stories (and poetry, reference information, etc.), books are historical artifacts and repositories for memories...
I love the feeling of a book in my hand. I love to think about the history of the particular volume as I hold it, thinking about who its former owners might have been, when and where they acquired it, when and where they read it, what they thought about it, how it affected their lives.

I picked up a collection of poems by Milton several years ago at a "boot sale" in England. I paid the equivalent of about $10 for this small, leather-bound volume that was printed in 1674. Imagine that. This book was printed 340 years ago, at the time of Charles II in England. It is older than Canada, than the U.S., then any person alive.

Imagine all the people who have owned this book, who have read it, who have cherished it, who have carried it around with them as they lived out their lives 100, 200 even 300 years ago!

And if that doesn't grab you, think about this little story.

In 2005, I found out that the young daughter of a friend of mine had gotten heavily into the Nancy Drew mysteries. I already knew this girl to be a talented young writer and something of a bibliophile so it didn't surprise me that she loved the Nancy Drew books but only in their earlier hard-cover editions. She didn't want the new, modern paperback books. She wanted the originals or at least the older versions.

Now, my entire family grew up reading the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew stories and my first memory of owning books involves these old blue- and yellow-covered volumes in the 1960s and early 1970s.

So I decided to go to a local used book store to buy as many of the old hard-cover Nancy Drews as I could find as a gift for this young girl's birthday.

I bought, I think, five and was as delighted to give them to her as she was to receive them.

Imagine my surprise when she came up to me shortly after the gift-giving moment, a delighted grin on her face. Without saying a word, she pushed one of the Nancy Drew books into my hands and opened up the front cover.

There, at the top of the first inside page, the one with the wall-paper print of scenes from Nancy Drew stories, was a name of a previous owner. My sister.

Somehow that book had made its way from my sister, back in the 1960s, through perhaps dozens of owners, to this girl, the daughter of my close friends.

I wish I could find a way to trace the 40-year route it took from my sister's hands to this girl's hands, just to see the way a book can flow through our community.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

I'm a writer, not a...

I'm trying not to get too frustrated. It's hard but I am trying to control my temper.

I have just spent the past two hours recording the fourth Abigail story in podcast format. I am using my iMac and the podcast program that comes with it, Garageband. It's working really well. For the most part, I am happy with the ease with which the program works and the quality both of my reading and the recordings themselves.

When I play my recorded stories back on the computer, in the Garageband program, they sound really good.

But the problems arise when I try to burn the files onto an audio CD. First of all, it turned out that the file for the four stories together were too big for the normal 700 MB burnable CD. Crap. These files are huge in their raw format, much larger than the average CD file.

OK. So I go back to the Garageband program and I try the "Save As" function to check out what options I have. Well, this seems promising. I can save the files in their raw version or in "small" format "for easier sharing".

Sounds good. The files are suddenly about 1/5 their original size. I could fit all twelve of the original stories (one I've recorded the rest, of course) on one CD in this format. That's good.

Except none of my CD players will actually play the resulting disc. They find the files but don't find anything inside the files.

Crap number two.

And this is where my frustration arises. I'm a writer, for crying out loud. I'm not a sound engineer. I'm not a computer tech. I don't know what to do now. I need the files to be smaller in size but still readable on normal stereo systems.

And I have no clue how to accomplish that.

When you're a writer of middling success, with no publishing house behind you, you have to wear a lot of hats, mine the talents of a lot of friends and family members, and, when push comes to shove, learn learn learn.

So that's what is in store for me. I've got to go back to school (on the internet, of course) to figure out how to convert the raw Garageband files into a format that is smaller but still readable.

Wish me luck. (Or a publishing contract!).

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Writer's Digest: no beeps, blips or bleatings

I know that, for a lot of people, reading is now an electronic experience. They get their news from the web; they read books on their e-reader; they even read magazine articles online.

I'm pushing 50 and I don't think I will ever fully abandon my devotion to reading the old-fashioned way: ink on paper, with pages to turn and textures to enjoy.

Even as I stand at my computer, writing this blog entry, I have a book open on the desk in front of me. I doubt I will ever change, at least not completely.

So I still feel a distinct rush when I get home from work at the end of the day and find the latest edition of Writer's Digest waiting for me, among the bills and adverts that come with the daily mail.

I like the way it looks. I like the way it feels in my hands. I like the fact that it is a little bundle dedicated entirely to the craft of writing. There will be no pop-ups, no annoying video adverts sneaking into its margins, no distracting beeps, blips or bleatings.

I even like the way the paper starts to curl after I've flipped through it a couple of times.

And I like "flipping through" it too. You can't flip through an online magazine. At best, you have to "click through", don't you?

Not my cup of tea.

Now, I have to admit, this edition of Writer's Digest doesn't seem to have as much of interest to me as the last one. I doubt I'll read every page of it with the same keeness and avidity that marked my enjoyment three months ago.

But I will still enjoy it, as much for its physicality as for its contents.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The many hats of an independent author

I'm not sure if it's exciting or a pain in the backside but, when you have no publisher, you end up doing a lot of things for which you have no training, no skills and little interest, to support your books.

I spent much of this past weekend not on writing my next great novel but on trying to figure out how to design and produce such promotional materials as posters, CD "envelopes" and point-of-sale displays.

You read that correctly: point-of-sale displays.

I didn't even know what a point-of-sale (POS) display was until I started trying to think of ways to attract more attention to my Abigail books in the McAdam Railway Station's gift shop. The three beautifully designed story books sit there on their shelves, quiet and unassuming. I'm not complaining, to be honest, but I just thought there must be some way to tell the tourists who wandered through the shop that my books are something different, something for kids, something fun.

And that, apparently, is the job of POS displays.

So I decided to try to figure out how to make a POS display cheaply. Because, you know, when you have no big publisher behind you, everything you do comes out of your own wallet.

I researched and shopped online, trying to work out what I would need to create an interesting, three-dimensional, eye-catching showcase for the books and how much it would cost.

I even went so far as engineering and creating a cardboard contraption to display the different Abigail books.

Cool cool cool.

Then, fortunately for me, I checked in with my sister Lynn, who is a graphic designer, works in the large-scale advertising printing business and is my creative partner on the Abigail project. She got a good chuckle out of my efforts.

"Why are you re-inventing the wheel?" she laughed. "We do those kinds of POS displays all the time. We have templates. It's simple."

In my defense, I did have a great time doing all that research work so it wasn't a total loss. But I am excited that she can create a POS for me simply and cheaply.

Lynn also told me to forget about using plastic CD cases to sell my "Books on CD" versions of the stories. "No one uses those anymore," she said. "They're rigid, hard to mail and easy to break. Besides, they're a disaster for the environment."

Instead, she told me her company has a number of templates for cardboard CD sleeves that she can use to create appropriate cases for my audio creations. Cool cool cool once again.

Problem two solved.

And the posters, well, they're a cinch and always have been. She'll have those done in no time.

Three for three.

And that's when I realise just how fortunate I am. Yes, as an independent author I have to think about these things. I have to come up with promotional strategies and new ways to market my work (like the Books-on-CD/Podcast approach) and I have absolutely no background in marketing. I write. I read. I don't know much about promotions.

But at least I have a sister with the incredible skills Lynn has, who has access to the equipment and materials we need to put our ideas into action.

I can't imagine what my life would be like if I had to be a writer, reader, promoter, designer, and manufacturer.

That seems like a lot to ask of anyone. So I feel a great deal of empathy for independent authors who don't have access to a creative partner like my sister Lynn. And I feel grateful that I do.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Public appearances bring excitement... and fear

Public appearances can be both a blessing and a curse for a writer, especially one of minor to middling success.

First, it is a huge honour just to be invited to come out, meet the public and sign some books. Yes, you recognize that the people who invite you to appear in their venue hope to benefit as much from the event as you will but, still, just the idea that your presence in their building might actually attract customers is a pretty nice compliment.

And, let's face it, it is a huge ego boost to sit at a table and have people actually come out to meet you, talk to you and maybe buy a book or two. When you aren't published by a big publisher and you have no publicist and you're never reviewed in papers and on websites, public book signings like these are often the only time you get any real feedback on your work.

That's the blessing.

The curse is the almost immediate clenching of your gut when the thought occurs to you that, well, it's possible no one will actually come out to your book signing.

We've all seen those poor writers, sitting in our local book store behind a table stacked with copies of their latest novel, all alone and lonely. You feel so badly for them when you see them there, a look of hope mingled with despair on their faces, that you either go up and buy a book you would never in a million years have thought of buying, just to give them a bit of a boost, or you go out of your way to avoid having to interact with them at all.

The stomach clench when you receive the invitation is the recognition that, this time, that poor sap might actually be you.

In some ways, I'm lucky on that count. The books I'm promoting were written as fund-raisers for a local historical landmark and the book signings are planned to coincide with other, larger events at the landmark so I'm pretty much guaranteed at least a little bit of traffic at my table.

But, and I hate to admit this, I know that, when the day comes, I will find myself keeping a watch out for that person who sees the table and immediately turns away, or gazes at me with pity in their eyes.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Group think...

Are you a member of a writers' group? Everybody seems to be a member of a writers' group these days. Even the books on writing laud the institution of writers' groups and their positive impact on learning writers.

Well, I've been a member of several writers' groups and, to be honest, I've found them to be a hit-and-miss proposition.

At its best, a writers' group brings you in contact with other creative, talented and committed writers who can give you helpful criticism of your work and exposure to other ways of thinking, working and writing.

At their worst, writers' groups are merely collections of untalented, lazy and lonely people who come together on a regular basis to gossip and complain, people who scribble a paragraph down on the back of a grocery receipt an hour before the meeting just so that they meet the minimum qualifications of the group.

At one such group, I encountered the horrifying proposition of having one writer bring scene after scene of the most banal but explicit erotica, just so that she could get her kicks by "reading" her dialogue aloud in a dramatic format with a particularly handsome male member of the group. When he expressed his discomfort to some of the us after one particularly awful meeting, we tried to suggest to the writer that she might benefit from having "other voices" act out her work.

She threw a tantrum.

I dropped that group right after that.

On the other hand, I've been in groups that have been massively helpful to my writing. I've worked with very talented, committed writers who worked hard on their own work between meetings and gave excellent, insightful comments on my writing at the meetings.

I still keep in touch with many of those writers and am pretty delighted when I see them get their stuff published, as several have.

Is there a moral to this story? I'm not sure. Maybe it's this: find a writers' group that looks like it would be helpful and then be a hard working, committed member of it; take a moment to review your membership of the group about three months in and dump it quick if you find you're getting little or nothing out of it.

There is another lesson I've learned: never be afraid to try to recruit the talented, hard-working, intelligent members of a writers' group you have quit to join you in a new, better group. A bit mercenary and perhaps a trifle cruel, true, but that strategy has worked very well for me on a couple of occasions.

My two best writers' groups sprang from the wreckage of some very poor ones.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Sometimes it's nice to get some feedback...

From the isn't-it-nice-to-be-a-writer file.

I was in a coffee shop the other day, standing in line to pay, when an acquaintance approached to say hello. She is a teacher at a local school, a school at which I had recently made an appearance, presenting to a grade six class on the topic of stories, history and my Abigail Massey books.

My acquaintance and I chatted for a second, then she called one of her colleagues over to introduce us. It turns out that her colleague was the teacher who had originally invited me to speak at the school in the first place. Unfortunately, as a result of scheduling issues, the teacher had not been able to be there for my presentation.

So this was the first time we'd actually met.

"I've heard wonderful things about your presentation," the teacher told me, smiling broadly. "The children were very excited and told me all about it the next day."

I thanked her for her kind words and remembered how good I had felt coming out of the presentation. I thought it had gone well and that the kids, mostly 10 and 11 year olds, seemed to have had fun. At least they paid attention the whole time!

"It's hard to get children interested at that age," the teacher said, "and to keep them focused for any period of time. So I was really pleased to hear how well it went."

Talk about your nice feelings inside! As I mentioned to this teacher and my acquaintance, I have absolutely no problem standing up in front of large groups of adults and giving a talk. I've presented to groups as large as 100 or more people and never suffered even an ounce of nerves.

But children? Yikes. As Phoebe said on Friends, "Kids are different: they actually listen."

I have always felt that one of the hardest things about being a writer, especially a small-time privately-published writer like me, is the lack of feedback, positive or negative. Nobody reviews you in the newspaper; you don't have a long list of comments on GoodReads or at your website.

So it's a great feeling once in a while to get this kind of positive response. To be told, in effect, "you done good." Especially with reference to a situation like that where I really felt nervous going in to the classroom.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

That "Holy Crap" moment for a reader...

Sometimes you pick up a book, start reading and think: "Holy crap, this guy can write."

And then you think, "I can really learn something from this writer."

And then, "I don't need to go back to work today, do I?"

That's how I felt today an lunch when I found a used copy of Truman Capote's 1965 docu-drama In Cold Blood in the sale bin at my local library.

I had heard a lot about this book, and about the Holcomb murders that spawned it, but had never been able to find a copy at a price I was willing to pay. So, when I found the Vintage International paperback version for just a buck, I didn't hesitate.

I started reading Chapter 1 on the short walk back to the office and that's when the "Holy crap" exclamation leapt to mind.

I walked right on past the building in which I work, found a park bench and permitted myself the five extra minutes necessary to finish reading that first chapter. Then, and only then, could I force myself back to work.

Capote spends this brief first chapter introducing his reader to the town of Holcomb and, instead of producing a boring recitation of facts and figures, he paints a picture so vivid you can almost taste the Kansas community. To borrow one of his own phrases, Capote's writing is "desert-clear" and rivetting, his diction perfect, his metaphors and similes inventive and satisfying, and his construction of the chapter to culminate in the introduction of the horrific crime that will be his focus ingenious.

The final paragraph of the chapter, a long, climbing passage from the introduction of the key date to the impact it would have on the sleeping town, is in itself a masterpiece of writing.

My favourite sentence n that final para begins at about the mid-point: "But then, in the earliest hours of that morning in November, a Sunday morning, certain foreign sounds impinged on the normal nightly Holcomb noises -- on the keening hysteria of coyotes, the dry scrape of scuttling tumbleweed, the racing, receding wail of locomotive whistles."

Awesome. The casual insertion of a key detail ("a Sunday morning"), the purposed introduction of the first discordant word in the entire para ("foreign"), the word both connoting and identifying difference, the clever use of alliteration ("normal nightly Holcomb noises", "scrape of scuttling", "racing, receding") to remind us that Holcomb was a close-knit, closely-related community of like-minded people, all combine to create an astonishingly effective sentence in which every word works.

I expect In Cold Blood to be a rivetting read and I don't expect myself to be able to force myself to read it slowly enough the first time through to savour in detail the quality of Capote's writing. So that means multiple readings. And, if that first chapter is any indication, I will deeply enjoy every one of those readings.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

There's a lot more to writing...

Writing is not just writing.

Unless you are one of those people who write for yourself, scribble away in a personal journal or lock your creations away in your desk for no one else to see, there is a lot more to writing than simply putting words down on paper.

Sometimes I think there is so much more to writing than just writing that a real writer never actually gets time to write.


Here it is, a cool, rainy Saturday morning and I have some time to myself. My dog has been walked, my partner is still asleep and the world isn't about to come knocking on my door at this hour.

Time to write, right?

Well... It depends on what you mean by "write". If you mean, catch up on my blogs, those catchy little ditties that I have to put out on a regular basis to keep up my readership and to maintain the public profile all of those "How to be a Successful Writer" books and websites tell me I have to maintain in order to be a published author someday, then yes, I'm writing.

But it certainly doesn't mean I'm writing the actual book I'm hoping to sell to a publisher so that I can add the "published" part to the dream designation of "published author".

I haven't looked at that book in weeks.

Being a writer also includes reviewing and editing, recording pod casts, maintaining websites and social media accounts, acting as my own publicist and manager and accountant, and then becoming my own publisher when all else fails.

Being a writer is a full-time job, even if you never get around to the writing.

Amazingly, it's also a lot of fun! And quite rewarding. And, no matter how much I rant on a Saturday morning, you do eventually get down to writing the thing you really hoped to write in the first place.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The art of giving feedback

Have you ever noticed how many people who ask you for feedback on their writing really don't want feedback on their writing?

They thrust it so willingly into your hesitant hands: "Be honest," they say. "Be brutal. I need to know the truth!"

But then you look into their excited face, read the expression in their avid eyes and think: "Like hell! You're not ready for honesty, not to mention brutality; you just want me to tell you it's great."

Giving feedback on a person's work is as much about reading them as about reading their writing. You have to be able to tell what they are prepared to hear from you and you usually can't get that from the words they say when they ask for your feedback.

It's worse when the person is a friend or co-worker, a person with whom you plan to continue to have a relationship, even after your feedback is delivered.

If you see any fear in their eyes, you know they can't handle the truth. If they are totally amped and excited when they hand the manuscript over, you know they simply want you to confirm for them how wonderful their writing is and that the agent they sent it to the day before is just going to love it.

Sure, you can still be honest with them. You can read over their manuscript and send them back forty pages of notes and suggestions. But they are going to be crushed and they likely won't speak to you for a long, long time afterward.

I've done it. I've received that manuscript; I've seen the fear and excitement in the person's face; I've understood that they've already formatted it for submission and had fifty copies made to send out far and wide.

And I've come back to them with a fair but honest critique: the plot makes no sense; the main character is flat and unlikeable; the secondary characters lack depth; and the climactic scene manages both to be confusing and to move at a glacial pace.

Even the spelling and grammar is problematic.

And I've watched the excitement turn to disappointment, the fear turn to anger, and the relationship turn to dust.

These people just want to be told how wonderful their writing is. They want their own excitement to be confirmed. The last thing they want when they ask for an honest critique is an honest critique.

That's why I try to refuse whenever someone asks me to review their work. Or, at the very least, I try to establish exactly what they want from me and what they're prepared to accept.

It's great when they really want to hear the truth. When they are looking for honest but constructive feedback and they have the time and inclination to do something with it. That's fun. That's exciting. That can be an incredibly rewarding process, for both parties.

But, unfortunately, those situations are few and far between. So proceed with caution. Be only as honest as the person can handle.

It's not really lying. It's simply being strategic with the amount of truth you tell.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Sometimes being a writer doesn't involve writing...

What a strange week for this writer.

I have gotten absolutely nothing done on my own writing projects and yet, when I look back, the week was filled with writing.

First, a colleague at work approached me to ask if I could read over and provide suggestions on a narrative children's poem she's been working on with her mom. The goal is to find an illustrator and get the poem published as a book.

Neat idea. And, because I really like this colleague and appreciate her sometimes warped sense of humour, I'm quite excited to give this poem a read. I'm hoping it crackles with the author's joyful nuttiness. If it does, it's sure to be a winner.

But that's a big "if". I've met a lot of wannabe writers who tell a great tale when you're sitting around with a drink in your hand but then, when they try to put it down on the printed page, the story loses something. A lot of things, in fact.

There is something about the act of writing that makes most people incredibly self-conscious. The verve, the colour they bring to the spoken word can often get lost in the translation to the page. I hate seeing that.

And I don't think it's restricted just to creative writing. I don't know how many times I've been handed a work-related document to review only to find that it makes absolutely no sense.

So I go to the writer and I say, "Tell me verbally: what are you trying to say here?"

And they sit back, think for a moment, then rhyme off a perfect, concise, often artfully phrased explanation of what they intended to write in the document.

"Okay, go back and type exactly what you just said," I tell them. "Don't even think about the act of writing: just type it exactly as you spoke it out loud."

"But... but...."

"We can clean it up later. Just go and type it."

Works almost every time.

Of course, my colleague in this case has written a poem -- a children's poem -- so that might be even more difficult. We'll have to see.

Second (you forgot there was more than one element to this, didn't you?), I dropped by a charity book sale at the local mall yesterday and found, much to my surprise, not one but two books by people I know.

Wade Hemsworth is an old and dear friend who used to work in newspapers. His Killing Time is an exceptionally good true crime book about a murder that took place 20 years ago in Ontario. I think it was the first time anyone I knew got a book published by a real publishing house.

The book sale offered a copy of Killing Time that had once been a part of the collection of a public library out here on Canada's east coast. Weird. And cool. I'm pleased to report the book was in pretty battered condition, meaning it had been read often while at the library. I'll have to report that to Wade.

And then I found, at that same sale, a paperback copy of Cathy Vasas-Brown's crime thriller Every Wickedness. I first met Cathy after she had written and published this novel with a major American house when, for some reason I still don't understand, she decided to enroll as a student in a mystery writing course I was teaching in Hamilton.

I have to admit, it was weird for me to be teaching a class on writing to a person who had already achieved the ultimate in the business but it turned out to be a fun experience.

And finally, to round out my writing week, I was contacted by a member of my family who also happens to be a judge. He wants me to review and edit an article he's written that will be published in a book next year.

How cool is that? This man is one of the smartest, and best, people I know and he's an absolute expert in his field. I have no doubt that the article will be both interesting and enjoyable. Whethere I can contribute anything of value is yet to be seen, however.

Not a bad week, I must say, even if I accomplished nothing with regard to my own writing projects.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The trap of self-editing...

I don't mind self-publishing -- my Abigail Massey at McAdam Station stories for children are self-published and they've done very well; this blog is self-published, come to think of it.

What concerns me is not so much the self-publishing as the self-editing.

(maybe I'll write about the overuse of underlining and italics to create emphasis someday... but not today [which might lead to an entry on the overuse of parentheses {uh oh... I'm trapped...}]).

Self-editing is, in my opinion, one of the greatest chasms into which a writer might fall (including the placement of a preposition at the end of a sentence, which I narrowly avoided there [only to get myself caught up in another one of these parentheses spirals]).

Case in point. I finished the draft of my Abigail Massey Christmas novella in December of last year and, over the course of January, went over it at least five times, revising, rewriting and editing. I consider myself to be pretty good with grammar and punctuation and all that so I felt pretty good about editing my own work.

Fine. So, at the end of January, I sent the revised and refined (might I say "perfected") manuscript off to the graphic designer with whom I work (my sister, Lynn, who is as fine a designer as I've ever met [and I'd say that even if she weren't my sister {uh oh, more brackets}]). I was confident that it was in finished and final form.

Enter the trap.

Lynn did her usual amazing work over the next three months, coming up with an absolutely gorgeous cover design, an equal amazing title page design and a beautifully laid out, easy to read book. Wonderful.

Now it's mid-April and Lynn sends the design back to me for review. I'm blown away by the beauty of it. Who cares about the writing? This thing will sell itself.

I want to be a careful, detail-oriented publisher, however (did I mention that, when you self-publish, you are writer, editor AND publisher?) so I figure I should read the entire novella again, just to make sure no sentences got cut off in the design process, no paragraphs got shuffled, no pages went missing.

Crash and burn. Lynn made few, if any, mistakes, to be sure. Her work was practically perfect: I think I found three paras that weren't properly indented and one extra period at the end of a sentence. (and I'm not sure those weren't mistakes in my own draft). Other than that, perfect.

But, who the heck edited this thing? Who was responsible for making sure the writing flowed smoothly, the diction was appropriate and the story consistent? Whoever it was did a terrible job.

Despite my very careful revisions throughout December and January, I still found in April that I had some significant revising and editing to do.

For example, I still had characters going back in time: at one point early in the story Abigail looks at her watch and sees that it's 9:50 a.m.; five paragraphs later, she squeals "Oh Golly, it's half-past nine..."

How does an editor miss that kind of thing?

And how does he miss the fact that the author used the word "up" three times in a single sentence and then, one paragraph later, "mirror" three times in two short lines?

Luckily for me, the three months Lynn spent working on the book gave me time to gain a little objectivity and perspective on the writing. Time, plus the fact that it was now presented to me in a completely different layout and format, allowed me the chance to distance myself from the story and see it for what was truly on the page, not for what I had intended to write.

I ended up sending Lynn about 40 edits that should have been caught in the original review and editing process.

But that is the trap of trying to be your own editor: you can't see your work clearly unless and until you put some time (three months or more) and some distance (provided through reading it in a new format) between the author and the written piece.

With time and distance, you regain the ability to read what is actually on the page, to see the problems afresh and to lose your own egotistical love for your own writing.

Self-publish all you want. But self-edit with extreme care and caution.

Friday, April 25, 2014

A rubber haddock... hilarious

As I may have mentioned before in this space, I've been thinking a lot lately about how to write funny.

And I have been paying close attention lately to passages in other people's writing that make me laugh to try to understand what techniques and strategies they employed to create a comic effect.

My thought is that, by studying how other people manage to be funny, perhaps I will hone my own skills in that area.

And that's about as un-funny an introduction you can get to how to write funny!

Anyway, I'm a big fan of the Harry Potter books and I think that J.K. Rowling is a wonderfully creative, effective writer so it came as no surprise to me that my first new lesson in how to write funny came from her.

The lesson for writing funny I got from J.K.? Be specific.

The second lesson for writing funny I learned from J.K.? Some words are funnier than others.

If you want to create a funny situation, use specifics as much as possible.

For example, in Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire, Rowling gets me to laugh simply by describing Harry as standing there holding a "rubber haddock". Not a "rubber fish", not even a "rubber cod": a "rubber haddock".

It's funny because Rowling identifies the specific kind of fish he's holding and she chooses a specific kind of fish that has a funny name.

"Haddock" is funnier than "Cod" which is funnier than the more generic "fish".

The third lesson for writing funny from J.K.? Build toward absurdity using a series of realistic steps.

She has already established that Ron's brothers are inventors who hope to open their own joke shop when they graduate school. She has provided us several examples of the kinds of innovative products they have already developed, including a line of joke magic wands that turn into different rubber animals (mostly chickens) when used. She has also let it be known that these wands are popular at the school.

So it is no surprise to us that Harry would be found with a fake wand that turns into some form of animal.

The surprise... the laugh is that Harry turns up with a "rubber haddock" in his hand. Not a rubber chicken, not a rubber fish... a rubber haddock.

Hilarious. And, in writing this analysis, I completely ruined the joke. Sorry.

Monday, April 21, 2014

How to be a successful writer....

Everything I read about how to be a successful writer tells me I have to spend time writing every day. Every single day.

It's the only way to be productive, I'm told. By writing at least an hour every day, I can create a rhythm and get into a groove. My writing will be better, more consistent, more resonant, more creative.

My only question is: WHO, other than a professional writer, has time to write EVERY DAY???

Certainly not me.

I have time to sleep every day. Because if I don't sleep, I die. Same with eating. And with certain bathroom chores.

And, of course, I have time to go to work five out of every seven days. Because, without work, I can't afford the payments on the place in which I write, the machine upon which I write, the electricity that powers the machine, the food that powers the writer, etc. etc. etc.

I spend at least some time every day with my partner and our dog. I don't think those times are negotiable, do you? And the household chores are a part of life I can't avoid, aren't they?

So where do I find time to write every day? Honestly, where in the day do I find an hour or so for my writing?

I read these books and articles that tell me serious writers find time to write every day and I think... that's crazy. Life just doesn't allow it.

Yes, I agree, those times when I have managed to carve out time to write pretty consistently every day have been my most productive times. I once wrote an entire 300-page legal text book in the space of just three months. My editor was delighted and the book has sold well.

But I was single back then, living in a basement apartment, eating Kraft Dinner and little else, spending the minimum eight-hours a day at my fledgling and not very busy law practice. I spent three hours every evening at the computer (a 286 with a monochrome monitor, if you remember those dinosaurs) writing from 6:30 to 9:30.

It worked very well. I was productive, ridiculously so.

But life doesn't allow that now. I spend a great deal of time on other, very important aspects of my life. I spend, to be honest, a lot of precious time trying to make a name for myself as a writer, promoting myself and my already completed works. That's time I could be writing.

But I'm writing blogs, recording podcasts, designing and updating websites, making appearances at schools and other events, selling the books I've already written.

Reading books and articles on how to be a successful writer.

I guess what they are saying, in essence, is this: Stop reading this book and get back to writing!

Message received. I will read no more books telling me how to be a successful writer. But wait, what if one of these books actually has something helpful to say? I don't want to miss that.

And I do think I can continue to learn from Writer's Digest, don't you?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Sometimes, I break the rules....

In my experience, writing is unique in how much devotion (to the point of obsession) some practitioners show to rules they were taught early in their careers.

You've probably run into these kinds of people; perhaps, in fact, you yourself are one of these people.

You took a writing course in your youth, taught by a successful author who became something of a mentor to you, and you learned a hard-and-fast rule of writing that you have committed yourself to every since?

I've heard a bunch of them:

  • Never use adverbs;
  • Never use more than one adjective before a noun;
  • Never use passive voice;
  • Never use any verb in a dialogue tag other than "said";
  • Never use semi-colons;
  • Never use an ellipsis;
  • Never use "very";
  • Show, don't tell;
  • etc. (ohh, don't use "etc." ...!).
Don't get me wrong: I think these kinds of rules are useful. As guides. As things to think about as you review and revise your work.


But as laws sent down from on high never to be broken???

No way.

I was once in a writer's group where the only contribution one member would have to the review of another writer's work was to stroke out all of the adverbs. ALL OF THEM! She would quietly await her turn to provide feedback and then, when her time came, she would push a copy of the work in question across the table toward the author and say, very proudly, "I stroked out all of the adverbs. They're not necessary."

And that was it. She said no more. She had done her great service to the craft of writing.

Wait. Sorry. "She would, in silence, await... and say, with pride in her voice..."

You know what? She was probably right ... seventy per cent of the time. It is very likely that seven out of every ten of the adverbs could be removed from the piece without reducing its impact. In fact, the deletion of these words would likely strengthen the work.

But remove all of them? Without thought or consideration as to what they achieve, why they are there in the first place? Give me a break.

When I write a first draft of anything, I just write. I connect my imagination directly with my fingers and let things flow.

When I go back to review and revise, I keep that list of rules in my head. I look at all the adverbs, the adjectives, the examples of the passive voice, the appearances of "asked" and "called" and "yelled" and "whispered" and "rasped", the semi-colons and ellipses, the sections where a character or the narrator tells what happened rather than the author showing the reader what happened, and I ask myself:

Do I have a legitimate purpose for including this here? Am I breaking the rule for a reason? Is this more effective as I have written it than it would be if I followed the rule?

And, if the answer to these questions is "no" in a given situation, then I revise and follow the rule.

But I am at least open to the possibility that breaking the rule is the right thing to do, the effective thing to do, the creative thing to do. And, if it is, then I break it.

And I don't look back once I've broken it.

Writer without a cause, that's me...

Monday, April 14, 2014

The elements required for writing funny...

I've been doing a lot of reading lately about how to go about writing humour. Or "writing funny".

(Which, itself, sounds funny. Writing funny. "Hey, you're writing funny." What does that mean? That I'm holding my pen with my nose? That I'm hitting the keys on the keyboard with my toes? That my cursive script looks odd on the paper?)

Now, I consider myself to be a pretty funny guy in person. I like to believe that I have a quick wit and use language effectively in the back-and-forth of casual conversation.

In fact, I have often thought about trying my hand at stand-up comedy. But then I realise that I'd probably be better at the improvised-conversation-with-the-audience part than I would be with the prepared material.

And that worries me. It is a very different thing to be funny in prepared material, in writing, than it is to be funny in day-to-day life. Writing, by definition, takes time. And there is a time lag between when you write and when your reader reads. There is no interaction, no back and forth, no reading off your reader's reaction and moving off into a new (and with luck funny) direction.

Without the free-flow of a conversation, I am not so confident that I can be consistently funny.

On the other hand, I write a monthly blog for my work on Privacy and I pride myself on how funny it is. People actually watch our workplace's website for the next entry on that blog and, when it gets posted each month, I can hear people laughing out loud as they read it in their cubicles.

So maybe I can be funny in writing. At least in short bursts. But can I be funny over the course of an entire novel? Hmmmm....

I am planning to write a comic novel and I have already charted out the main points of the plot and developed most of the primary characters. It's a good start. But I find myself putting off actually sitting down to write because of my fear that I cannot be funny for that extended period of time... in writing.

I think I need to be in the right mood. I generally dash off a blog post on the spur of the moment when the mood strikes me. I have to be happy, and excited, and energetic and stuff like that.

To write an entire comic novel, I think I'm going to have to be all those things. And perhaps a little drunk. In fact, I'm already planning to spend evenings this spring and summer out in my back yard, with a tall G&T and my netbook, writing funny. I think I could be successful under those circumstances.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Twisting the rubber band....

My first issue of Writer's Digest includes an excerpt from the book Comedy Writing Secrets, 2nd Edition, by Mel Helitzer, with Mark Shatz. The article is entitled, "Realism & Exaggeration: Really, Truly Funny".

To be frank, I wasn't impressed with the excerpt: I found it uneven and unclear. I also didn't find the examples given by the author to be particularly funny nor effective. As a result, it certainly didn't make me want to rush out and buy the book.

The excerpt's clarity problems become apparent in its very first paragraph, which begins, "Humor only appears to be free-form. To the trained ear, it's predictable because it's structured."


I had to read the first paragraph a couple of times to figure out that the word "appears" should be italicized in the first sentence, to make it clear that Heltzer is arguing against the unstated premise that most people believe that humor (or humorous writing) has no structure. Without the italics, I read the sentence as having the emphasis on the word "only", suggesting that the only way that humor appears to exist is in free-form format.

Confusing your reader does not seem to be a great way to launch an excerpt.

That being said, I did find that the Helitzer piece helped to confirm my own impressions of how to approach a successful comic novel. Helitzer talks about the important connection between realism and exaggeration in humor, pointing out that the two must be properly balanced in a truly funny tale. You must create a realistic background, he argues, and realistic characters, to make your eventual exaggerations that much more effective and funny.

I have just started attempting to write my own comic novel, my first. In preparation for this attempt, I decided to read a number of successful such novels from the last 15 years, just to get an idea of the elements that are common to all of them.

I began with Graeme Simsion's The Rosie Project, followed that with Richard Russo's Straight Man, Lazy Days by Erlend Loe, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson and finished up with two by John Green: Paper Town and An Abundance of Katherines.

All very successful and all, on the surface at least, very different. To paraphrase Helitzer, however, "These comic novels only appear to be different."

In reading them, you see, I found a number of common threads:

1. All featured male protagonists;
2. All the protagonists were portrayed as "real" people, but each had a slightly exaggerated characteristic that made him different from the norm;
3. Each protagonist, therefore, was positioned as an outsider of sorts in their communities, such that they were able to provide a slightly warped but still fairly objective commentary on the world;
4. The humor in each novel flowed from the interaction of the exaggerated characteristic of the protagonist with the people and events he encountered; and
5. Each novel featured at least one hilarious scene where a series of believable, realistic steps leads to a bizarre, ridiculously exaggerated outcome.

As Helitzer says, "You start with a realistic scenario, then bend and distort it for comic effect."

In the books I read, it is the exaggerated characteristic of the character that, in each case, does the bending and distorting of reality.

In Russo's book, for example, his character (William Devereaux, Jr.) is an anarchistic academic who simply cannot take "the rules" seriously. The result: he ends up appearing on the television news, holding a goose aloft, threatening to murder it if the University does not cooperate; or hidden, urine-drenched, in the false ceiling above a meeting room where his colleagues are deciding his fate.

In Lazy Days, Bror Telemann has an exaggerated love for the theatre... and for master chef and author Nigella Lawson. This leads to arguments at tennis courts and late night forays into the kitchen to make Nigella's favourite dishes.

My favourite is in The 100-Year-Old Man, where the main character's old-style formality and politeness lead naturally, inexorably to a memorable chase through the country-side in an old bus, with a small-time criminal, a gangster, a sexy mature woman and an full-sized circus elephant along for the ride.

John Green's characters, like the protagonist in The Rosie Project, are both hyper-intellectual, socially awkward young men in search of love. It's their intellectualism that gets in the way but also tends to lead them into increasingly bizarre and interesting situations.

In all cases, the characters are based in realism, with only slightly exaggerated character traits. But those traits cause the characters to proceed down carefully designed, increasingly exaggerated pathways to end up in hilarious places the reader could never have foreseen.

In the case of Straight Man and The 100-Year-Old Man in particular, the writing was so skillful that I never once questioned the build-up to the crazy punch-line (the professor dripping urine or the elephant in the bus). It was only when I got to the punch-line that, laughing heartily, I thought: How the heck did this author get me to this ridiculous place without me noticing or rebelling?

As I work on my own comic novel, I will remember the lessons I've learned. I will start from the realistic and allow my character's slightly exaggerated trait lead me into hilarity. And I'll have Helitzer and Shatz (and all the other authors mentioned above) to thank if my book is a success.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Much to Digest in new Writer's mag...

As a gift for a recent birthday, I received a one-year subscription to Writer's Digest magazine. It is not a publication with which I am particularly familiar so I was very interested to get the chance to explore it first hand.

My first issue arrived yesterday and it is a pleasant surprise. Sure, I have my concerns and criticisms (I always do) but I am impressed overall with the quality of the articles and the expertise displayed.

I am even more impressed because my first ever issue, May/June 2014, is focused on "Writing for Kids & Teens", with a healthy secondary focus on "Humor Writing".

Now, when you consider that the last three years of my life have been dedicated to writing and publishing a series of stories for young people (the "Middle-Grade" market, apparently, according to WD) and that my current project involves penning a "comic novel", I think we've got a pretty good match between my interests and WD's focus this month.

I don't plan to do an article-by-article review at this moment but I will say that one of the highlights for me in this issue was Marie Lamba's interesting article on the differences between fiction for the "Middle-Grade" (MG) market and fiction for Young Adults (YA).

I have gotten used to calling my Abigail Massey stories "YA fiction" but I now learn that I have been doing my self, and my work, a disservice by using that label. Based on Ms. Lamba's article, my three volumes of Abigail stories are better described as "Middle-Grade stories" or, even more particularly, "upper Middle-Grade" fiction.


Even more interesting is the argument Ms. Lamba makes that I should be marketing these stories mostly toward the "gate-keepers" for children in my target age group (gate-keepers like parents, teachers, librarians) rather than directly to the kids themselves. Where YA readers generally choose their own books, MG readers often have such decisions made for them. They are introduced to new books and authors by their parents or people in the educational system.

I am finding Lamba's article to be both helpful and comforting. Helpful in that it has provided me with some interesting ideas to ponder as I head into marketing my Christmas novella, featuring Abigail, this fall; Comforting in that it has helped confirm that, other than mislabelling my books as YA rather than MG, I have generally gotten most things right in creating the Abigail Massey stories as MG fiction.

All in all, I'd say my relationship with Writer's Digest is off to a very good start.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Finishing novels you're not enjoying...

My partner asked me the other day, with no small amount of exasperation, "Why do you continue to read novels that you obviously don't like?"

I guess I was frustrating her by droning on and on about all the reasons I thought my latest reading project (John Green's Paper Towns) was a disappointment. It didn't help that, just two days earlier, I had droned to her about how I felt my then current reading project (John Green's An Abundance of Katherines) was itself disappointing.

The answer to her question, however, was fairly easy: I refuse to stop reading any book simply on the basis that I don't like it. No matter how bad I think it is, there's always something I can learn from it as a writer. After all, the book in question has been published; it has made it through all those vetting and testing processes (agent, submission, publisher, acceptance, editing and revision, publication) to arrive in my local book store, processes that I have yet to negotiate successfully with my own creative work.

For that reason alone, I can learn something from even the most disappointing published novel.

And John Green is a hugely successful, award winning author of numerous best-selling young adult novels. Even if I personally don't like his books, clearly plenty of people do, including agents, publishers, critics and readers. If I can't learn from someone like that (both positives and negatives), then from whom can I learn?

So I read the entire book and I make mental notes of the stuff that I think works really well, the stuff I think is less successful and the stuff I believe has made the novel commercially successful where I have been less so.

In the case of John Green, I can see much to admire in his books. He writes in a very smooth, easy, "readerly" way. He doesn't let his own cleverness get in the way of a good read, even though he makes some interesting and "writerly" choices along the way. In Katherines, for example, he includes any number of footnotes and graphs, items you rarely see in fiction, but he uses them effectively as a complement to the character of his narrator. They are "writerly" but used in a "readerly" way.

Both of Green's books I read contain scenes that I found remarkably engaging and fun and I think he uses the comic novel formula fairly effectively.

Even if I think his secondary characters (such as his narrator's best friends in each of the books) are two-dimensional and, frankly, replicas of each other (Hassan in Katherines and Ben/Radar in Paper Towns are basically the same person -- oh, who am I kidding, every character is the same from book to book, from his socially-awkward, school-smart protagonist to the street-smart, vivaciously bold female lead to the main characters' parents), I think he uses those characters well to build, in a natural way, very funny situations.

It's his plots that really let me down. They are all build up and no payoff. And, perhaps because I am of another generation, his insistence on concluding that the key in any life is leaving your past (and your life) behind for the open road and infinite opportunity makes absolutely no sense to me.

Nor does his predilection for extremely talky, wordy plot climaxes.

And, if I am going to nitpick, I am concerned that he is rather loose with his borrowing from other writers. In Paper Towns, his main character's comment about feeling "infinite" during a certain moment of daring is clearly an uncreditted reference to The Perks of Being a Wallflower and I'm sure the Canadian rock band, The Tragically Hip, would have appreciated an acknowledgement as well.

All of that being said, I can certainly take a number of lessons from John Green and the two of his cadre of fabulously successful books that I have now completed. I just don't plan to read any more of them.