Sunday, 18 September 2011

Am I There Yet?

I was in Winners the other day, buying overpriced shoes for one son and an overpriced lunch box for the other. On my way out, mid-cluck over the outrageous receipt, I ran into a writer friend. She’d just signed a deal with a small press to have two of her historical romances published in the next year. I was happy for her and congratulated her warmly.
Two weeks later, we’re talking on the phone and she apologizes for her “outburst.”
“I didn’t realize I could be so immature!” she said. I was surprised – two as yet unpublished novels = years of work. Girlfriend had a right to be happy. But what I think she really meant was this: I didn’t mean to rub in the fact that I have a book deal and you don’t.*
“If it were me, I’d take out a full page ad in the paper,” I told her. And that’s a promise. When my turn comes, everyone will be the first to know. I’m already working on my victory dance. Because if I am lucky enough to have success, Lord know’s Ill have worked my tail off to get it.
When I started out writing TKS, I had no inkling of the effort and determination it would require to write a great book. I read John Gardener’s The Art of Writing a Novel and skipped right over the part where he warns aspiring novelists that their contemporaries from college will be making partner at their law firms while they’ll still be labouring over their first novel.
But the more time I put in, the more drafts I write, the better I get and the more clearly I see what it takes to write something entertaining and original. Some people knock it of first crack. But not I, dear readers. But that’s OK. I’m learning to be patient.

* Yet.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Sometimes sucking is enough

Three or four mornings a week, I head down to Lake Pisiquid for kayak training with my team - a bunch of post-25 overachievers, and our fearless coach, an Amazonian former Olympian who started out tolerating us and has come to enjoy coaching us. (I hope, anyway).

For those of you landlubbers, flatwater kayaking is to sea or recreational kayaking as bathtubs are to balance beams. Flatwater kayaks are built for speed, not for stability. When I first started paddling 6 years ago, it took me three weeks of paddling almost every day to get off the dock. (I only wish I could tell you I'm a late bloomer. I'm more of a fast bloom-deadhead-bloom again kind of girl).

The team has come a long way. At the end of my first year, my partner and I came third at Nationals at the Olympic basin in Montreal. Three summers ago, me and my partner (said coach) won a national title at CanMas in Halifax. My other partner and I came third in a different race. Both were the result of practicing 5 times a week, rain or shine, whether we felt like it or not.

This morning was cool and foggy. I woke up tired at 4:50 am, wrote my daily 2-page quota on my new book and headed down to the clubhouse. We were training K4 today - I was in front, then J-, then D- and our coach A- was in the back. I cringed when A- told us the workout - a 750m at 80%, then 2x 500m at 100% with minimal rest and 2x 500m at 80% in between.

Since I was in first, I had to set the pace and steer the boat. Both of which proved troublesome. The rudder was shot to hell and we zigzagged all over the Godforsaken lake. My trachea felt like the smallest straw in the world. My arms were two corpses attached together by my paddle. Halfway through the second 500m race pace, I started to panic. I can't make it to the finish line. I can't keep paddling this damn boat. I sure as hell can't steer it. I have no arm strength anymore. My team must hate me. I suck. I'm totally quitting after this practice.

Before the two people who are reading this jump down my throat, relax. I know negative self talk impacts performance etc., but for the love of God, I wanted to strangle that rudder in eel grass. It was just one of those mornings, OK?

Eventually, the practice ended and I clambered out of the boat, helped haul it up to the clubhouse, bid adieu to my teammates and drove home. Six years ago I might have wondered if there was any value at all in a bad practice like that.

But a lot has happened in the last six years. I've competed in more than a dozen regattas and done well. I've logged maybe a hundred practices, some good, some not so good, some completely awful. I've written two and a half books. All these things have required face time. Showing up, logging the miles, going home. Some days (like today) feel like crap. Other days, I feel like I could be the first human being to win both Olympic Gold and a Pulitzer. And both the good and bad experiences count toward any bit of goodness I get either in my boat, or in my vocation as a writer.

My great mentor, Cathy Jacob, told me once that life isn't about perfection, but all about recovery. "You fall off the path, you get back on. You fall off, you course correct and get back on." My spirit always aspires to greatness. But for the poor mortal creature that has to pull it off, somedays sucking is enough.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

So long, Hannah

My favourite teacher ever, Dr. Hannah Tyson, is retiring from the United World College of the American West in Montezuma, New Mexico.

You know those teachers who both terrified and impressed you? (Which is probably the single most important performance booster for yours truly, anyway).

 "Hannah" is a tall, rail-thin woman with a sock of red hair and an intense, focused stare that could level you in a matter of seconds. She was incredibly elegant, always well turned out, and prepared us better for our IB finals than any other teacher I can imagine. She was hard but funny. Example - she pulled aside "Chuck" - a very nice and hard-working classmate from Minnesota one day and demands to know, "What kind of name is Chuck? It's a chump name."

See, she could say things like that, and it was A-OK, because she was a fabulous teacher and everyone knew it. She's the reason I studied English literature in university, and I'll always think of her as one of the most influential women in my life, despite only having been her student for a year.

This is a gushy post I know, but what I'm really getting at here is the transformative power of a truly gited teacher.

So long, Hannah. I wish you well on whatever you do next.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Magic Places

Since I moved to the country 8 years ago, I've wrestled with my decision. Does this mean I'm doomed to a lifetime of dressing three seasons behind the times? (Which may explain my desire to wear wool socks to the studio this morning!) Is it a career killer to forgo the bustle of a big urban centre? Are my kids going to be saddled with an accent my British relations will be embarrassed/amused by? (Possible)

The thing is thought, I'm here because something in me needs to be close to the earth. It's always been this way. On my bucket list: own a home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a magic place if there ever was one. When I lived in New Mexico while going to boarding school, I began a consuming love afair with the desert. I can see why one of my favourite painters, Georgia O'Keefe, spent most of her life out there - something about that endless sky and clean, dry air purifies the soul and focuses the vision.

Today I'm making preparations to take the boys camping at Cape Breton Highlands Park next week. Another magical place. In fact, I set The Kill Shot in the Highlands and its original title was Gold Brook, after a gorgeous hiking spot that is eerie and mystical and perfect fodder for writing. When I get my act together, I think I'll make a little video at the Gold Brook trailhead.

OK. Four articles due second week of August are calling my name. Nuff blogging already.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Be like Spielberg

Writers can learn a lot from filmmakers. Because as hard as it is to conceive of, write and sell a novel, it’s that much harder to conceive, write and sell a movie. Put it this way: 10 years ago, when I was a project manager at an ad agency in Toronto, a two-minute tv spot cost somewhere in the vicinity of $300k. Multiply that by 50 and you can see why making it in the movies is so difficult.

Yesterday’s report from Publisher’s Weekly suggests that – big surprise – hard book sales are down “dramatically” in Q1 2011. There are the Amanda Hockings of the world – savvy, “indie” writers who are turning millions in profits by self-publishing their books, pricing them low and selling on Amazon. But for most writers – for whom writing is their main life skill – the future looks pretty glum. The consensus seems to be that it’s stupid hard to be a writer these days.

Somewhere, Herman Melville is laughing his head off. After all, the author of one of the greatest novels of all time died in poverty and obscurity. I’d say that must have been up there with life’s great challenges.

Back to the movies. One thing filmmakers do from the get-go is to regard their work as a collaborative act – yes, they may have written the script, and they may be directing it, but they require a huge team to take the movie from concept to reality. If they’re making a non-blockbuster (a “literary movie”, let’s say) they’ll troll their networks and try to attach some big name actor to the project to give it some credibility.

A once-struggling writer I am very close with recently signed a joint venture with a major Hollywood bigwig to produce a movie based on some kid’s books she’s written. With this feather in her cap, she then secured one of New York’s biggest literary agents to help her sell her upcoming book. Now if that isn’t a career defining move, I don’t know what is.

“Think like a movie producer,” she urged me this spring. “Think about who you can attach to your project.”

Thinking like an uber-successful artist can help even established writers make more money. While most writers are working hard to build an audience through social media, it surprises me how few of them think about how to convert those followers to, well, customers. I mean, yes, you have a book you can sell, but what else have you got?

Musicians make a huge chunk of their money from live shows and merchandise sales. For those of us who actually rent movies, most DVDs are rife with bonus features including “The Making of World’s Worst Movie Ever” that help to build buzz and sustain interest in a perpetually curious public. How can writers emulate this model?

I guess what I’m saying is this. Writing a book is a major journey into the unknown. You’ve got to come back with some goodies. You know – been there, published that, sold the kick-ass t-shirt.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Eating the Elephant

I don't know what it is about me, but if a project isn't big and challenging, I'm not interested. (This is why I married Leon nearly nine years ago. :) )

 For example: When we first moved back to Nova Scotia from Toronto and were looking for a place to park the proceeds from the sale of Leon's moving industry business, we elected to throw them at a 260-year old Cape Cod. The house was charming but rundown. It had a shared driveway but it was in a lovely rural farming community. Over the ensuing eight years, we painstakingly razed and rebuilt almost every part of the house, with the exception of the giant timbers that form the skeleton of the place. To walk inside you feel like you're in the belly of a whale, and trust me, it's a comforting place to be. But lord, the work. Eight years, thousands of dollars, many foregone trips abroad, we are two-thirds finished with this project. And we're exhausted.

Which brings me to the elephant bit. A couple of years ago I was doing a marketing project for a client and they (proudly) told me what their "tagline" was: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. I was naturally mortified that anyone would think this is a sensible "tagline" (did they even know what a tagline is?), but after getting over the initial shock, I realized that this was in fact a useful mantra for accomplishing anything big.

I started writing my first novel, The Kill Shot, when Leon was working in Alberta (a four hour flight away). I was still building my communications business and my now five year old son was still in diapers. I had to wake up early and write before the needs of the day - magazine editors lookin for a late story, clients, my son - started to exert their demands. Sometimes I would look at what I accomplished in those early morning hours - as little as 100 words some days - and fear that I would never. finish. this. book. But I did. And then I started another.

Now I set a daily quota for myself - two pages or bust. Sometimes I savour the writing and take my time. Some days I'm forced to fly through it. Remarkably, when I look back over what I've written, I can't always tell if I was savouring or rushing. That is the happy magic of doing something every day. Just by showing up you get better.

My point is this: productivity is all about dailiness. Just a little bit at a time, I tell myself when I'm staring at the mountain of work that is before me. Something is better than nothing.  If I can write two pages a day I'll have a solid first draft by Christmas. If I can just get myself to Central Building Supplies to get a sample paint chip, I can put in my order for those new kitchen cabinets. If I can just take one, small step toward that beautiful dream of what my life could be, I'm that much closer to actually living it.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Getting what you need

Yesterday started out brooding and overcast. The air was heavy and threatened rain, it was hotter than it seemed, the mosquitoes were cranky. The day earlier I visited one of my favourite haunts and dropped two hundred bucks on shrubs and flowers. It was a lovely luxury drifting among the plants, breathing in the flowery air, gathering bunches of fresh life into my arms and loading them onto an oversized wagon.

I had a vision of myself floating through my garden like a wood sprite, planting plants and scattering gold dust. It would be magical.

But the next morning I woke up bitter and exhausted. I was overtaken with a grim determination to get those plants in the ground now. I remembered two wisteria plants purchased in pervious years, plus a David Austin schoolgirl rose that withered on the vine after days of procrastination on my part. Who does that, croaked the little gremlin voice inside my head (you know, the one who out of the blue asks such questions as: when is it too old to apply to law school?). Who buys expensive plants and forgets to plant them? 

I had an answer that morning: Not me. Not this time.

Perhaps sensing my distress, my family tumbled out the back door to help me. I barked at my husband for digging too deep a hole for the hydrangea. “It’s three times the width, not three times the depth!”

I forced myself to cheerfully respond to my son’s determined efforts to help. “Don’t step on the soil if you can avoid it,” I murmured through clenched teeth. “Plants like it pillowy.” “What?” he said. “Forget it.”

Everyone was getting in my way. I had holes to dig, plants to plant, roots to separate, manure to haul. They were slowing me down. The baby was liable to wake up from morning nap any damn second. I grumpily shoveled composted horse manure into the wheelbarrow. I nose-breathed a trio of lupines into holes 30 centimeters apart.

Man, the lupine is a gorgeous flower. And it grows in ditches! I made some more holes in the ground and accepted a few shovelfuls of manure from my son. When the flax filled out they’d make a gorgeous cloud of powder blue in the centre of the bed.

I sat back on my haunches and wiped some sweat from my forehead. Flax, lupines, cheddar pinks and catmint smiled up at me from the earth. The hydrangea commandeered the shady part of the bed as though she had lived there her entire life. A wigealea stood in graceful repose at the east corner. My husband brought buckets of water from his paddling pool and we gave the plants a drink. I got myself a drink and the water was cool and utterly thirst quenching. My body was limber and I felt – wait for it – happy.

“It looks good mom,” my son said. My husband rested his chin on the shovel handle and smiled at me.

It’s funny how resistant we can be to help. This can be true especially for lone wolf creative types like yours truly. We hold the vision of our creation in our mind’s eye – the superb novel, the airy garden. And because that vision is so singular, and because the nature of creative accomplishment involves periods of what can only be described as “slugging it out”, we can easily forget that creation can be easy.  Other people can help us to realize our creative dreams.

Thinking back on yesterday, a line from The Rolling Stones drifts into my consciousness: You can’t always get what you want. But sometimes you get what you need.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

I'll have what Hilary's having

The December 2009 issue of Vogue featured a profile on one of my all-time favourite people: Hilary Clinton. As celebrity profiles go, Jonathan Van Meter’s was a strong one, if a little fawning at times. (She’s pretty! In real life she’s pretty!) But what impressed me most was less the article than a fabulous photo of Clinton in her Washington D.C. office.

On a shelf behind her is a small statue of a pregnant African woman. Clinton keeps it to remind her that most of the world’s work is done by women, who day in and day out do the (unglamorous) chores that our civilization is built upon: taking care of the little’uns, making sure everyone gets fed.  And on her desk is a small ceramic block with Winston Churchill’s famous words: Never, never, never give up.

To me, these touchstones in Clinton’s office are symbols of humility and perseverance. Perhaps the top two underrated virtues in today’s world. I mean, why bother with perseverance when we should have everything we desire right now?

You are special parents tell their kids, and so we are, but how often it is that our very “specialness” translates into a sense of entitlement. This insidious sense that if we really were that special, things would come a little easier than they do. When in fact, so much of life is comprised of simple, humble tasks, the repetition of which can in turn breed success.

I’m dealing with this right now in my writing career. I've written a novel, and I’ve given it to some smart, best-selling authors who loved it and have given me their support. But the road to publication for a first-time novelist can be a long and rocky one. The journey is littered with rejections, revisions, re-submissions and the sometimes painful task of showing up at a blank page day in and day out. You have to be humble. You have to keep the faith. You have to keep working at it, especially when you feel like giving up.

Humility and perseverance, people. Look where they got Hilary.