Month: August 2016

Lists

A recent issue of the RWR (Romance Writers Report) Allie Pleiter discussed the chunky method of time management, including making lists. Now, I’m a list-maker from way back, especially for things like Christmas dinner, so I thought I already knew all about lists. But I had just got home from holiday and felt overwhelmed by the amount of work waiting for me on all fronts of my life. So, I used Allie Pleiter’s tools, combined with my own usual list-making methods in an attempt to put my life in order.
To my surprise, it worked! I used to make one very long list. It was exhaustive. I even put “make list” on the list of “to do.” I’d manage to get through some of that list, then I’d need to make a new one, and that didn’t get finished and then I got too busy to make lists so any organizational benefit vanished. This time around, I’ve made lists of only the top priorities of the day, and limited the length of the list to what I might actually accomplish.  I also included time for lunch and coffee breaks!
Monday’s list was long. I dashed through the day and got all but one thing on the list finished. Mondays are like that for me. I begin the week full of energy and good intentions. By Friday,both have dwindled to near zero so it’s good to have a productive Monday.  However, I persisted in making manageable lists for the rest of the week and I’m happy to report that I have accomplished most tasks I set myself, and I’ve increased my writing output, and I have so many red check marks on the page I feel like a winner!

That last bit is important.  Being a writer is lonely.  The time between writing “chapter one” and ‘the end” is long.  If the only measurement of success is a publishing contract or significant sales on self-published books, there can be a long time between “wins.”  The list of tasks accomplished in a day provides instant reward, and motivation to keep going.

So, if you are a member of the RWA®, Romance Writers of America, I heartily recommend the July 2016 issue of RWR.  If you’re not a member, you can check out Pleiter here.

Now, I’ll put a nice red tick beside “write blog” on my list and move on to ” bicycle for half an hour.”

Faster, Higher, Stronger

Faster, Higher, Stronger”   The motto of the Olympics is top of mind these days, following the excitement in Rio, where the athletes were faster, higher and stronger.  World records, Olympic records, national records and personal best records all fell before the onslaught of the latest crop of Olympians.  In 1912 the men’s 100m race was run in  a record time of 10.6 seconds.  Each succeeding contest saw fractions of a second shaved off.  in 1996 Donovan Bailey of Canada set a blistering speed of 9.84 seconds.  By 2008 Usain Bolt could run the race in 9.69 seconds, in 2012 he bettered his own record to 9.63 seconds at last week in Rio, he did it in 9.58 seconds.

That is just one example of the increasing speed of athletes and the increasingly sophisticated mechanisms for measuring time.  Even with atomic clocks, laser beams and photos, the women’s 100 freestyle in the pool resulted in a tie for gold between Canada’s Penny Oleksiak, and Simone Manuel of the United States.

This need for speed seems to have overtaken us in other areas as well.  We have fast food, instant communication, tables, conversions and calculations immediately on-line, information at our fingertips.  With the advent of ipads and smartphones, we don’t even need to find a desktop computer.  All these resources are as close as our back pocket.

Sadly, the need for speed has entered the world of books as well.  I just saw a critique of one of my favourite authors and she was panned for not having enough action — on the first page, not having enough sexual tension — on the first page, and not having high enough stakes — on the first page! For me, this need to open a novel with a car chase, a shoot-out or a kidnapping, erodes the pleasure of reading.  The author the critics panned is a master at drawing the reader into the story slowly, but relentlessly.  She starts in the ordinary world, where the reader thinks she’s going for a walk in the garden, then subtly, inexorably she weaves a web that traps the characters in their own lies and half-truths, exposes their fears, their cowardice, their secrets and their strengths.  This writer is highly skilled at the twist that takes the story in an entirely different direction and catches the reader off-guard.  I find her work compelling and enjoyable.  The slow pace is part of her charm.  Jo Beverley wrote of my book, “The Man for Her,” a “book to savour.”  That’s the kind of story I like — one where the reader savours the writing, savours the twists and turns and closes the cover with a sigh.  If I find myself skimming pages just to get to the end, I’m not savouring the book.  I’m just rushing.

Fortunately, there is a recoil against all this speed.  For those of us not entering the Olympics, experts now agree a walk is good exercise.  There is a slow food movement to balance fast-food alley.  The author cited above has a healthy readership who relish the quiet openings of her books, and, to my delight, there is “The Long Now Foundation” that is building a clock to measure time one tick per year.

After all the speed and excitement of the Olympics, I’m off to enjoy some slow food and savour a quiet read.

The Rosy Fingers of Dawn

The phrase used as the title of this blog is often cited as an example of how not to write for the modern reader.

First, the language is too flowery, too precious, too self-conscious.  It belongs to another time and has no place in the fast-paced world of the twenty-first century.

Second, the writer is wasting words on a sunrise when she could be filling the page with plot, action, conflict or dialogue.

Usually I agree with that advice, but it’s summertime.  We’re on vacation.  Life has slowed down.  We take time to draw a deep breath and to gaze in wonder at a glorious sunrise.  I was headed out early with the fisherman the other day and the sky really was rosy, the streaks of light across the horizon did resemble fingers.  I didn’t think “uh-oh, pollution.” or “the sky is pink”, or even “do I have sunscreen?”  I thought, “the rosy fingers of dawn.”  A hackneyed phrase, rather like “it was a dark and stormy night,” but watching the sunrise soothed my soul, stilled my restless spirit, and quieted my anxious mind.

Sometimes outdated, clichéd and derided language is perfect for the moment.

I really dislike the “rules” of writing that say I should avoid certain words, that I should never describe sunsets and my characters have to be in constant motion.  Mostly, that is all good advice, but the author is still in charge of her own work.  If a sunrise fits the story, I’m all for wallowing in it — especially in summertime.

Right now, I’ll bend the rules by telling you I’m watching the sunset.  The colours in the western sky have changed from orange to red, to rose, to indigo.  The mountains on the horizon are navy blue and the fir trees point black fingers into the heavens.  The tension of my day has vanished.  My soul is at peace and I don’t care about the writing “rules.”

Our Story

I’ve just come back from a family reunion — the descendants of those pioneers I’ve mentioned over the past few weeks.  We’re all older now.  The cousins I knew as kids chasing through the hay fields are all grown up.  Some are grandparents themselves.  The old farmhouse has been renovated with a modern kitchen and new wiring, the barns expanded and modernized.  Tractors and harvesters have taken the place of draft horses and hired men.  What remains is the land and our story.

The fields, cleared by my grandfather yield corn and grains and hay, just as before.  Cattle and babies live off its bounty.  The valley traps the heat, the hills on either side offer a cool respite.  I sit under a tent on Sunday morning and listen to a preacher talk about God and gardening while my eyes rest on the old homestead.  It’s a wonderful moment of connection.  I feel the pioneers smiling.

But it’s more than the place that draws us together, it is the stories.  Cousins I hadn’t seen for decades gathered on the verandah and we talked about playing hide and seek in the big house.  (It’s the only house I’ve ever known with both a front staircase and a back staircase, plus a couple of interconnecting rooms. Perfect for restless children!)  Members of the succeeding generations added their stories, weaving their memories into the fabric of the family.  That pioneer lady, with her eyes and heart set firmly on family, faith and farm, lives on in all of us.  We  each add another chapter, or maybe only a paragraph, but together we build the story of who we are, where we came from and what we stand for.

I’m sometimes annoyed at businesses or sports organizations that run advertisements that tell a story to align themselves with the nation or with a particular value.  I keep thinking, “it’s only a game,” or “it’s only fast-food” but those ads remind us all of the importance of story and the importance of roots.

Some people dismiss fiction as fluff, preferring documentaries or hard news.  Yet, story is who we are.  It roots us in place and time, it encompasses us as a family or a nation or a world.  A genealogy chart may show our blood lines, but it’s story that makes us human.

Here’s to my pioneer ancestors, here’s to family, and here’s to the storytellers among us, wherever you are.

Author Intrusion

I recently read a book that contained such egregious examples of what not to do with research that I had to laugh. Anyone who has taken even the most basic writing course knows that author intrusion into the story is something to be avoided. When that intrusion takes place as a mini-lecture on facts the author learned while writing the story, it is particularly disastrous.
In this case, the story was a murder set in the South Pacific. Immediately after the discovery of the body, the writer stuck in two pages of text explaining the geology, topography and meteorology or the area – without a single reference to the plot. Needless to say, I was thrown out of the story in an instant.  I closed the book and haven’t opened it since.

More importantly, from the author’s point of view, I’ve  marked her as a rank novice who should have hired an editor.  She is now on my “do not buy” list.  That’s the downside of self-publishing.  Fresh new authors, eager to release their creations into the world don’t have to pass any gatekeepers to see their work in print.  But authors need editors.  Just ask any successful writer today about their first novels and you’ll find nearly all are grateful that an editor or agent somewhere had the good sense to reject their first efforts.

Writing fiction is a learned skill.  It takes practice.  It takes hard work.  It takes teachers and coaches (not your mom or your sister) to read your work with a critical eye, before it ever leaves your desk.  Just because Amazon has a “publish” button, doesn’t mean you should click it before your work is ready.  Jack Bickham wrote a great book for aspiring authors,  The 38 most common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them.)  He has a chapter titled “Don’t Lecture Your Reader.”  He suggests that a writer who lectures is including information because she wants it in the story, not because the viewpoint character is thinking about it.  If the characters in your story don’t care about the geology of an island, neither does the reader.

Because I write historical fiction, I’m often tempted to dump in a paragraph or two of research that is relevant to the time period but irrelevant to the story I’m telling.   Recently, I’ve come across a character named Wellington D. Moses.  I’m going to tell you about him here, so I won’t be tempted to put my research into an unrelated story.

Wellington D. Moses was a Black barber in Barkerville in the 1860’s.   One day, Moses was cutting the hair of a gambler, James Barry,  from Texas, when he noticed the gambler had a gold nugget stick pin that looked familiar.  Sleepless in his cot on that hot evening, held awake by the raucous dance hall next door, Moses finally remembered where he’d seen the pin.  It had been owned by one Charles Blessing.  In the spring of 1866, after spending the winter in Victoria, Moses had met up with Blessing on his way back to Barkerville.  The two men decided to travel together.   A few days later, James Barry joined them and they three men enjoyed an evening together.  The next morning, Moses stayed behind on personal business while Barry and Moses set out ahead.

When Moses arrived in Barkerville, he looked for his friend Blessing, but no one had seen him.  Weeks later, when Barry came into Moses’ shop, the barber inquired of him what had happened to Charles Blessing, but Barry claimed ignorance.  After investigating on his own, Moses took his story to the police.  On the same day a body was discovered.  It was Charles Blessing.

Barry was hunted by the police and eventually brought to trial.  The final piece of evidence against the gambler was the identification of the nugget pin by Wellington D. Moses.  When Barry claimed there were many such pins in the country, the barber was able to point to the unique quality of this one.  Looked at from a certain angle, the nugget showed the profile of a man’s face.  When judge and jury inspected the pin, they saw the telltale face.  Barry was found guilty and hanged.

Later Wellington Moses spearheaded a subscription to give his friend, Charles Blessing a decent burial.  Over a hundred dollars was raised.  Enough to place a headboard at the grave and a fence around it.  If you travel to Barkerville, you can still see it.

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