And So the Story Grows

plottingimageI have no shortage of ideas for novels. In fact, I have files of story ideas going back two decades. They’re filled with random scraps of paper, detailed notes, newspaper clippings and magazine articles, even transcriptions of interviews I did as a journalist for the CBC.

Ideas are cheap, easy, and beautifully compelling, like that picture of an impressive 9-layer chocolate ganache cake you might see on Pinterest. Make me! the cake says. I’m impressive and delicious and everyone will love me. Book ideas may not come cloaked in ganache (a serious flaw, in my opinion) but they have the same shiny draw as a gorgeous cake.

Only you can knock off a cake, even a complicated one, in a day or two. It’s impossible (for me at least) to do that with a novel.

I looked through my files the other day. Mostly what I have are plot points – ideas for situations and events – and stories are so much more. I thought about that after coming home from the Red Door last month where the five of us brainstormed a new Laura Tobias book (thanks, ladies!). I came away with the skeleton of a situation and the sparks of two characters.

Those sparks are key because most of my stories are character driven. Before I even start to write I need to know how my character will change over the course of the book. How will he or she be different when the story ends than they are when the story opens? The plot matters of course – it determines what will happen along the way – but the character is the one making the journey. The character is who I care about and who I want my readers to care about too. So I’m spending some time getting to know my new characters. I’m not so much plotting as I am gestating. It takes time, space, silence. And the occasional slice of a decadent chocolate cake doesn’t hurt either.




Save The Cat

Fairwinds Schooner Cove and marina.In a few days I’m heading up island to Schooner Cove for another Red Door retreat with the Pen Warriors. These ladies have been getting together every three or four months for fifteen years! I’ve been part of the gang (with a few breaks here and there) for a good part of that time.

Retreat is an act of moving back or withdrawing. And that’s what we do. We withdraw from the outside world. We retreat from our families, our responsibilities, and the news of the hour. We spend a couple of days concentrating on writing, publishing and all things related to both. We always leave time for personal catch up and we never go hungry (or thirsty) but for the most part, we work. We follow an agenda (thank you, Bonnie) which varies from session to session and can include everything from story critiquing or group plotting to blurb writing and promotion. And we generally leave time to talk about craft.

Up for discussion this time is Blake Snyder’s classic Save the Cat. Most of us read it soon after it came out in 2005, but we decided to read it again and discuss it at the Red Door. Snyder was a Hollywood screenwriter who maintained you need a log line to summarize a story even before coming up with a character or a scene. He felt the log line helps with clarity and focus and ultimately results in a stronger story. If you haven’t read Save The Cat I recommend it. If nothing else, it’s one more thing to consider and another possible tool in the writer’s tool kit.savethecat

Overheard This Week

140474989Achoo. Hack, Hack. Sniffle. Moan.

Yes, it’s cold season.  I fought the good fight for about three weeks, battling a sore throat with Echinacea spray, drinking lots of fluids, staying home and resting.  I was determined to be well for a day of author talks at Shaughnessy Elementary School in Vancouver.  And I was.  The day went well. The kids were fabulous.  The sore throat receded. I felt pretty good. But four days after I came back to Victoria, the cold hit. And it’s a doozy.  I haven’t had one this bad in years.

My normal tendency is to push through, continue writing, keep up the routine. And I tried. I really did. But this frigus et caput (Latin for head cold – way more descriptive than common cold, don’t you think?) will have none of it.  Sitting at the computer is too hard on my eyes. My body aches. My concentration is shot.

So I’ve been tucked up on the couch, a cup of rose hip tea beside me, Team Sheltie at my feet. I’ve been resting, reading, and thinking. Taking notes on One Good Deed, my work-in-progress, when I feel inclined. And here’s a funny thing – this cold seems to have shut down the logical, analytical left side of my brain.  The ‘that-wouldn’t-work-editor’ is flat lined. The only part of me that’s thinking (and not too clearly at that) is the ‘why not?’ part of me.

Yesterday I had a thought, admittedly a feverish and fuzzy one, about a possible plot twist in my current WIP.   It was the kind of twist that would force the protagonist to do something so far out of her comfort zone it would either leave her guilt-riddled forever, or force her to grow and change the way she needs to in this particular story.  It would push my boundaries too because it’s a scene I’m not sure I’d be comfortable writing.  Will I run with it? I don’t know.  I’ll have to wait until the mucus clears. In the meantime, I’m writing down all the weird and wacky thoughts that float my way. Drinking lots of tea.    And cuddling Team Sheltie.



One Stop Title Shop

ArtoftheTItleThere are times when a one stop title shop would come in handy. Though I’m an ambivalent shopper at the best of times – and rarely have trouble coming up with titles myself – it’s frustrating when a title is elusive.

Most of my titles arrive, in one form or another, as I’m writing a book. Sometimes the title occurs to me before I even start.  I get attached to my titles too. Seriously attached. In the same way I’m attached to my eyes or any other body part.  They become part of the whole and not something I want to live without.

So title changes can be challenging.

A few weeks ago, my editor at Orca Book Publishers said I needed to change the title for an upcoming young adult novel. The original title – Flavor of the Week – was a perfect fit, except for one thing. The word flavor can be spelled with a u (the Canadian and British spelling) or without a ‘u’ which is the American version.  Orca prints and distributes their books in both Canada and the U.S. and they use American spelling.  So I did too when I typed out the word flavor. It was all good, or so I thought.  But while Canadian readers are, for the most part, happy with American spelling, they tend not to like American spelling in their titles.  And who wants to annoy a reader before they even open the book? Not Orca and not me.

A title change was necessary.

This happened to me once before.  Lesia’s Dream was originally titled Under a Prairie Sky. I loved that title. It was as perfect as my right arm. HarperCollins liked the title too. So did Anne Laurel Carter. When she released her own Under a Prairie Sky (a delightful picture book) the season before my YA came out, HC quickly requested a title change.  It took numerous brainstorming sessions and a lot of back and forth but eventually we came up with Lesia’s Dream.  Which I love.

So, with a little more brainstorming and exchanging of lists, I’m sure we’ll come up with a fitting replacement for Flavor of the Week.   In the meantime, if you know of any one stop title shops, could you let me know?

The Name Game


9781402266706_p0_v1_s260x420I’ve been thinking about names a lot lately. I’m in the early stages of a new novel, getting to know my characters, falling in love with them, giving them life. And that means giving them names.

It’s not as easy as you might think.

People react to names.  And everyone has an opinion. If Kim Kardashian was near Twitter when the name of her first born hit, she might have noticed there wasn’t a lot of love for baby North West. As I write this, monarchists are waiting for the Duchess of Cambridge to give birth to the first Prince or Princess of Cambridge.  William and Kate don’t have to worry about Twitter but they do have to follow royal protocol. No Princess Poppy or Prince Lucas for them.  (Odds are heavily weighted to Alexandra for a girl or George for a boy.)

Luckily I don’t have to follow royal protocol or pass my pick by the world via Twitter.  All I have to do is find a name that fits.  I have help – a huge, thick book of 100,001 baby names gathered from around the world. And if that doesn’t inspire me (though it usually does) I can leaf through a school annual for teen names, read the newspaper, or go grocery shopping (everybody wears name tags and for some reason I find food shopping an endless sort of inspiration).

When I find a name that’s right for a particular character, there’s usually a mental ‘click’ that tells me it’s a good fit. So when people react negatively to a name I’ve spent a long time pondering, I’m always surprised.

Case in point – the other night at dinner when I happened to mention my teen protagonist by name and a hushed silence fell over the table (a silence broken only by the belching dog at my feet but I think that had more to do with the stolen piece of chorizo he scarfed down minutes earlier than any sort of personal reaction).

The name in question was (notice the past tense) Daisy. I happen to know that one school in my city had two girls named Daisy graduate recently. Seemingly intelligent and socially active young women who, if their annual bios were any indication, are destined for great things. For a pile of reasons I decided the name was a good fit for the main character in my next YA.

According to the men in my family, I am wrong. They say Daisy works as a dog’s name, and it’s not bad for a flower either, but that is all. I turned to my refined, well-read, supportive daughter expecting validation for my choice. She shot me down with a very unrefined comment.  At this point I was curious, so I polled half a dozen other people and got the same reaction: a resounding no. (Sorry if your name is Daisy. I like it and obviously your mother does too).

Given the strongly negative reaction, however, I decided to rethink Daisy as a first name. I settled on Grace instead. And, yes, I know they’re radically different but I’m going to work with that. I think, in fact, I may give my character Daisy as a middle name. Perhaps she doesn’t like it. Or perhaps the people in her life don’t like it and insist on calling her Grace. There are a number of different ways I can go with it. I have lots of strong opinions to draw on.


The Steps We Take

step by stepI just finished reading Step by Step, A Pedestrian Memoir, by Lawrence Block. It’s a combination memoir, travel piece and journal of his years as a race walker. I’ve read Block forever (I loved his column in Writer’s Digest). He’s funny and insightful. I expected a great read and I got one. I especially enjoyed his recollection of his unlikely pilgrimage along the Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

As I read the book I was reminded again of that link between creativity and movement, especially walking. Author Brenda Ueland regularly walked up to 9 miles a day (she was a prolific writer and she lived to be a healthy 93). Thoreau would ramble for miles through the forest every day too. Author Barbara Samuel titled her blog after her love of walking (A Writer Afoot:  and she has spoken often of how important a regular walking habit is to her writing practice.

I walk several times a day with Team Sheltie, often with my partner or my son. It’s never a race walk. Depending on the friskiness of the dogs, it’s sometimes more of an amble. But it becomes a time for sharing confidences, or working through a story problem or hatching plans for the future. Or maybe simply a time to enjoy the changing seasons: the smell of lilacs in spring, wood smoke infused air in fall.

Author Julia Cameron calls walking a potent form of prayer. She says it leads us, a step at a time, and gives us a gentle path. Walking leads me, a step at a time, into my own creativity. Not every day perhaps, but often enough to keep me going back for more.
images (1).jpgstepbystep

A Sifting We Will Go . . .

Later this week I’ll be retreating with a few writers to ponder all things story and publishing. We do this four times a year, usually over a weekend. We laugh . . . we eat . . . we drink. And we work. We work hard. So hard that by the end of the weekend my head is crammed with information and ideas and inspiration, and it takes me a few days to sift through it all.

156523419This time, though, my head is also full going in. Actually, it’s more than full; it’s a mess. I need help brainstorming a new novel. I have an idea – an inciting incident really – and I have a character. But the rest is a tangled mess of threads, mostly because I could take this story in a number of different directions.

Needing to send something ahead for the agenda, I wrote out a rough book blurb as a starting point for a brainstorming session. Except – the second idea had merit so I wrote that one out too. And then I wrote out the third one because it was different again, and also full of possibility. I tossed in a few character notes. A thought or two about the setting. A vague suggestion (okay, mostly a whine) about where I might find the love interest in all of this.

And I emailed the whole tangled mess to my fellow pen warriors. No doubt I’ll come away from the weekend with a head full of information, ideas and inspiration. But with some luck – and a little hard work – I’m also hoping that those tangled threads will be nicely sorted into one tight, cohesive and colorful story idea.

Wish me luck.   1954248-red-ball-of-yarn-on-green-background