Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Positive feedback from readers an antidote to tough times

It hasn't been an easy month, to be honest, with a flooded basement, a punch biopsy and a lot of family-related stuff going on.

Not surprisingly, the thing that has kept me going has been the release of the new collection of stories and all the public appearances that go with it. I often complain about the non-writing aspects of writing such as the preparation of press releases, the preparation for public appearances, the review and editing of various promotional items.

If I am truly honest with myself, however, I have to admit that I do enjoy the public appearances themselves.

With the launch this fall of Abigail Massey at McAdam Station, Volume 4, I have faced a packed calendar of events.

Most recently came our first appearance at the Boyce Farmers' Market in Fredericton in support of the new book. The Boyce Market is where Abigail really got launched in 2012. I remember standing outside at the market on a miserable, cold morning (6:30 in the morning, in fact) in 2012, wondering what I had gotten myself into. Then the line-ups started and, 90 books and five hours later, I realized that we were into something special.

Mary and I were back at the Boyce this past Saturday and, although sales weren't quite as strong as on that first day three years ago, we still saw lots of people and signed and sold a goodly number of Volume 4. As I said to Mary at the start of the day, however: the goal is not so much to sell the books as to sell people on the McAdam Railway Station.

That approach has always, for me at least, taken a lot of the pressure off. Instead of trying to "close the deal" every time someone stopped by our booth to talk, we could simply focus on the discussion itself. People response really positively to that kind of low pressure, it's-a-pleasure-just-to-talk approach.

And we hear a lot of wonderful stories that way, from people of all ages and from all across the country, about how the railroad and the McAdam Station impacted their, or their parents and grandparents', lives.

Even more importantly for me during this difficult period, I found my spirits buoyed by many kind, positive comments about the Abigail books themselves.

So many people stopped by, anxious to get the latest in the series, telling us how much they enjoyed reading the first four books (three volumes of stories and the Christmas novella). Among the many kind comments we received, these were the ones that struck me most deeply:

1. One woman bought Volumes 2, 3, 4 and the Christmas novella, all at once: "I've read the first collection of stories several times already," she told me. "I'm thrilled to be able to read the rest of the books now!"

2. Another man came to our stall, never having heard of the Abigail stories. We chatted with him about the Station and the books and his eyes glowed brighter and brighter. Railways are a part of his family history, he told us. He then rushed off to the nearby bank machine to get sufficient money to buy all of the books at once, a gift for his 91-year-old mother who "will love these books, I'm sure!"

3. Finally, a man and his two sisters (I think), all in the 40s or 50s, came around the corner and, when they spotted the posters on our stall, their eyes widened. "I can't believe it," the man said, excitement in his voice. "My brother in Halifax is just crazy about your Abigail books. He called me last night to tell me he had heard there was a new collection of stories out and to demand that I keep my eyes out for them. And here you are! He will be so excited!"

Small things, perhaps. But so kind and so fulfilling for the writer in me. The excitement of these people to have the chance to buy our books and enjoy our stories just fills me with a sense of joy and contentment. As I have written before, writers who self-publish rarely get reviewed in newspapers or other forms of media -- we rely on these kinds of personal interactions to find out what people think of our work.

And, during a difficult period in my life, the very kind feedback we've received from people at all of our events has been incredibly important for me -- a much needed injection of positivity.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Promoting is always more challenging than writing your stories

Awesome book launch event last Sunday afternoon for Volume 4 of the Abigail Massey stories. After some tense early moments, we ended up with a full house and a great crowd of supportive people.

My colleague, Mary, for whom this was the first real event to feature her creative work, seemed to enjoy herself very much and spoke beautifully. I did my bit and we ended up selling more than $1,000 worth of books.

All in all, an excellent day.

And now the real work begins. We have no fewer than eight promotional events on the slate for the next two months, plus media interviews, email campaigns and all kinds of other things we need to do to get people interested in the books.

It's fun but, to be honest, I find it hard. And extremely tiring. While I really enjoy the writing and I find it fun to do the public presentation part (both at speaking engagements and with the media), I do find the pace and the demands rather challenging.

You get yourself into a place where you don't want to miss any opportunity to promote the book so you have a very hard time saying no. You check your email constantly, you're always on Facebook or Twitter or Youtube tracking the progress of your various campaigns and you always... ALWAYS... feel like you have to respond fully and immediately to any request.

No matter how run down I get during these periods, I keep reminding myself that I should be grateful that anyone is taking an interest in the books. That I should be (and I really am, to be honest) delighted when the media calls wanting to cover the story and promote the book. That I should be honoured (and I ALWAYS am) that someone wants to spend his or her hard-earned money on the book that I wrote, over all the competing priorities in their lives.

Speaking of the media, I enjoyed a really fun interview this morning with a reporter for one of the bigger New Brunswick newspapers and I am very grateful that the Abigail books will be featured in a publication of that size and reach. The reporter was very nice and very well prepared, with great questions. Even better, she actually listened to what I had to say and asked excellent follow-up questions.

One thing that threw me, however, was that she didn't have a pen nor a single piece of paper with her. She read her prepared questions from her smart phone. She recorded our conversation on her smart phone. And when I gave her contact names and information for further research, she typed that directly into her smart phone.

Wow. It's a brave new world.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Sharing the excitement

Volume 4
The books are back from the printer, the promotional posters are being printed and the official book launch is just two weeks away.

These are exciting times for any writer. The release of Abigail Massey at McAdam Station, Volume 4, is even more exciting for me because I get to share the experience with another writer, Mary E. O'Keefe. For Mary, this book represents her first big publication and it's been a lot of fun to re-experience those first-time feelings with her.

Mary is a retired nurse and a wonderful author in her own right. She has contributed two of the six stories to this collection and I'm happy to admit that they are two of the strongest of the six.

In fact, her story, "University Bound", is the first tale in the volume and plays the important role of both giving one of our central characters a well-deserved send-off and setting up the remaining stories in the book.

Mary E. O'Keefe
And she seems to be enjoying this, her first real creative publication, immensely. I watched with no small amount of joy as she took the first copy of the book into her hands with something close to reverence, her eyes shining.

Mary will be taking part in most of the promotional events with me on this book and I'm delighted by that too. With my sister (and co-creator) Lynn far away in Ontario, it's great to have part of the creative team with me for this new voyage.

The book launch is scheduled for Sunday, November 8 at 1 p.m. in McAdam and we're hoping for a good-sized crowd. The event will feature the first public showing of our fabulous new trailer for the proposed Abigail web TV series, plus Mary and much more. If you're in the area, please make it a plan to attend this fun, free event!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Hamilton book event a standout emotional moment

The author behind the window display
There are moments...

I think that's a wonderful way to start a blog post, especially one that is going to be so entirely filled with happiness and delight as this one.

There are moments when it all seems worthwhile.

There are moments when a writer gets the positive feedback he's been hoping for.

There are moments when friends and family (and even a few strangers) gather together to enjoy your work.

There are moments when things just seem right.

My sister Lynn and I enjoyed exactly those kinds of moments last Wednesday evening at a small but fantastic independent book shop in the west end of Hamilton, Ontario, the city of our youth. Bryan Prince Bookseller has been a fixture in the city's west end ever since we were young. More than just a book shop, Bryan Prince offers exceptional service from a group of dedicated employees who take the time to get to know not just their many loyal customers but also the books they offer for sale to those customers.

Clare reading Abigail so beautifully
Often, when my nieces and nephews were young (and the children of my close friends were also in their formative years) I would walk into Bryan Prince looking for just the right book to buy for a particular child's birthday or other special occasion. After asking a few questions (such as how old is the child, what are his/her interests, what kinds of books does he/she usually read), the staff member would walk over to a shelf and pull down two or three possibilities, explain each one to me and then permit me to choose. Without fail, the books offered were new releases; in many cases, they were lesser known or from new authors; in all cases, the book I bought turned out to be the perfect choice for the particular child.

I've heard from many many friends who live in Hamilton and the stories are all the same: if you want service, if you want information, if you want a pleasant atmosphere and the perfect book, Bryan Prince is the place to visit.

For Lynn and me, Bryan Prince was also the best place to hold the first Abigail book event we've ever  mounted outside of New Brunswick. Owner Kerry and her staff were exceptionally helpful and cooperative and the space was perfect for our needs.

About 40 people came to the event and it went over really really well. The highlight for me (and I think for many many of the people who attended) came when Clare, 16, read from the most recent collection of Abigail stories. It was a perfect, dramatic reading of the story and it brought my characters to life. I personally get very nervous when asked to read in public so I have to give Clare real credit for being so calm as she delivered such a wonderful reading to such a large crowd.

The author speaking (not quite so beautifully)
As you have probably already figured out, this was quite an emotional time for me. I was more nervous about this event than I have been about any other Abigail related session I have done. I felt the history -- my own personal history -- all around me as I spoke to my friends, my family members and the other kind people who came out to the event.

And I felt like so much of my work toward becoming an author had led me to that moment. In front of those people. In that wonderful book store.

There are moments when life seems to be working out right.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Being a writer isn't always about writing

Busy times can also be frustrating times for a writer.

I have been run off my feet lately, mostly with every day life stuff but also with tasks associated with my Abigail Massey at McAdam Station historical fiction project.

Here's a list of what's going on with regard to Abigail right now:
  • I held a book signing event last week here in New Brunswick;
  • I have another promotional event scheduled for next week in Ontario;
  • We have just completed the challenging process of preparing Volume 4 of the stories for the printers, including everything from writing cover blurbs to carrying out final proof reading and editing;
  • We are now planning the release of Volume 4, which includes arranging appearances, delivering books, drafting and sending out press releases, doing media interviews, and planning the book launch event to be held at the Station itself;
  • We spent Saturday morning at the Station filming material for use in the creation of a promotional trailer for the Abigail web TV series we are hoping to produce; and
  • I've been planning the work necessary to convert the Abigail Christmas novella into a stage play (for performance, if we're lucky, in late 2016).
See? Busy busy.

It's all great. And exciting. But how much of it involves actually writing creatively? I mean, I'm an author and I miss the writing part right now.

It doesn't help that, as a result of recent events, I am now anxious to get down to working on no fewer than four different creative writing projects: the aforementioned stage play, a new Middle-Grade fantasy novel, a revision of a mystery court-room-drama novel I wrote several years ago and the completion of a Harry Potter fan fiction novel that I haven't worked on in several years.

I have discussed the stage play and the Middle-Grade novel in this space before so I won't go in to any detail now. The play represents a huge challenge for me but one that could add a significant new dimension to the Abigail project. The novel is one of the more exciting ideas I have had in a long time, a project that was given new life by the enthusiastic response of a young colleague.

The mystery book is something that I wrote about 10 years ago and that went all the way to the end of the professional publishing review process before being finally rejected. I have some ideas on how to revise and improve it and I'm looking forward to putting those ideas into action.

And the Harry Potter fan fiction project just recently jumped back into the forefront. Several years ago, I wrote five pretty solid chapters of a novel that follows some of the minor characters from the original seven novels as they attempt to deal with the aftermath of the "Battle of Hogwarts" that brings J.K. Rowling's series to a close. I have posted the five chapters on my own personal website as well as on my Harry Potter blog.

Last week, a colleague at my work approached me to tell me that she had discovered the chapters on line and had decided to read the first one just for something to do. She very kindly told me that she was soon "hooked" and had to read all five chapters. Now she wants me to write more.

Very kind, exciting sentiments, to be sure. And I very much enjoyed writing those first five chapters in the first place, before moving on to other writing projects (the Abigail project for one). Now I find myself wanting to go back and pick up the story.

I certainly am not complaining about how much time I am currently spending on Abigail -- it's great fun to be so involved in a fairly successful project. But I would really love to get back to writing soon!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Lessons learned from lessons offered

As I have posted in this space before, I am from time to time asked to read something a friend or colleague has written and to give "honest feedback".

I am always wary on these occasions because, all too often, the written piece is awful and the writer is lying when she/he says she wants me to be honest. On more than one occasion, I've read through truly abysmal writing, only to find myself being forced by the person's wide, fearful, hopeful, frightened eyes to say "It shows real promise", "there's a lot to like here", "but for a couple of minor tweaks here and there, I think you've got a real winner".

And I hate doing that. Both the reading and the lying.

So, when a work colleague approached me the other day with a similar request, I hesitated for quite a long time. Did I really want to risk ruining what is a good, enjoyable friendship for this? Did I really want to spend my time reading what could, quite probably, be an awful piece of fiction?

But he is a good guy and a very good colleague and I felt he was at least psychologically prepared to hear something in the neighbourhood of the truth, good or bad.

So I read his work.

Despite his promises to the contrary, he actually seemed quite anxious about what I would say. He texted me several times and, when I agreed to meet with him to chat, he booked a meeting room for the purpose.

Fortunately, his writing was quite interesting. Sure, there were issues but, as I read it, I got the strong feeling that I was reading something that was not too far from really good.

The only challenge was: his writing is about as far away in approach and style from my writing as you could get and still be working in narrative fiction.

I really worried that, in providing constructive feedback from my own set of expectations and preconceptions, I might actually damage his work.

His story was told from an extremely limited third person position and his protagonist was a down-and-out young man going through an extremely troubling period in his life. The narrative was almost stream-of-consciousness in approach, with long sentences, detailed descriptions and often creative metaphors. It meandered from subject to subject in a way that was, for me, disconcertingly real for the character.

In other words, exactly the opposite of my own style: third person omniscient, with a young, female protagonist, fairly easy on the exposition with lots of dialogue and lots happening.

And I really felt like there was something magic in his work, something really really good that any constructive criticism a writer like me could give might just ruin.

Now that was an interesting conversation!

I very carefully explained to him what I've just written here: that, although I think there are ways to improve the piece, he should take anything I had to say with a grain of salt.

He was great about it, however. I think he was just delighted that I was so positive about his work that he was willing to listen to my blather.

A technical guy by nature (he's some kind of an engineer), he approaches writing as if he is building something. He told me, for example, that his research into writing the kind of piece he wanted to create indicated that his sentences should be between 70 and 140 words in length!

He also told me that he came up with the plot by writing a paragraph, then starting what I pictured as a flow chart of information derived from that first para. "OK, he's wearing a t-shirt, so he's young. He's upset. Why? Maybe because he's lost his job. And he's got a son. But where's his wife? They broke up. She broke up with him... no, he broke up with her and he regrets it. And he needs money. He's lost his job. He's upset because he's lost his job, he's lost his wife, he has a son to raise and he needs money. How does he get money? He has to pawn something. OK, he has to pawn..."

And, once the flow chart was completed in his mind, he began to write the rest of the story.

Again, that's about as different from my approach as you can get. And yet, it worked for him.

I learned a lot from him in this conversation. Probably more than he did from me!

For one thing, I learned to be more optimistic when a friend asks me to read his writing.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

That difficult early period on a new project

Now that I have a strong opening for my new Middle-Grade novel, I face the next daunting task: writing the next passage.

I know,I know. I'm starting to sound like I have significant psychological issues or am, the very least, a whiner of epic proportions. "My life is so hard!" "Writing is so hard!" "There's so much pressure!"

But I really do find that it takes a while for me to get into a good writing rhythm on a new project. That it is only after about five or six really good sessions of writing, with at least 20 strong pages written, for me to feel that I've gotten, well, a feel for the characters, the story, the tone and style of the writing itself.

Once I'm there, I can be quite productive when I find a couple of hours to focus on writing. But, until then, my sessions are mostly exercises in stopping and starting, writing and revising, thinking and rethinking. And, to be frank, I approach such sessions with a great deal of hesitation.

I recognise that it is all a necessary part of the writing process.... of my writing process. And I know that, once I've worked my way through these early writing sessions, I'll be alright. But it doesn't make it any easier for me to force myself to settle in to write at this point.

It should be no surprise, therefore, that my last writing session comprised little more than my re-reading the first section that I wrote, making small revisions here and there and only starting to think about what comes next. Almost no new writing got done but...

I have to keep in mind that these moments of frustration are a necessary part and will lead to something better and more satisfying.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Being true to your own voice

Sometimes, as a writer, you know exactly how a section of your novel should be written. You know exactly the narrative tone, the diction, the kinds of sentence structure, the paragraphing that would make the scene that exists so vividly in your mind come to life on the page.

And then you have to accept that you are simply not capable of writing it that way.

Sure, J.K. Rowling could. J.R.R. Tolkien could pull it off. Even Franklin W. Dixon , Carolyn Keene or Roald Dahl would handle it with ease.

But not you. That's not to say you can't write the scene effectively. It's just to say that, in order to write it to the best of your own abilities, you have to write it your own way. You have to play to your strengths rather than attempt to adopt an approach that, even if it seems perfectly suited for the scene as you imagine it, is not in your wheelhouse.

I went through that precise, difficult process this morning with the opening scene of my new middle-grade novel. I had written a first page earlier this week, using short, choppy sentences to establish a quick pace, blunt, one-syllable adjectives (used sparingly, of course) to create atmosphere and rapid, almost break-neck movement to create suspense.

I don't think it was bad, what I produced. No, not bad at all. But it wasn't me. And, as a result, it wasn't great. It felt to me like I was trying too hard to be what I'm not and, as a result, the scene felt fake.

So, while I was out walking the dog this morning, I told myself: Even if you don't think the approach is the absolute best for this scene, you have to write this in your own voice, in your own way.

I started again, out there in the neighbourhood, and created a first line that was more me. Perhaps not so quick of pace, not so sparse of diction... but me. And, I think, really good.

I knew I was on the right track when I sat down at my little netbook and input that first line, only to find the second line flowing immediately into my imagination. Then the third. And the fourth.

Before I knew it, I had three full pages of writing with which I am really pleased. Sure, it needs editing. Sure, I need to revise and rethink.

But it's a great start. And it's me there on the page.

The earlier draft was an important step in the process, no doubt. By writing and rejecting it, I gained a clearer idea both of the events as they should be presented but also the way in which I wish to present them.

And now I have a better start to my novel and that tingling feeling in my stomach that says I'm going in the right direction.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Beyond that momentous first line

I wrote the first line. Of my new Middle-Grade novel. I wrote the line I find most difficult, challenging and frightening to write. The first one.

I don't love it. The line that I came up with. But I wrote it.

And then I wrote the second line. The third line. Full paragraphs even. Almost the entire first page to the book.

I am very excited.

But I am also now facing all of the other challenges a writer faces when she/he begins a new project, like making decisions as to tone, language, diction, character, and physical descriptions.

I am fortunate in that I have chosen a real location as the central setting for the book so the major decisions regarding that aspect of the novel have been made for me.

My concern now, however, is to make sure that I get the right "flavour" to my writing. That my narrative voice captures an appropriate tone, that its choice of words is both appropriate and compelling, that it creates initial descriptions for my principal characters and my key settings that are memorable and evocative.

I read over that triumphant first page last night and started to second guess myself.  About everything.

Are my sentences too long? or maybe too short? Should I be injecting humour into what is intended to be a suspenseful opening scene or should I leave that until later?

I even questioned details as small as my choice of diction in a given sentence: should I use the word "calculated" or the word "counted"?

How should I describe my main character? When should I describe her?

And that plays into much bigger questions like: do I want my narrator to be third-person limited (written as if sitting on my main character's shoulder, seeing only what she sees, knowing only what she knows)? or do I want to use the third-person omniscient approach, where my narrator knows all (though she might not choose to share it with the reader)?

If I'm using the TP Limited, then I can only really insert a description of my character when she herself would be thinking about her appearance: "She passed a mirror and saw that the wind had made a mess of her long blonde hair".

On the other hand, if I'm using the TP Omniscient, then I can just insert a paragraph of description wherever I chose to: "She was a tall, slim girl with messy blonde hair, piercing brown eyes and the slim facial features of an Italian sculpture."

You will notice that I have already eliminated any thought of using the first person narrative voice for this book: that decision was made without any conscious deliberation on my part. FP doesn't seem right for a book of this nature.

That's one of the wonders (and burdens) of writing fiction: you create the entire world and every choice you make in creating that world will have an impact on the success of your writing. Not only do you choose the whos, wheres and whats, you also choose the what colours, how talls, how manys and how oftens.

You are responsible for every word in the book. You are responsible for every detail in the book. And, as if that's not enough responsibility to place on a single person, you are also responsible for every detail that is not in the book.

Crazy as it sounds, the decision as to what NOT to include in your book is often as important as the decision as to what to include and how.

Yeah, I can really tie myself up in knots, can't I?

Ah, Stephen King, you've got it right. Just write. And write and write and write. Don't edit until you're done writing. Then use the revision process as a sculptor works with a block of marble: carve away the excess so that the story emerges, clear, crisp and gorgeously detailed.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

On first lines and writer's block

OK, so now comes the hard part. The first line.

I've jotted down a synopsis, built a chapter-by-chapter outline, received hugely helpful feedback on both from a very wise reader and now I'm ready to start writing.

But that means I have to surmount what is often the most challenging barrier for my writing projects: composing the first line.

I put a lot of pressure on that first line. I have convinced myself that a great first line is the key to selling a book to an agent, convincing a publisher to take you on, and eventually attracting readers in a bookstore.

I place so much importance on that first line that I often create an artificial case of writer's block for myself, even if I have the rest of the book completely and convincingly laid out in my head. I write and rewrite, devise and revise that line over and over again in my mind and can't force myself to move on to the rest of the story without getting that first line absolutely perfect.

So, right now, I'm playing with something like the following: "The first bolt of lightning struck about five miles away." or "Lightning struck. The building shook." or "..."

And now, when I type them out, I think: "No, those suck..." And all my confidence drains away.

Writing colleagues have advised me simply to hammer down a first line, the best I can come up with under the circumstances, and then keep on writing. By the time I get a substantial portion of the story written, I'll have a better idea of how to craft the first line.

At least that's the theory.

And then I wonder whether or not my problems with creating the first line of my book are not simply a psychological construct to permit me to delay actually engaging in the long-term writing process.

Ahhh, first lines....

Friday, August 28, 2015

An awesome week for a writer

I have had an awesome week, as awesome a week as a struggling writer can have without actually signing a publication contract.

First, I spent an amazing hour with a real-life playwright and artistic producer for a theatre company and a screen writer, talking about my draft play.

Second, I received a fantastic email from a creative friend who very kindly agreed to read the draft synopsis for my new middle-school-age novel project. It was thoughtful and supportive and filled with interesting thoughts and ideas. She's given me lots to think about and I had proposed to present it here for your edification.
Unfortunately, after reading it again, I have come to the conclusion that I can't share it in any meaningful way without giving away details of the story that I simply am not willing to share at this point.
Sorry, Clare... your email is absolutely wonderful and so very helpful. I will indeed be referring back to it often and and thinking over the ideas you have presented.

As I mentioned to Clare in my responding email, it is a rare and wonderful thing for a writer to receive honest, thoughtful and helpful feedback on his writing.

I now have to stop myself from sitting down immediately to start writing. I have more thinking to do about plot and character before I actually start the writing.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Basking in the glow of honest, constructive criticism

It doesn't happen often but, every once in a while, something you have been looking forward to actually lives up to and even surpasses your expectations.

That's how I am feeling about my much anticipated meeting with Ryan Griffith, Artistic Producer with Next Folding Theatre, and screen writer Nancy Lynch that took place today in a coffee shop across from my place of work.

Did Ryan hug me and declare me the best playwright since Anton Chekhov or William Shakespeare? No.

Did he tell me my first draft of the stage version of A McAdam Station Christmas was a masterpiece on the order of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead? No.

Did he tell me he plans to produce my play as written and expects us all to become multimillionaires on the basis of ticket sales and movie rights? No.

Did he give me lots of great information and guidance on how to make my play better and make kind, supportive comments that implied I am not a complete hack who should hang up his keyboard?

Yes. Yes he certainly did.

And Nancy, who is my partner in crime on this little venture, was equally supportive and insightful. Ryan offered me a full year's worth of lessons on how to write a successful play. Nancy helped me to understand how to apply those lessons specifically to the Abigail story.

I have to admit, I'm feeling a bit stunned at the moment. Stunned that Nancy, an accomplished screenwriter and film creator, has taken such a supportive interest in this little project. So much so that she has agreed to take the lead on it and on our web series proposal.

And stunned that Ryan was willing to take time out of his busy (and clearly productive) schedule to read my novella and the draft play and then sit down with us for more than an hour to share his thoughts, insights and suggestions on how to make it better.

I have come away from this meeting inspired, excited and with a large pile of home work. Step one of the homework is to read Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, to get an idea of how a master handles both the medium and the structure of a three-act play. That should be no problem: we have a World's Classics collection of five plays by Chekhov on our bookshelf and I'm ready to start reading.

My second task is to re-imagine the basic themes of my original story in stage terms, to find ways to tell the same story but in a different, more theatre-oriented way.

Ryan proved to be an excellent, knowledgable teacher. He kindly said that he found enough in both the novella and my writing to suggest that I could write a successful play. He also kindly agreed to read the next draft that I produce, even if it doesn't make an appearance for several months.

I think most writers suffer from a lack of useful, honest, knowledgable criticism of their work but, thanks to Ryan and Nancy, I am glad to be able to say that my suffering has been abated. At least for now!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Honest criticism is an honour to receive

I wrote the other day about some of the possibilities that have arisen with regard to one of my ongoing writing projects: the Abigail Massey at McAdam Station series of short stories for kids.

At least I think I wrote about them.... oh well, if not, bear with me. Or should that be "bare with me"? No, that sounds a bit rude.

One such possibility is the opportunity to adapt my Christmas novella, A McAdam Station Christmas, into a stage play. Now, I'm not a playwright by any means. I wrote a couple of one-act plays way back in my youth but writing for the stage is not something I consider to be among my talents.

When a screen-writing colleague at work suggested, however, that I consider such a project, I jumped at the chance. I thought, "Why not?" and "It would be great if it worked out!" and "Holy crap, did I really just agree to this?"

But how does one go about converting a novella into a play?

With no clue how to proceed, I did what I always do in such situations: I took the process step by step.

First, since plays are all about dialogue, I stripped most of the exposition from the story, leaving only the dialogue itself and just enough "stage direction" to make it make sense.

Second, I re-reviewed the resulting draft script with the strengths and limitations of live stage in mind. I reduced the number of characters, for example, by eliminating unnecessary scenes and, in at least one case, having a major character take on the functions and dialogue of a minor character. I also reduced the number of sets required, by identifying three or four major locations and then relocating all scenes that had been set elsewhere in the novel into one of these locations.

The result was fine, I guess, but I strongly suspected that, well, although it looked like a play on paper, it didn't really have the shape and structure of a play. At that point, I was stumped as to what to do next.

My colleague came to the rescue. She investigated local theatre groups, identified one to which she felt the play was best suited in theme and audience, and approached its artistic director to discuss my play.

To my amazement, the director not only agreed to read the play, he also agreed to meet with us to give us feedback!

So tomorrow morning I sit down with my colleague and a real live theatre man to talk about the Abigail play.

He warned us that he intends to be blunt and honest in his "notes" on the play draft -- I guess he's had too many bad experiences with egotistical writers who don't like to hear criticism -- and I find myself actually quite delighted to hear that.

I have no fear of criticism. In fact, sometimes I think struggling writers get much too little criticism of their work. Strike that -- I strongly believe that very few struggling writers get enough honest criticism of their work.

And, as someone who knows that play writing is NOT my strength, I am really interested to hear what he has to say about how I can improve the Abigail play.

To be honest, I'm quite honoured simply by the fact that he read the thing in the first place, not to mention that he's willing to take the time to comment on it in person. I am trying not to get my hopes up that this means he found enough worthwhile in the play that he might consider mounting it on stage -- I am focusing on this amazing opportunity to get honest, if blunt, criticism and to improve my written work!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Finding a gold nugget in the waste of the past

If you're a writer like me, you've probably got five to ten projects (at the very least) on the go, inside your imagination if not actually on paper (or hard drive).

Some of them are active projects, the ones you're currently working on from day to day. Others are projects that you're brain is only starting to develop, that are so preliminary that you have not even jotted down a single word about them yet.

And then there are the projects that you started at some point in the past (even the distant, distant past) but never finished, that ran aground for want of imagination, for want of time, or because they got displaced by a newer, fresher idea. These are the projects that, while put aside, are not entirely forgotten.

And sometimes one of these can come roaring back to life, often for the most bizarre of reasons.

That's exactly what happened to me recently. I have a novel project that I began about five years ago, an interesting little idea for the Middle School crowd. The most memorable aspect of the project, at least until recently, was the fact that I created the protagonist's name by combining the first names of my friend's two daughters.From what I remember, I had the basic premise, the name and maybe three paragraphs of writing. Then I set it aside and, to be honest, all but forgot about it.

It all came back to life recently when I was sitting in that friend's living room, chatting with him and his now-teenage younger daughter about writing. I suddenly remembered the project and I mentioned it to them, more to share the character name than anything else.

"What's it about, this novel?" the young woman asked.

And I found myself tossing out a synopsis for the book in a more developed way than I had ever come up with in the past. Even as I was spinning the tale, I could feel myself getting interested. Excited even.

Then the daughter said, as casually as you please, "I'd buy that book."

My friend nodded. "Me too."

We batted around a few more ideas and then moved on to other topics.

When I got back home, I sat down at my new net book and, within about 20 minutes, I had a page-long synopsis in front of me. I read it over, started seeing connections, opportunities, themes that could be developed, and did a quick revision.

Then I did a chapter by chapter outline, capturing the main plot points, the major developments in character and theme, and felt the excitement burning in my gut.

I read it over again. My gut was right -- this good be good, very good. Great, even.

So I Facebooked the young woman and asked if she'd be willing to review the synopsis and outline I had produced. She said yes, of course, she'd enjoy that. In fact, she wrote, "I have some ideas of my own I'd like to contribute."

I immediately emailed the document to her, excitement blooming.

I can't wait to read what she has to say!

Monday, July 6, 2015

On researching, writing and revising

These are challenging times. For me as a writer, that is.

Not only am I in the middle of some very intense research for my next novel (a historical novel for the young-adult audience), I am also revising several Abigail stories of my own, working with a fellow writer on her early draft stories, incorporating readers' suggestions into my draft play and starting to work on the novel itself.

And also writing blogs and doing a great deal of writing at work.

Yes, busy, interesting and challenging times, for sure.

The research, I love, and I am finding that the internet is really coming into its own as a research tool. As recently as five years ago, I would be bemoaning how limited online resources actually are on certain issues but now I am impressed. I've been able to find, for example, daily weather reports for London from 1940.

Of course, the more factual details you can find about a historical period, the more pressure there is on you to ensure that your fictional writing reflects those details. It's fun but challenging.

The revision (of stories and plays) is also very interesting. Unfortunately, I am a writer who enjoys hammering out the original draft a lot more than I enjoy the revise-and-rewrite process. So I have to force myself to focus on the task of improving on the original and one way I do that is by having excellent readers review and make suggestions on my drafts.

When the feedback is so strong and on-point that you wish you had thought of it yourself, it's a lot easier to decide to incorporate it into your work.

Working with other writers on their work is also a fun challenge. I hope I can be as good a reader and as diplomatic a purveyor of feedback for others as my own readers are for me. I always try to start with the positive and to make constructive suggestions on the ways I think the writing can be improved. But I also feel very strongly that giving feedback on someone's writing is not just about focusing on the detail -- you have to be willing to raise issues of structure, of tone, of point of view even.

It's a lot of work to keep up with all these different paths in my writing career. But very rewarding too.

Monday, June 29, 2015

What do I want from my writing?

Oh wow. I've just been reading some pretty sad news for wannabe authors like me. For example, according to online sources, the average published author in Canada earns $500 per year in royalties.

Scary, huh?

Or try this one: even if a book is published, it has a 1% chance of being stocked in the major book retailers.

Or this one: the vast majority of promotion and marketing for new books is done by the author, not by the publishing house.

Or this one: The average book published in Canada sells between 5,000 and 10,000 copies over the course of its lifetime.

Scary scary scary scary, especially if you're one of those authors who hopes to make a living through your writing.

Thankfully, I've never really "hoped" anything of the sort. I knew from the start that it is only a very small minority of published writers who earn enough from their books to "quit their day job".

I still find the statistics just a little bit depressing.

My research only serves to confirm a conversation I had last week with a writing colleague at the post-book-launch party in honour of a new collection of stories by a mutual friend, Rob Gray, called Entropic.

This author colleague is, himself, published with a small east-coast publisher and he told me that, from his experience, the publishing house worked very hard to gather sufficient arts grants to pay their own staff salaries, to pay their overhead and to produce the books. After that, the publishing house considered its work to be done -- it's up to the author to sell copies of the book.

He also said that few of the authors he knows have any expectation of selling huge numbers of books: they just feel it to be important to write quality literature and get it out there to the (often few) people who are interested in reading it.

I'm not sure how I feel about all that. And it's made me think pretty intently about why I write and what my goals really are. I spend an awful lot of my time writing, thinking about writing, promoting my writing, talking about writing and all the rest: what do I really hope to get out of that investment?

I love to write. I love the creative process. I love the thinking and dreaming and researching and planning that goes into creating, from nothing, a story for other to enjoy. I love to read other people's writing and to think about why it works (or doesn't), how it is put together, what decisions the author made or should have made to make the piece what it is.

But (and I hate to admit it), at the base of it all, I write because I want to see my creative work published by a real publishing house. For all the success I have had self-publishing and promoting my Abigail stories, I really want to have a professional publisher with a known publishing house say to me, "We want to publish you.; we think you're work is worthy of taking the risk."

Is that too much to ask?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What is my natural writing voice?

I'm still struggling with my next writing project. Actually, that's not exactly true: I'm not struggling with my next project because I haven't yet decided what my next project should be; I'm struggling to decide on a next project.

I have completed drafts of the four stories that will form part of the next Abigail story book and, if I might blow my own horn for a moment, I think they're really good. There's action, a little bit of comedy and quite a bit of character development in them. And I didn't struggle at all in getting them written. As with the original 12 stories, they really just poured out of my fingers and onto the computer screen.

But what next? My partner tells me that I should stop struggling to write mysteries and court-room dramas (the two genres I thought were my thing) because, in her opinion at least, they don't represent my "natural voice". Based on how smoothly the Abigail stories seem to flow out me, she argues, my "natural voice" must be in the genre of middle-school or young-adult fiction -- more specifically, the voice of an innocent, somewhat naiive and optimistic young girl who isn't afraid to take on life's bigger challenges.

Yes, you read that right: my natural voice is apparently that of an adolescent girl, preferably one who lives in the middle part of the 20th century.

Is my partner right? Is that really my natural voice?

I am having a hard time arguing with her, to be honest. The Abigail stories flow so remarkably smoothly for me. I can generally produce a very strong draft of a story in perhaps two hours of writing and that draft will require very little editing or revising to get it into final form.

That being said, I find it something of a bewildering situation. I have spent my entire life thinking that mysteries were my genre and, almost from the start, my protagonist was going to be a lawyer turned investigator, so that I could incorporate elements of courtroom drama into the mix. I have, in fact, completed three novel manuscripts in the mystery genre and have come very close to having two of them picked up by mid-sized Canadian publishers.

I have also written five or more short stories in the same genre, though none of those have caught on either.

What I keep having to accept is the fact that the writing process for every one of those particular pieces (novel and short story alike) was a fairly tortured, drawn out experience. They were really hard for me to write. The final product was good but the process was painful.

So maybe I should take these Abigail stories, and the ease and pleasure with which I wrote them, as confirmation that I've been wrong for most of my writing life, that I really should be writing middle-school or YA fiction.

I had thought my next project would be to go back to my mysteries and revise them some more with a view to resubmitting them to new publishers. But maybe, just maybe, I should be planning a full-length book for young people, with a female protagonist.

It's the decision of what to write next, rather than the writing itself, that is currently bogging me down.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Thinking about writing for screens, big and small

Screenwriting is never something I've considered seriously as a way to tell my stories. I'm not sure why. Perhaps because it seems to require such a firm commitment to forms and structures, like a sonnet almost. I look at a published screenplay and I think: whoa, I could never write one of those.

I think my hesitation also might come from the fact that I see screenwriting as a short-story art: even feature film scripts are closer in length to Alice Munro than to Charles Dickens. And I've never been very good at writing short stories, at least not short stories for adults.

Then a colleague at work told me that she had taken a scrip-writing course out of UCLA and had really enjoyed it. We got to talking about writing and our own projects and she asked me if I would be willing to read one of her scripts and giving her my thoughts on it.

"Sure," I said, all the while wondering why my stomach clenched almost the moment she asked the question.

I took her script and gave it a good read. Two immediate responses: wow, it is good (I could actually see many of the scenes playing themselves out visually in my mind); and thank goodness it's a romantic comedy. I'm a huge fan of rom-coms and felt I was at least somewhat on safer ground. I might not know screen-writing but I do love my rom-coms.

In order to ground myself even more firmly, I did a quick web search on screen plays. To my amazement, up popped an IMDB website that is dedicated to making the scripts for Hollywood films available to the reading public. Awesome.

I soon got lost in the site. I read the script for my all-time favourite romantic comedy, Notting Hill, then went on to read Shakespeare in Love, Pretty Woman and finally When Harry Met Sally. It was a real education, both in the form and in the strategic approach to writing a good screenplay.

And it proved to me just how good my friend's script really is. It also clarified in my mind exactly what I felt worked in the screenplay and what could be improved.

She and I sat down to discuss the script and had a really good talk. She was pleased that I had enjoyed her work so much but also open to some of the suggestions I made as to how she could go about making it even better. The fact that I could refer back to some of the best romantic comedies of the past 30 years as we spoke only made my comments carry that much more weight.

All of this got me thinking: could I write a screenplay? I'm still not sure but I think I'd like to try.

I've been working on my Abigail Christmas novella, trying to turn it into a stage play and I realized, but for the formatting issues and questions of length, the two forms -- stage plays and screen plays -- are not that different.

And then my friend, as if reading my mind, suggested that I start adapting the original 12 Abigail short stories into tele-plays so that we can create a web-series from them. Interesting idea.

I have so many projects I'd like to get to but this one intrigues me strongly. I'm still not sure I have what it takes to write screenplays but I won't really know until I try.