And a New Year Begins . . .

I’m a little late to the ‘Happy New Year’ party but I’m here with enthusiasm, does that count?  I hope the opening chapter of your 2020 was happy/peaceful/celebratory (pick one, or pick all three). Mostly I hope it began optimistically.  

January is a time of fresh starts, new beginnings. It’s a time when many of us make resolutions. And some of us resolve to make no resolutions at all. I’m normally in the latter camp. I’m goal focused – I love to set goals and look ahead with optimism – but I’m not so much for resolutions. Only something about this year feels different, and I feel compelled to set some writerly resolutions.

This year I will:

  1. Measure productivity, not results. We’re a results-oriented culture. Most businesses measure success by results and many writers do too. We often count the number of books or articles we publish in a given year, or the amount of money we make from our efforts. But some things are out of our control. This year I will concentrate on my daily productivity and worry less about results.

2. Listen more and talk less. What are your thoughts on that?

3. Set realistic goals. Life has demanded a lot from me over the last few years. I’ve been meat paste in the sandwich generation of life and it has played hell with my output. Unfortunately, I don’t see it changing any time soon. Nevertheless, I will set goals and do my best to reach them.   

4. Practice kindness. It goes without saying, right? But I’m not always kind to myself. Someone told me recently we should treat ourselves as we would treat a best friend. I think that’s important, and it’s especially helpful when life demands much of us. Or when we’re struggling to reach #3 (see above).

5. Treat that 1st draft as a precious baby. Don’t judge or criticize. Hold a protective, tender space; know it will grow and evolve but right now it needs acceptance and nurturing.

6. Find a new-to-me author. Or three. Or six. Read someone new. Read out of my comfort zone. Read and read some more.  

7. And number seven. Ah, 7. Did you know that in numerology number 7 combines the hardworking number 4 with the mystical and creative number 3. Seven is associated with luck, intuition, inner wisdom and magic. It’s prominent in ancient cultures (there were seven wonders of the world) and it has held significance in virtually every major religion. So, it seems fitting to end with a resolution to make personal renewal a priority this year, however that looks like in any given day or week. Hard work is good. Hard work combined with intuition, inner wisdom and personal renewal is better. In fact, I’d call it an unbeatable combination.

Happy New Year and happy reading.

The Gift of Reading, Take Two

Today’s blog continues on last week’s theme of asking other writers to recommend gift books for friends and family. If you missed last week’s recommendations, you’ll find them here. https://lauralangston.com/the-gift-of-reading/

This week, the focus is on fiction for young and old. It’s an eclectic mix: two middle grade recommendations, a YA free verse novel, and fiction for adults ranging from romance and crime to historical and humor.  As I mentioned last week, be sure to check out the bios and books of the authors who are offering suggestions. Many of their titles are ideal for gift giving as well.

Sylvia McNicoll: Bright Shining Moment by Deb Lougheed (Second Story Press). Perfect for a family read aloud before or after Christmas, Bright Shining Moment is a heartwarming story about old timey hard times when the people who seemed the poorest in material things turn out to be the richest in love. Francois Tisdale’s beautiful cover illustration evokes warm seasonal feelings. Ages 8 – 12.

Sylvia McNicoll’s latest book is The Diamond Mistake Mystery (Dundurn Press) sylviamcnicoll.com

Lee Edward Fodi: Finding Cooper by Stacey Matson (Scholastic). A mystery inspired by the real-life story of D.B Cooper, a famous skyjacker who escaped with a load of cash in 1971. Fodi loved the story because it’s set in the Pacific Northwest and has a lot of humor and heart. Ages 9 – 12.

Lee Edward Fodi’s latest book is The Secret of Zoone (https://www.leefodi.com/books/secret_of_zoone.html)

Darlene Foster: Baggage by Wendy Phillips (Coteau Books) One of the best YA novels Foster has read in a long time, Baggage is the story of a mysterious young African man who speaks no English and turns up abandoned at the Vancouver airport. Written in free verse, this contemporary and timely novel highlights the efforts over several months of three teens and two adults to overturn the government decision to deport him. Ages 13 and up.

Darlene Foster’s most recent release is Amanda in Holland: Missing in Action. http://www.darlenefoster.ca/

Charis Cotter: One for the Rock by Kevin Major (Breakwater Books). A Newfoundland murder mystery with a flawed but likeable detective, this clever story keeps you guessing until the end.  Cotter is a murder mystery aficionado and says Major hits all the high notes of a whodunnit with charm and humor.

Charis Cotter’s latest book is The Ghost Road, also set in Newfoundland.  http://chariscotter.ca/index.php/books/ghost-road/

Liz Walker: Learning to Swim by Sara J. Henry (Broadway Books). A single woman dives headlong from a ferry into Lake Champlain to rescue a child, and then must figure out what to do with him. A blend of mystery, women’s fiction and romance, Walker found the book so gripping she didn’t want to put it down.

Visit Liz Walker’s website here: www.lizwalkerwords.com

Barbara McDonell: Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant (Vintage Canada). Offbeat and charming, this novel features an opinionated tortoise named Winnifred and Audrey, a quirky heroine appropriately nicknamed Oddly. Her perspective (and the perspective of her pet tortoise Winnifred) are laugh-out-loud funny, even as the story deals with Audrey’s difficulty to accept the unexpected demise of her beloved father who raised her alone. A light-hearted read where the heroine applies the rules of the board game Clue to deal with many of life’s quandaries.

Barbara McDonell is the author of The Clutter Queen Spills: Insider Secrets Divulged in Three Simple Steps   https://amzn.to/36bfBTO

Rachel Goldsworthy: News of the World by Paulette Jiles (William Morrow) Set in post-Civil War Texas, this is the story of 71-year-old Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd and his unlikely ward, a 10-year-old girl rescued by the U.S. Army after being captured by Kiowa. Kidd reluctantly agrees to transport the child safely back to her family. Goldsworthy called the novel a page turner and said as soon as she finished it, she searched out another novel by the same author.

Rachel Goldworth’s latest read is Green Spirits, a Corsair’s Cove Companion short story. https://rachelgoldsworthy.com

 

The Gift of Reading

For me, the holidays aren’t the same if I don’t have a new book to read. I always made sure my kids got a new book for Christmas, and even now, as adults, they look forward to the tradition.

But it can be difficult to know what book to give. With that in mind, I asked some writer friends to recommend a few titles. You’ll find their picks here over the next few weeks. And don’t stop at their recommendations. Check out their bios and their own books too. Many of those are ideal for gift giving as well! This week, several non-fiction recommendations, one board book for little ones, and a French YA novel.

Fiona McQuarrie: Swim Through the Darkness: My Search for Craig Smith and the Mystery of Maitreya Kali by Mike Stax (Feral House). Part biography, part detective story, and part pop culture history, Swim Through the Darkness chronicles the author’s 15-year quest to find Craig Smith – a clean-cut ’60s musician who became a “psychedelic messiah,” released a legendary self-funded double album, and then disappeared. It’s an epic story, and it’s thoroughly engaging and poignant.

Fiona McQuarrie is the author of Song Book: 21 Songs From 10 Years (1964-74) (New Haven Publishing). https://writingonmusic.com/song-book-the-book/

Lea Tassie: The Green New Deal and Climate Change by Lynne Balzer (Faraday Science Institute/Kindle edition). This is an excellent and clear explanation of the scientific concepts about climate change, by a science teacher. Over the past couple of years, I’ve read reams of articles on the subject, so can say with confidence that Balzer nails all the facts.

Lea Tassie is the author of Two Shakes of a Lamb’s Tail. For more information, check her website: http://leatassiewriter.com

Karen Hibbard: Mary: Who Wrote Frankenstein, written by Linda Bailey; illustrations by Julia Sarda (Penguin/Random House).  This atmospheric picture book is the inspiring story of the young woman who wrote one of the greatest horror novels ever written, and one of the first works of science fiction. For ages 5 – 8.

Karen Hibbard is the illustrator of Nimoshom and His Bus, written by Penny M. Thomas (Portage and Main Press). Visit Karen’s website at  karenhibbard.ca

Marjorie Gann: HERE babies, THERE babies, written by Nancy Cohen; illustrated by Carmen Mok (Nimbus). A wonderful board book for parents or young ones expecting a new addition to the family. Bouncy rhyming verse accompanies boldly coloured paintings; combined, they give young ones lots to talk about. Suitable to about age 4.

Marjorie Gann is the author of Speak a Word for Freedom: Women against Slavery (Tunda/Penguin Random House 2015) Her website:  www.gannwillen.com

Monique Polak: Félines by Stéphane Servant (Rouergue). In this un-put-downable book, set in the not too distant future, teenage girls around the world begin to develop feline characteristics. The shape of their eyes changes, their skin turns to fur, and they can sense the feelings of others. Fearing this “mutation,” the authorities try to control and confine the girls. But les félines are not about to let that happen.

Monique Polak’s most recent titles are Room for One More (Kar-Ben) and The Taste of Rain (Orca Book Publishers). Find her at: www.moniquepolak.com

Next week, more fiction titles for all ages and tastes.

 

Slow and Steady

I received a lot of feedback on last week’s blog post about writing slowly. Most people who reached out seemed rather regretful that they don’t write faster. While it’s true that writing quickly can sharpen our skills and lead to more published books, the most important thing is consistent productivity, whether you write slowly or quickly.

Here are some tips for staying productive even in the slow lane:

Choose your writing project carefully. Committing to a story you’re excited about will give you forward momentum and provide motivation.

Consider your personal time factor. Look objectively at how you currently use your time. Acknowledge the very real demands you face (outside work, children, aging parents) but also be realistic about where and how you waste time.

Set realistic writing goals. Base your goal on what you know will work, given your lifestyle and time constraints. Don’t overreach. Figure out what you can comfortably write in a week and schedule it in. Whether you set a weekly word or page count, or whether you commit to writing at a certain time, commitment is the key word in that sentence. And that leads to the next tip:

Be accountable. Share your goal with a partner, another writer, an online or in person writing group. It’s even better if they have a similar goal; you can motivate and encourage each other.

Keep your story top of mind. Have a copy of your work in progress readily available on your laptop, tablet, or in print form. Open the file so you see it first thing in the morning. Pull it out on your lunch break at work. Reading what you’re written, even if you get pulled away and can’t meet that day’s (or that week’s) goal, will pull you back into the story more quickly when you do return to it.

Minimize distractions as much as you can. Shut the door to your room or find a quiet space. Turn off social media. Wear noise cancelling headphones (it worked for me when I lived next door to a band!)

Bite off small chunks. Write for fifteen or thirty minutes. Set a timer and don’t stop writing until it goes off. Chances are, when it does, you won’t want to stop.

And speaking of stopping, one of the keys to consistent productivity is taking regular writing breaks. Yes, you read that right. Scheduled breaks help with productivity. More on that next week.

My October Reads

 

It’s nearly the end of October. Yesterday’s torrential rain sent gusts of leaves falling from the trees. Good thing the garden has been put to bed for the winter because it’s the kind of weather that doesn’t encourage outside lingering. Luckily, I have some great books to keep me company when the rain is falling. Here’s what I’m reading this week:

By the fire: Ebb & Flow by Heather Smith

Before bed: Deep Water by Lea Tassie

On the weekend: The Oysterville Sewing Circle by Susan Wiggs

Books read to date in 2019: 50

 

The Heart of It

Just as a fictional character can make a book shine, it’s the people we care about who bring the heart and love and emotion to our lives.

This thought rolls around my head every October. I have two good friends who celebrate birthdays this month, one on the 4th and the other on the 16th.  My grandmother celebrated her birthday on the 16th as well, and three years ago a family member passed on the same day.

So, October always makes me think of the people I love, those still here and those who are gone. I’m reminded of their strengths and vulnerabilities, their smiles and their laughter, the quirky things they say and do, but mostly I’m reminded of how they make (or made) me feel. Those feelings linger long after the end of a visit or a life.

A good book is peopled with characters who linger in the minds of readers long after the final page too. Sounds easy, right?

It’s not. It’s hard work creating characters who are nuanced and real. It takes effort, skill and refining (translation: rewriting).

Many craft books have chapters or entire sections on developing good characters, but if you’re serious about writing, it’s worth having a few books devoted specifically to character development on your shelf. Here are some to consider:

Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story Structure by K. M. Weiland

Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors by Brandilyn Collins

Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress

For quicker reads, check out these blogs on character development:

http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2014/01/13/25-things-a-great-character-needs/

https://www.nownovel.com/blog/novel-characters-15-tips/

https://www.creativebloq.com/character-design/tips-designing-believable-character-21619281

Books on Bullying

October is National Bullying Awareness Month. Given that the first month of school is behind us and routines have been established, for kids who are victims of school yard bullying that means the bullying pattern is probably underway by now too. Books can’t eliminate bullying – I know that – but a good story may provide enlightenment to bullies themselves, as well as bystanders caught up in peer pressure. Equally important, victims often benefit from stories, gleaning insights, coping strategies and much-needed comfort and support. Here are some books on bullying for young and not-so-young readers.

For the picture book crowd:

I Didn’t Stand Up by Lucy Falcone; illustrated by Jacqueline Hudon

Noni Says No by Heather Hartt-Sussman; illustrated by Genevieve Cote

One by Kathryn Otoshi

Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes

The Recess Queen by Alexis O’Neill; illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith

Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson; illustrated by E. B. Lewis

Dear Bully of Mine by Vicki Fraser; illustrated by Cody McGrath and Sean McGrath

 

For older readers:

Queen of the Toilet Bowl and Camp Disaster by Frieda Wishinsky

Sticks and Stones by Beth Goobie

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Bullies Rule by Monique Polak

Cabin Girl by Kristin Butcher

In Plain Sight by Laura Langston

Some Girls Are by Courtenay Summers

To This Day by Shane Koyczan

Dear Bully – Seventy Authors Tell Their Stories by Megan Kelley Hall

                Small – and Not so Small – Signs

Last week, I finished doing a substantive revision on No Right Thing. Revising, as I’ve said before, is one of my favorite parts of the writing process. Polishing and tweaking can take a story from good to great, and I think No Right Thing is one of the best YA novels I’ve written so far. A big shout out to Melanie Jeffs at Crwth Press for comments and suggestions that gave me the springboard I needed to dive in and make some changes.

One thing Melanie wanted me to look at was my story pacing. She felt the speed in which I showed signs of change on the part of my protagonist, Cate, wasn’t working as well as it could.  While Melanie wanted the external story to maintain its brisk, forward motion, she thought a slightly slower unspooling of Cate’s internal growth would serve the story better. So, I went back and started small, slowly stacking up Cate’s discomfort and signs of internal growth until she comes to the inevitable big, black moment when there is no turning back . . . when she is forever changed.

Starting small and not revealing everything at once is the pace you want in a novel because it creates tension. I thought I had that in place, but it sometimes takes a good editor to help an author take it to the next level.

In case I missed the message about the importance of slowly building tension, life reinforced the lesson last week in the form of a bear. Or, more specifically, the sign (this one not so small) of a bear.

Saturday morning, we took Team Sheltie for a walk along the trail behind our house. Within spitting distance of our back gate, we discovered a substantial pyramid of scat. It was bear scat, I told Mr. Petrol Head. No, he said, it was from a large dog. Not possible, I retorted. It was either an elephant or a bear and since there are no wild elephants on the island, I was betting on bear. But even as I spoke the words, I wasn’t entirely sure. I didn’t want to be sure.

Sunday morning while walking the same trail, a neighbor confirmed the left behinds were the gift of a bear, though he hadn’t seen it. They’re fairly common in this area, he reported.

I became uneasy. When we moved here a few months ago, we loved the close proximity to trails and creeks and ravines. I knew those areas were home to wildlife, but my citified mind conjured squirrels, racoons, birds, maybe a cute deer or two.

Monday morning, a second neighbor told us he’d been followed down the trail by a black bear the previous day. The only reason he knew about it was a couple walking towards him had seen it and pointed it out. He hadn’t glimpsed it himself.

My unease grew. I know the animals were here before us. I realize we share their habitat. I understand the importance of peaceful coexistence. But we live in a town. With paved roads. Streetlights. And houses. Lots and lots of houses.

Tuesday morning, yet another neighbor reported that she’d seen two black bears by the apple tree across the street. Last summer, she added, officers relocated six bears from this neighborhood.

Unease settled into my bones. Having a bear (or three) within spitting distance of my back door would take some (translation: a lot of) getting used to.

Just as I was mulling over the escalating tension and pacing of my own personal week, there was a new wrinkle in what we refer to around here as the weekly wildlife count. In fiction, we’d call it a twist in the action.

A cougar was spotted on the trail. Not out in the open because cougars, unlike bears, are stealthy creatures. A woman walking her dog in the moonlight caught sight of gleaming eyes staring at her out of the bushes. She beamed her flashlight in that general direction and, sure enough, it was a cougar. Crouched at the base of a tree. Waiting.

A cougar waiting in the bushes while she walked the trail. In. The. Moonlight. That woman, in a fictional world, would be the fearless heroine. She would not be me.

I have enough on my plate dealing with the pacing of my manuscripts. And the escalating bear sightings outside my back door.  

My August Reads

Here it is nearly the end of August; September is right around the corner. Soon school will be back in session, routines will be more in force and I’ll be back to blogging every week. For now, we’re still settling into our new home and getting used to the house and the neighborhood. As well as welcoming rabbits, squirrels, dear and raccoon to our yard, we have a family of quail that stops by fairly often. Mom (or maybe Dad) stands guard on a fence post while the rest of the family scurries along the ground. Fortunately, Team Sheltie has yet to see the quail parade. We might build a quail house next year. It’s on the list. Right now though, I’m busy revising No Right Thing, doing some freelance editing jobs and organizing my office. Oh, and finding a few minutes here and there to read. Here’s what I’m reading this month:

On the patio: The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

Before bed: Ageless Soul by Thomas Moore

In the kitchen:   We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time by Jose Andres and Richard Wolffe

Books read to date in 2019: 37

New Beginnings

Two exciting things happened last week. We moved into our new home and I signed a YA book contract with Crwth Press. Talk about a fresh start filled with wonderful possibilities.

I’m thrilled to be working with publisher Melanie Jeffs who is already gaining recognition for her titles. Check out her website here: https://www.crwth.ca/

Melanie will be bringing out my YA in the spring of 2020, which means I’m already into the revision process.  The book in question, which I’ve referred to here before as One Good Deed, has been retitled No Right Thing. I always cringe when retitling is suggested. It’s wrong to get married to a title, I know that, and yet I often do. However, David Baldacci has just released a book titled One Good Deed and, as Melanie Jeffs explained, anytime someone looks up that title on line they’ll get the Baldacci information well before they get the Langston information.

That won’t do. Not at all.

Since this is a story about a teenager who always tries to do the right thing and yet finds herself in a situation where there is no right choice, no right thing, the title switch worked. I’m grateful to Melanie for pointing it out.

With the title nailed down, I can focus on revisions to the story, which is one of my favorite parts of the writing process. Incidentally, the novel is set in my new community of Qualicum Beach. That gives me a good excuse to get out and about and explore my new town. Here’s to new beginnings and No Right Thing.