Saturday, December 31, 2016

On (auto)biographies and the challenge of writing

Writing a biography -- or, better still, an autobiography -- seems to me to be a particularly challenging task, one not to be taken on lightly.

I was once offered a contract to write the biography of a fairly well known musician from the 1960s who had gone on to enjoy an interesting, comfortable life, made possible by the seemingly endless royalties earned by a single song he wrote at the start of his musical career. I met with the man on several occasions to discuss the project but, in the end, circumstances and, I now realize, fear forced me to turn down the contract and move on with my own, less interesting, life.

The man was a wonderfully talented writer in his own right (I mean, after all, he did pen one of the most enduring pop songs in history) and I convinced him that, rather than paying me to write the story of his life, he should take on the project himself. In other words, I told him that the biography I was being asked to write should actually be an autobiography, that he would write himself.

I'm sorry to say that, since those conversations more than a decade ago, the autobiography has not, to my knowledge, appeared. I am also sorry to have to admit that, while I still believe he was capable of writing his own story very well, my decision not to accept the contract may have been driven by my own fear of the challenge of writing a biography.

It is not a simple undertaking. It requires skills that, while related to those required to write a novel, are unique and special. Skills that I'm not sure I have.

The challenge of writing an effective biography/autobiography is, to my mind, the challenge of cultivating a series of true incidents and real people (whose only relation is that they interact with a single individual) into a coherent story, one that captures the interest, has an element of cohesive drama and actually leads the reader from beginning to end.

For the musician, that cohesive thread was the song itself, the events that led to its creation, the developments that permitted it to become popular, the good fortune that allowed the musician to retain his rights to it and the positive impact it had on the rest of his life.

But, as I told him in one particularly difficult discussion, his life story seems to lose its allure as a saleable narrative once the song has become a bit and his life a comfortable one. In other words, I told him, you may have lived sixty plus years to date but your biography would probably come to an end when you were still in your early 20s. Everything that followed was just a happy footnote.

I write all this now because I have recently been introduced to two fairly new autobiographies that have brought it all back to me.

The first, Scent From Above, is a privately published "mystical memoir" by local New Brunswick professor and personality Pat Post (writing under her birth name Rosalie Lawrence). I was interested in this book for a variety of reasons, not the least of which were the facts that I know Pat, that she self-published the book and that she has significant connections to McAdam, New Brunswick, in whose past my own Abigail stories are set.

Scent From Above is a remarkable book. Once you get past the first several pages (which I admit took me three or four tries) and start to get a handle on the "mystical" aspects of the story, you can't help but become deeply engrossed in the story of young Patti Post, a charming, often challenging orphan adopted by a flighty ingenue-like mother and a rough-edged father.

Patti's early life was not easy and was made even more difficult by the fact that she both remembered her past lives and could "experience" scenes from the earlier lives of those around her simply by breathing in their aroma. As her parents try to deal with their daughter's eccentricities and fragilities as well as their own demons (not to mention a rebellious adopted son), Patti struggles to find a place for herself in the lonely, often foreign world of rural New Brunswick in the middle of the 20th Century.

The book has moments of great beauty and scenes of extreme sadness. The author manages to make the "mystical" parts of the story believable and, even more importantly, integral both to the character and the narrative. It's not the most upbeat tale ever told but Post/Lawrence has successfully created a sympathetic character and a fairly compelling narrative.

If there is one weakness to Scent From Above it is the lack of a cohesive motivating force that links all of the various vignettes together. The book's climax, while interesting enough on its own, is not as strongly linked to the book's opening and rising action as it could be. Without including any spoilers here, I would say that, while it is clear at the end that the events at the climax of the book were very important to the character, it is not clear from the beginning that the character's life is building toward that climax.

As I said, writing an autobiography is not easy for precisely this reason -- we don't live our lives building toward a single climax in our personal plot; we try to find meaning in the events as they take place in their often random, uncaring way. Post/Lawrence's fault is, in fact, that she is perhaps too honest in her retelling, that she refuses to reshape/rethink the early events in her life to create a suspenseful narrative build-up to the climax of the story.

At the other end of the spectrum is Alan Cumming's memoir, Not My Father's Son. Cumming, a well-known actor of Scottish origin who currently stars on television in The Good Wife, uses his recent appearance on the British TV show Who Do You Think You Are and the stunning revelations it brings as the catalyst for a review of his life as the son of an angry, abusive father.

I received this memoir in audio-book format as gift for Christmas and we listened to the first half of it on a recent drive home from Halifax. I'm sorry to say, however, that I found this book to be significantly less effective than Rosalie Lawrence's memoir, even if it is read to me quite evocatively by the author.

Far be it for me to belittle the suffering of any person who has endured the horrors that Cumming recounts but Not My Father's Son feels a little too contrived, a little too "cultivated" to ensure that early events in Cumming's life (and his experience and interpretation of them) build with appropriate coherence and drama toward the climax of the book.

The book has the over-produced feeling to it of a television melodrama (or, to be honest, of a reality TV show like Who Do You Think You Are). Things fit together a little too well; Cumming's own remembered responses to situations early in his life match a little too perfectly with the needs of the later part of his story.

I write that with a great deal of hesitation. The story of Cumming's early life is stunningly horrific and I don't want to be read to be undermining what he went through in any way, shape or form. The fact that the early violence he experienced at the hands of his father had a significant impact on his adult life is both understandable and tragic.

But, as an autobiography, Not My Father's Son comes across as a little too well-orchestrated, well-integrated. It could do with a little bit of the loose association of characters and events that pervades  Post/Lawrence's memoir.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

I blame my sister (I really do)

The story as it appears in the print magazine of Created Here
It's a funny feeling to be asked to write an article for a magazine basically about yourself.

New Brunswick's cool new arts magazine, Created Here, recently made just such a request of me and, I'll be the first to admit it, I struggled to find the write tone in which to write the article. I didn't want to be too over the top and come across sounding vain but I also didn't want to err on the other side and come across as a falsely modest person.

I decided that the best way to approach the task was to tell a story. I am, after all, a story teller and it seemed appropriate to tell the fun, sometimes silly story of how the Abigail Massey stories came to be. Hence, I came up with the opening line (borrowed from countless other written works), "I blame my sister".

It turned out that I actually had fun writing the article for this magazine. Marie-Hélène Morell, the creator, publisher and editor of this fine publication, was easy to work with, clear in her instructions and requirements, quick in response to my questions and gentle with her editing. I think the final product turned out to be pretty good.

Even more impressive, however, is the beauty of the layout of the article, the way she has incorporated photos and drawing into the composition in a balanced, attractive way. I think the Created Here spread gives much deserved prominence to my sister Lynn's fantastic illustrations and the McAdam Railway Station comes out looking pretty darned good!

My copy of the magazine arrived just before Christmas so it turned out to be something of a wonderful holiday surprise. Thanks MH!

Thursday, July 28, 2016

A once in a lifetime opportunity

One of the biggest challenges facing struggling authors these days is how to promote their writing. The growth of accessible, high quality self-publishing and professional printing services has made it easier than ever for writers to put their work out there, even without a contract with a big publishing house, but writers often face huge barriers in attracting readers to take an interest in their work.

I myself have tried to make liberal (and efficient) use of social media (mostly blogs like this one, as well as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube) to get my writing out there but the impact has been somewhat limited. I have had better luck generating local media attention and having articles in local newspapers and reports on local radio and television help promote my books.

But even that is hit and miss. The media may cover your work once, especially if there is a significant issue of local interest attached to it, but they are rarely willing to come back to you time and again as each new book hits the shelves.

Imagine, then, how awesome it would be for a writer to be invited... INVITED... to appear on a immensely popular national TV show, starring one of the country's favourite personalities?

I was honoured and humbled to have just that happen to me recently.

As you probably already know, my Abigail stories are written and sold to support the restoration of the historic McAdam Railway Station and Hotel, located in Southwest New Brunswick. So, when CBC's comicumentary Still Standing decided to focus on the Village of McAdam as one of the communities that is still standing after all these years, I was invited to participate.

I had a blast working with the folks at Frantic Films, who produce the show, and the crew from CBC, including host Jonny Harris (of Murdoch Mysteries fame) as well as writers Graham Chittenden and Fraser Young, when the episode was filmed in February.

And I was absolutely psyched/amped/stoked/excited when the broadcast date finally arrived this past Tuesday.

The episode was awesome. Funny, informative and affectionate, beautifully constructed to tell the story of McAdam and its Station while providing hope for the future. And I was delighted to see that I was given ample screen time, with the story of my Abigail books told clearly and concisely.

This is the kind of exposure (on national television, no less) that an author would die for. I know just how lucky I am and I am already seeing the positive impact of that exposure. I have been stopped on the street by people who saw the Still Standing show. I have received emails and tweets from several people across Canada enquiring how to obtain copies of the books.

The social media coverage of the show has been significant and the reaction universally positive, with literally hundreds of people declaring that they must, absolutely MUST visit the McAdam Railway Station and, more importantly, that the Station must be preserved.

If you didn't get a chance to watch the show, you can stream it from here. If you want more information on the station, visit the McAdam Railway Station's website. For more information on the Abigail stories, visit the Abigail website.

I am grateful to the good people at Frantic Films and CBC for this amazing opportunity and, even if it doesn't make me a best-selling author, Still Standing has given me the absolute thrill of seeing myself and my work receive national attention.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A stunning, heart-in-throat moment

Mark and Jonny

Picture this. I'm on my lunch hour. I've just visited my local library to check out its permanent book sale and I stop on a bench outside the building to check Facebook before heading back to work.

My FB feed tells me that the CBC TV show "Still Standing" has posted a new 90-second trailer advertising the new season that launches tonight (June 14). I click on the video and attempt to watch it on the tiny screen of my BlackBerry Q10.

Great video. Fun, action packed, with some wonderful images. Then, out of the blue, there's me. Yep, that's right. Me. Sitting at the lunch counter in the McAdam Railway Station and Hotel, talking to "Still Standing" host Jonny Harris. Just a split second image but it's me nonetheless. No doubt about it.

Wow. What a feeling. I've been on TV before, sure, but this feels different. This is an advertisement for a national TV show that is gaining in popularity. Who knows where the 90-second spot will run? Who knows how many people will see it (and me)!

Just me and the Abigail books
So my stomach is in my throat and I'm totally excited and then... boom... there I am again! Me, standing with all of my Abigail books in my hands, smiling at the camera. Another split second, sure, but clearly me. Again.

I am so pumped. I have already shared it on FB and gotten some likes and some congrats from others and I am so totally thrilled. I just wish I could find the video online so I could link to it here and share it more widely!

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Thoroughly modern me

Sometimes as I try to become a modern writer I have to laugh at myself -- sure, I'm on Facebook and Twitter and Youtube and here on Blogger but, honestly, do I really think I've mastered the technology to the point where I can actually be creative, even avant garde with it?

My writing partner, Mary E. O'Keefe, and I are putting the final touches on the six new stories that will make up Abigail Massey at McAdam Station, Volume 5, set for publication this fall. As usual, we've had a lot of fun with the project, bouncing first story ideas then story drafts off each other as we try to produce the best new tales of McAdam Railway Station that we can.

And we've come up with some really interesting new material -- a couple of new characters with fascinating back stories, some exciting and heart-warming new stories and, yes, even an attempt to be cutting edge with the final story in the book.

The first fun idea we came up with actually came from my partner. When I told her I was struggling to come up with something really unique for the sixth story in the collection, she suggested I consider writing the story from several different points of view. Abigail stories, she pointed out, are always told with a third-person limited narrator, from Abigail's point of view -- why not tell a single tale from the points of view of several characters?

She mentioned several examples from literary and film history (The Sound and the Fury, for example) to illustrate her point.

I liked the idea immediately and set to writing. And I came out with a pretty fair story -- a story in which conflict arises between Abigail and Martha, in particular, in relation to the differences in how they experience and understand several events in their lives.

I wrote the original story from Abigail's point of view, then the same story from Martha's point of view. Mary agreed to write the story once again, this time from Jenny's point of view. Sounds pretty good, doesn't it?

Well, it does until you realize that the original Abigail story is already longer than any other Abigail story I've written (with the exception, of course, of the Christmas novella) and the Martha story is almost as long. Add in Jenny's point of view and you will have basically doubled the length of the book.

Wow. That's maybe too much for one collection of stories. And the first five stories in the collection were written specifically to lead in to the final tale so it's not as if we can just leave one out to shorten the book

In other words, unless we want to produce a book that is too big to sell for the price at which we are aiming, we need to find a solution.

We tried to cut each version of the story down a bit. It helped. But not enough.

So, trying to be ultra modern, I proposed another solution: what if we printed only the Abigail version in the book, then put a note at the end of the story that says, "To read Martha's side of the story, go to and, to hear Jenny's version, visit youtube"?

You know, multiple platforms for different versions of the story. Use one medium to draw readers to the other media. Who knows, maybe Miss Pierce can tweet her response to the entire thing?

See what I mean? I'm already laughing at myself. How silly is this proposal? Especially considering the fact that a good portion of our readership are older people who might not be particularly savvy about using social media. Talk about alienating your audience!

Or... could it work?

Monday, May 30, 2016

There is no "I" in "Memo"

When you can write reasonably well, you often find yourself in some demand at work, at least if you work in an office-type environment. It would seem (editorial comment warning) that our educational system's focus in recent years on science and engineering at the expense of the arts has resulted in a world where the ability to string words together intelligently, logically, clearly and with some panache is becoming more and more rare.

So I am constantly being asked to review this memo, revise that letter, write an article for the newsletter or "take a look at" whatever document might be passing through the hands of my colleagues and supervisors. As a result, I've been faced with some interesting writing challenges, the most common of which being the task of finding a way to completely rewrite a boss' unintelligible gibberish without upsetting him or her or making him or her feel stupid.

My worst experience came when a very petulant supervisor brought me an extended document, told me it had been written by some other person and asked me to rewrite it on an emergency basis. I went right to work on it and, let me tell you, it was indeed a disaster: unclear, poorly argued, poorly structured and with numerous grammatical and spelling errors. When my supervisor came back 30 minutes later and saw the document bleeding the red of "Track Changes" on my screen, he freaked out. It turned out he had written the document himself and had given it to me thinking it just needed a minor refresh. My relationship with that supervisor was never the same and I eventually had to leave that job to escape his vindictive behaviour.

My most interesting and, honestly, most fun experience came just last week. Friday afternoon, 15 minutes before the end of the work day, my supervisor came to me with a memo he had written on behalf of his boss' new boss. The memo was quite well written -- it was intended to introduce the boss' new boss to her colleagues and did a nice job of it -- but the boss' new boss had apparently objected to the use of the word "I" in the memo. Apparently, this particular senior administrator does not like to use the first person singular pronoun in memos of any kind.

My task: in the remaining 15 minutes of the work week, could I revise the four-paragraph memo so that the word "I" no longer appeared in it and yet it still did its job and made sense?

Do you know how hard it is to write a memo introducing oneself without using the first person singular pronoun? It's hard, let me tell you.

I ended up using a number of "it"s, a couple of "me"s and a bunch of alternative sentence structures that permitted me to make anything but the boss' new boss the subject of a sentence. And I got it done. In ten minutes. I was pretty proud of myself. The memo read well and only a very attentive reader would notice the lengths I went to avoid using the word "I".

My supervisor and his boss agreed that, as a result of the great job I had done on this memo, I deserved the rest of the day off. Nice guys, my bosses!

Friday, May 27, 2016

The little white envelope of rejection

Grant denied.

I'm not surprised, really, that my application for an arts grant has been denied -- I was applying for money to help convert my Christmas novella into a stage play and both my proposal, and my writing career, seemed just a little too multi-disciplinary for the arts board and its jury.

I knew that going in. I knew that the rules of the grant program were such that it would be much easier to establish oneself as a professional writer, and to obtain funding for a future project, by focusing one's work in a single genre of writing. That approach to life, however, just doesn't suit me and my career.

I am a writer of literary works (as opposed to poetic or theatrical works) primarily but I am also published poet, a news and magazine writer, an author of text books and a script writer.

And my proposal attempted to bridge two genres -- literature to theatre.

No go, they said. No cash for you.

I saw the envelope in the mail and I thought, "There it is, my first arts grant rejection letter."

And yet I still felt a little pang of disappointment when I opened the envelope and found those sad sad words: "We regret to inform you..."

Arts grants are important to writers in a number of ways. First, there's the money. Non-writers don't seem to understand the fact that writing costs money. Many people think writing just happens but writers know that there's a lot of money invested when you really want to focus on your writing: you need the materials and equipment, you need to make the effort necessary to do the required research (which often involves travel), you need to take time away from your life (work and home life). All of these involve money, either money spent or money not earned.

But money isn't the only thing of value an arts grant provides a writer. An arts grant, awarded as it is by a recognized body through a juried process, is also a sign of acceptance, of legitimacy, or recognition that you have established yourself as a professional writer.

It's not quite the same as getting your work accepted by a publication or publisher, sure, but it is an important badge of legitimacy, one that can lead to further arts grants potentially to the publication of your work.

I will apply again. I've learned from this experience and I will apply what I've learned to my next grant application. And I think I will stand a better chance of winning a grant because of it.

But that little pang of disappointment still lingers.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Book sale Abigail and the great literary circle of life

Sideways view of Book Sale Abigail
I am addicted to used book stores, sales, and stalls. I haunt the stores, frequent the sales, and scour the stalls. I don't often buy much but I love nothing better than to make my way, slowly and quietly, through a collection of used books.

Sure, I come up with the odd find from time to time -- a first edition Ian Fleming, for example, or an autographed Robertson Davies -- but the fun, for me, is simply in the looking, in the feeling that, as a writer of middling success, I might just be permitted to consider myself part of that great, multi-generational community of writers with books out there in the great wide world.

From time to time, I've even permitted myself to wonder what it would be like to find one of my own books amid the stacks and rows. I've known other authors who have found that particular experience to be upsetting and disappointing -- thinking bitterly, "someone didn't like my book well enough to want to keep it".

I always hoped that, upon my own discovery of one of my books in a used book sale, I would be much more positive about the experience.

Well, now I know -- and I'm glad to say, I was and continue to be much more positive.

As is my wont, I visited the local public library's standing book sale in its front lobby on my lunch hour today. I started scanning the collection on offer and felt a quick inhale of breath. That's my first Abigail Massey at McAdam Station book, isn't it? I thought to myself.

Indeed it was. A pristine copy of the first volume of stories, with my own autograph on the title page, dated December 2012. No inscription, just the signature. The date suggests that this copy comes from the original print run of 500 copies (or perhaps the second print run of 250 that was ordered within days of the book's release and rapid sell out).

My honest reaction was excitement -- excitement at seeing my own book out there in the world, among all the other books on sale, fitting in so nicely, yet prettier in its presentation (in my humble opinion).

My second thought was: should I buy it and give it as a gift (or even re-sell it to raise more funds for the Station)? or should I leave it so that (hopefully) someone else will come along and decide to buy it for themselves (or their child) at such a reduced price?

I think the picture at the top of this blog entry probably answers the question for you. I bought it. I put down my dollar and took it with me, feeling quite delighted to have found such a deal!

And now I know. It's a great feeling (at least for me) to think of myself as an author whose work has made its way from the sales table, to the living room table, to the book shelf, then to the used sale shelf at my local library. I am part of the great literary circle of life!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Do as I say... not as I don't

So what do you do when someone asks for your advice on something, you give it, and then you realize that you yourself do almost NONE of the things you have just advised this person to do?

That's exactly what is happening to me at this very moment. Last night, I was invited to the house of a friend to talk with her father, a wonderful writer, about how to enhance his online profile, to improve the presentation of his existing blog and to attract more readers to his beautiful prose.

We had a wonderful discussion and I believe both my friend and her father felt they got good value for the time they invested in speaking with me.

The problem is, although I believe very firmly in every suggestion I made to them, I have come to the realization that I personally implement almost none of these excellent suggestions in my own work. It's really quite amazing: do as I say, not as I do.

In preparation for the discussion, I had read over most of the entries on his existing blog site, which has not been updated in some time. I was impressed with just how beautifully this man writes, how broad and creative is his vocabulary, how vivid his descriptions and how expansive his literary knowledge. This is wonderful writing and well worthy of a broader audience.

I also studied the site itself and how his work was presented. And I came away with a deep respect for his work as well as a number of suggestions on how to present it more effectively.

Among my comments and suggestions:
  • Don't change your writing style to attempt to attract a larger audience -- write what and how you love and have faith in the quality of your writing to attract the right audience, an audience that can appreciate what you already do so beautifully;
  • Include more images -- several of his posts include photographs and others include simply wonderful examples of his wife's creative endeavours (sketches and pastels) to complement the subject matter of his post. I think it is no coincidence that these posts, in general, attract the most attention and the most comments so I recommended that he try to include visuals consistently with each post, especially at the top of each entry;
  • Add new entries on a consistent basis, at least once per week, so that, as readers find and enjoy the blog, they can get into a pattern of visiting on a regular basis, confident in the knowledge that they will find something new to read on each visit;
  • Create an email list, to which he can send the link to each new entry as it is posted, and ask people to add their name to that list when they first visit the site;
  • Be active on Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media in order to build a network, make more contacts and give himself more avenues to promote his blog;
  • Use the front page of the blog site to promote the fact that he hopes someday to produce a book of his writings -- create interest in that project early and see if it helps propel the book into reality;
  • Promote himself (and his artist wife), both on the blog site and in social media, since people will often want to read your work if they feel they know, like and/or respect you.
I think theses are all good suggestions. I just wish I myself followed more of them.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Write your own story, Herr Loser

I have achieved a milestone reserved only for accomplished writers and it has made my weekend: I have, through one of my blogs (my Harry Potter blog), been trolled.

I woke up this morning, checked out my Blogger homepage, and found the following comment posted on a blog entry from a year or so ago in which I discussed Harry Potter fan fiction, including my own Harry Potter novel: "write your own story dont steal other peoples work. loser".

For some reason, this comment brought me great joy. Thank you, Himmelfahrstrasse Stormalong, for this delightful surprise.

I honestly don't understand my own raucous response to this little piece of trolling -- why something that was apparently intended to be nasty has made me so happy I'm not sure. But it made me laugh out loud... and I've already shared it on Facebook and on Twitter.

The underlying issue, however, is an interesting one. Is there a problem, moral, philosophical, creative, with writing what is commonly known as "fan fiction".

The timing of this comment, and this discussion, couldn't be better. Just yesterday, I sat in a sandwich shop with my new writing partner on my historically-based children's stories and discussed the challenge of creating something entirely new, whether that involves introducing a new character to an established set of stories, introducing a new location or creating an entirely new novel.

In every such situation, the writer must make an almost infinite number of decisions, from the smallest detail to the largest strategic question, from what detail to include to what the detail entails.

And my troll has a point, one with which I have wrestled for some time. I have written three hard-boiled detective fiction novels, a creative task made somewhat easier by the fact that the genre has so many conventions that a significant number of creative decisions are already made for the writer. I don't have to make a decision on narrative point of view: the genre demands a first person narrator. I don't have to worry about tone: the tone of voice is acerbic, witty, dry. I have to follow certain rules of plot and characterization that are standard to the genre. Yes, there are still millions of creative decisions for me, as the author, to make but some decisions, at least, are made for me.

I have written and published a series of children's stories, set in a real location in the 1940s. I deliberately chose to pattern the writing style for these stories after the old Nancy Drew and Hardy Boy books -- stories that were written in my target time period, for my target audience. Again, setting my stories in a real train station and hotel in a real town saved me from having to make an infinite number of decision relating to the setting. And deciding to pattern them in tone and narrative style after an existing set of stories meant I had a strong base from which to work.

But fan fiction is another step along that road entirely. Fan fiction involves using the characters, settings, situations, relationships, the entirety of another author's work as the base from which to build your own story. It's almost like creating an app for an iPad: someone else did all the very difficult, creative work of conceptualising the device, designing it, building it, creating the proprietary software that runs it and you just come along and add a little piece of new software and claim to be a creator.

Is that wrong? Is it stealing, as my apparently German troll has suggested?

Fan fiction is something of an industry in and of itself. Dozens of writers have fashioned very nice careers for themselves writing fan fiction novels using the original Star Trek material created by Gene Roddenberry and others. Is that theft? Is it morally wrong?

I agree that writing fan fiction is, like writing fiction that is set in a real place, involves taking something of a creative short cut. I also agree that it is a significant creative achievement to create your own work from scratch and even more significant to create a fictional world, as Rowling has done, that is not even based on our current reality.

But I don't know if I would go so far as to agree that writing fan fiction is theft. Or even wrong. As long as proper attribution and credit is part of the process and as long as no profit is made without the permission of the original creator.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Taking nothing for granted

I submitted my first ever application for an arts grant this week. What an interesting experience!

It is a pretty exacting process. You have to make sure that you submit exactly what the funding body requires as part of the application, right down to the number of copies, the size of the paper and the colour of the ink.

I actually quite enjoyed the experience. Part of the package the funding body required was my writing CV, including all of my publication credits, all media coverage I have received and all of the training and education, related to writing, I have pursued.

It was a lot of work, to be honest, but the final product was a bit of an eye-opener. I guess I have lost track, over the years, of just how much I have accomplished as a writer.

The only problem, at least from the stand point of the application, is that the funding body wants to know what category of writer I fall into and then to receive evidence that I meet the criteria they have established to qualify as a professional writer in that particular genre.

In constructing my CV, I came to realise that I am a writer of middling accomplishment in three different "artistic" genres -- literature, poetry and script writing -- as well as several genres of writing for which they do not provide funding, such as legal texts, magazine and newspaper articles.

And, while my grant application is intended to attract support for my proposal to adapt my Christmas novella into a play, I would most likely qualify as a professional writer only in the category of a writer of fiction (literature).
If I recall the standards correctly, someone who has published 10 poems would qualify as a professional poet. Someone who has published a single collection of stories or a single novel with a known publisher would be considered a professional literary writer, no matter how many copies their books sold. And a person who has written a single play that has been mounted by a professional theatre company might earn the title of professional dramatist.

So, while I have written 9 published poems, an award-winning short story, a legal text book (in two published editions),  parts of four other legal text books, four collections of children's stories (self-published but quite successful), a self-published novella, a coffee table book and two plays that have been produced at an amateur level and video-taped for training purposes, as well as literally hundreds of articles in newspaper and magazines, I may not qualify as a "professional writer" for the purposes of this grant.

Strange. I can only hope that the jury that considers my application will be willing to recognise the breadth and depth of my writing accomplishments across these genres in making its determination as to the merits of my application.

And funny. The most important thing I've written recently is a grant application that, if successful, would put me in a position to adapt my well-received Christmas novella into a stage play.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Writing: You don't have to do it alone

So now, after my brief brush with fame, it's time to get back to my own writing.

Yes, it was an amazing experience to get a chance to "work with" the likes of Jonny Harris, Fraser Young and Graham Chittenden of CBC's Still Standing last week (and I put the quotation marks around "work with" because, let's be honest, I did work with them in the sense that I went down and was interviewed and took part in the show but I really didn't work with them in the sense of writing with them in any way, shape or form) but now I have to settle myself back into life as a writer of middling success.

And try very hard to improve on the "middling" part of it.

I am very fortunate to have the chance, in my current writing pursuits, to work with some great people. I had long thought of writing as a solitary pursuit but, as this Abigail project in particular has progressed, I have learned the importance of creating a vibrant writing community around yourself.

On the Abigail stories, for example, I have always enjoyed the participation and input of my sister Lynn (who is both artist and designer for the books), my partner Patti (who is an exceptional editor and a wonderful sounding board for creative ideas) and some excellent reviewers (like Patty, Lola, Verne and Mary).

And now Mary O'Keefe has joined me in writing the stories themselves and I couldn't be happier. Mary is an upbeat, optimistic person with a wonderful writing voice. As a native of McAdam, she has insights into the community and its history that I simply do not bring to the table and, as an experienced writer herself, she is a great source of input and inspiration.

Mary and I met yesterday for a working lunch. Our goals: set down the basic structure of the upcoming fifth volume of Abigail stories, agree on some book-long plot arcs and start to settle on the plots for each of the individual stories.

It was a fun and productive meeting. In this next collection of stories, Abigail and the folks at the McAdam Railway Station will move in interesting new directions and face fun new challenges. We'll introduce some new characters without losing the innocent, playful joy of the first four collections of stories.

I can tell Mary was as excited as I was by our meeting: she's already sent me a long email, filled with the thoughts and ideas she's generated since our lunch less than 24 hours ago.

On the other projects, I am very lucky to be working with Nancy Lynch, who is as energetic as she is creative. She's working on several film projects of her own but still has the time and enthusiasm to push me to work on the scripts for The Station, our proposed web series.

And then, over coffee the other day, she looked across at me with a twinkle in her eye and said, "I think we need to get back to working on the Abigail play."

Creative colleagues can push you to be better and they can push you to be more productive. I'm very fortunate to have so many such colleagues in my life who are pushing me to the best writer I can be.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sometimes you just have to tip your hat to other writers

I am a self-identified "writer of middling success". I take writing seriously as an art, as a craft and as an intellectual pursuit. And, with a number of professional publishing credits to my name, hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles out there as well as a series of surprisingly successful self-published collections of children's stories to my credit, I think I have some grounds to feel I can comment on the writing accomplishments of others.

Jonny and me with Abigail Vol 1
But what I witnessed this weekend in McAdam, New Brunswick, is a feat to which I can only tip my hat and offer a sincere "Well done".

Jonny Harris, Fraser Young and Graham Chittenden, from the CBC show Still Standing, supported by a cast of producers, directors, camera, sound and lighting folk, strolled into McAdam, New Brunswick a week ago and, over the course of just those several days, researched, wrote, rehearsed and staged a truly remarkable set of stand-up comedy that focused entirely, and affectionately, on the Village and its people.

I was aware of the concept of the show going in: host Jonny Harris arrives in a small Canadian community that has managed to survive all the challenges of our modern world, talks to a representative cross-section of its citizens, then takes the material collected through those visits/interviews and turns it into stand up comedy to entertain the townspeople.

The show's own promotional material calls it "an entertaining and affectionate love letter to small-town Canada" but the worries of those of us who were interviewed for the McAdam episode (called "contributors") still surfaced:

  • were we being suckered into participating in a show that would mock and insult us for our efforts?
  • would the final stand-up routine be simply a rehash of canned "how ridiculous are small town people" jokes with a couple of mean-spirited shots at the people who opened their hearts, their homes and their community?

To be honest, it took only a brief chat with the show's advanced rep to assuage any fears I might have had on that first count. It became clear very quickly that there exists a genuine interest, respect and affection among the show's crew for the people with whom they were interacting.

The second concern remained with me right up until show time. As a writer (and one who has tried and failed to write "funny" on several occasions) I simply could not believe that Jonny, Fraser and Graham could turn around an extended, detailed, specific and genuinely funny set of comedy about McAdam and its people in so short a time.

I thought for sure that the show Saturday night would be rife with retread material about small-town life and that the local content would take the form of a shot here and there at the people who participated as contributors. And I think my concerns were echoed throughout McAdam.

How else could they possible turn things around so quickly?

Me, acting calm before the show
So it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that we all filed into the McAdam High School gymnasium Saturday night for the show, especially among us contributors.

And, I think it's safe to say, we were all blown away.

The show was exactly what Still Standing's promotional material promised and more.

Fraser opened things up with a very funny review of the rules of the evening, followed by a hilarious set from Graham that covered everything from the joys of being old to the challenges of loving a dog. Then it was back to Fraser again, with a very funny set that seemed oddly fixated on eating meat, and finally the introduction of Jonny as the headliner and McAdam comedian.

As hard as we were all laughing at that point, I think those of us who had contributed to the show drew a collective intake of breath in anticipation of what Jonny Harris was going to say about us.

Now, I have been asked/directed not to discuss the details of Jonny's set nor of the information and material that will be covered in the Still Standing episode when it airs this summer and I will respect that restriction. I won't go into any details here.

I will say, however, that I was impressed in the extreme by the quality of the stand-up set that Jonny delivered and that Jonny, Graham and Fraser had written. It was smart, it was funny, it was creative, it was respectful and it was affectionate. The audience was in stitches and the contributors walked away feeling tickled rather than attacked.

The set was also of extremely high quality from a comedy standpoint, with strong internal structure and jokes that built off each other and referred back to each other over the course of the 45-minutes during which Jonny delivered it.

I love stand up that isn't just a series of jokes but that actually has movement and development throughout and this set delivered all of that.

I take my hat off to these three writers and comedians. Well done. What you accomplished this week, I didn't think was possible. And the fact that you will do it over and over again over the course of the show's season just blows me away.

We may have to re-subscribe to cable TV, just to watch Still Standing this season.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Creative tension helps make better scripts

To make matters even better, as I work to produce the first five scripts for The Station, I am coming to the realization that I have really lucked in to a fantastic creative partner in Nancy Lynch.

Thanks to her exceptional training and experience as a screen writer and short-film producer/director, Nancy brings to the table a great many skills and abilities that I lack. That's very important to the creative process -- a diversity of talents.

Our process to date has been as follows:
  1. We met first to talk through the themes, structure and characters of our proposed show. In this meeting, we also came up with an outline of the first five episodes, both in terms of individual plots and overarching story;
  2. I then drafted episode one and shared my draft with Nancy;
  3. Nancy read, reviewed and revised that first episode while I went to work on episode two;
  4. I reviewed Nancy's revisions to the first episode, gave her my feedback and she went through and did another polish based on our discussions;
  5. I submitted episode two, draft one to Nancy and we started steps 2 and 3 again, this time with the second episode as the subject of our work;
  6. I, meanwhile, drafted episode three. I sent it to Nancy but, in light of an intense discussion we had on episode two, three now needs extensive revision.
It's an amazing process. We are both creative people who respect each other's input and neither of us is afraid to challenge the other and his/her ideas.

For example, episode 2 involves a bit of a mystery and I, with my children's book sensibility, thought it important that we wrap up the mystery by the end of the episode. Nancy thought otherwise: let's leave some question as to whether or not the obvious resolution was actually the correct resolution so that we can play with the mystery -- and its impact on the people involved -- in future episodes.

I never thought of anything like that. And I love it. It means that episode three needs to be revised but I think it is going to be much stronger as a result.

On the other hand, I find myself having to challenge Nancy's instinct to add extra conflict/action to every story. I agree conflict is important and action is absolutely necessary in the visual media of a web series but I also think that one of the strengths of any good show is character development and the introduction of more thoughtful, emotional story lines to the series.

I don't think Nancy would disagree with my position, to be honest. But I think we are going to continue a respectful debate on how much action is required. And that debate, like any conflict of that kind, is going to be healthy for the final product.

Monday, February 15, 2016

In the groove with a more mature Abigail storyline

After complaining about being tasked with writing five scripts for the proposed web series, The Station, I find myself in the position where I have to offer an apology. I shouldn't have complained.

I am actually quite enjoying the experience. And I've completed the first drafts of three scripts already.

It's an interesting challenge, to be honest. My colleague, Nancy Lynch, and I have agreed that the web series should be based on the Abigail Massey children's stories but should aim for an older, more mature audience. As a result, I basically need to re-write the larger Abigail story arc, adding depth and detail and a great deal more conflict.

Where Abigail Massey of the children's stories responds to tense situations with an "Oh, golly" and a can-do attitude, Abigail of the web series will be forced to face much more difficult situations and much more challenging moral questions.

I'm having fun with the project. I don't want to give too many details away -- we are hopeful of securing funding for the series and then revealing details over the course of the show's first season -- but I will say that Abigail's family relationships aren't quite so rosy in the new series, her love life is more complicated and the group of young women she meets at the Station include not just a couple of nice girls like Jenny and Alice but also a group of "Mean Girls", as I've dubbed them in early drafts.

My sister, Lynn, suggested that I should name the two main "Mean Girls" after her and my other sister, Janice. But, when I explained to Lynn some of the things the Mean Girls get up to, she quickly retracted the suggestion. Yes, they are that mean...

What's fun for me is that, now that I have made the adjustment from writing stories for 8-12 year olds to writing scripts for teens and adults, I am finding myself in the same writing groove I have so enjoyed over the first five books of Abigail stories.

I feel I have a strong understanding of the characters, the setting and the overall arc of our storylines -- and that makes the writing easy and enjoyable.

Let's hope it keeps flowing along so well for the final two draft scripts.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Five scripts please, Mr. Walma

It looks like project number one for the new year will be preparing scripts for the proposed new Abigail Massey web series, The Station.

My colleague (and the lead on the web series project) Nancy Lynch has indicated to me that she feels we need to have no fewer than five polished scripts ready to be part of our funding applications. I have to admit, that's a little scary for me. Luckily, Nancy is an award-winning screen writer so I am in good hands. She certainly has the chops to nurse-maid me through the process and to save the day if I go too far wrong.

The proposed series will have a slightly more mature, more serious feel to it when compared to the original Abigail stories. Those stories are bright and happy and aimed at the 8- to 12-year-old group. We're thinking The Station will deal more directly with issues of war and adolescence and young love.

The scripts we plan to write will become part of our funding applications but the real star of our proposals will be the magnificent teaser trailer created late last year by Nancy and her son, Tom Belding, who happens to be an instructor at the Vancouver Film School. I was literally brought to tears the first time I watched Tom's amazing 90-second film and continue to be amazed at the level of talent, the creative eye he must have to produce a trailer of such power and beauty in so short a time.

We spent a single morning at the McAdam Station to do the filming and Tom sent along the finished trailer just a week or so later. He skillfully blended historic footage in with his own work, added a dramatic sound track and produced what I hope you'll agree is a remarkably effective product.

I'm almost afraid to write the scripts and film a pilot, for fear that we won't be able to live up to the promise of that original trailer.

But, fear not, with professionals like Nancy and Tom on our team, we're going to make something really amazing.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Mapping out a new year of writing

With the dawning of the new year comes a chance to sit back, think things through and update my writing plans.

The fourth collection of Abigail stories sold very well throughout the holiday season, meaning we have already paid the cost of printing and are making significant money to support the restoration of the McAdam Railway Station and Hotel. Perhaps not surprisingly, we also saw a surge in sales of Volume 1 of the stories and of the Christmas novella, A McAdam Station Christmas.

As a writer of middling success, it fills my heart with joy to see such sales results. We seem to have built a pretty good following for the Abigail stories here in New Brunswick. The challenge is to come up with a fresh new approach to promoting each new collection.

That's my little blue book, to the left of the Grinch
One wonderful moment for this writer came when I visited Bryan Prince Booksellers in Hamilton over the holidays. I had done an Abigail event there in October and dropped in to this wonderful little independent book store while visiting friends in the Steel City.

Imagine my delight when I found the final two copies they had in stock of the Christmas novella nestled on their Christmas display beside How the Grinch Stole Christmas! My little book on the shelf with a Christmas classic -- like equals!

As for the new plans and the new focus, I have committed myself to completing four projects in 2016 -- and please do not call these New Years Resolutions!

1. An adaptation of A McAdam Station Christmas for the stage, with a significant focus on having it ready in time for potential staging next Christmas;

2. The scripts for at least the first four episodes of The Station, our proposed Web Series based on the Abigail stories, with a view to soliciting funding for the series and, if possible, beginning to film the pilot before the end of the year;

3. A strong draft of my middle-school novel; and

4. Another volume of Abigail stories, with my writing partner Mary E. O'Keefe.

I know, sounds ambitious. I have to get working.

But, to be honest, I wish it could be more ambitious. I'd like to include the completion of a second novel, a mystery, that I began several years ago AND the revision of another mystery that came very close to being published before I moved to NB.

All in good time, I guess. Any one of these projects could take over all of my time and energies and any number of outside distractions could also impact my ability to meet these goals. All I can do, I guess, is "hunker down" and get working.