The Things I Learned

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We’re well into December here at the Regina Public Library and it’s the season of one on one meetings (in other words I don’t have any extra presentations this month). Lately, the name of game is rewriting. As you can see by the picture there’s an exit sign right above the sign for the Residency Office. That’s the exit sign for all those overused words and phrases: suddenly/he nodded/he said sulkingly/that/and then/…you get the picture. They’re outta here. It’s curious the habits that we writers fall into. Or are they ruts? And we can’t quite get out.

Actually, one of my appointees (is that what you call people who make an appointment with you?) summed it all up quite nicely in an email she sent me after one of our meetings.

“The helpful things I learned about how to improve my writing-
-Don’t add overused words and expressions, too boring and redundant.
-Be descriptive but not too wordy by repeating things you have said already.
-Try to weave the characters throughout the whole story so the piece flows and is not so disjointed.
-Add dialogue to make the story more interesting and human.
-Make wiser choices of the words you choose to match the situation or object you are talking about. (silk mud, not good)
-Shorten things up, be concise, don’t run on about something just for the shake of trying to explain, readers get it with better and shorter word choices.
-Write, write, write just for the exhilaration of it! (I almost said for the love of it but that is so overused!)”

Lynn Fluter

I think she said it all. Now time for me to go back and put my money where my mouth is…or my overused words where the exit sign is. Suddenly–you’re outta here!

Art

Cookies, Horror, and the Kitchen Sink

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Welcome to the latest Writer in Residence (WIR) blog update. The days and weeks are just whirring by. I’m certain I could fit in a pun about WIR and whirring, but I will leave that to your imagination. I have read so many wonderful pieces of writing so far. It’s really impressive the variety of styles. And I welcome many more of you to drop by and share your work. After all…it’s free. I would promise cookies. But really, I’d eat them all long before anyone dropped by. You’re welcome to bring cookies, of course.

Part of my job is to do presentations outside the library (in other places that is… not out on the street corner… too cold for that). The “Scaring up a Fantastically Good Story” workshop was well attended. We had great fun looking at how Stephen King or Clive Barker is able to draw us into their horror stories. Really who wouldn’t have fun talking about ghosts, goblins, and guts? We covered everything from how to “ground” your readers in reality before bringing in supernatural elements to how to keep them believing in the fantastical elements in the book.

I also recently did a presentation at the Lifelong Learning Centre about creative non-fiction. It may surprise some people, but I actually do have one non-fiction book—John Diefenbaker: An Appointment with Destiny. The LLC writing group is stuffed full of energy (and donuts… at least they had donuts there). They listened kindly to my dissertation and readings from the book and even had a few of their own “Dief” stories to tell. It’s so nice when the library lets me out of my office for donuts.

December is shaping up nicely. I have plenty of bookings (but could always use more). Soon, too, we will have dates for my presentation on How to Create eBooks.

Keep on writing!

Art

Last Moment Ideas

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So this is my second day in the office as WIR at the Regina Public Library (WIR stands for writer in residence–I like the acronym…it sounds like things are whirring around me). I’m here every Wednesday from 1-9 PM.

My day started out with the two and a half hour trip from Saskatoon. This is office time, too, because I listen to audiobooks as I travel. Today’s book was a BBC version of the Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov. It…ummm…sounds very ‘70’s at times but certainly captured my attention and is classic science fiction. I was reminded that when Asimov pitched this series he’d already set up an interview with an editor (I guess you could do that in the old days) and was on the bus on the way to his appointment when he realized he had no ideas to pitch (nothing like waiting until the last minute). He happened to be reading Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and thought, why don’t I pitch a series of novels about a galactic empire that is in decline?  That’s what he pitched and that’s what the editor bought. And the rest is history. Or psychohistory…for those who’ve read the books.

It’s an example of how sometimes the big ideas can come at the last minute and from a simple concept. It’s the work of the writer to find those ideas and turn them into a story that readers will want to read.

One more note:  I took the above shot on the way down. There was an overwhelming abundance of clouds in the big blue sky. The STOP sign is important. Is it telling you to STOP what you’re doing and start writing? Or is it telling you to STOP and look around and capture the moment?

Technically it was telling me to STOP and LOOK before turning onto the highway. An important thing to remember.

I Hate Goodbyes – May 29, 2014

However, the time has come.  From my first day to my last, my WIR tenure has been a joy, filled with supportive colleagues; committed emerging writers, rewarding community events and some very exciting special projects.

Warren James and I had a great time working together.  Under Warren’s gentle supervision, I visited many branch libraries.  Without exception I was impressed with how creatively and effectively each of these very different libraries meets the needs of its community.  From the time, I could barely see over the desk of the librarian at Earlscourt Public Library to the present, I’ve always known librarians are very special people., and my visits to the branches proved how right I’ve been to hold librarians in such esteem.

And there were community events. I did two afternoon sessions with the Lifelong Learning writers’ groups.  So much interest and so much fun.  The Lifelong Learning Centre is a great advertisement for the benefits of stretching mental muscles and meeting the possibilities of every day with excitement.  Many of the attendees at my LLC sessions came to see me later for one-on-one meetings about their work, and I was struck by their talent and their determination to write well.

Together, Warren and I planned and executed (with panache) three very different events at Central Library.  The first on the very frosty, blizzardy Wednesday night before Valentine’s Day was called either Hot Reads For a Cold Night or 50 Shades of Erotica (depending upon who you talked to).  Before the evening, we had an online list of questions about erotic literature and readers were invited to comment (if they wanted to) on the first piece of literature that made their loins twitch.  That was a lot of fun, and the evening when we gathered to discuss Erotica was lively. And – huzzah–there were prizes from Love Plus for those who were still contemplating the perfect Valentine’s Day gift for their beloved.

The Banned Books Café engendered some lively conversation with the larger community. I did an hour long radio appearance on Community Radio talking about the subject and then Stefani Langenegger and I did an open-line show on CBC where we asked the question “Is there ever justification for banning a book.”  Stef and I were both impressed by the thoughtfulness of the responses we got from callers.  Overwhelmingly, the conclusion was that, with the exception of hate literature which is banned by law, books should not be banned.

We had celebrity readers for our Banned Books Café:  Stefani Langenegger from CBC Radio read from Alice Munro, Kelly Handerek of U. of R. theatre Department read Walt Whitman, Jennifer Campeau MLA, read a banned childrens’ book and Dean Mike Sinclair of St. Paul’s Cathedral read from Huckleberry Finn.  We had a good crowd and again the conversation was lively and respectful.

The Readers Summit in April was the RPL’s first Readers Summit, but it will be not be the last.   We started the weekend Thursday night with Dr. James Daschuk reading from his critically acclaimed book Clearing the Plains.  Friday night Yann Martel delivered the keynote – a smart and provocative discussion of politicians and reading that centred on his book Letter To a Prime Minister.  Saturday morning Dianne Warren talked about the sources she drew from for her G-G award winning novel, Cool Water.  Her talk was very informal and a great deal of fun.  Alice Kuipers, wearing a gorgeous pair of hand-tooled western boots, sat on the desk and talked about how she handled massive rejections from publishers before hitting her stride with her very successful YA and children’s books.  She truly was an inspiration to all writers who’ve experienced the stomach punch of a rejection letter from a publisher.  To finish the afternoon Yann Martel talked about the difficulties of finding a fresh way to discuss the Holocaust, a task he undertook in his novel Beatrice and Virgil.

On Sunday, Annette Bower read from her romance novel A Woman of Substance and gave a very frank and helpful talk about how to get published.  I finished off the Summit by reading a scene about betrayal from my upcoming novel 12 Rose Street, and having a very moving Q&A with the audience about the theme of betrayal and forgiveness.  All in all it was a great weekend.

When I was interviewed for the WIR job, I said that I believed my most significant task as WIR would be to talk to emerging writers about their work.  I’ve been a WIR at two other libraries. In both the rule was that each writer could have only one interview. The RPL allows writers to come as often as the WIR has free time, so in addition to having some great one time only interviews with writers, I’ve had the privilege of watching writers bring along their writing by using some of the suggestions we’ve arrived at jointly. I have learned a great deal from the people who’ve come through my door and I am grateful beyond measure for the chance to get to know them.

And now – finally—my thanks to you all for making me feel so welcome and so much a part of the library.  Thank you, Andree for being there.  Thank you, IT guys for putting up with me. Phil, thank you for making sure I was safe every Wednesday night.  Tammy, thank you for always having a smile when I came to pick up my manuscripts.  Josie, Ivy and Alice, thank you for being the best neighbours any WIR could wish for.  Thank you, Navee for always finding time for a quick but warm chat.

I will miss you all, but I’m hanging onto that old Dr. Seuss line:  Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”

Kickoff to Summer – May 15, 2014

Whatever your views on the monarchy, the 24th of May long weekend is always a cause for celebration.  It’s been a lot of years now, but I can still remember that endless Friday afternoon before the long weekend, and how when we were finally freed from school, we raced home from school chanting, “The 24th of May is the Queen’s Birthday/If we don’t get a holiday, we’ll all run away.”

Then, as now, the 24th of May signaled the beginning of summer.  The end of school was in sight.  Our winter boots and jackets were long gone. Our parents were musing over their perennial beds and planting their gardens. People who were lucky enough to have cottages were driving north to open them up.  The cottage-less stayed in the city, but every house in the neighbourhood had fireworks to celebrate the birthday of Queen Victoria.

Queen Victoria is a shadowy figure to most Canadians now.  The last time Ted and I were in Winnipeg we were walking through the legislative grounds and we noticed that some wag had planted a cigarette between the lips of the statue of the Queen. School kids no longer mark the May long weekend with the chant about the Queen’s birthday, but they still race home from school on the May afternoon that kicks off Canadian summer.  Whatever the weather, we’re all wearing sandals and shorts. People with cottages are still opening their cottages on the ‘May Long’ as my students call it.  Fireworks are no longer set off in our backyards.  We’re more cautious now.  Our fireworks are now set off communally under very strict and sensible rules about public safety.  Most of us have a very tenuous relationship with our agrarian past, but this weekend, like our forebears, we will be digging and planting and hoping. And like our ancestors, we still hedge our bets. Only the foolhardy plant their gardens before the Queen’s birthday.   Our country’s memories of Victoria may have faded but she is and always will be our fertility goddess.

Happy Beginning of Summer!!!!!!