When It’s a Happy Deadline

Canadian writers might want to take note of two quickly approaching deadlines. Some deadlines might bring with them a sense of urgency or even dread, but these are what you could call happy deadlines.

The Public Lending Right (PLR) Program sends yearly payments to creators whose works are in Canada’s public libraries. Registration is open for a few more weeks yet. For more information go here: https://publiclendingright.ca/

Another program that benefits Canadian authors is Access Copyright. If you own reproduction rights to a book, articles in a magazine or newspaper, or work in a journal that’s available commercially, you can affiliate with Access Copyright and receive a yearly payment, called payback. The deadline to register for Access Copyright is the end of May, though if you’re a first-time user, you may have to wait a full twelve months for your first payback installment. For more information, go here: https://www.accesscopyright.ca/

A tip: if you decide to affiliate, gather all your information ahead of time. PLR requires titles, ISBNs, publication dates and photocopies of copyright pages. Access Copyright focuses specifically on the number of books, articles, and pages written in a given year. For the latter, any works published in print format between 1998 to 2017 are eligible to be claimed. Digital and online works aren’t eligible, at least not yet.

Canada Council for the Arts and the Writer’s Union of Canada have both played a role in establishing and maintaining the programs. Registration costs nothing and those annual cheques are always a welcome bonus.

It Takes Time

I’m not particularly patient, nor am I especially self-indulgent. If I have a job to do, I like to get on with it quickly and efficiently.

Years as a journalist taught me the importance of meeting deadlines, getting words down, not making excuses. So, when I turned to novel writing, I brought that same attitude with me: Put your butt in the chair and get to work. I’m not the fastest writer in the library but I’m not the slowest one either. I’m a ‘steady as she goes, right down the middle’ kind of writer. It works; the words add up.

Or at least they used to. Lately, though, my writing has taken something of a backseat because I’m preoccupied with trying to help my sick father who lives across the country. I wrote about it last month: https://lauralangston.com/workarounds/

I struggled with the workarounds, though I did try. By the end of March, however, I realized that my writing output had slipped to an alarmingly low level. Barring the months postpartum with my kids, it’s the lowest it’s ever been. Acknowledging that sent me into a real funk. This isn’t how I work; this isn’t who I am.

A few days later, this blog post popped up on Live, Write, Thrive: https://www.livewritethrive.com/2019/04/01/when-slow-writing-leads-to-great-writing/

I don’t like feeling unproductive. A day or two is one thing but not for weeks at a stretch. The idea of slowing down and taking my time (or some days not having the time) feels incredibly frustrating as the Live Write Thrive post acknowledges.

I talked to a non-writer friend. She’s a geriatric and hospice nurse; her whole mindset is about people. She knows the circumstances of my situation and she also knows I have an intensely disruptive few months coming up. I’ll be flying back east at least once, maybe multiple times. She couldn’t fathom that I was even trying to write at a time like this. “You need to give yourself permission to stop,” she said. “Just stop and deal with the issues at hand.”

I’m not sure I want to stop writing for the next couple of months but I do need to give myself permission to go slowly. And I need to find the joy in it too.

Going slowly isn’t all bad. For instance, I love to cycle. It’s not the fastest mode of transportation, yet it’s a wonderful way to connect more intimately with your surroundings. Slow food also has its merits. My grandmother used to cook short ribs. They take forever (or it felt like they did) but that slow time is necessary to break down the connective tissue in the meat so they’re fall-apart tender and delicious. A good Bordeaux takes at least ten years to mature. A beautiful Bonsai can take five years to look like anything.

It may take me more time than I’d like to get my current novel written. But as long as I’m moving forward, I will get there. One word at a time.

You Know You’re a Writer When . . .

Here’s a blast from the past. . . a blog post I wrote in 2013 that’s as true today as it was back then.

I wasn’t that odd as a child, not really, although if you ask my father he’d probably disagree. I was sensitive to my surroundings (especially to the undercurrents of conversations and what wasn’t being said); I was prone to storytelling (others referred to this as exaggeration); and I had three special (imaginary-to-everyone-else) friends. I played with them, had conversations (and arguments) with them and I ate meals with them too. This did not please my rational father. He didn’t realize he had a writer-in-the-making in the house.

How do you know you’re a writer?  You know you’re a writer when –

You had imaginary friends as a child only they were real to you.

You are prone to wild imaginings that can literally make your heart race.

Conflict makes you smile.

You don’t get non-readers.

You laugh out loud at conversations in your head.

Some of the letters on your keyboard are worn off.

You have pens in every room of your house, including the bathroom and beside your bed.

A song on the radio sparks a story idea.

You stare at random people and memorize their quirks.

You can predict the conflict or turning points in movies, and your family has made you promise to keep quiet until it’s over.

You get excited by Scrivener.

Eavesdropping is second nature.

You love bookstores (but hate them if they don’t carry your books).

You live in a constant state of ‘what now?’ closely followed by ‘what if?’

Twist is not a cinnamon stick.

You have scribbled an idea, a word, or a piece of dialogue on a restaurant napkin, boarding pass, old envelope, school newsletter, or empty toilet roll.

You find those odd bits of paper – sometimes indecipherable – in pockets, wallets, purses, drawers, stuffed between the pages of a book, and you save them.

Pacing is a concept not an activity.

You found it easier to write when you first started.

You have missed a turn, an exit ramp or possibly a plane because you were so absorbed in your story.

You weren’t comfortable as a journalist because you always wanted to change the end of the story.

Proofreading is automatic.

Character is not about your personal ethics.

A hero must be flawed. But sexy as hell.

You gather ideas, thoughts, bits of trivia and snatches of dialogue like black pants gather lint.

You visit a cemetery and take notes.

People you barely know ask you to read their book, their article, their life story. Or ask you to write it.

You have a weird combination of insecurity and confidence.

Finishing the scene is more important than answering the phone.

The Muse is an intimate.

And, finally, you will read anything.

 

Workarounds

For the most part, I’m fairly disciplined with respect to my writing. It’s my day job; I show up at the same time five mornings a week and I write. I got into the habit when my kids were young and I’ve kept it up. If I’m on deadline, that writing often spills into the afternoons. If I’m not on deadline and providing I’ve already written a decent number of pages, then I’ll sometimes switch gears in the afternoon and do an editing job or research, respond to emails, or deal with any current business issues.

Not deviating and staying consistent with my routine keeps me productive and on track, and that makes me happy. Lately, however, my routine has been torpedoed.

If I’m being completely honest, things began going south in January, when we moved. At first it was the upheaval of relocating to a different town: unpacking, getting my office set up, all of that. Then I realized I was missing my morning gym workout, something I routinely did (and had done for decades) before sitting down to write. Cycling or running was out of the question; the weather wasn’t conducive. Since we’re not living in the community we intend to settle in permanently, I needed an affordable short-term workout location. It took me another week of checking out nearby facilities before I figured out which one would work best for me.

I was poised to sign a short-term contract – and excited about finally getting back into a regular routine – when my father fell and ended up in hospital. He lives half way across the country, by himself, with no family nearby. Someone had to be there for him and I was it. My one week there turned into two, and I returned home with the full responsibility of his affairs, both medical and personal.

He’s still in hospital, still working towards some kind of recovery, and facing an uncertain future. That’s his reality and it’s not a pleasant one. My reality, aside from the personal heartbreak of witnessing his decline (and that’s no small thing), is that there’s a two-hour time difference between the west coast and Manitoba. That means when my phone starts ringing at 8 am, it’s already 10 o’clock there and the middle of the morning. Calls to doctors or social workers don’t happen on my timetable; they happen on theirs. Water pipes don’t freeze at a time that’s convenient; they freeze when they freeze (which is usually overnight, only to be discovered first thing in the morning).

My priorities have shifted in an unexpected and unwelcome way.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch has a great blog post this week about priorities. https://kriswrites.com/2019/02/27/business-musings-priorities/

The timing of her post was serendipitous for me. She talks about how there are times when we all have to give up something on our priorities list. She stresses the importance of acceptance in the face of doing that.

My mornings are not always my own right now, and no amount of wishing or discipline will change that. I don’t like it but I’m learning to accept it. Afternoons, never my freshest time, are quieter. So, I’m writing then. Wish me luck.

Three Questions to Ask

Support is everywhere, if we know where to look. I’m blessed with a supportive partner, great kids and a solid circle of friends. Some of those friends are writers and they’re often the ones I turn to when I’m looking for feedback, advice or any kind of writing-related support. They get it, in a way that my non-writing friends don’t.

Sometimes, however, support or advice shows up in the unlikeliest of places. Last week, I watched a TED talk by Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia House Democratic Leader who made history in 2018 when she earned the Democratic nomination for the governor of Georgia. Though Abrams faced a number of challenges and ultimately lost her race, she has not given up. It’s important, she says, not to let setbacks set us back. When we’re faced with any kind of obstacle, be that in politics or in writing, Abrams says there are three key questions we need to ask ourselves. This short TED talk is well worth watching:

Just Listen

A few weeks ago, I attended a weekend workshop. It had nothing to do with writing; it was about soul growth and reincarnation for those of us ‘woo’ types who believe in that sort of thing. In spite of the focus, writing was never far from my mind. That’s partly because I’m writing a book with a past life theme, but also because of a comment made by the facilitator.

“Imagination is real,” he said. “It’s a form of communication if only we’ll listen.”

We tend to think of imagination as pretend. His point was the opposite: imagination might be intangible and immeasurable, but it is as real as love, which also happens to be intangible and immeasurable. Imagination, he added, is communication from the soul . . . from spirit . . . from God . . . from the Source . . . whatever and however you describe it. I wondered if he was describing the muse?

Not every writer believes in a muse though many do, and Ray Bradbury was one of them. “I’m not in control of my muse,” he once said. “My muse does all the work.”

Steven Pressfield who wrote The War of Art believes in the muse too. “When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us,” he wrote. “The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.”

On the other side of the equation, a number of successful and prolific writers find the notion of a muse or any sort of communication absolutely ridiculous. Jodi Picoult, a favorite writer of mine, is one of them. Picoult believes writing is total grunt work; it’s not about the muse. Nora Roberts says every time she hears writers talk about the muse, she ‘wants to bitch-slap them.’ Stephen King says writing is a job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. “It isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about,” King says.

Maybe not. But there’s no denying that for writers and other creative types our imagination bears a great deal of responsibility for the work we do.

The night before I sat down to write this blog, I saw Paul Simon interviewed on Stephen Colbert. He was talking about the inspiration for his song ‘Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War.’ Apparently, he was at Joan Baez’s house doing some collaborative work when Joan had to take a phone call. Restless or bored (or maybe a bit of both), he pulled a book off her shelf and began skimming it. He came across a picture of a man and a woman with a dog. Below the photograph was the caption ‘Rene and Georgette Magritte with their dog after the war.’

He began to think . . . to daydream . . . to weave a story out of the image. Communication, by definition, is a form of sending or receiving information. In that moment, Paul Simon was receiving something intangible that fed his imagination . . . and he listened.

In the end, I guess it doesn’t really matter whether you think imagination is real or pretend. All that really matters is listening to it. Listening and doing the work.

My January Reads

It’s a new year, a new windowsill, and a new stack of books. We’ve unpacked and settled in, at least for the short term, to our temporary cottage with a view. It’s quiet here, and much more off the beaten track than I’m used to. Someone asked me the other day if the setting is inspiring my writing. I can’t say it is yet. We’ve only been here a few weeks, we’ve had days of heavy fog and my office is in a nearly windowless back room. I’m optimistic, however, that once I remember to crawl out of my cave occasionally and enjoy the stunning view, my writing will benefit. In the meantime, because I’m not popping out in the evening like I did when I lived in the city, I have more time to read.

Here’s what I’m reading this month:

At the gym: Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

Before bed: Waking Up in Winter by Cheryl Richardson

On the weekend: Good Luck with That by Kristan Higgins

Books read to date in 2019: 5

 

In The Beginning, Take Three

Our lunch was winding down but our beginning writer friend had several more questions. What, she asked, is the one habit that most effectively supports your writing career?

My answer came relatively quickly but I couldn’t limit it to one habit; I had two: writing every day and finishing what I start. Those two habits are the backbone of my writing career.

While I’ve blogged before about the importance of a daily writing practice, I haven’t spent a lot of time discussing the importance of finishing what I start. To be fair, and in the interest of full disclosure, I have a few half-baked ideas waiting for me in the drawer. I was going to call them partially finished manuscripts but they aren’t even that. They’re embryonic ideas in paragraph form. A couple of them go on for maybe two or three pages. They’ll be there when I’m ready for them.

Elizabeth Gilbert believes that ideas are waiting for us to give them life. That they hang out in the ether somewhere until a creator comes along, picks them up and breathes them into being. I don’t know if it’s true, though I love her idea. What I do know is that once I start a story or a novel, I can’t not finish it. Even when I suspect the story isn’t hanging together or the character’s motivations aren’t working or I don’t like what I’m producing, I can’t stop. Finishing it becomes a compulsion. To leave it undone would be akin to gathering the ingredients for a cake, preparing the pans, mixing the batter and failing to put the whole thing into the oven. Finishing what I start and writing every day have taken me from unpublished to published. It’s as easy (and as hard!) as that.

For Lea Tassie, www.leatassiewriter.com her most effective daily habit is self-discipline and making writing part of her routine. “It’s not easy,” she says, “but it’s necessary.”

The last question our beginning writer asked was also the hardest for me to answer. What has been your most rewarding accomplishment?

There were milestones for sure: my first sale, my first foreign edition, my first award. And while those certainly were accomplishments, with the exception of my first sale which I definitely had something to do with, many of my other career milestones came about because others worked to make them happen, or because of serendipity. Claiming them as my accomplishment didn’t feel right. And the more I thought about it, while getting books published was an accomplishment I was proud of, it wasn’t the true reward. The real reward came later when readers wrote to say how much they loved my story. Touching readers through my books is, and always will be, my most rewarding accomplishment.

Lea Tassie shares the sentiment. In her futuristic Green Blood Rising series, trees fight back against development and begin to take over the world. One of her most rewarding moments came when someone read the novel and afterwards commented that they were “driving home one night and these young trees were growing up out of the ditch and I got scared.”

Writing a book that lives on in the hearts and minds of readers is the most gratifying achievement. In the end, I think it’s the only accomplishment that truly matters.

In The Beginning

Not long ago, I was asked by a woman just starting out on her writing journey if I’d be willing to answer a few general questions about the industry, and some specific questions about my path to publishing. Our conversation really made me think. Over the next few weeks I’ll bring you some of her questions and my answers, along with answers from other authors as well.

This week, question one: what does your writing day look like?

That one was easy. I write every day, or at least every weekday. I don’t strive for a set word or page count, nor do I put in a minimum number of hours, but I usually work from 9 or 9:30 until 4 in the afternoon, with a short break for lunch. Mornings are reserved for whatever novel I’m writing, and if I have an article to write or an editing job to do, I usually tackle those in the afternoon. Unless I’m on a deadline, I don’t write on weekends. Perhaps it’s a throwback to when my kids were young and I wrote when they were in school, or perhaps it’s a holdover from my days working a five-day-a-week job, but I usually take a break on weekends. I might ponder my work-in-progress or attend a writing workshop or do some kind of research, but I try to avoid sitting at my desk and staring at a screen.

Author Stephen King has been quoted as saying that when he works, he ‘works every day, three or four hours, and aims for six clean pages.’  Working daily for two months, he ends up with a 360-page manuscript. And if his books and interviews are to be believed, he also doesn’t outline. He starts with a basic ‘what if’ premise and sees where it takes him. I like the idea of deep daily immersion in a story, and I LOVE the idea of producing a 360-page manuscript in two months. But without an outline? It’s unlikely to work for me. For one thing, I don’t have King’s experience. He’s written close to 90 books; I’ve written about 25.

Ernest Hemingway wrote every morning, without fail. Susan Sontag wrote every morning too, and always by hand. Another Susan – Susan Wiggs – also writes her first drafts by hand, in a spiral bound notebook and always with a peacock blue fountain pen. Michael Connelly writes daily and wherever he finds himself, but if he’s at home and in any kind of routine he prefers morning since he ‘likes to get a lot done before the city wakes up.’  Stephenie Meyer is the exact opposite: she can’t focus on writing anything fresh when the sun is out. Only when her kids are in bed for the night can she concentrate on writing her books.

Which just goes to show you that a writing day can also be a writing night.

Next week, what lessons did you learn the hard way, and what do you wish you knew starting out?

My October Reads

Some days chickens, other days feathers. When the feathers are flying and the chickens are in short supply – in other words when life isn’t unfolding according to plan, escaping into a good book can be a godsend. And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing lately. Here’s what I’m reading this month.

Beside the fire: The Moon Sisters by Therese Walsh

At the gym: The Road to Enchantment by Kaya McLaren

Before bed: Bringing Your Soul to Light by Dr. Linda Backman

Books read to date in 2018: 65