October 6, 2014
Two years ago, I decided I was going to be a real writer.
This was the third or fourth time I had made the same decision. When I was 8, I wrote my first “book”, a complete retelling of the Princess Bride, starring me as the Man in Black, minus any princesses. In high school, I decided I was serious enough to fill a proper portfolio, attending several “Young Author’s Workshops” whose mandate and sponsorship still remains a bit vague to me – though I did meet Michael Ondaatje. After running away from home, I came back to graduate high school and wrote on a slip of paper that I intended to “write the Great Canadian Novel” after graduation. They didn’t read that part out.
I did NaNoWriMo a few times between 2004 and 2007. I entered the Three Day Novel Writing Contest. I started writing mildly-successful erotica. I never finished anything. I was flailing, dabbling. I picked up and dropped writing projects at the same speed that I cycled through jobs, boyfriends, apartment. I was not a real writer – I was a dilettante.
When I got pregnant in 2007, I decided it was time to get serious. There was every chance I wasn’t going to be able to go back to work when my maternity leave was up and I needed something to fall back on. I pulled up my NaNoWriMo novel from 2004 and vowed to finish it. It was boring, but I had to do it to prove that I could. It sucked, but I did it. I finished the novel and put it straight into a trunk. I didn’t write another thing for five years.
Two years ago, something changed. I was 32, had two kids, a steady partner and job. I was “happy”, if bored. All of the flashes of glory and glamour I had enjoyed over the past 15 years had amounted to nothing. I had always been able to shine at whatever I did, but had never had the gumption to stick with anything. It was easy to be good enough at something to get your foot in the door, but getting great at something was harder to figure out. I was too flighty, too anxious, too easily distracted, and too easily bored. Of course I could write. I was even good at it. But being a real writer was something else entirely.
Two years ago I decided I would stick with it. No matter how bad I thought I was. No matter how many rejections I got. No matter how often my beta readers told me they “didn’t get it”. No matter how many long, dead hours I spent on words that would never see the light of day, that had none of the instant gratification I was used to. No matter how many other opportunities came my way which seemed shiny and new and exciting. I was going to learn focus and tenacity.
I had always thought of “hard work” as “work on the difficult setting,” which I could conveniently circumvent by being talented enough that it wasn’t very hard at all. But it isn’t. “Hard work” is doing something you don’t want to do. It means forcing yourself through whatever makes you sweat. For me, that was staying put. It was getting up again and again and doing the same thing I had done the day before, without succumbing to the need for change, the thrill of novelty. It meant trying again and again. Writing more and more. Every day. Forever, if that’s how long it took.
It took two years. I am pleased to be able to say that my short story, “La Héron”, has been accepted for publication by C.C. Finlay for his guest-edited issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. My first sale at pro rates, and the first goal post I had set for myself.
Now it’s head back down to the grind. It took me a stubborn 34 years, but I think I’ve learned my first lesson. The only real trick is to keep at it. One day after another, one word after another.
I’m a real writer now.
June 13, 2014
My story “Fold” from Lucky or Unlucky? 13 Stories of Fate has been made available for free online at SFFWorld as of this morning! If you’ve always wondered what kind of fiction I write but didn’t want to spend $0.99 to find out, here’s your chance!
Or you could buy the whole anthology, with proceeds going to the UK Children’s Hospice…
April 25, 2014
Sometimes a girl just doesn’t know what to blog about, when out of the wide, limitless blue comes a friendly blogger-writer-friend with a golden baton that they will pass on to you, inscribed not only with the solution to all of your blogging problems, but permission to talk about yourself.
Really? May I? Simon McNeil (author of The Black Trillium, forthcoming from Brain Lag Publishing) says yes! It goes like this: because I have been tagged by Simon, I will answer the questions he has laid out for me. At the end, I will pass the baton to three more writers, who will answer similar writerly-questions which I will ask them. The pedigree of this blog hop is a good one: Simon was tagged by Adam Shaftoe, Adam by Matt Moore, Matt by Marie Bilodeau, Marie by Eileen Bell…. it’s possible this goes back to the birth of the universe if you want to follow it there, and Godspeed to you if you do.
With no further ado, here are the questions Simon put to me!
1) What book most affected your decision to begin writing? Why that book?
Like a lot of writers, I was one of those who decided to “be a writer” when I was maybe 7 years old, so I don’t have the clearest recollection of what story might have inspired this choice, if there was one. One of my first “long” works was a “sequel” to The Princess Bride (actually just the movie told over again, only starring me as the Dread Pirate Roberts’ BFF and co-adventurer) which I wrote when I was 8.
When I ran away from home and eventually enrolled in Celtic Studies in university, though, it was because of Charles de Lint. His Newford books in particular. I wanted to live those – writing something similar came a close second. I wrote dozens of first chapters that never went anywhere. Living them was a much greater success – but that’s another story.
I didn’t REALLY finish a book until they invented NaNoWriMo and I decided to jump in and pull a Harry Potter. I wanted to write meaningful, socially-conscious kid’s fantasy with a strong political/ecological message. And I think I did. I don’t know that this means Harry Potter got me seriously writing, though. It was a combination of things.
2) How do you deal with difficult protagonists in your writing and reading? Is it possible to bridge the gap between “I don’t like them” and “I don’t care about them?”
I tend to work with a close, limited POV with my protagonists, and the reader gets a lot of interior dialogue. My hope is that even if you don’t especially like the narrator, you will understand her. She makes her fears, motivations, justifications and expectations abundantly clear.
I don’t use difficult protagonists, though, unless they have a flaw which is meant to expose a particular point I am trying to make with the piece. You don’t need to like them in order to see how their politics/fears/hubris plays out in the world. I don’t ask my reader to connect with the character all the time – just to think about what the existence of people like them means to the world.
3) Pantser or plotter? Explain why.
I used to be a pantser, I am now a plotter. Nothing will give me worse writer’s block than coming to a point in the story where I realize it is going nowhere, or where trying to tie together all the threads will result in an enormous, ugly knot.
My weakness as a writer is in plotting – deciding what happens. I am good with the abstracts: settings, ideas, characters and motivations. I often know more about my world’s biosphere than I do the story’s plot direction before I start. Without plotting, my stories wound up just being the meandering adventures of interesting characters. They’d discover things, go places, have many meals and intelligent conversations – but none of it ever went anywhere and it didn’t culminate into anything. It didn’t mean anything. That thing most writers have, where they think “wouldn’t it be cool if this happened?” I don’t have a good sense of that. So I need to make sure I sketch out my story arc ahead of time.
4) Write a pitch for your favourite story you never wrote.
Okay, the following is the pitch for a novel I did start, and wrote the first four chapters of… but I don’t think I’ll ever be going back. Still, I had so much fun writing it.
“Seven years after the magii of Al’Tahj opened the first portal to Jammatan, the ocean world’s secrets are still buried. Thousand of islands hide ancient ruins, sophisticated artifice and complex messages from a long-dead civilization, now reclaimed by the jungle, the ocean, and the huge creatures that have come to dominate the world.
This is a world that rewards the brave, the reckless, and the ambitious. Those who cross through the portal and stake their claims on this new world grow rich, if they don’t get killed.
The Gloriana is bound for the open seas led by Captain Aziza Dualeh, who has a near-mystical talent for attracting, and conquering, trouble. Among her crew is the artificer Taban Haji Kaar, planted by the Caliphate of Al’Tahj to carry out a mission known only to him – a mission Taban finds himself increasingly unwilling to complete. Out on the frontier, away from the comfort and politics of Al’Tahj, Taban finds himself distracted by, of all things, his heart…”
April 15, 2014
Navigating media with a young girl can be a disheartening experience. If you think representation matters, like I do, you’re constantly on the lookout for smart, confident, diverse girls represented in interesting ways. They can be hard to find, but not impossible. Six years in, I have built a small but sturdy library.
Pippi Longstocking, the hero of Astrid Lindgren’s eponymous books, was my #1 most favourite female hero for kids before I actually had kids. There were very few characters I, personally, identified with more when I was eight. Pippi lives alone with a horse and a monkey. She has incredible super-strength, which is neat, but not nearly as enticing as her independence. She has a father somewhere, distantly, who is a buccaneer captain. Pippi isn’t bothered by her father’s absence since he is alive and merely busy having adventures, so Pippi’s feral independence isn’t darkened in any way by loss or grief. She just straight up gets to do anything she likes, and does.
Mosca Mye is the hero of Frances Hardinge’s incredible books, Fly By Night and Twilight Robbery. Another lone, independent 12-year-old, Mosca does have a darker past, and it adds a definite edge to her character. Razor-sharp, Mosca escapes her dull relatives after sort-of-accidentally-on-purpose burning her uncle’s barn to the ground and freeing the loquacious conman, Eponymous Clent, who comes to be her partner in crime. She also has a goose named Saracen, who is the fiercest creature in all the world. Mosca’s not old enough to have lost a childlike innocence, despite her street smarts, and she survives all sorts of dangerous encounters on wit alone. Bonus points for major themes of literacy!
Zahrah the Windseeker
I’m partial to bold, independent heroes, but my elder daughter is a different creature. Adventures are scary to her, even when they come out well in the end, and so she instantly attached herself to Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu’s Zahrah the Windseeker (winner of the 2008 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa). Zahrah’s a shy, contemplative 13-year-old who is absolutely reluctant to go charging off into danger. She needs to think, internalize and understand – and occasionally be given a final firm shove. But she has strength of character and wisdom beyond her years, not to mention SHE CAN FLY, which is obviously amazing.
It would be easy to make this a list of characters from Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli films, but let’s stick to one. Kiki is probably the strongest of Miyazaki’s characters. The film is about her and her growth as a character, and very little else. But it’s enough. Kiki’s independent, but less sure than some of the more assertive characters. She’s a witch, but she doesn’t know what her special skill is yet, and she quickly learns she isn’t as rich or fancy as other girls in the big city she has chosen to live in. Her fears and struggles are terrible relatable, though Kiki never sacrifices her fundamental goodness. Though she’s almost a young woman, the film’s lack of a “bad guy” makes it wonderful for kids of any age.
Zita the Space Girl
Ben Hatke’s Zita the Spacegirl (along with the sequels Legends of Zita the Spacegirl and The Return of Zita the Spacegirl) has pretty much everything you can ask for in space opera, pared down to the innocent scale of a young girl. Zita has arrived on a strange planet via a portal triggered by her best friend. He’s abducted: she dives through to rescue him. Instantly she’s thrown into huge, galaxy-spanning plots, con artistry, large scale rescue missions, desert crossings, overthrowing governments, salvaging robots, riding giant mice, standing up for economic refugees – have I missed anything? Probably – Zita almost has too much going on, but this never bothered my kids. Zita’s powers are pluck and the moral high ground – and it works.
I’ve had a thing or two to say about good representations for young girls before, and my essay “The Princess Problem” is now available as part of Jim C. Hines’ Invisible: Personal Essays on Representation in SF/F. Proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to Con or Bust, a fund administered through the Carl Brandon Society that helps get people of color/non-white people to attend SFF conventions. Take a look! Excellent work within.
April 4, 2014
I read a lot of periodicals. I have subscriptions to fifteen magazines or journals, and buy individual issues of countless others. I try to at least look at each one, even if I don’t always read them cover to cover. I feel as if I might have some grounds for talking a bit about why people might read your publication, and why people might not.
Here is a step by step guide to how I will approach your publication, as a reader; what will convince me to read and what will drive me away.
A shiny new ‘zine appears!
Yay! I click through to the website. Oooh, looks interesting.
Can I buy an issue to read on my ereader?
If I can, I will buy it right away. I might hesitate if the only retailer is Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble or some other giant. If it’s direct, Weightless Books or Gumroad, I won’t even stop to think. I will BUY. I will read! Horray!
Can I subscribe to an e-edition?
If the ‘zine has a good track record or speaks directly to my soul, I will subscribe without too much thought. After all, I spend $20 on a book, why would I balk at spending the same amount of money to get 4-12 issues emailed directly to me? I love esubscriptions. This is why I have six of them.
Can I buy a paper copy?
Okay, so not everyone is putting together digital ‘zines. That’s cool. I like paper better anyway. I will buy physical copies if the total cost of the issue plus shipping is under $20. I will likely subscribe if it is something I really love. I love mail. This is why I have nine physical subscriptions.
Does it have an awesome mobile site?
Once I cannot buy an issue or subscription for comfortable reading, things get tricky. I used to read on my phone, but this resulted in a rapid decline of my eyesight, headaches, and general discomfort. I can read in short bursts, but I will not curl up with an issue on my phone.
If I have to read something on my phone, it had better be optimized for mobile reading. The text size has to be big enough, or adjustable. The menus must be simple. There can’t be ads or flash graphics reloading things every thirty seconds. Preferably, the text should take up the entire screen, so I don’t have to zoom (and end up with scrolling issues).
Some ‘zines have got perfectly serviceable mobile reading experiences (Apex Magazine and Ideomancer do good jobs). I tend to open these ‘zines in web browsers and leave them there for weeks. Maybe I will get to them, maybe I won’t.
Do I have to read it on an old-school website?
I probably won’t read. It’s too hard. It’s uncomfortable. I will only bother if a specific story has been recommended to me so many times that I can’t look away.
I mean, I get it. It’s free. You’re all working for free. But it is because it is free that I’m not as likely to read if you make it hard for me. I paid for my other magazines. I’m invested. Given the choice between reading something that hurts my eyes online, and reading something I paid for on my Kobo, I will do the latter every time. And I do have to choose – 15 subscriptions, after all. I can’t read everything.
A quick note on Kickstarters:
I acquired a large number of my subscriptions through Kickstarter. If you are running a Kickstarter for your periodical, it is an early subscription campaign. If you are running a Kickstarter for a periodical and your core tier is not “SUBSCRIPTION”, then you are doing it wrong. Any Kickstarter campaign, whatever it is for, should sell, fundamentally, the thing you are making. Probably for cheap, like an early bird special. It is dead easy for a supporter to see that $15-$20 tier and say, yah, I’ll throw you a twenty. And I get a subscription, which would cost me $22 if I waited! Good deal! This is where most of your supporters will lie. Your subscribers too. You will have contact with these supporters for the rest of the year. They are your core constituants.
Tiers full of postcards, prints, signed books, Tuckerizations, critiques… these are cool, but this isn’t what you are selling. This is the extra stuff, the honey that sweetens the pot of Zine Tea. If I have to pay ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS to get the equivalent of a subscription, you have missed the point. I want to love your product. It looks like a cool product. Please sell your product.
A quick note on free ‘zines who do everything right:
You produce a great product, you make ezine subscriptions available and you do it all for free. You are AMAZING. But I still want to give you my money, and you are making it hard by giving it all away. I know, I could just click the PayPal button. I probably won’t. I will procrastinate. I will think, “I should throw some money in the tip jar some day.” I won’t get around to it.
It takes very little “extra” to get me to pay in. Release the paid material a week ahead of the free edition, as Beneath Ceaseless Skies does. Maybe include an extra story in the e-edition. Send me a t-shirt, I don’t know. But do something to fish for that money. You might think you don’t want it, but you do. Give it all to your featured author if you feel bad pocketing it. Buy your slushies Starbucks gift cards. But do take the offered money and put it to work. If you don’t, somebody else will, and that person might not be as awesome as you.
So, how about you? What makes you read a ‘zine? Leave a comment even just to say hi!
February 13, 2014
Because my children are very small, they do not, at this stage, look for themselves in books. Their brains don’t work like that yet – they take themselves for granted, since they are the centre of the universe, and they look instead for the people they see around them. Oonagh, who is two, likes to find Maggie, who is five. They point out when characters look like Mommy. And they get very special delight out of finding Daddy.
Not that it happens very often. Daddy doesn’t turn up in books very often, and when he does, he’s not the guy you want to root for. Among the characters my kids have identified as “daddy”:
My children are generally perplexed by the daddies they see in books, who, at best, they identify as being their Uncle Gordon. They tend to be pudgy, pale, balding fellows who look like this:
I am a big believer that representation in media matters, especially to children. Kids learn from books. That’s why we read to them so willingly. I am constantly on the lookout not just for books that represent the kids in diverse ways, but the families as well. Kids can learn to be ashamed of or embarrassed by their family situation at a shockingly young age, and I’m keen to head that off at the pass. Your daddy isn’t a bad guy, girls, no matter what Disney likes to say.
I have recommended Jill Thompson’s Magic Trixie here before, but it has recently re-emerged as a favourite in this house. Maggie recommended it for Keep Toronto Reading two years ago.
I have a lot of reasons for loving Magic Trixie, as a geeky parent. It’s a graphic novel, a form intrinsic to my childrens’ nerd heritage. It features cool, quirky children depicted in age-appropriate ways, unlike the similar-but-actually-completely-reprehensible Monster High brand. It’s funny, readable and beautiful. It shows a variety of (admittedly heteronormative) families of many colours and, best of all, the daddy looks like Daddy.
Fighting the tide of crummy media representation is a huge chore, made harder if you have specific characters you are looking for in your stories. Kids don’t need to see their family everywhere, but when they see families depicted in only one way over and over – they get the message. We’ve tried to balance things in our house.
Pop over to Jim C. Hines’s blog and read his ongoing series of guest-posts about representation. There are some heartbreaking stories, but also some fantastic recommendations. However you or your family identify, there is great fiction to identify with. The trick is just finding it.
February 6, 2013
It was a random act. Last spring I contributed to an Indigeogo campaign to help Irish cartoonist Dale O’Flaherty get to TCAF. I had no idea who Dale was, nor was I familiar with his work, but his Tumblr was cute and it was cheap to pitch in. Shouldn’t everyone have the chance to hit the awesomeness that is TCAF? So I kicked in a bit.
Cartoonists? I love them. What is it about the ability to draw thrifty, expressive little people that makes a creator so darn likable? Not only did Dale draw for me the sketch on the left (a portrait I now use as my Twitter avatar), but this week he mailed me both of his mini-comics and, once again, there was that personal touch:
I have long held that this is part of what makes collecting comics or graphic novels so fun. Most writers will sign your book. If you’re lucky, they will “personalize” the signature with a vapid little “Hope you enjoy the book, Charlotte!”. It is often uninspiring, whereas there is something really special about a personalized drawing.
A lot of it is that most of us can’t draw ourselves, and so those little sketches are a bit of magic. It’s something to treasure that nobody else could have done, and nobody else can have. Can words hold the same magic? Short of writing a limerick in the flap of every book you sign, can a writer offer the same fan service?
I want to say yes, because I do believe that writing is as much a skill as drawing, dancing, coding or welding. A good writer has a power the average person does not have. So is there a way to personalize and to share that skill? To reduce writing to tiny parcels that can be created on the fly for any anxious fan?
Tweets? Bitty poems? Or are those little notes that I heartlessly labelled “vapid” above valued and treasured by the fan? What can a writer give only you that will make you treasure their work always?
December 6, 2012
I like to find cool literary gifts for people. I don’t mean books, since I have been long since barred from buying members of my family “any more damn books”; but the next best thing, items which tastefully display a person’s literary leanings. Gifts for the reader: that’s what I like to find.
I’m a little bit obsessed with neckties this year. I am close – VERY CLOSE – to re-imagining my own wardrobe in order to ensure that I can wear a tie every day. Given that my current uniform consists exclusively of jeans and t-shirts this would be a very expensive overhaul, but I think you will agree with me that the ties make this a very attractive prospect regardless.
Latin Lover 1: Spondeo. (Vow) from Cyberoptix Tie Studio
The Lindau Gospels Tie from the Morgan Library & Museum
Harry Potter House Ties from ThinkGeek
Canterbury Tales Tie from the British Library
November 21, 2012
I suffer from a lot of reader’s guilt. I want to buy all the books, read them all, write about them all, and single-handedly support the writing and publishing careers of every scribbler and bibliophile out there. I can’t, of course, but it is this feeling of needing to do something to support the culture I love that leads me to write and to blog. I’m trying to do my bit.
I am not alone, thank goodness. The bloggosphere is a big wide place filled with readers and writers of every stripe, but we do all seem to share this sense of responsibility: we need to prop up the under-sold and the under-read. One of the major symptoms of reader’s guilt is, I have discovered, the Themed Reading Project. A reader or blogger resolves to limit their reading to works that fall within certain parameters, presumably to avoid wasting time on works which will sell very well, thank you very much, without one little blogger’s help. Like a $50 Christmas donation to the charity of our choice, this helps the reader feel like they have contributed in some small way to the continued viability of their favourite corner of the publishing industry. It is also nice that in staking out an unsung corner of literature, you become a semi-legitimized voice of that corner, with all the support and publicity professionals who have been labouring away in that corner can throw you.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Themed Reading Projects. I stare daily at heaps of books that I mean to get to but never seem to. By setting a challenge for myself, these poor little neglected books no longer have to compete with the majority of what distracts me. David Annandale’s Gethsemane Hall may not be at the top of my reading list, but it is much nearer to the top of my list of Canadian Horror Titles TBR. Or Canadian Small Press Titles. Or Books I Didn’t Pay Money For and Therefore Should Offer Words For.
Some of my favourite bloggers are doing Themed Reading Projects right now. Buried in Print is reading 45 House of Anansi titles in 45 days (which includes a draw for $45 worth of books!). A Young Voice is reading all 40 books from the Canada Reads 10th anniversary longlist. The whole premise of the 49th Shelf is to offer themed lists of Canadian literature for prospective readers. Every time a good blogger picks up a project, all of Canadian publishing breathes a sigh of relief.
This brings me to publicity, because that is ultimately what these projects boil down to. Yes, perhaps you are trying to better yourself and the best possible way to do that is to read a list of severely curated books on a theme, but no, not really. We live in a world of efficiencies and reduced expectations. Certain skills – the ability to write, speak or shake hands and smile, for example – are no longer considered speciality skills best left to writers, orators and publicists. Specialists are eliminated, and the expectation is folded in to the job description of everyone else. It is assumed that everyone can write and make an introduction. If you are a writer, you must now do your own speaking and glad-handing. Book-stumping has become a ful-time job that every writer is expected to engage in.
I admit I used to find the continual bombardment of self-publicizing authors irritating. I get a dozen solicitations from self-published and small-press-published authors per day. I can only imagine the deluge bigger blogger get. This doesn’t take into account the mess that is my Twitter feed, which is a near-constant stream of retweeted reviews, press releases, pleads for clicks and enthusiastically expressed intentions to read things. But now that I have a couple of manuscripts I’m stumping myself in a desperate search for willing beta-readers, I am ready to debase myself in apology. It is so hard to get people to look at your work, even amongst supporters and friends. Hitting on a blogger willing to read, talk about and review your books, even as part of a bigger project, is like striking gold.
So what are we, as bloggers? Part of a publicity machine? Readers for Social Change? Self-interested proto-journalists looking for a corner to stake out and build a career in? Philanthropists? Is our duty (if we can be said to have a duty) to the blog’s readers, to writers, or to ourselves?
Just as I want to donate blood, money and canned goods to the most needy in our society, sometimes I feel I’d like to read and push some of the most unnoticed readers in the literary ecosystem, but then I pause. Let’s say I take six months and review a dozen or so self-published ebook authors. These are certainly the writers with the least attention, but I wonder if giving them the webspace would serve anyone else. I do believe that there are some good self-published offerings out there, possibly in need on an editor or mentor, but good nonetheless. But are they better, more unique, or more satisfying than traditionally published or mainstream works? The hypothetical reader at the end of the day may not be interested in Reading for Social Change, and may just want a good book to hunker down with on a rainy day. Am I going to recommend they read Anna Karenina, The Blondes or Terror Before Dawn: A Child At War? What serves the reader, one of the greatest novels ever written, a good novel in need of attention, or a completely unknown novel which might yield unexpected delights?
I have no Themed Writing Projects planned right now. Perhaps I am avoiding the issue. Perhaps it isn’t my job to be all things to all people. I am about to dive into my first-ever ebook read, so perhaps my opinion will be won based on the quality of this one venture. I’m told that publishing and reading are changing and I hope to keep up, which means keeping an open mind. Joseph Anton, 419 and Telegraph Avenue will wait for me, right?