Author: Alice Valdal (Page 1 of 29)

6 Takeaways from Mark Lefebvre

On the weekend my writers group, VIRA, sponsored a workshop with Mark Lefebvre. 

I admit, the main impetus for me to attend this workshop was to re-connect with my writing tribe. I’ve missed the in-person contact for the past two years. Thanks to our terrific leaders and Mark’s obliging nature, the workshop was made available on Zoom for those who chose not to attend in person. One thing about COVID, it forced us Luddites to learn a lot of technology!

Once Mark started to talk, I quickly realized I was in for information overwhelm. To say Mark is an industry insider is an understatement. He knows the publishing world as a writer, a book-seller, a professional speaker. He has been at the forefront of digital publishing and book selling. He has served as the President of the Canadian Booksellers Association, been on the Board of Directors for BookNet Canada, helped to create Sheridan College’s degree program in creative writing. He has worked for Kobo, where he created the Kobo Writing Life self-publishing platform. He currently consults with Draft2Digital for eBook and print distribution. With such a wide-ranging resumé and a surname that is difficult to spell, he mostly defaults to the title “The Book Nerd.”

We had four hours of non-stop teaching. It will take me a while to digest the wealth of information, but here are some of the immediate standouts for me.

  1. Optimize your author brand by being consistent, professional and courteous. As public figures, authors must remember that we are watched and judged all the time.                        
  2. Keep your ideal reader in mind as you craft your book. He showed us something called a Venn diagram to help determine who that ideal reader is.  The diagram is useful, but thinking of your readership as one person, like your Aunt Sally, is a good way to keep the writing on tract. If you are just telling a tale to Aunt Sally, you are less likely to go wandering down dead-ends.                                                                                                                                            
  3. Universal book links are necessary on the world wide web. Who wants to limit their customers to just one platform? But who wants to clutter up their book page with a dozen links either? Draft2Digital has a tool that allows you to make one link that will work on any platform. It’s under the Books2Read page.                                                                             
  4. Writer Beware is a website where authors can check out the too-good-to-be-true offers of companies that want to “help” you self-publish your books. There are legitimate companies that do this, but there are myriad scam artists who prey on hopeful writers. Beware!                                                                                                                                            
  5. Be kind. With so many avenues to publication, authors have more opportunity than ever to get their work in front of readers. Unfortunately, getting noticed is very, very difficult. Being compassionate makes you a  better person. It helps you build relationships, and those relationships will help to advance your career,  be that with booksellers, book buyers, other authors, or strangers in the street.                                                        
  6. As much as you are kind to others, be kind to yourself. Writers are constantly faced with rejection. Don’t let an editor’s “no thanks” letter defeat you. If you have written a novel, or a poem, or a song, or a blog post, or even left a comment, you are a writer. Be proud of that. Millions of people have said, “I should write a book.” You, who have written a book, have accomplished what millions have not. Wear your title of “writer” with pride.

There was much, much more from the workshop but I’m still processing! I told you it was information overwhelm. I’m glad I went. i saw old friends. I met someone new. I learned a lot about the book industry. I got material for this blog. Pretty good return for a rainy Saturday.

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Evil in Emerald

 

EVIL IN EMERALD, is the third of Harriet Gordon’s adventures and is available now in print, Ebook and audio.

Harriet Gordon turns her talents to musical theatre, joining the cast of the Singapore Amateur Dramatic and Musical Society’s latest production – Pirates of Penzance. However tensions run deep within the company and when the leading man is found murdered, Harriet and Curran are drawn into a complex web of lies and deceit.

I’ve just finished reading this latest Harriet Gordon Mystery by A.M. Stuart. When I told my friend, the author, I intended to feature it on this blog, she kindly sent along the following;

 

Hi Alice

Thank you so much for inviting me back to your blog to talk about my Harriet Gordon Mystery series.

Today I thought I would share with you what it is I love about reading and writing historical mysteries.

A good mystery novel – or TV series – is my catnip. It began as a teenager, I devoured Agatha Christie and I think her writing more than anything sowed the seed of my love of a good mystery. Like romances, which promise the reader a happy ever after, genre mysteries are premised on the expectation that good will triumph over evil.

After writing a number of romantic historicals (as Alison Stuart), I found mystery elements were creeping into the stories and felt the time had come to turn my hand to writing my own mystery … maybe combining all the things I loved about writing my romantic historicals with a mystery to solve. Drawing on my life in Singapore, the Harriet Gordon Mysteries came into being…

What is it I find so fascinating about this genre?

  1. I love creating a puzzle for the readers to solve with a twist in the tail. I often don’t know ‘who done it’ until I get to the end of the first draft!
  2. There’s something about the Edwardian era – those golden days before World War One when the sun never set on the British Empire (while also acknowledging the dark side to that past).
  3. There is also a huge challenge in solving crimes without the benefit of modern science. In 1910 the height of forensic scientific advancement was the use of fingerprinting and photographs. Those were the days when the investigator’s main investigative tool was his or her own common sense and curiosity.
  4. And finally I have loved creating a series with characters I know almost as well as my own family. I am more than a little in love with Curran and Harriet is my best friend and I look forward to meeting them in each new book as they slowly reveal their own character arcs.

I really do have the best of both worlds… historicals with the potential of romance, action, adventure and of course an intriguing (I hope) mystery to solve! —Alison

Me again — As a veteran of amateur productions of Gilbert and Sullivan I had a great time reading all the backstage chatter in this book.  The character of a leading lady who is too old for the role is almost endemic among amateur theatre groups, and I’ve often heard mutterings among chorus members that sounded like murder.

I also luxuriated in the highly regulated Edwardian Society of the time. Even in Singapore, proper English dress codes must be observed — never mind the heat and humidity! 

If you haven’t already read the two previous novels in this series, here’s a bargain for you. The second Harriet Gordon Mystery, REVENGE IN RUBIES, is currently on sale for US$1.99… these price reductions come around very rarely so grab it while you can! 

To find out more about Alison visit her websites www.alisonstuart.com or www.amstuartbooks.com

 

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Easter – Rebirth

For those of us who follow the Gregorian calendar, Easter was three days ago. In my faith tradition we gathered early in the park for a “sunrise” service, then met again in the sanctuary of our church, to give thanks for the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It was a joyous time. A time that rang with hallelujah’s. A time for hugs and smiles and gratitude. Even our lousy weather was greeted with a wry smile. We saw rebirth all around us–the daffodils in the fields, the robin on a branch, the silver lining on a storm cloud. Easter – holy day and holiday.

For the people of the Ukraine, who follow the Julian calendar, Easter is four days from now. As I watch the horrors shown on television news night after night, I cannot help but wonder how they can celebrate Easter this year.  Then I saw a priest in a bombed church, sorrow etched deep on his face. Yet his answer to the reporter was “Jesus forgave. How can I not forgive?” Last night I listened to an old woman from one of the recently occupied Ukrainian towns speak of meeting a Russian soldier. Even though the bodies of her slain countrymen lay in the street around her, she had taken pity on the young soldier and gave him food. 

With a humbled and aching heart, I pray for the people of Ukraine — and their oppressors. There will be no peace in the world until the bullies and aggressors turn their hearts and minds toward love of their fellowmen. The pope has called for an Easter “pause” this weekend to let peace talks go ahead. I am not a Roman Catholic but I fervently echo his plea. 

As the natural world welcomes rebirth in the spring, may humanity welcome a rekindling of compassion and a deep desire to live at peace with our neighbours.           

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Exiting the Cave

This week I took a 20 minute drive and a 35 minute ferry ride to meet up with an old writing friend for lunch. That was it, a total of 55 minutes from my house and it felt like a daring adventure. Just shows what being stuck at home can do to a person. I’ve always considered myself adventurous but after two full years of pandemic “being careful” I’m developing hints of agoraphobia. When I shared that bit of humiliation with my friend she admitted to similar feelings.

Apparently we are not alone in our nervousness. There is even a new acronym for the condition, FOGO or FONO. It means fear of going out or fear of normal. The human brain doesn’t like change, a trait left over from our evolution. We don’t like change, even good change. We want to be in control and change means we’re not. The world we used to know, pre-pandemic, is now the unknown and it scares us.

Since we were in confessional mode my friend and I discovered that both of us had been “stuck” in the writing process. We both have story ideas. We’ve both written and re-written and re-written the opening a dozen times. We’ve tried skipping ahead and writing pivotal scenes. We’ve even tried writing the ending — with no success. I found it interesting that we’d been travelling the same path without ever comparing notes. Maybe we are part of a wider writer-response to the pandemic.

If we are, we are in good company. I read over the weekend that Anne Tyler, the highly successful author of 23 novels, hasn’t been able to start a new book in the past three years. To her surprise she has missed the stimulation of eavesdropping!

Eavesdropping has a nasty connotation but in the context of an author it is merely adding grist to the imagination. Overheard snippets of conversation while waiting in line at the grocery store may spark a whole new level of conflict in a work-in-progress. The body language of people in a crowded coffee shop may bring insight to a character’s motivation. These normal, every day interactions are barely perceptible — until they aren’t there.

When the pandemic narrowed our lives to a few rooms or a few people, nourishment for our imaginations also narrowed. For some, like me and my friend, we got stuck.

Reading other people’s stories or watching other people’s movies doesn’t have the same power as listening to the voices around us and telling our own stories.

So, now that our pandemic restrictions are loosening and the sun is starting to shine in my part of the world, I’m resolved to push my personal boundaries beyond the backyard. I grew up with the adage that one must face one’s fears in order to overcome them. I still believe that, so while my snail-self wants to retreat into my shell, my grizzly-bear self urges me to explore new horizons. I’m going to do that.

I hope a fuller life gets my writing unstuck. Even if it doesn’t, I’d rather embrace life than hide from it.

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An Old Treasure

While looking for something else on my reference shelf,  I came upon Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. It wasn’t the reference I sought, but I took it down anyway. I’d read the book years ago when I was just beginning my writing journey. As I remember, it left me a bit confused. Now that I’ve been in the trenches for a while I found myself shouting Yes! to her observations. Her metaphorical approach to writing that had left me puzzled at the start of my career, now resonated on every level.

After attending many, many workshops and reading many, many “how to write” books, I questioned if I could  write fiction. I can draw up charts, do character interviews, fill in the blanks in plot sentences, create deep and wide back story. But when it comes to writing the tale  it will not conform to all those patterns laid out by generous and wise writers. Having spent weeks plotting an outline, I’ll run off course by the end of the first chapter. For me, the cerebral act of plotting does not connect to the intuitive act of story. 

My story has to grow organically. I don’t know what happens next until I get there. I don’t know what happened before until something happens “now” that makes the “before” relevant. My name is Alice Valdal and I’m a pantser.

Imagine my relief then, when Ms Lamott says that a writer may stare out the window for hours while waiting for a good idea. A writer will write thousands of words that don’t belong in the story but need to be put on paper anyway. Observing, reflecting, writing it down are ways to make sense of ourselves and the world we live in.

The act of writing is its own reward.

Publication is a whole other thing.

Many books on writing advise the would-be author to focus, to keep her head down and plug away on her important work every day. Don’t waste time warming up your writing engines writes the guru.

Ms Lamott suggests the opposite. Her first word of advice is to write some short assignments just to help you get started. Tell a story from childhood, describe your prom dress, reminisce about your pet chicken. This blog is a short assignment. I love these suggestions. Something that lets me write without having an editor/reader/publisher/marketer/publicist/accountant looking over my shoulder. It’s a reminder of what first prompted me to pick up a pen and start a story on a pad of foolscap. 

By today’s standards Bird by Bird is an old book, published in 1994, at a time when traditional houses ruled the publishing world. Even so, her non-business approach to writing– seeing it as an art form instead– is refreshing and affirming. If you are a writer struggling to get “it” right, I recommend you dip into Bird by Bird if only for the jokes.

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One True Thing

I am indebted to John J. Kelley at Writer Unboxed for the topic of this blog. He writes that, even in the most awful circumstances, words and stories matter. His post was published in November 2021 but it is even more true today as Russia makes war against Ukraine and all the values a free society holds dear.  As an antidote to the stream of despair that pours into our consciousness every day, he suggests we write “one true thing.” 

That truth can be from real life or from your story. The important thing is that it is true.  When I hear some of Russia’s claims I shake my head in disbelief that they could think anyone would believe them, but such is the propaganda machine. History teaches us over and over again that truth, which would seem incontrovertible, can be twisted and kneaded with clever words and dishonest intent. However the present conflict ends, history will show, once again, that truth is fragile.

I find it hard to think of anything as trivial as a romance while the world is locked in a war but I took Kelley’s words to heart and am writing one true thing in my journal every day. It soothes my soul to be able to state without equivocation that the scene outside my window is beautiful and uplifting to the spirit.

Other truths:
  • Humanity’s capacity for evil is being outmatched by our capacity for good. 
  • Compassion begets compassion. Money, goods and personnel are flowing into Ukraine. Neighbouring countries have opened their borders and their homes to refugees.
  • Courage begets courage. I truly believe the bravery of Ukraine’s leaders and its people have hardened the resolve of the Western world and reminded us of the values we hold inviolate.
  • I am of the generation that never knew war. Perhaps we didn’t prize peace as we should have.
  • A little boy, crying from exhaustion as he flees his home, breaks my heart. Economic sanctions feel remote in the face of his tears.
  • The human heart cannot sustain endless grief. We need stories to uplift and inspire as we do our best to help.

It is International Women’s Day as I write this post. To all the brave women of Ukraine, I salute you. I pray for you.

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That Word Game

I’ve caught the “Wordle” bug. It was a brilliant move on the part of the game’s creator to post only one word per day. Otherwise millions of players would spend their days playing instead of getting on with life. I was pretty pleased with myself after the first few games as I nearly always solved the puzzle in three tries and often got it in two.

Then the game was sold to the New York Times and the words got a lot harder — at least in my opinion. But now that I’ve been doing the NYT version for a bit, I’m getting better at it. Puzzles for the last two days were solved in three lines. English words do follow “rules” although sometimes it is hard for foreign speakers to understand them. Heck, it’s hard for native speakers to articulate the rules about “ough” for example but I find the Wordle game makes those letter combinations clear. The more you understand about the function of vowels and their combinations, the quicker you will solve the problem.

The game is being used by teachers too. Here in British Columbia an adapted version is being used to revitalize indigenous languages of the Gitskan people. Games are a great teaching tool. As an aside, the comic strip, “Take it from the Tinkersons,” has a  teacher tricking his student into solving math problems in order to open a box. Isn’t it odd that learning for the sake of knowledge is seen as dull and boring, but learning for the sake of winning a prize is madly popular?

I notice others are sharing their Wordle score on facebook and I’ve done a little bragging there myself. We all like to be winners. Maybe that’s good advice for authors. Readers like winning so create characters who overcome difficulties to “win” whether that’s a job, a university degree,  a triple Axel, or true love. Readers will be rooting for them to “win.”

Part of the genius of Wordle is that there is only one word per day. However, if you can’t get enough of puzzling with words there is another site, Quordle.com , that lets you test your skill with four connected words. I just tried it and lost thirty minutes of my day, and that was just with a practice set.  I’ll try it again for real tomorrow.

For some “fun with words” is a contradiction in terms but for me it really is fun. If you’re playing, please feel free to share your best score in the comments below. If you are just finding the game, congratulations and good luck.

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Passive Heroine

 

     Recently on Writer Unboxed there was a discussion about passive characters. Now, 99% of writing coaches tell us to avoid passive characters like COVID-19. Thus, I was flummoxed by the suggestion that passive characters could be the protagonists in a story.

I’m now reading a book with a passive heroine. Despite threats to her home, her livelihood, and her beloved village,  she refuses to act. Why? She’s shy.

I can’t imagine how that premise got by an acquiring editor, but it did. The book is published by Random House.

The plot, setting and secondary characters are all appealing enough that I’m still turning the page. But, for all that there have been some laugh-out-loud moments, I’m still annoyed by the heroine. Surely she’ll have to break out of her shell sometime, but I’m half-way through the book and it hasn’t happened yet.

Perhaps the author hoped to provoke empathy in the reader by showing the heroine incapacitated by her extreme shyness, but in this reader, she only provokes irritation. Not a great way to promote sales.

In his book, Writing the Break-Out Novel, Donald Maass has a whole chapter on characters. The first requirement he lists is “larger than life.”  When your main character hides in a corner, it is hard to think of her as larger than life. In The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes, Jack Bickham says, “don’t write about wimps when you can build strong, active characters.” Dwight Swain says the character “must care about something, feel that some aspect of his world is important — important enough to fight for.”

If all these giants of the writing business urge authors to create active characters, how did I end up reading a book about a crybaby? I well remember one of my many rejection letters saying that the heroine, whom I loved for her strength in the face of catastrophe, was too reactive. This editor wanted the lead character to “drive the story,” to be the agent of change, not to merely respond to situations beyond her control. 

The reviews for this passive heroine novel are mostly favourable, with many middle-of-the-road ratings. I ordered the book from my local library on the recommendation of some other authors. Despite my annoyance with the protagonist, I do find the writing engaging and the secondary characters are a world of fun.

What have I learned from all this?

Even the best advice in the world, is imperfect. An author can use that wisdom to improve her craft, but the story she writes must resonate with the writer if it is to resonate with the reader. I’m grateful for all the coaches and teachers and authors who have shared their knowledge and advice. I’m also grateful to this annoying heroine for showing me that adherence to “they say” is not the only route to publication.

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Fun With Words

 

I’ve just started reading The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. It was a birthday present and I put off opening it until I had finished the Christmas books. Now I’ve turned the page and discovered a delightful surprise.  Years ago, my book club read The Professor and the Madman  by Simon Winchester. It is a story about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary under the supervision of Prof. James Murray. This book, Lost Words, is based on the same historical event. 

Esme is the motherless daughter of one of the compilers. The book opens with Esme, aged 4 sitting under the table where the scholars are deciding which words belong in the dictionary and writing definitions.  So begins her fascination with words.

As Esme grows older she finds she is a misfit in society but her desire for words continues. She needs words to define herself,  to understand the world and to carry her through pain and disillusionment. The lost words in particular, words relating to the world outside the halls of power, become her beacon and form her career.

I haven’t finished the book yet, but the opening chapters remind me yet again of the power of words. In the book the words that are “lost” often concern matters of importance to women but not to men, much like our history books focus on geopolitical events rather than domestic matters.

In my lifetime, the power of gender in language was exposed during the women’s lib movement of the ’60’s. That’s when we changed Miss and Mrs. to Ms,  when “postman” became “letter carrier” and “chairman” became “chair.” I accept most of the changes but I do object to that last one. i know chairperson is clumsy but I’d rather be called Madam Chairman than be referred to as a piece of furniture.

Currently the transgendered community is trying to incorporate another change in pronouns, preferring “they” even in the singular, or some new word like zir. Even official forms are now giving “other” as a choice under gender.

History abounds with examples of words changing their meaning. 

  • Nice once meant silly, foolish or simple. Not a compliment!
  • Hussy comes from the word housewife and meant mistress of the household. Can’t explain why it came to mean a disreputable woman today. Maybe that is one of the lost words in Ms Williams’ book. 
  • Brave meant handsome in Shakespeare’s time.
  • Unpregnant , not a term we’re used to, meant idiotic or insane.
  • Sad didn’t mean blue, but merely serious.  One could be perfectly content but have a “sad” conversation in Tudor England.
  • Grace at the time the King James Version of the Bible was prepared, always meant Divine Grace. It was never used to mean elegant, or nimble, or poised.

It is wise to bear in mind that words change their meaning when we read old texts such as Shakespeare’s plays or early translations of the Bible, or Pilgrim’s Progress, or Canterbury Tales.

Words are also manipulated in cultural matters.

  • Abortion is called termination.
  • Euthanasia is called MAiD (Medical Assistance in Dying).
  • Lies are called disinformation.
  • Since we cannot accept ourselves are wrong-doers, the word sin has pretty well disappeared from everyday usage.
  • Our loved ones don’t die any more, they pass.

Whether or not one agrees with these changes, the fact remains that words are so powerful, we are constantly working to make them more potent or to soften them. A person who would never use fists to settle an argument, will corrupt words to attain the same end. 

The English language is a wonderfully evolving and expressive set of words. How those words came to be included in our dictionaries and how some have changed through the ages is a topic for a myriad (10,000) scholars. For an amateur wordsmith it’s a never-ending pleasure.

A favourite pastime on social media these days is listing odd words. Hornswoggle is an oft cited example. One of my favourites comes from Regency romance, “mutton dressed as lamb,”

What about you, dear reader. Do you have a favourite word or expression? Leave it in the comments below, if possible in a sentence, so we can all expand our knowledge of words. 

P.S. I’ve become an enthusiastic player of Wordle. 

My best score is getting it on the second try.

 

 

 

 

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Words and Power

Recently Canada Post honoured author, Margaret Atwood, with a  stamp.

In her speech acknowledging the honour, she made many jokes about being “not dead yet,” as most honourees in this category are deceased. She explained that her eyes are closed because she’s thinking, and generally thanked the post office while maintaining a modest (very Canadian) demeanour. Her audience was delighted.

The imprint shows a photograph of Ms Atwood, superimposed on the text, “A word after a word after a word after a word is power.” How appropriate that the author of “The Handmaid’s Tale” pays homage to the power of words.

For any who doubt the power of words, history is littered with examples of the grand and the eloquent.

Churchill’s oratory is considered a major weapon in the war against Nazi Germany. His stirring speech promising “blood, sweat and tears” to a citizenry suffering through the Blitz, lifted morale and persuaded a tired, bombed-out citizenry to “carry on.” After Dunkirk, he vowed ” we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender,”  and a beaten and demoralized army put itself  together and prepared for D-Day and eventual victory.

Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech” inspired the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

J. F. Kennedy’s “ask not what your nation can do for you” speech fired a generation to enrol in the Peace Corps.

From the Psalms to Justin Beiber, humanity has revealed its soul and its greatest longings through words and music

There is a flip side to the power of words too. Hitler used his mezmerizing oratory to stir up hatred and cause the death of millions and millions of people.

Shakespeare could not have imagined modern communications when he gave these words to Marc Anthony in Julius Caesar.

 The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.”

This destructive power of words is manifestly evident in  the age of social media, where on-line trolls use the power of words to destroy lives and drive children to suicide.

Theodore Roosevelt said:

In Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” you may recall the description of the Man with the Muck Rake, the man who could look no way but downward, with the muck rake in his hand; who was offered a celestial crown for his muck rake, but who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth of the floor. 

Although Bunyan and later Teddy Roosevelt were condemning the Man with the Muck Rake, it speaks to the power of words that in the 21st century, over 325 years after Pilgrim’s Progress was published, the term muckraker is still in common usage.

All of the above is a long-winded way of saying congratulations to Margaret Atwood, and to Canada Post for recognizing her genius. It is also a reminder to writers and readers alike that words matter. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” may offer comfort to a crying child, but it is not true. Sticks and stones and tanks and bombs can break bones and bodies, but words change minds. They break hearts or bring joy. They are the manifestation of ideas, the essence of thought. Words are powerful and dangerous and beautiful. Be careful how you use them.

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