Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Sticks and Stones

Janet Williams* was sitting at her desk performing calculations on a difficult problem. The work was fulfilling, and she was so absorbed in it that, until she sat back and scratched her head, she hadn't noticed how silent the open-concept room had become. People milled about in the corners, chatting as they often did, but their voices were subdued, and eyes often slid her way.

That wasn't uncommon. It was a painful reality of everyday life. The family budget was tight, and that set her apart from her fashionable peers. She wasn't well-dressed, and she wasn't pretty to begin with. But she was smart, and she kept to herself. She was reliable and hard-working. She was upsetting the social ecosystem.

She counted herself lucky, being this frugal - saving money by bringing sandwiches and drinking water from the fountain, buying new clothes only three or four times a year, eschewing make-up, showering a little less and letting her hair grow long.

Someday, she would bring in real money, and as frugal as she was, she would be able to build her savings by leaps and bounds. She dreamed of retiring ten years before anyone else - the reward for hard work in the here and now.

But others didn't see it that way. Every day, they had something else to say about her, some new speculation - divorce, bankruptcy, single parenthood, drugs in the home, mental illness.

She let them gossip. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.
She wished she could call it fascination. But when she answered a question, or if her voice rose above the ambient din of conversation, lips curled back in mild disgust. Some of her peers were shallow and outspoken; others avoided her like a strange and unpleasant smell.

But this afternoon was unlike any other. People were standing behind her. She felt them slip into assigned places, like rooks and bishops. Everyone else was watching what was about to unfold.

Inevitability, she thought. This is what inevitability means.

Before she could escape, she found herself surrounded by four of her peers, with her back against the desk. One of them was watching the door, another watched everyone else.

My fault, she thought. I should have seen this coming.

"You think you're so smart?" Angela was the leader of the social committee, the trendsetter in fashion and music. "You've got an answer for everything, don't you?" At her side was Bridget, whose mouth was perpetually pursed at the side of her face in a terse, know-it-all smile. "Just who do you think you are?" Angela asked. "You trying to make a fool out of me?"

"What are you talking about?" Janet asked.

"You know what I'm talking about."

Janet tried to escape between Angela and Bridget, but Angela jabbed her fingers into Janet's upper chest, pushing her against the desk.

Janet had nowhere to look. She couldn't make eye contact with Angela. Eye contact was aggression. But Angela leaned every way that Janet looked, peering, probing, exhaling what Janet breathed in. This is what "getting in your face" really means, Janet thought. She closed her eyes.

Angela said, "Hey! Look at me when I'm talking to you." She took Janet's chin in her fingers and shook Janet's head. "Hey! I'm talking to you!"

Janet opened her eyes and stared back at Angela, trying to convey no emotion.

"Oh, look," Angela pouted. "Now she's all angry. Ooh, I'm so scared! You gonna stare me to death?"

There was no saviour here. If anyone tried, they would only make matters worse.

Is she going to punch me this time?

Bridget opened a compact. "Here, you need a little help." She gouged the concealer with a triangular sponge and applied it to Janet's nose. "You've got a little brown right there." Janet flinched away, and the corner of the sponge pricked Janet's eye.

Angela laughed. "Oh, now the poor baby's crying. Way to go, you made her cry."

"Why are you doing this to me?" Janet asked. She didn't dare wipe the tears away, but her eye stung.

"Why are you doing this to me?" Angela echoed, whining and pouting. Bridget laughed and daubed more make-up on Janet's nose and face. "Why are you doing this? Oh why oh why? Boo hoo! Oh poor me! I'm just a poor little thing - "

Janet screamed, "Leave me alone!" It was a dangerously loud alarm. "I never did anything to you!"

"You want me to leave you alone? What if I don't want to?"

Angela flicked out both hands, thrusting Janet backward. Janet lost her balance over the tipping desk. Her foot flailed, knocking the make-up case out of Bridget's hand. Before Janet could recover, Angela grabbed both sides of Janet's frumpy collar.

The door swung open, and Mr. Henry Poole examined the frozen tableau with narrowing eyes.

Angela stared at Janet. "Whoa," she said. "Are you okay, Janet?" She pulled Janet to her feet. The pale blue eyes were full of warning. "I thought you were going to fall right over the desk."

"Yeah," Bridget rejoined. "You've gotta watch where you're going. I slipped and fell almost in the exact same spot!"

"What's going on here?" Henry asked.

Angela let Janet go, and Janet fixed her blouse. "Nothing," Janet answered. She looked no higher than Henry's shoes. "I have to go."

Henry watched her pass by.

She spent more than 20 minutes in the washroom, until a female staffer found her and asked why she wasn't back at her desk yet.

At break, Janet needed air, despite the rain.

Angela, Bridget, and six others were waiting for her.

Someone closed the door and leaned against it.

Angela was eating a bag of chips; now that Janet was in the middle of the circle with her fists clenched and her eyes on the pavement, Angela spat out what she had in her mouth. It landed in Janet's hair.

About an hour later, Phil Willliams came to pick her up at reception. Janet's hair was a disaster, and there was a burgundy stain along her cheek, as if someone had drawn a streak across her face with lipstick and smudged it. She didn't cry. She bowed over her stomach as if she was cramping.

"What's wrong with her?" Phil asked the receptionist.

The woman behind the desk shrugged and said, sympathetically, "She's having a bad day."


* I made up the names and the details of this story. Fiction is what I do. But I write fiction to make a point, and sometimes fiction is based on facts, and on personal experience.

When a victim is forcibly confined, it's called "forcible confinement". When someone punches somebody in the mouth at a bar, or at the office, or at a sports complex, we call that assault. When a victim is humiliated by someone's words or by actions, we call that harassment.

It doesn't matter if the victim belongs to an unpopular minority, or if they're gay, or if they abide by one religion or another, or if one person simply doesn't like the other: regardless, if it’s assault or harassment, we call it a crime.

So long as it's between adults.

If this was a story about Janet Williams, aged 36, married with two children, you would say she was assaulted. But if this story was about Janet Williams, grade 8 student, would you say she was being bullied?

Why is it that when we move crime to the schoolyard, do we call it "bullying"? That's like calling a violent crime "murder-lite," or "sugar-free rape".

When we call it "assault", we treat it like a crime; but when we call it "bullying", we treat it like a crying shame - and nothing more.

We lock up child abusers and prosecute them to the full extent of the law. But bullies – who are in effect, young child abusers – need to be "treated", medically and psychologically, and bullied children need to work harder at blending in.

And there's an air of inevitability around the word "bullying". It happened in my day, it happened in yours, it's happening now, and it will happen in future. But "inevitability" implies that a thing cannot be prevented. Child abuse is not inevitable, so why should we treat bullying any differently?

I'm not saying we should change the justice system. And education systems are trying to do something, anything, to investigate and prevent violence in our schools, I won't deny that. There is far more sensitivity training - inside the classroom and out - than was available back in my school days.

What I am saying is that we, globally, need to take it a step further.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words make the difference between medicine and law, and between help and helplessness.

It's harassment, it's assault, it's abuse, and it's a crime. We need to call it such. Until we do, our playgrounds will remain poisoned, crime will go unpunished, and our children will believe complacency is socially acceptable.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Soft Focus

Death has a way of sanctifying the dead.

I look at the life of Princess Diana, how the mass media followed her about, nitpicking at her weight gain (and loss), deriding her for her bulimia and other problems, peering over backyard fences and scandalizing the world with nude photos. Then she died. Suddenly, her bulimia was a tragedy - it had been a cry for help that had gone long ignored; suddenly her relationship with Dodi Fayed was a long-awaited, peaceful love, thwarted by tragedy, and maybe even conspiracy. The world remembered that, behind that laughable effigy the media had made of her, there was a trailblazing princess who was unafraid of shaking the hands of lepers and AIDS victims. She was the princess in the flak jacket, walking in a mine field.

When she died, the paparazzi was blamed. After all, she'd been on the run from them all her public life - even at the point of her own death.

But the paparazzi lives on today, bigger and better than ever.

I look at Michael Jackson. If ever there was a walking punchline, it was Michael Jackson. Scandals galore. Myriad jokes of a man who changed from Black man to White Something-Or-Other. Reports of plastic surgery and heart failure. Photos madman holding a child out over the balcony of his hotel suite. Sham marriages. Impulse buying, bankruptcy. Insinuations of pedophilia.

Then he died, and everybody remembered a time when they liked him. His music was the stuff of legends. He even tried to Heal the World. His skin blanching was given a medical term (vitiligo); his frequent plastic surgery was diagnosed (body dysmorphic disorder); abuse and loneliness were the root cause of so many of his other troubles. His problems had names now, and he moved from "weird" to "victim".

Again, fame was to blame.

The examples go on.

Anna Nicole Smith. Gold digger, addict, centerfold, butt of many jokes. Victim of post-mortem compassion. Forget the scandals; she was a mother and inside seven months, she had given birth, lost a 20-year old son, and died after an acute illness.

"She was trying her hardest," (lawyer Ronald) Rale said in a packed news conference at his law office in Los Angeles. "I grieve for Anna Nicole that she had to endure what she had to endure..." Abby Goodnough, The New York Times.

Amy Winehouse. Addict, subject of much ridicule. Beloved after the fact.

"Her rich, soulful and unique voice reflected her honest songwriting and earned her a devoted fan following, critical acclaim, and the genuine respect and admiration of her musical peers," said its president Neil Portnow. Mike Collett-White and Tim Castle, Reuters.

It could be a case of
De mortuis nihil nisi bonum ("nothing but good concerning the dead", or "speak well of the dead"), but it still bothers me. If people were this good in life, why didn't we extol their virtues when they were still alive?

In life, we scrutinize, accuse, berate and gossip about our political figures; but in death, we extol virtues we'd forgotten (or never knew) they had.

Wouldn't it be more helpful if we encouraged our politicians to be good, instead of beating them about the head when they've done something dumb?

After the passing of Jack Layton, I see us doing it again.

There is a letter going about; it's Jack Layton's final legacy to Canada, politically and socially. But read the way the media is speaking of him.

In the interest of time and space, I've only quoted from the Globe and Mail, but search any online media outlet, and you'll see the same general sentiment and memories.

Jane Taber from the Globe and Mail calls him a "consummate politician to the very end," who "always practiced civility in politics". Similarly, a Globe and Mail editorial beatifies his memory:

"Jack Layton was a politician in the best sense, but that was not the only reason there was palpable sadness all across this country when he died on Monday. Why did he touch Canadians so deeply? Because the spirit that animated him throughout his three decades in politics was suddenly manifest, humbly, without egotism, yet in a way that was clear to all, as he fought cancer and a fractured hip while leading his political party to the most stunning success in its history."

Don't get me wrong. I especially like this editorial. I like the example Layton gave us, and I do wish more politicians were like him. At sixteen, he advocated a youth centre in Hudson, a suburb of Montreal - which makes my respect for him a little more personal. He was a champion of the environment and the poor. And he unseated the Bloc Quebecois, for goodness sake.

And call me a socialist if you want, but I believe in doing more than leaving a legacy for your own children; I believe in leaving a legacy for everybody's children. Jack Layton believed the same.

But the point I'm trying to make is this: we shouldn't be saving up our sympathy and respect for when somebody's dead.

You know, if you cut out the scandals and the back-biting, I'd be interested in politics. If politicians focused on achieving the aims of their constituents, I would be interested in politicians.

But I confess and regret: I learned more about Jack Layton tonight than I'd ever known before. Like many, I'd got caught up in the sham and dazzle that is election season, and even though I paid far more attention to party platforms than in years past, I glossed over Layton's personal history and political style. I really wish I had paid more attention to him when he was alive.

His passing makes me want to believe in someone again.

So, two quick questions for you - and be honest.

Question 1) What do you think the media will say about Harper when he dies? Will it depend on the political ties of any given media outlet? Or will his obituary be shot in soft focus?

Question 2) How many of you had completely forgotten about Anna Nicole Smith before I mentioned her?

My fear is not that the NDP will crumble without Jack Layton, or that politics will run amok without him acting as foil against Harper's Conservatives.

My fear is that our fickle memories will fade too soon. Though now, in the wake of his passing, we solemnly avow that we must emulate this optimistic and energetic politician, I'm afraid we'll forget him all too soon, and that we will do nothing when politics do run amok.

If we are going to make good on our promise of making something of Jack Layton's memory, we need to remember that politics happen more often than when an election is called, and that change happens outside of Parliament.

UPDATE: for a great and funny tribute, watch this hommage - a funny bit, for a politician with a sense of humour and a ready smile.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Short. Stop.

I surprised myself by writing a half-decent story that was only 6200 words long. It even has a beginning, a middle, an end, a moral and a plot. 6200 words - yay me! I'm hoping to submit it for an anthology. The problem? The 5k word limit.

So, I snipped, bickered, and sliced. The result: 5800 words. Still 800 words over. I consoled myself by thinking Maybe the editor will let me surpass the limit - if the story is great.

Then, I passed the story off to friends. Unfortunately, they each wanted me to add something - all fantastic (and critical) suggestions. So, cutting as I went, I simplified and clarified the story, adding such nuanced details as I dared. Much better.

But you know how when you go to the gym, you lose fat and yet gain weight? The story is back up to 6100 words. My problem persists, even if the story is better than ever. If a jockey goes one pound over his weight limit, it doesn't matter if he's all muscle or not; he's over his limit and out of the race.

So how do I keep the story as short as possible? Without sucking the life out of it, I mean.

I'm no big-name in publishing, I never studied this in university, and I've only gone to a handful of seminars. I'm no authority. But I am learning through reading, experimentation and feedback, and I'm happy to share what I've found.

And what have I found? You have to re-engineer the way you write and edit. There's more to shortening a story than cutting words.

1) Run, and keep your eyes on the finish line.

At work, if I assume my workload will require 3 hours of overtime, I'll work for eleven hours and get it done. But, if I assume I have no more than 8 hours to get it done, I'll get it done in 8 hours. So what's the difference? Chances are, during an 11 hour day, I assume I'll get tired if I don't take frequent mental breaks (a.k.a. pit stops to Facebook, checking personal email, going for a walk...). With an aggressive deadline, I work efficiently. Eight hours will get 'er done and it'll be ugly, but it'll function and it'll be accurate. I can gussy it up later, time allowing.

The first draft of Mummer's the Word I wrote in 10 days, because I wanted to see how fast I could write a book. Chases, dogfights, humour and romantic tension = 55k. Add suspense and character development = 65k. Even now, approaching the final draft (developing support characters, adding investigation techniques), it's under 85k - right where I want it to be.

And you know? I loved it. I loved the story, I loved the process of writing it, and I didn't have the time or opportunity to bore myself with something that detracted from the plot.

But with subsequent stories (The Man with the Silver Tongue, for example), the longer I took to write the original draft, the longer the story was. (Silver Tongue took over six months and tops 92k.) With Mummer's the Word, I had the luxury of adding detail; with Silver Tongue, the story will get even bigger before I start cutting it down to size, because I have plot holes to fill, and whole chapters to eliminate.

If I assume that it will take X number of months or words to write something, then that's what it will take to write it. If I assume I can write the story in 72-hours, I probably will - or come darned near to it. If I assume it'll take four months to edit, that's how much time I will use.

My unsolicited advice: write efficiently. Think before writing. Start with a skinny draft. Build from there. Leave pretty to last.

Secondly, make this one assumption: you will spend 300-500% more time editing than you did writing. You might not need that much time, but it helps you to focus on getting it sharp the first time (to avoid extra editing), and it lets you off the hook if you don't nail the perfect first draft.

2. Practice panniculectomy. Cut out the big fat. You need some fat. It keeps you warm and healthy, and it's what allows you to do more in a day than eat. But too much fat will strangle your arteries and you'll die; also, you'll look ugly in a Speedo. So cut out the big fat: eliminate characters, scenes, even whole chapters, if that's what it takes to chop your monster down to size.

A few years ago, I wrote a Christmas play for my church. On opening night, I was disappointed by the turnout. I asked the pastor, "Where is everybody?" He replied, "They're all on stage!" I had so many characters in the play that I had no one left in the audience! I should have limited my characters and forced myself to reassign plot contributions to players already on the stage.

Do you have two characters that have similar (if not identical) personalities? Can you stitch the two together and make one character out of them? I chose to do the latter in Mummer's the Word, and I was surprised to find I could now cut out whole blocks of unnecessary (and flat) conversation, because I no longer needed to justify the presence of one character or the other.

Try the same approach with your chapters: do you really need to have two similar scenes? Or can you put in two or three integral plot devices in a single scene?

Can something be done "off-screen" and referred to in a line or two? Sometimes, in the interest of time, Tell can be better than Show. But make sure you only do this with scenes that already feel flat and superfluous.

Eliminate any scene that contributes nothing but character development or humour. The story must abound with plot.

If you think you might change your mind about cutting a scene, save it to separate file.

Always keep old drafts, and number the versions. Currently I'm working on Mummer's the Word v 4.0, because this is the fourth round of major revisions. When I begin minor revisions (sentence structure, word choice), it'll be version 4.1.

When necessary, seek a second opinion; it may be the difference between a panniculectomy and an accidental evisceration.

3. Practice liposuction.

Kibitzing between characters brings the scene to life - it's how you show the difference between characters, and done well, it's thoroughly entertaining. I get more laughs out of a well-timed one-liner in a drama than I do in half an hour of a sitcom.

But if that's all your characters do, you lose the plot - and the reader.

Recently, I read a short story about a haunted apartment; the premise itself was funny, but the story was not. If you cut out the fart jokes, the references to games and gaming systems, the insults, the swearing and the gratuitous commentary on the quantity and perfume of one character's feces, then the story itself might have been three paragraphs long. I hated that story, and I don't care to read anything else by the author - or by the editor, either, who had the bad taste of putting it into the anthology.

Also, watch out for fatty globules of unnecessary text, like "a little bit" or "over and over again". Every writer has them. In one manuscript, I found I could eliminate 1500 words by removing "just", "back" and "turned." Unless you identify and drain your fatty words, your narrative style will be greasy and clotted.

Beware: these words evolve as your style develops. I've acquired a healthy flinch reflex when I use the word "just", but now the word "even" proliferates my style (with thanks to Michael Lorenson for pointing that out).

And don't dawdle; punch! "If I start with the assumption that..." can become "If I assume that..." Likewise, "I wonder if he thinks too much" can become "He thinks too much," or "Dude, you think too much." Or, "is going to take" becomes "will take." Short, direct, means the same thing.

"The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug" - Mark Twain. Why say "The sound of his fist hitting the counter was as loud as thunder and as abrupt as lightning" when you can say "He struck the counter with his fist"? Rule of thumb: simile = fun, metaphor = short. (If you forget the difference, click here.)

Remember: Spare words build the story; but swarms of words kill it.

"He might have fallen over the edge, if he hadn't leaned a little more to the right or if the wind hadn't chosen that moment just then to save its wrath against him for another time and place." If I read something like this, I'd want to bleach my eyes.

Don't just cut words. Re-engineer the whole sentence! "If not for panicked reflexes, a calm wind and dumb luck, he would have fallen over the edge."

And don't hedge: "He'd almost felt the near-mortifying pain of losing his best friend." Die, Almost, die! And you too, Nearly.

If you're hedging, you're probably Telling, and not Showing. Try something like: "Oh good lord, George, I thought you were dead! And it would have been my fault!"

4. Stop repeating yourself. You're being redundant. Simple to say, hard to practice.

Ever have a conversation that ends with "I'm just saying that...", followed by a summary of everything that was just said? Or ever been a phone call and the other party has to recap the conversation before they can hang up?

Ha - did you catch it? I made a redundancy there. I need to pick one of those two sentences, or blend them together. Better yet...

"I know, I just wanted to call you and say that Jimmy was asking after your sister and that he wanted to know how she was doing!" "Mom, you said that like four times now - I've gotta go!"

Watch for repeats in conversations, especially. We naturally echo and reword each other's speech. Following that pattern is an accurate way of capturing the flow of dialogue; but if you're in a crunch for space, it's gotta go.

But redundancies come in large packets and small. The small ones are sneaky.

"He awoke to the irritatingly piercing racket of that annoying alarm clock of his." 14 words, and aren't irritating and annoying the same thing?

"He awoke to the irritating racket of his alarm clock." 10 words.

We can push beyond the striking-out of words, and re-engineer the sentence. "He awoke to his riotous alarm clock." 7 words. Better. Or, alternatively...

"The irritable alarm clock woke him." 6 words. And, in this version, I see a cartoon alarm clock jumping off the night stand and whacking our hero on the face. It's like the alarm clock is getting revenge on the hero for all those times he's slammed the snooze button! Implied, but not said. I have magic invisible words!

Which brings me to my next and final point.

5. Top secret: readers have imaginations, too.

In On Writing, Stephen King gives an example of a rabbit in a cage, with a number painted on its fur. You imagine a cage; but the cage you see may be different than what I see. You may see a simple wire crate, like you'd find in a lab or an SPCA shelter. I see a chinchilla cage like the ones in my grandfather's basement, low and long. Does he have to specify what kind of cage he means? Naw, because the shape and size of the cage doesn't contribute to the plot.

Similarly: imagine a skinny guy with a jaundiced face and an Adam's apple like a fist in a turkey's throat. I have such a character in Mummer's the Word.

Do I also have to describe his ratty clothes, his comb-over, his crooked teeth, beady eyes and bad breath? Or did you see that even before I said it?

You live in an age of movies and TV; but as a writer, you don't have to go to that depth of detail. In Hollywood, they have teams comprised of professional set-designers, costumers, sound and lighting technicians, cameramen, make-up artists and casting directors. They know how to make a highly-detailed world, because they have to. You can tell a good movie from a bad one by its texture, as much as by its story.

But you don't have a team of professionals writing with you, each dedicated to one facet or layer of your story. You do have the advantage of the reader's imagination. Make use of it. Let the reader participate, and they will enjoy the story more. Inspire their imaginations.

Some say "Less is more." I say, "No matter how many of them you need, make every word count."

Now...to trim 1100 words off that short story...

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

I'd love an onion for you

I have been a bachelorette for a long time. I could live for a month on nothing but coffee, bagels, Nutella and dill pickles, and be quite content about it. In this house, coffee, chocolate and pickles each count as a vegetable. (Look it up: coffee and chocolate come from beans, and beans, in my world, are a vegetable.)

But when I have guests coming over, I get a little crazy. I don't know what normal people eat! I do assume they can't last on tasteless astronauts' food-paste as long as I can, so they must have a widely varied diet, with things like...oh, I don't know, meat, vegetables, grains and flavour. I also assume they eat multiple dishes with a wide variety of mixed-up ingredients at every meal.

So I go overboard.

Tonight, for example, I'm trying "Lady Butcher's Stew" with a lemon-beef stir fry. In preparation, I bought half a Chinese food supply store and dirtied every pot in the house. Then I fussed. Carrots, beets and parsnips to boil; beef cubes to marinate; things to chop, dice and grate; barley to rinse and soak and boil...

And for the first time ever, I'm cooking with my long-time enemy: onions. Why? Because normal people (and Tobin) like onions. In the company of others, I mimic normalcy; therefore, tonight, I cook with onions as if I know what I'm doing.

And then I think...what if I go to all this effort, and she doesn't like it? She's Congolese, and she's only been here for a couple of years. What if she prefers African food to the exclusion of everything else? (Don't laugh, I have an African friend who flees from soup - beet or otherwise - and he hates sweets.)

So, I decided to make a lemon-beef stir fry, just in case she hates beets (though why anyone (Tobin) would hate beets enough to slander them in public (Tobin), I'll never understand).

On the other hand, if she's a vegetarian, she can skip the stir fry and dive into the soup.

But what if she doesn't like beets or the stir fry? What if she likes this type of food, but hates the way I cook?

So I've bought bread, cookies, watermelon, juice - heck, I am prepared to make mac and cheese, if all else fails. And now what have I got? A tower of dirty dishes and no space in the fridge for the inevitable leftovers, with no guarantee that either of us will enjoy tonight's dinner.

And then I began to think: isn't that a little how we write sometimes?

We're so concerned that our readers don't like something about our story or our style that we dilute the manuscript with extra ingredients. Superfluous research, details ad nauseam, extraneous romantic entanglements, gratuitous back story, and side plots that don't add to the story - or worse, cause complications and contradictions.

So how do we purify the flavour of our stories?

First (naturally): simplify.

I've found that a dish is even better if you have only three or four key ingredients - freshly cracked pepper, lemon slices, some onion, and beef cubes, for example.

If you add to that recipe garlic, ginger, lime juice, salt, cloves, etc., then you'll end up with ingredients that effectively cancel each other out; or worse, you end up with a swamp in the pot.

But I want to try beef with garlic, ginger, lime juice, salt and cloves! So why not leave that combination for another meal?

Or, for the writer: if the back story is longer than a couple of paragraphs, can you cut it out and write it in isolation (if not for the purposes of publication, at least for the joy of exploration)?

There is genius in simplicity.

Secondly, experiment. If you're unpublished, you're the luckiest of writers. You're not tied down by your own "brand", you have no avid fan base to appease, no marketing department to frown upon you, zero expectations; you can be whoever you want to be, and you can write whatever captures your own imagination. Make good use of that freedom now, before publication.

I tried Lady Butcher Stew already, so I know it's edible, if not palatable. I'm ready to move on to phase two of the experiment - human testing. I'm also comfortable enough to add an ingredient or two, to change the formula to see if it can be made even better. That means, I'm confident enough to add parsnips onions.

But I've never cooked with parsnips or onions before, so I have no idea how this is going to turn out. I don't know if either of us are going to enjoy dinner tonight, but it's exciting to think, if this really is good, that only she and I would have ever tried it before.

In other words, my writer-friend, it's okay to let go of your personal preferences and try something new. You might just surprise yourself, doing something you thought you'd hate.

Thirdly, relax. Not everybody in the world likes beets. Some people disapprove so loudly that they will compare beets to vomit. I know, because Tobin has done so at least twice tonight on my Facebook profile. But a lot of people do like beets. Even my Aunt Sandra used to hate beets, but now she likes them!

People are going to have different tastes. Once, I went to a sprawling African wedding feast and came home hungry, because most of the meals defined the very meaning "it needs an acquired taste." And last week, I had dinner (mămăligă and ciorbă de legume) with a Romanian friend. She told me how disgusting is sushi - while eating the meat off a baked trout's head. As they say, à chacun son goût.

The same thing is going to happen with your writing. I happen to dislike Harry Potter and Twilight; which is, I think, the equivalent of saying "I hate ice cream and Jello." On the other hand, I happen to like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Alexander McCall Smith - both of whom may be perceived as sexist.

The point is, there will be people who don't like your work. They may even compare it to vomit. But there is an equal likelihood that some people will really, really like your work.

And, lastly: as with learning how to cook, you're not going to know if others think it's any good until you invite them to share in what you've created. Find observant and supportive first readers, and treasure them.

I'm indebted to those few guinea pigs who read my work, and I'm honoured when they critique it. When they push me past my accustomed barricades and encourage me to try things they like, I learn, I grow, and I progress. I still might not like the same things they do, but at least I would have kept an open mind, and tried something new.

And who knows, after tonight, I may discover that after all these years, I like onions.

<-- I made this.

And this dish, which does not look like vomit. Brains and blood, maybe, but not vomit. -->

P.S. She liked dinner. Not a big fan of soup in general, but really liked the stir fry.

P.P.S. I told her about the fish heads vs. sushi debate. She asked me, "Don't you eat the skin, too?" I said, "I don't eat the skin of a cow. Why should I eat the skin of a fish? Ew!" She laughed.

P.P.P.S. Too much lemon juice. Not enough onions.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Ten toasts to the budding author

In case you ever get stuck at a table with a not-quite-famous writer, keep these toasts close at hand. Feel free to add your own by adding it as a comment below.

  1. May even your worst adversary begrudgingly compliment you on your work.
  2. May your readers forever outnumber your writer friends.
  3. May you make many hilarious double-entendre spelling mistakes, and heaven help you, may you catch them all before you submit the final draft.
  4. May your characters be so danged lovable that people name their kids after them.
  5. May you never accidentally burp/poot/barf/faint during your first public reading.
  6. May you catch a complete stranger reading your story.
  7. May a child blush and murmur “I want to be like you when I grow up.”
  8. May you find great success, but never satisfaction.
  9. May your gratitude forever subdue your pride.
  10. May you change many lives.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Newfangled Classics, and Some Fruit Flies: the Emergence of the Direct-to-Reader Writer

"By nature, men love newfangledness." - Chaucer

I doubt Chaucer would have been surprised at the quick adoption of ereader technology, but I wonder how he would judge the technology itself.

I’ve been thinking about this as I edit Mummer. Recently, someone asked me which draft I was working on. I couldn't tell them. By my estimation, it's probably the fourth major revision, though there have been as many as six minor revisions in between. Fortunately, I've gotten to a point now where I don't need a hard copy. Everything can now be done virtually.

In fact, there is nothing now between writer and reader except technology. I'm writing this blog for free; you're reading it for free; there's been no paper exchanged between us. Except for a face-to-face conversation (or a phone call), there is no more direct transmission of my thoughts to your mind.

Recently, I emailed my mother a copy of a half-written manuscript. She extracted the attachment and uploaded it to her eReader. The formatting was off, but the point is: there are 500 km between us, and yet, she has the equivalent of an eBook I just wrote.

Indeed, nothing but inexperience (and doubt) stops me from setting up my own eBook production and distribution company. With the right marketing skills, I could cut out all the time-honoured middle men - the agents, the publishers, the editors and type-setters, the printers and binders and packagers, the distribution houses and shipping lines and the book stores. People have done it before. They will continue to do it, and they'll get better at it as technology and skill improves.

At the same time, I'm reading some of the great classics - The Scarlet Pimpernell being the most recent eBook in my hands. I wonder: if Baroness Orczy had a Netbook and the all-powerful Wikipedia, how would her stories have changed?

Listen to this: "Great joy, especially after a sudden change of circumstances, is apt to be silent, and dwells rather in the heart than on the tongue." Henry Fielding had no benefit of backspace or cursor, no highlighting functions, no search-and-replace. And yet, with pen and paper, he crafted some of history's most remarkable fiction (though I think maybe he would have been politely encouraged to write a much shorter tome, and not break the fourth wall so often or so thoroughly).

How about this: "To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust." Henry David Thoreau hadn't so much as a typewriter. Did he have to peruse the line edits by his publisher and rewrite the whole thing over again, word by word, with pen and ink?

"It takes two flints to make a fire." Louisa May Alcott. Also, "'Stay' is a charming word in a friend's vocabulary." What else could she have said, if she had had the benefit of electric lights and a USB key?

"Charity begins at home, and justice begins next door." I think of Dickens, sitting at his tall desk, his fingers stained with ink. Instead of seeing a fiend scratching away with a dull pen, I see him more often pausing, his eyes closed and the feather of his quill tapping against his remarkable beard. Then, I see him thoughtfully dipping his quill in the inkwell and writing what he has mentally rehearsed: "It is a melancholy truth that even great men have their poor relations."

Writers like these take a world of thought and compress it into a simple, powerful statement; readers then reflect on this comment and see the world of thought behind it. It's like a literary .zip file, compressing gigabytes of thought into an easily transmittable packet, and archiving them for you to double-click, expand and enjoy at your leisure.

I'm not saying that modern fiction is utterly un-quotable. All I can say is that there's more of it, in terms of authors, subjects and genres, and formats, and not all of it is good.

That's not to say that the difference between Then and Now is the difference between Good Literature and Bad. There was crap in Dickens' day, too: "There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts." But some very worthy writing has survived the test of time, and invariably, it's because it's well thought out.

And I wonder aloud if it's well thought out because of plain, old-fashioned economy.

Think of it: in those days, ink was hard to come by, as were the pages, the candles, the furniture, and the heating to keep the ink from freezing in the well. But more importantly, writing by hand requires a certain economy of physical effort - and a lot of patience.

Infinitely more patience was required in case of a major rewrite. Even before the days of Ye Olde Save As feature, revisions were mandatory. Even Hemingway said "The first draft of anything is $#@~." And at least he had a typewriter! Nowadays, we can always throw words down on a page and go back and fix it later with a couple of judicious keystrokes and a click of the mouse.

And for the longest time, ever since Gutenberg first pushed a string of block letters against parchment, there's always been a typesetter. Even my great-grandfather was a printer; I’ve seen the press and the letter cases. Every letter was its own tiny cube, and each cube was to be set in a single straight line and nudged into place. Capital letters weren’t the magical combination of Shift + Letter; capital letters were their own cubes, hidden somewhere in the box set. Italics were in an entirely different box; there was no easy highlight and format features; if you wanted to switch a block of text from plain to italics, it was going to take you long minutes, not nanoseconds. Every effort was made to get it right the first time, because revisions weren't as easy as going back, fixing a word, then re-saving the document. The printer would have to read the entire press plate - backwards - until he could spot the problem. Multiply that by hundreds of pages - or under the pressure of getting a newspaper out the door - and you can only imagine the long-suffering attention to detail required to produce anything!

Because each book represented an enormous investment in time and money, the book had to be as near perfect as possible, long before it ever saw the light of day.

Nowadays, books require little more investment of time than it takes to write the rough draft.

So I wonder again, if the technology was available to, say, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, how would his stories have been written? Would Shakespeare have been more insightful into human nature, or would he simply have produced more work?

It's really hard to say if technology would have changed anything. There was drek in Dickens' time, and that drek must have been written with the same quill and ink, typeset by the same painstaking printers, and read by the same gaslight.

Bad writing and fruit flies have been around for a long time. But direct-to-reader technology has created a population boom in bad fiction the way an overripe banana causes swarming havoc in the kitchen. Worse, like fruit flies, bad writers zoom in on a fresh and delicious idea and regurgitate it as their own. How many "Young Adult Paranormal Romance" stories have you seen on bookshelves since Twilight hit its peak? And if it doesn't hit bookshelves, a crafty knock-off needs only sell it virtually.

Bad literature has exploded, I believe, because writing has become cheap, literally and figuratively. It’s cheaper to produce, and in most cases, considerably cheaper to buy.

If you invest nothing and you get something back, it's like you've won the lottery; invest nothing and get nothing back, so what.

But when you have to invest heavily in something, you care about it; when you invest, you strive for a return on a results - you strive to make a better product. When you're the only investor, you are also the only quality control; but when there are others involved, the writer is held to a higher standard. (Of course, it doesn't always work that way; I've seen some awful work sneak past an editorial troupe before it lands in my hands as the reader.)

The same goes for the buyer. If you buy a brand new book for a dollar, are you really going to be disappointed if the book is crap? No. You’ll toss it over your shoulder and say, “Well, at least I only paid a buck for it.” Why? Because you already know: you get what you pay for.

Nowadays, though, we live in a society that is more fascinated by sales than by value. If I said "a first-time author made a million bucks almost overnight, selling her eBooks," you may recall the brief fame of Amanda Hocking. But do you know what she wrote? Do you know if it's any good, or if her subsequent books have had any success? Would it matter if her next forty books were all crap? She's already a millionaire. (If you don't want to read the article, let me summarize in a few key words: young-adult paranormal romance, sold at a dollar apiece.

(And before you send me an angry comment, I can't judge the quality of her work either, 'cause I've never read it. I'm not into that genre, period. The question is, how many people would have bought her work if it hadn't been for her fame?)

I can't say how technology might have changed classic fiction, although I suspect Moby Dick would be a quarter of its present size and feature at least one buxom stowaway. And maybe some zombies. (I could write a whole 'nother blog post on Herman Melville alone, but dear reader, I like you too much.)

What I can say is that technology has enabled us to create entirely disposable entertainment. More than ever, readers have to weed through a morass of words to find nuggets of decent literature; and there are new classics in bud right now, I'm sure of it.

But as a culture, I wonder if we're willing to go through the hassle of judging literature for ourselves, or if we’ll just let books fester on the eMarket and let sales do the judging for us. After all, Hocking's sales went up after it became public that sales went up! And how many readers (and film viewers) checked out The DaVinci Code simply to see what all the fuss was about?

As writers in this age of fantastic technological advances, it behooves us to compose before writing, to make the best use of the editing features available to us, and not be so hasty to place another product on the market, just for the sake of calling ourselves published authors. Direct-to-reader technology has freed us from the shackles of publishing house preferences, yes; it has empowered writers to be independently and irreverently creative, yes; but we shouldn't let that freedom make us giddy or careless.

We don't just live in a direct-to-reader world; it goes both ways. To find out what readers think about you, all you have to do is pop your own name in the search bar. You may not have an editorial team at your back, catching your gaffes and filling your plot holes; but you do have an army of critics waiting for you, and they have as much direct access to your readers as you do. Maybe even more.

"Always speak the truth, think before you speak, and write it down afterwards." Lewis Carroll.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Behind the Hobbit Door

Well, you're here now, so you might as well come in. I don't often let people into my apartment, so...

(Watch your head - door's pretty short, remember?)

Yeah, I know that look on your face. Like you, most people would consider this place a mess. I say, with the exception of a few bits and pieces, everything is exactly where I want it to be. This place goes through cycles of "chaos", "less chaotic" and "wow, this place is clean". Currently, it's in a state of "less chaotic," so things could be worse.

Watch your step. We're replacing the stairs in September, I think. (Hooray, more construction...yay...)

And here we are, in the kitchen. Hm? No, I never use the kitchen table to eat at. It holds up the toaster, the coffee maker, the fruit snacks and granola bars. Otherwise, I wouldn't have a table in here at all.

Watch your feet as you go into the bathroom there. Under the table is where the vacuum cleaner and the hair dryer are, and if you've got big feet, you'll trip on something. What? No, I don't know why I put them there. Does it matter? I always know where to find them.

Yeah, I know the bathroom's small. I really should fix the shower head, too. You can stand right in the middle of the shower and stay completely dry. You can only get wet if you disco.

And in the winter, it rains. Yeah, I mean it really rains! The ceiling's cold, the shower's hot - spray collects on the ceiling in here and next thing I know...freezing rain. That'll wake you up in the morning, let me tell ya.

Oh - and if you have to use the toilet, just beware: when it's hot outside, the toilet honks. I don't know why, it just does. There's some kind of mechanism in the toilet tank that vibrates when the water hits a certain level. Sounds like someone's playing a B-flat on a trumpet for a count of sixteen. You can hear it three doors down. But it only happens in summer. No idea why. It's a real pain in the neck when you get up in the middle of the night. It's like fanfare. Like, "Tada! I have tinkled!"

All right - hang on, before you leave the bathroom I have to leave first. What can I say, when they built this place, they really meant "closet" when they said "water closet."

So yes, kitchen. Painted it myself - you like it? Butter yellow, with accents the colour of port wine, and olive green doors. There are more coffee tins than there is food, but that's normal too. And watch your step. I don't mean to keep these bankers boxes out here for long. It's sheet music from the church, until we get it all online.

And next on our ten cent tour: the Everything-Room - office, living room, rec room, music recording studio, parlour, spare bedroom, dance hall, whatever. I still intend on painting the other two walls, but I kinda like it the way it is. On two walls, ocean blue with yellow accents; white on the other two walls. You wouldn't think the colours go together, but they do.

Yeah, I know my calendar is still open to June. I should fix that. I swear, I'm the only person who has to pin a calendar to the wall with a 1-inch screw.

There...that's better?

Yeah, I like the retro theme too. Early 20th century advertisements for chocolate here, Art Deco posters for ocean and rail travel everywhere else. Picked them up from a poster shop that was going out of business. Wish I had put them in frames instead of letting them warp in the humidity.

Over here, my electric drumset, TV, XBox and Rockband kit. One more drum set and I can play in 360-degrees.

Over there, shelving units full of I-can't-remember-what, plus two djembes - what? No, those African drum-things right there. No, I don't play them very often. More decoration than anything - same with the bodhran over there, that big round Irish drum in the corner. I wish I could play the bodhran, and I mean to learn it...

Yeah, there's always another distraction between me and what I want to learn next. Most of my distractions are right over here, by the big window. I get direct sunlight through this window exactly twice a year: one week in March, one week in October. But I've got a great view of the driveway, don't I?

Yep, four monitors, two computers. Sometimes three computers! I work from home most of the time, so I need my tunes and my screens, you know? Funny, I don't actually write a lot here. I'm usually at a coffee shop for that. Harder for Facebook to distract me that way. Besides, I love having life swirl about me when I write. If I'm stuck for a character, all I have to do is look up and listen.

No, I know I don't keep the futon very clean. When I know guests are on the way over, the futon's spotless, vacuumed and inviting. Great place to sleep, too. In the meantime, it holds up all the stuff I need close at hand: headset for the phone, two cameras, a dictaphone and my blackberry, some paper, my sunflower seeds, and some sheet music. You should see it when I'm editing. It's like a scribbled sea all frothy with whitecaps and snowballs.

Now, in through the big white door and...

Oof. Yeah, this is the bedroom / spare office / library / storage area. This is Chaos Central. It was clean for a while, when I put up those shelves there. If you look carefully, you'll even see that the books are actually sorted! Well, by genre, at least, with surplus new books on the floor at your feet there, so watch your step.

And here, you can see why I don't like to buy luggage. Between trips, I have nowhere to put it. This room always looks like I'm in a state of transition, neither arriving nor departing, but always somewhere in between.

A metaphor for my life, I guess.

What? Well, no, I don't "just throw my dirty clothes on the floor." They're not entirely dirty, that's why. They haven't attained that perfection of stink yet. If they are good and dirty, then they go into the basket. But yeah, that's why I'm not giving you any pictures as keepsakes. There are some things a lady can keep to herself, thank you very much.

And over here, a little placard my mother gave me: it says "Welcome to my loose interpretation of clean." Always makes me smile.

What's that?

"Don't I hate living like a slob?"

What do you mean "a slob?"

Listen, none of this stuff is in my way. It's in your way. It's exactly where I can find it. Put something in an unusual place, and you'll always know where to find it.

Aye me...you see, this is why I never invite people over.

Look. I don't live like you do. This is my place. My sanctuary. I don't invite a lot of people over because, as you can see, even when the place is clean, it's standing room only.

Besides that, I don't need to bring people over to impress them. If they're here, there's always something better on our minds than whether my clothes are in the stinky-pile or wear-again pile.

"Why don't I clean more often?" Yeah, I know I don't have kids or a husband to distract me, so what! I know my laundry loads are smaller, and I have only four dishes to wash after every meal, so what!

Listen, there's a lot I don't do that "normal" people do. I watch less than four hours of TV every week, because I'd rather spend my time reading, writing, biking or walking. I play the drums and I sing. I write, I edit and go for long urban photo-safaris. I play tennis, and swim when I can, and I go to artistic events in town, or to LaRonde with friends, or to picnics. At home, if it's in my way, I put it where it belongs; if it stinks, I'll flush it, I'll wash it or I'll throw it out, whichever it needs. Otherwise, the only person who's bothered by it is you, and you don't live here.

And yeah, I don't clean as often or as thoroughly as you do, but aside from three dirty coffee mugs and one well-used saucer, there are no dirty dishes. The garbage goes out on time, the floors, the toilet, the shower and the sinks are cleaned regularly. I mop, sweep and vacuum when the mood is upon me; but I don't lick the floor, so I don't see the point of keeping it pristine 24/7. There are no food containers on the floor, there's no moldy bread on the counter, no expired fruits or vegetables anywhere to be seen. I even put out the recycling once a week.

And I'll have you know something else, smarty pants. On average, the garbage I produce fills one grocery shopping bag every two weeks. Can you say the same?

And for that matter, I drive less than 50 km a week these days, because I hate adding to the pollution and traffic. If I can, I walk, bike or take mass transit, even though there's a perfectly good car right there. Heck, even when I do grocery shopping, I don't think twice about walking ten blocks with four bags of food.

When I go to someone's house for a meal, I wash their dishes - or at the very least, help with the service or clean-up. When I stay at a hotel, I make the bed and leave the place as clean as when I arrived (or cleaner, depending on the hotel). If I stay at a family member's place, I usually prep the sheets for washing and otherwise try to leave everything the way I found it. When I go to a coffee shop, I clean up after myself, I throw trash in the trash can and take my mug back to the counter. Why? Because it's common space. Common space stays clean, for courtesy's sake.

But this is my space. If you lived here, the place would be spotless. You don't live here, and I'm fine with the place just the way it is.

And you know what else? You've got kids, a spouse? Roommates? Animals? A life? Then things are going to move from their assigned places, no matter how much you yell. As long as the place is sanitary, safe and I have a place to sit down, I'm not going to stress about your house any more than I do about mine. I'm just going to be happy to see you and your family. (But I'll always give you lots of notice before I arrive!)

Well, anyhow, I'm sorry about sounding off like that. I get upset as soon as I hear the words "Why don't you...". They're usually followed by "...clean more often," or "...find a good man and settle down" or "...have kids, because I think you'd be a great mom," or "...work less and relax more."

But it doesn't matter how people end a "Why don't you..." question. They always mean the same thing: "Why don't you...be more like me."

Simply stated: I don't wanna. And in my rebellion against "a normal life", I've learned a lot about what I actually need, versus what other people think I need.

Anyhow, such as it is, this is my home - and my lifestyle, I guess. It is what it is. If I wanted something different, I would go out and get it. And regardless, you're always welcome here.

Ooh, look at the time. Oh hey - you want a coffee to go? I may be a lousy cook, but I make a decent cup of coffee. I'll even give you a clean travel mug.

Naw...you can keep it. Call it a souvenir from Behind the Hobbit Door.

And don't forget: watch your head on the way out.