My June Reads

It’s been a ‘bookish’ few weeks around here as the Graduate packed up and moved into his own space. Change is exciting, though the process of integrating change can be a messy one. And things did get chaotic as we helped him sort and toss and pack and schlepp his belongings across town to his new place. We sorted through a lot of books. A LOT of books. It was like a snapshot of his growing up years as we paged through picture books, early readers, teen novels and his more recent adult reads, including a number of educational textbooks.

At the same time, I accepted an assignment to write an article on almonds. Since I have to develop a healthy recipe using raw almonds, I gravitated to my large cookbook collection. I lost several hours and took another trip down memory lane flipping through vegan and vegetarian cookbooks purchased on trips over the years. Each book was a reminder of a country we once visited and a stage of life now gone – a time before we had our kids when vegetarianism, at least at home, was viewed with skepticism and veganism was barely understood.

Times change. Kids grow up and move on. Vegan dishes are on just about every restaurant menu these days. But books?  Books – electronic or paper, fiction or non-fiction – remain pretty much the same; they’re still informing, still entertaining and still providing some much needed escape. Here’s what I’m reading this month:

At the gym: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

On the Kindle: The Silent Sister by Diane Chamberlain

Before bed: The Dogs by Allan Stratton

Books read to date in 2017: 35

True North

A few weeks ago an editing client presented me with a question. “How can I know,” she asked, “which direction is the best one for this story to take?” Her novel was essentially finished but there were issues with the middle so she’d hired me to provide feedback. Her beta readers had highlighted the muddied middle, and the writer herself knew it was a problem. There was so much going on that the through line of the story had gotten cloudy and the ending, while nicely executed, didn’t have the punch it deserved. Each of the beta readers, however, had come up with a different solution. One reader suggested thread A be dropped, another loved thread A but argued that thread B needed to go.

The writer wanted me to make the final decision and choose one. I couldn’t. I could point out the pros and cons of losing one thread over the other. I could give my opinion on how each thread deepened the basic conflict and impacted the main character (and even the supporting players). I could discuss and debate the ending payoff of one thread over another but I could not choose. For one thing, there are many right ways to tell a story. The story could be told, and told well, minus either of the two threads. Most importantly, however, it wasn’t my novel. I could advise, I could be a midwife to her process, but she had to birth the story herself.

She needed to find her true north, or the true north for this particular novel, and go from there.

True north is our internal compass. It guides us through life at our deepest level and helps us stay on track. With all the chatter we’re subjected to on a daily basis – from family, friends, the media or, in this case, from beta readers, it’s easy to lose sight of true north. It’s easy to doubt our instincts when we can barely hear the still, small voice of our soul.

I suggested to this writer that she employ Vanessa Grant’s ‘garbage can’ test. Pretend she’s throwing thread A in the garbage can and proceeding with thread B. How does that make her feel at a gut level? Then I told her to switch it up and pretend she’s throwing thread B in the garbage and moving forward with thread A. How is her gut feeling now? Don’t overthink it, I told her. Go with the initial feelings that arise. She could do this exercise in a few minutes or spend a couple of days mulling it over. But she needed to honor her feelings and not over analyse them.

She needed to decide what was most important to her, what direction would give her the most satisfaction when it came to writing the novel. There wasn’t a right way or a wrong way. There was only her way.

True north would point her in the right direction.

We’re Celebrating!

 

If you’re in Victoria this Wednesday, June 7th, please join us at Munro’s Books where a group of us will be launching our spring releases. I’ll be talking about my latest book, In Plain Sight. It’ll be a fun evening. I hope to see you there!

My May Reads

Reading time is at a premium right now as the garden calls. The tomato plants are taking over the greenhouse, and so are the peppers, basil, sweet peas and a few restless eggplants. Normally everything is in the ground by now but things are different this year. After weeks of not being able to work outside much, of wearing a hat and a heavy coat to walk Team Sheltie, we’re now outside in t-shirts and capris. Seemingly overnight we’ve gone from October-like cold to July-like heat. The garden is confused. Some beds are still heavy with moisture while others are sprouting weeds faster than I can pull them. Consequently I’m working outside most evenings until sunset trying to get on top of things. Here’s what I’m reading when I finally come in for the night.

On the Kindle: One Perfect Lie by Lisa Scottoline

At the gym: The Happiness Animal by Will Jelbert

Beside the bed: 100 Best Plants for the Coastal Garden by Steve Whysall

Books read to date in 2017: 32

Overheard This Week

“I hope you guys are in school because this really isn’t the kind of career type job I like to see people in.”

So said a customer at the local bottle depot where my son, now known as the Graduate (AKA Teen Freud or The Basement Dweller), has worked part-time sorting and stacking bottles since he was in high school. Amazingly (and I use that word deliberately because he’s not known at home for his diplomacy) the Graduate  smiled, nodded politely and waited for the woman to take her bejewelled self back to her Mercedes before letting loose with a rant to his co-workers about judgement and expectations and class systems.

With his undergrad degree freshly in hand, the Graduate will likely make a job switch at some point over the coming months. But so what if he doesn’t? What if he decides he wants to stay where he is or open a bottle depot of his own? What if he was like a former co-worker who chose the job because he was a photographer (his passion) during off hours but the bottle depot provided a steady salary? Or his single mother co-workers who find the work, though dirty and often unpleasant, reliable and well-paying, especially for a job that doesn’t require post-secondary education.

Why do the jobs we do, the Graduate asked, inspire so much judgement? Why indeed.

That got me thinking about some of the jobs I assign my fictional characters. The mother character in In Plain Sight is an artist and predictably absentminded when she’s lost in her painting. The father is a terrorist and in jail so I went out of the box there. But in The Art of Getting Stared At, the main character’s parents are a doctor, an airline pilot, and a model respectively. In Girls Who Dish, my latest Laura Tobias title, the main characters are a restaurant owner and a lawyer, though I do throw in an accountant with a Shirley Temple obsession.

Sometimes characters and plot reveal the best choice of career or job to further our stories. You need a detective in a whodunit, for example. But Agatha Christie’s  Miss Marple was an elderly spinster and a most unlikely detective, something Christie used to her advantage.

So the next time I’m considering character careers, I’m going to forget the doctor or the teacher or the artist or the politician (especially the politician). I’m going to look for something fresh. How about a timeshare seller or a spider researcher or a cello maker or an otter technician for the Department of Conservation? Or  a chimney sweep . . . letter carrier  . . . judo instructor . . . dialysis tech . . . FAA tower controller . . . exterminator . . . glass blower . . . Christmas Around the World salesperson . . . preschool dance teacher?

So many jobs . . . I’d better get writing.

But first I’m heading out to get a t-shirt printed for the Graduate and his co-workers. I want it to read: Recycling Equipment Engineer . . . and proud of it.

A Matter of Taste

The first crop of spring asparagus has arrived. Field asparagus, I mean. There’s such a thing as sea asparagus too, and that’ll show up at the market in June, right around my wedding anniversary. Sea asparagus is delicious. The tiny stalks are thinner than a straw and their taste is subtle but unique: a little ocean and a little lettuce. There’s nothing fishy about sea asparagus, nothing even remotely close in taste to its earth-grown cousin.

I first had it at a fancy restaurant where we Dined – capital D dined – to mark a milestone anniversary. It was a magical night. So every year when I spot sea asparagus at the market I immediately think of my love, a delicious dinner with sablefish or maybe scallops, a crisp glass of Prosecco,  a table overlooking the ocean, and candlelight.

Taste can conjure memories and stir emotions as much as the sight of a child’s first photo with Santa . . . the smell of steak barbecuing on a summer night . . . the sound of rain on the roof while you’re in bed . . . or the touch of a puppy licking your hand.

My job as a writer is to mine the senses, including the sense of taste. But it can be easy to slip into taste clichés: soothing hot chocolate on a cold night; refreshing ice cream at the lake; salty corn dogs at the fair. Those tastes are relatable because most of us have had hot chocolate on a cold night or a corn dog at the fair. But taste, like so many other things, is subjective.

Take corn dogs, for instance. I had a corn dog just once and once was enough. I was nine; it was my birthday; the corn dog made reappearance during a ride on the Tilt-A-Whirl. I haven’t had a corn dog since and the very sight of them is enough to make my stomach flip.

Grilled cheese sandwiches, a comfort food for some, remind me of a friend who died. So does cherry pound cake and licorice candy. Depending on my frame of mind, any one of those foods can make me feel nostalgic.

Other tastes have more positive connotations for me.

Braised short ribs take me right back to the comfort of Sunday dinner when I was a kid.

Coconut-covered marshmallows remind me of my grandfather and make me happy.

The taste of chives takes me back to my first garden and the sense of accomplishment I felt at planting it.

A sesame ball with red bean paste is guaranteed to make me feel sixteen again . . . thinking about friends . . . travel . . . and new horizons.

Earthy and old-fashioned date squares inspire gratitude because I’m reminded of a woman who gave me a place to live when I was a teen.

One sip of a margarita mentally transports me to a Mexican beach no matter where I happen to be.

And the taste of cherry cheesecake reminds me of the exhaustion, confusion and joy of being a new mother . . . and reminds me too of the friend who showed up with it and an offer to hold my infant so I could take a shower.

Taste can be a memory that lives again. Do you have any taste memories?

Slow Living . . . Slow Writing

The universe has such a sense of humor.

A few weeks ago I started reading The Art of Slow Writing by Louise DeSalvo. Literally within a day of cracking chapter one, I accepted three rush writing jobs. I used to take on quick turnaround projects fairly often, but it’s been a while since I’ve done it. In this case, two of the jobs were for editors I knew and respected (and I’d written for them before so I understood their needs) and both were on familiar subjects. The third job was a referral from another writer on a subject I knew nothing about, and one completely out of my comfort zone. Deciding that I needed the challenge of stretching myself and learning something new, I took it on too.

Soon after, my world became a frantic, one-note song. As Louise DeSalvo waxed on eloquently and with great passion about the joy, the need and the benefits of slow writing, I wrote faster and faster. My focus became insular, my thoughts revolved around the jobs I had in front of me, the looming deadline, the fact that I couldn’t let these editors down. Write, write, write. Quick, quick, quick. One of the jobs became problematic; another simply took longer than it should have because the subject demanded considerably more word space than I’d been allotted.

As one week stretched into two and my deadline loomed closer, my attention to the outside world – family, friends, Team Sheltie, the garden, even the hour I normally devote to making dinner – faded along with my patience, my serenity, my ability to focus on anything beyond the work. My self-absorption was complete.

I saw it happening. When emails and calls to sources weren’t returned as quickly as I expected (or wanted), my inner toddler began to pout. I pacified her, dug deep and stayed in adult mode but, in truth, I expected the world to speed up right along with me.

There’s a reason for that. As DeSalvo points out in her book, we are a society in ‘hurry up’ mode. We’re conditioned to expect, appreciate and reward speed. Rather than putting a letter or a card in the mail and waiting a week or more for it to arrive, emails can be delivered electronically in a minute or two. Text messages are even faster, pinging their arrival in mere seconds. It’s a far different world than it was before air mail. Back then, overseas mail went by ship and could take weeks, months even, to reach its destination. In the sixteenth century, DeSalvo says it could take years to receive a reply to a letter you sent to Europe.

DeSalvo believes we’ve internalized the idea that the only things worth doing are those things that can be accomplished quickly. Writers, particularly those writing commercial fiction, equate their worth with the speed of their output. In the world of sales, reps are rewarded by how quickly they land the client. World leaders are judged on what they can accomplish not just in their full term, but in their first one hundred days.

Don’t get me wrong, fast isn’t always bad. A delicious stir fry can be made and served in fifteen minutes. A heartfelt apology can be delivered in five. Reading haiku takes mere seconds. So does saying ‘I love you.’

I’ll take on tight deadlines again. I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie, probably from years spent in radio and TV news where putting together a story for that hourly (or daily) newscast was, well, a rush. But I’m not going to ignore or think less of the writing I do that requires time and attention to come to its full potential. I’m not going to stay in hurry up mode as a matter of routine.

As my sat down to write this blog, Mr. Petrol Head gave me a ‘just because it’s Wednesday’ gift: he came home with a Bluetooth speaker, something I’d lusted after for a while. So I’m writing this to music. So far I haven’t heard a single one-note song. One-note songs apparently aren’t all that common. I’m guessing it’s because playing a one-note song – living a one-note song – means missing out on the beauty of life’s orchestra.

And who would want to miss out on that?

Short and Sweet

Since I’m still in the middle of two gnarly deadlines, this week’s blog will be short and sweet.

First up, for those of you who follow the moon, the stars, or just like to be in the know, today marks the new moon at 6 degrees Taurus. All joking aside, the new moon really is a great time to plant the seeds, literally and figuratively, you want to see grow over the next month. So take a few minutes to gather your thoughts, look ahead and make some plans. The moon will support you.

The moon and the stars were on my mind earlier this week when my latest picture book Fabulous Feathers in Her Hair received a lovely review from CM Magazine. In the story, Elly says that when she grows up she’ll live in outer space . . . dance past Jupiter and Mars . . . and send home pictures of all the stars.

There’s been a celestial theme happening this week. Here’s a link to the review if you’re interested. https://www.umanitoba.ca/cm/vol23/no31/fabulousfeathersinherhair.html

Enjoy your week . . . and may all your deadlines be smooth ones.

My April Reads

Spring is bursting out all over the place. I love the warmth of the sun on my back as I clean up the pots on the deck, and it’s uplifting to see the tulips blooming in the back yard when I open the door to let Team Sheltie outside too. Like every other spring, I have a long list of garden chores to do. I’ve spent a little time outside lately but not as much as I’d like (or as much as the garden needs). Instead I’ve been slammed with some unexpected deadlines and I’ve been staying inside to meet them. Reading time has been at a premium too. But I always manage to find a few minutes . . . Here’s what I’m reading this month.

At the gym: Talking with my Mouth Full: My Life as a Professional Eater by Gail Simmons

On the Kindle: Beware of Angel by E.C. Sheedy

Before Bed: The Art of Slow Writing by Louise De Salvo

Books read to date in 2017: 25

 

Writers and Walking

Today is National Walking Day which makes it a perfect time to talk about writing and walking. I’m not talking about the benefits of walking and writing at a treadmill desk, though I love mine and recommend you try one if you get the chance. Instead I’m talking about writers who walk as part of their writing life.

First, a quick reminder of body chemistry. Walking, like many other forms of exercise, improves blood flow. It makes the heart pump faster and that sends more blood and oxygen circulating throughout our body and brains. Scientists also believe that regular walking promotes new connections between brain cells and helps prevent brain tissue from withering with age. In short, walking is good for us. And long before scientists were espousing its benefits, writers seem to know it.

William Wordsworth, for instance, was a celebrated walker; his poetry is filled with walks through forests and up mountains. His friend and essayist Thomas De Quincy estimated that the poet walked nearly 180,000 miles during his lifetime, an average of six and a half miles a day starting from about age five.

Virginia Woolf depended on walks through England’s South Downs to “have space to spread my mind out in.” Henry David Thoreau walked three or four hours a day sauntering through woods and fields to collect his thoughts and help inform his prose. When Charles Dickens couldn’t sleep at night, he’d walk London’s streets until dawn. Even when insomnia wasn’t a problem, he was a walker, declaring “If I could not walk far and fast, I think I should just explode and perish.”

Danish writer Soren Kierkgaard wrote in the morning and walked the streets of Copenhagen in the afternoon, mentally composing paragraphs and working through new ideas. After the walk, he’d head back to the desk to get his thoughts down on paper.

Ernest Hemmingway also walked as a way to work out issues in his writing. “I would walk when I’d finished work or when I was trying to think something out,” he wrote in A Moveable Feast. “It was easier to think if I was walking and doing something.”

Henry Miller believed most writing is “done away from the typewriter, away from the desk. I’d say it occurs in the quiet, silent moments while you’re walking or shaving or playing a game or whatever.”

One of my favorite passages on walking is found in If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit by Brenda Ueland (the book is highly recommended, by the way). She writes: “I will tell you what I have learned myself. For me, a long five-or six-mile walk helps. And one must go alone and every day. I have done this for many years. It is at these times I seem to get re-charged.”

More recently, Orson Scott Card was quoted as saying that it’s “worth the time to take an hour’s walk before writing. You may write a bit less for the time spent, but you may find that you write better.”

And if that’s not enough incentive, how about this last quote from the prolific and successful J.K. Rowling who says, “There’s nothing like a nighttime stroll to give you ideas.”

Night or day, walking isn’t only good for you it’s also good for your writing. And that’s something to celebrate on this, National Walking Day.