Repost: Just Before the Muddy Middle

The path to completion is never easy…

Approaching the muddy middle… never a fun place to be. Photo by Holger Link on Unsplash
There’s a stage in every writing project where the first draft seems unfinishable. For me, that point is usually somewhere between the 50–75% mark. By then, I’m usually frustrated by how slowly things are going, feel like I’m never going to finish the first draft, hate most of what I’ve written, feel that either I’ll never have enough to say to finish a whole book or that there will be no possible way to wade through all the resources and rough notes to and whittle them down to a reasonable number of words that will fit within the target word count. By that point, I’m usually feeling bogged down by all the reading I’ve done and physically am buried under stacks of printed out articles and teetering piles of library books. The number of tabs open in several different browsers are slowing my poor laptop down to prehistoric speeds.
It’s all rainbows and unicorns around here at the moment. I wish I could hang onto this feeling of lightness and optimism as I approach the book-writing equivalent of the doldrums. Photo by Austin Schmid on Unsplash

But just before I get to that dreadful muddly middle where it seems there is no realistic chance I will ever finish writing the first draft, there’s a lovely stage of enthusiasm and ease that lasts up until about the first third is done. I’m nearing the end of that blissful stage in That Deforestation Book and I thought I’d take a moment to pause, reflect, and enjoy the fact that things are going well.

There are loads of resources out there and I’ve sunk my teeth into several (though finished reading none). I’m finding my research is actually fitting quite nicely into the fairly detailed outline I set up in Scrivener. I’ve been told by my editor to be careful because Scrivener and Word (which is how I’ll eventually need to export the draft before it goes off to the editor) don’t always play nicely together. For the moment, I’ve decided not to worry about that too much because I’m finding Scrivener to be quite helpful and a good fit for the chaotic way in which I write. I jump all over the place in a manuscript when I’m starting out and only later go back and get all methodical and chronological about the material. That’s when I realize just how big the gaps are that I’ve left to deal with later…

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For now, though, I am merrily inserting ‘look at this later’ comments to myself when I discover I don’t know as much as I thought I did about specific details (like the percentage of forests in BC that are clearcut each year and how that number has changed over the past 50 years). On the other side, I’m finding resources like the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN) document, Global Forests Resource Assessment 2015 which is available as a free Kindle download and which provides an interesting overview of global deforestation (and replanting) numbers over the past 25 years.

Basically, I’m still feeling optimistic and happy about how things are going. I’m approaching the 30% mark in terms of word count and am easily finding material to slot into the various sections. What I also know is that this feeling of ‘I’ve got this’ is about to turn into ‘What the hell was I thinking?’ as I approach the halfway mark and the beginning of the muddy middle.

Wish me luck!

Also reading: Breakfast of Biodiversity: the Political Ecology of Rain Forest Destruction by John Vandermeer and Ivette Perfecto [and various other titles procured from the library — love my library!]

Word Count (cumulative): Just shy of 3000 words

Suggestions? How do you deal with that terrible place in the middle of a first draft where things slooooooow right down and it seems like you’ll never reach the end?

Haven’t bought the last book yet? Here’s the link to Christmas: From Solstice to Santa

Pollard vs Coppice – The Pleasures of Research

Wherein a book is nurtured… and willow twigs are bent into all manner of odd shapes… Photo by Nynne Schrøderon Unsplash
If you are following along over on Medium (yes, I know, too many blogs…) you’ll likely recognize this as another in the accountability blog post series. That Deforestation Book, as I’ve been calling it, is coming along slowly but surely. Today’s research dug into the differences between coppicing and pollarding. Both involve lopping a tree off at its knees (or ankles) and then waiting to see what happens. In the case of most evergreen species, not much, but if you try this trick with something like a willow or a maple tree it’s more like, ‘holy crap! shouldn’t that thing be dead?’ because after a relatively short time the tree stump sprouts a bunch of fresh sprouts that rapidly grow into usable sticks, poles, and, left for a few years, fence posts. 

So, What’s the Difference between Pollarding and Coppicing?

The difference between the two ancient practices (according to this BBC article, there are coppiced trees in France that have been coming and going, so to speak, for six centuries!) is that one cuts a coppiced tree right to the ground, whereas a pollarded specimen has been cut a bit higher up. In both cases, the new growth is quick, vigorous, and eminently useful.

Furniture of various kinds made from young, flexible twigs… Photo by Isaac Benhesedon Unsplash

Thin, pliable, young shoots may be used for basket or furniture-making, but if you leave your fresh growth to mature for a bit, it’s possible to produce quite a large amount of usable wood in a relatively short amount of time. In addition to the basic concept, I’ve added some new vocabulary (stool, copse, lop, poll) and found a few decent photos, so that whole section is looking reasonable.

Back in my farm and gardening days, I made good use of my coppiced/pollarded bounty to build gates, trellises, structures for supporting beans, peas, cucumbers… Here, my niece is on an Easter egg hunt, oblivious to the magic of coppiced sticks to her left…
One of the interesting challenges of writing a book in the Orca Footprints series is that the authors must all have some sort of personal connection to the subject at hand. At first glance little old me, a tree lover, might not have an obvious hand in global deforestation (other than the vast number of sheets of paper I print out in the course of writing a book… ), but I’m finding that the connections, in this case, are plentiful. Take coppicing. 

Have I Ever Coppiced a Tree? Why, Yes I Have!

The first time I coppiced a tree was after a wild blizzard on Vancouver Island. A lovely old, but fragile, plum tree split in half and basically disintegrated under the weight of a huge amount of wet, west coast snow. The sprawling wreckage that emerged when the snow melted was heartbreaking, but the debris was also affecting other trees in our orchard as one half of the plum had fallen across a young cherry tree we had planted and the other half had crashed into one of our favourite apple trees. So, we cut the plum tree down thinking that was that. Lo and behold, when spring came a virtual forest of plum tree stalks shot up from the stump. We left the spindly young ones alone for a few years and they put on quite the show of blossoms each spring. Because the original fruiting part of the tree would have been grafted onto rootstock, we never did get any more edible fruit, but the amount of regrowth was truly inspiring and I used quite a few of the new sticks to build some rustic gates and other farm and garden structures.

That was my introduction to the concept of coppicing which, as my father enlightened me at the time, was a common practice back in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. In terms of That Deforestation Book, my fond memories of lopping and chopping have been recycled quite nicely into a sidebar in the pollarding section…

Word count: Running total 2663 (though, that’s a bit inflated because it includes my growing list of references which won’t be included in the final total…Using Scrivener, I’m not quite sure how to exclude a section when doing my word count. If you are a Scrivener expert, do tell…)

Meanwhile, over on the other blog…

I confess I’ve been terrible about making sure to cross-post my blog entries from over on my other website.

Instead of reposting all the original posts here, I’ll give you a quick summary and some links to get you started, should you wish to head over there and catch up (see the list of links at the end of this post).

 

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Arriving on the coast… sunshine, ocean – happy to be back!

 

I arrived a couple of days ago to spend some time with family, visit with students at a couple of schools, and meet with my editor, Sarah, about my new WiP, When the Time is Right (about medically-assisted dying).

 

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I’m not sure I can say it has been a lot of fun to work on this book about dying, but it sure has been fascinating! I’ve learned a lot and feel quite differently now about the subject than I did when I started working on this book a year-and-a-half ago. 

 

 

It’s been a busy few days since I got to Vancouver Island and several things come to mind. First, I really enjoy doing school visits and that’s still true even though I’ve done a gazillion over the years. Why? No matter how often I share my stories, the students never fail to inspire me. Their enthusiasm for reading and writing, their questions and curiosity always leave me reinvigorated and eager to get back to work on the next book(s).

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So where am I with all my projects? Recent releases include Cliffhanger and Deadpoint, both about mountain climbing and Better Together: Creating Community in an Uncertain World (part of the Orca Footprints series). The next book to come out will be Christmas: From Solstice to Santa which was co-authored with my talented daughter, Dani Tate-Stratton.

 

Christmas Cover
This book about Christmas, its history, and how its celebrated around the world will be out later this year… 

 

Now that I’ve met with Sarah, I’ll get to work on edits to When the Time is Right: Choosing to Live, Choosing to Die for a new Orca series about series, complex subjects for teen readers. Once that’s off my plate I’ll refocus on The Last Leg: Three Generations on the Camino, the memoir I’m working on with Dani and my dad (E. Colin Williams). If you are interested in seeing a few photos from the trip we made in the fall to northern Spain, visit our Instagram feed @thelastlegbook. In 2020, my picture book with Holiday House is scheduled for publication. It’s going to be illustrated by Katie Kath (you can see more of her work on Instagram).  That book (which combines baseball and bricklaying) will officially have the longest lead time of all my books with more than 6 years elapsing between the time I first discussed the concept with my agent to final publication. Patience, as they say, is a virtue!

ARC Cover Better Together

I’m also getting ready to start work on a non-fiction book for teens about civil disobedience and, after that, will return to work on the adult memoir I’ve been plugging away at for years about my mom, the nature of personality, and dementia.

BUSY!

As promised, here’s a list of a few links to posts over on the other blog…

During the month of April I took part in the AtoZ Blogging challenge and actually managed to post every day…

A is for Abessess (I was in Paris when I wrote a few of these, so that was pretty cool… what’s not to love about Paris?)

F is for Feet

Y is for a Year or So of Travels (It has been a great year and a bit of roaming the globe… this post touches on a few highlights)

 

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My journals and daytimer now include little sketches – that’s a first. Even when the drawings aren’t great, the pages just look more interesting. (This little sketch is from my recent trip to the British Virgin Islands where I was able to combine sailing and climbing. Heaven!)

 

The blogging challenge was lots of fun, so I decided to keep going at the same time as I also challenge myself to learn how to draw. Despite the fact I grew up with an artist (my dad is the painter, E. Colin Williams), I never really explored visual art, preferring to stick with writing.

I am really hoping that if I manage to keep going with this project for the planned 365 days of the coming year that by the end of it I will draw better than I do now… Things couldn’t really get much worse, I don’t think…

Lines (12/365)

Dots, Lines and 3D

Wow. That’s a lot of catching up! I’ll try to be better about posting regularly here, too!

Let me know what you are working on by leaving me a quick note in the comments below. Include a link to your website (or Instagram or Facebook account) so we can come over and visit you, too.

The Year of Making Connections

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ARC Cover Better TogetherAn introvert by nature, it’s not always easy to reach out and connect with other people (you can’t imagine the depth of horror I feel when informed we have a party to go to… Eek! Small talk! People I don’t know!) But, when it happens and I actually get over myself and meet people or spend time with those I already know- there are few things more soul-satisfying and positive than spending time with others. I recognize some aspect of my inner nature does not make it easy to take that first step and make an overture, start a conversation… but my mind (and my heart) also know just how healthy it is to nurture relationships of all kinds, with all sorts of people.

I’ve been working on this for a while, but since we’ve just started a new year, I’ve decided to make this a theme. In the lingo of my yoga classes, I am setting an intention for the year which, hopefully, will become a new habit, a better way of being for the future. Which all sounds a bit airy-fairy, I know. So I thought I’d share a bit of some of what I’m doing/planning to do over the coming year to help make this new reality happen.

Better Together: Creating Community in an Uncertain World could not be arriving at a more propitious time. My fourth in the Orca Footprints series, this non-fiction book for kids will come out early in April (here’s a link to the book’s page at Orca Book Publishers… which reminds me, I should update my books pages here on the author blog… maybe I should add ‘connect with a personal assistant’ to my list of ways to stay on top of my To-Do lists!). The theme of the book is all about making connections, about finding ways to create a sense of community and why people in groups are such a powerful force for good and facilitating change.

Family Cabinet
Many members of our family got together this year in Vancouver, where we took in a Cirque de Soleil show and ate a LOT of popcorn. 

Writing the book was a terrific exercise for me. I began by looking at the most intimate bonds we form – parent and child, siblings, grandparents, best friends – families in all their many configurations. Of course, thinking about family made me very aware of how lucky I am to have a good one! Keeping in touch isn’t always easy with relatives spread out between Canada, Europe, Tokyo and Hawaii. It’s a good thing we all love to travel and are able to do so often enough that various branches of the extended family manage to get together fairly regularly. One day, we should host a massive family reunion somewhere in the middle and get every one together – the Germans, the Brits, the Italians, the Canadians, the Japanese, the Swedes… That would be a mighty fun event.

Kipling Better Together

Anyway, that’s chapter one, which looks at those very first key relationships. Chapter two branches out into neighbourhoods and local community groups, bonding through the workplace, at school, at the local community garden (and, under less pleasant circumstances, the ways communities form when people are thrown together in places they don’t necessarily choose – leper colonies and prisons, for example).

Religion

The third chapter pulls the lens back a bit and has a look at how people group themselves according to religion, race, ethnicity, peer groups of various kinds – and, what can go wrong when a group defines itself in terms of those who are excluded or when two groups decide they have no common ground and must use aggression to decide who is stronger/better/more deserving. Because, of course, the basic human need to form tight bonds has a dark side when we focus more on the differences between groups than on the fundamental similarities common to all people, no matter where we live or what we believe in.

Little Women

The final chapter takes another step back and focuses on global organizations and how they try to transcend borders, nationalities, religious affiliations, and cultural differences to try to work together to meet basic human needs for all. And, it turns out, in a world where it seems at times we are doomed to be unable to get along, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Acts of human kindness, generosity, consideration, gentleness, and cooperation based on a desire to help and nurture are abundant. And, they occur at all levels – from a simple gesture between siblings to UN missions costing millions of dollars and involving people around the globe.

Mind Map

When I sat down to write this post, I did a mind map, sprawling all my thoughts about community and making connections on a couple of pages in my new journal (I start a new one each January). The page is full – overflowing with thoughts and ideas. This post, which I thought was going to be a very general one reflecting all those ideas, wound up being only about one point on the page… which is a good thing, I guess, if I’m ever stuck for an idea for a post I can grab another one!

Note: If you are a children’s book reviewer, contact me and we’ll arrange to send you a digital reading copy…

Ah, Research… (and candles, and hygge)

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Sometimes it feels like everything I do, read, think about is research. Case in point, this kalenderlys, which I found on Flickr (thank you, Sakena Ali!). Dani and I are putting the finishing touches on Christmas: From Solstice to Santa and we are at the stage where we are working with the designer to finalize the last few images. You might think I came across the tradition of the Danish advent candle (each evening in December you burn your kalenderlys until you reach the next of 24 lines inscribed on the side of said candle) by googling something like candles at Christmas or something logical like that. But no, I arrived at the kalenderlys via a dating app for professionals.

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I moved to Alberta not that long ago and don’t know many people in writing and publishing, so I thought I’d give Shapr a try. The app is intended for professionals looking to make business connections and works a lot like Tinder – swipe one way for someone who looks interesting and relevant, the other for those who seem to be selling financial management products. Not to say that I couldn’t benefit from some financial management consulting, but my interests tend to run in other directions.

Anyway, one of the matches that popped up was a blogger called Angela Davis who lives in St. Albert, Alberta. Angela has a blog called Hedonism and Hygge (subtitle: Live with Pleasure). So, most of the words I knew… hedonism… pleasure – yes, fine. But hygge? Before clicking on the link in Angela’s profile I googled hygge (what can I say, hedonism and pleasure could have taken me to a very different kind of website to the delightful one that Angela authors) only to discover a whole, huge world of hygge that I had no idea existed!

Hygge, it turns out, is a Danish thing that can be loosely translated as ‘cosy togetherness’ or ‘taking pleasure in soothing things’ or ‘enjoying the company of friends by candlelight’. There’s a whole hygge movement and a stack of books available from the local library system. I know because I immediately requested several of them.

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No sooner had I opened one published by the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen than I was reading about how Danes use more candles (over six kilos of candle wax per Dane per annum!!!!!) than anyone else in Europe. They also love their kalenderlys’s! (or whatever the correct plural would be in Danish).

Who knew? I love candles, personally, but almost never burn them. The principles of hygge encourage candle-burning, especially during the long wintery nights that lie ahead. It’s probably too late to order my own kalenderlys for this year, but next year… look out! Meanwhile, with any luck, we will be able to add an image to the chapter in the book about light and celebrating Christmas around the world.

What is your favourite tradition to celebrate the days leading up to Christmas?

Portrait of a Pilgrim (reposted from darkcreekfarm.com/blog)

The Plan

We are on our way back to North America after having spent about five weeks in Spain, most of that walking the last 120 kilometres or so of the Camino de Santiago. What was the point of all that, you might ask? Why did we feel the need to drag ourselves, and in the end, a wheelchair, across a chunk of northern Spain? It would be great if I could say something glib like, “Because it was there” or “Because we like to go on vacations with a bit of a twist” but it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Santiago de Compostela, Spain

For one thing, we can’t really afford to just jet off and wander around the Spanish countryside for weeks on end. Usually, we either need to find a way to keep working on the road (Internet access makes this possible, though it can also create huge logistical challenges when connectivity is not quite as good as we need it to be). Even better is when we can find a way to tie a project to a travel destination. Sometimes it’s as simple as writing a destination travel article about a place we want to go (or, happen to be going anyway). Sometimes it’s using a destination or activity that takes place in a distant place (climbing, for example) in a book. Taking copious notes, reference photos, or conducting interviews to gather information is a way to write some of the travel costs off as long as the material is used somewhere down the road.

Digital nomad at work in a small cafe in the middle of nowhere.

In the case of this trip along the Camino Frances, though, the intention all along was to write a book about the trip and to find a way to integrate art (Dad’a art in particular). Not only is Dad’s work integrated into the written project, he is also beavering away on a series of works exploring the idea of creating a portrait of a pilgrim to be presented in an exhibition of work.

At the end of a long day of walking, Dad works on a drawing of the Castillo de Pambre

One of the the good things about being a writer or an artist is that all of life becomes a potential source of inspiration. That’s also one of the tough aspects of this type of job. There isn’t really a way to shut life off, close the office door and go home. Everything is raw material and holds the potential of the next great bit of writing or amazing painting. For someone in the arts, each day could be the one where our desire to create something worthwhile is realized. Just the act of living life becomes a pilgrimage of sorts, full of challenges and roadblocks to overcome on the way to coming up with something decent.

When we set off on the road to Santiago we knew we wanted to create something (visual art on Dad’s part, written work from me and Dani), but beyond that we weren’t exactly sure what our story would be. After all, we had plans, but plans never exactly correspond with reality.

The good news is that post trip we have plenty of raw material for a book and Dad is well on his way to creating some very cool pieces unlike anything he has ever done before. The walking together, the conversations in the evenings, the time spent looking at art, watching Dad create art, listening to conversations among other pilgrims, reading about the act of pilgrimage, visiting museums – all that input, that raw material provided a massive amount of information, stimulation, and inspiration. The creative wheels aren’t just turning, they are spinning fast.

We knew that part of the challenge after a trip is coming back and being thrown into real life distractions, so we decided to spend a couple of weeks together after we finished walking to Santiago in order to focus on the project. The process has been as challenging as anything we faced on the journey.

Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

Some of our conversations have been predictable – like comparing notes about various high (and low) points of the trip, but we’ve also talked about mortality, what inspires us, surprises like how much we all liked the Segrada Familia, Gaudi’s ode to nature and God in Barcelona, and what makes a great portrait. We’ve asked ourselves a lot of questions about the nature of pilgrimage and what a real pilgrim looks like. We sought out images of pilgrims in art and now, as we begin to write (and Dad continues to work with pen and ink and wax crayon and tempera paint sticks and watercolours) what is emerging is a story about our pilgrimage, but also a meditation on what it means to be a pilgrim – in words and images.

We collected dozens of pilgrim-related images on our trip… this one from the Pilgrim Museum in Santiago.

Dad is also exploring juxtapositions of self portraits with ancient depictions of pilgrims. He’s playing with stylistic twists and bold colour, taking fresh inspiration from time spent in the presence of Gaudi’s work, Picasso’s ever-evolving approaches to art and portraiture, and the many, many pilgrims we have seen in carvings, sculptures, murals, painted, drawn, and etched into stone.

We have been privy to Dad’s creative process in ways that have never been possible before now – living in close quarters for so long there is no way to avoid seeing how he comes up with ideas, starts sketching, restarts, scribbles, and polishes. At the same time, Dani and I have been clicking away on our keyboards.

The artist goes shopping – finding art supplies was easy in Barcelona.

I’ve been working on recreating our journey, integrating notes about art and history found along the way. I’m also trying to figure out the best way to share the conversations Dad and I have had over the past six weeks or so that we’ve been travelling together. Dani is digging deeper into the many moments that make up a pilgrim’s journey, writing a series of reflections and information essays that take the reader behind the scenes on subjects as varied as bedbugs and courier systems. The more we write and draw and talk and question, the more we discover to explore, describe, question and discuss.

Leaving Sarria…

“Is that where we are going?” Dad asks, pointing up.

“Unfortunately,” I answer.

“Oh my God. I haven’t trained for this.”

At one point we all worried that we wouldn’t have anything to say about our trip, that our three creative wells would simultaneously run dry. In fact, the opposite is happening. We all have found so much to explore I’m thinking our bigger task will not be thinking of what to include but what we will need to eventually trim out.

No fears about not having enough reference material!

Dutch Power! (reposted from darkcreekfarm.com/blog)

Dani and I were trucking along today and about the 6 kilometre mark after leaving our hostel in Salceda a couple of Dutch guys slowed down and insisted in taking a turn in pushing Dad. For a couple of kilometres they stuck with us, chatting away and helping us on all but the steepest of downhills.

Then, it was better for us to hook up our patented “D-brake” system, with Dani behind and connected to the wheelchair with the laundry line and me hanging on to the handles of the chair. As soon as we hit level ground again, though, the fellow from the Netherlands (I can’t believe that throughout the entire time we spent together nobody mentioned names!!!) took over again and kept pushing.

We made excellent time and found out about a documentary film called “I’ll Push You” https://youtu.be/W7gKD3q0-V0 about two friends, one in a wheelchair, who do the Camino together. Turns out one of the Dutch brothers is a Camino-phile. This trip along the French Way is his fourth, his seventh Camino in total. In 2013 he happened to see the guys on their wheelchair trip, stopped and took a photo. Then, recently, he saw their documentary film and (I think) watched it with his brother. And, when the brothers saw us, they immediately wanted to stop and help.

It was pretty cool to hear their stories and share a bit of the journey with them. One of the things we have really missed in our journey so far was the camaraderie so many pilgrims speak of. Our Camino family has been limited to the three of us as moved so much slower than everyone else. Now, though, people don’t pass us nearly so quickly and when they do, it doesn’t throw them off schedule too much to walk with us for a short while and have a chat.

After a couple of kilometres it was time for us to stop for lunch, which was lovely in the warmth of a late autumn afternoon.

The Dutch brothersa continued on their way and then Dani, Dad and I finished up the day here in O Pedrouzo. As soon as I get somewhere where I can stream video, I’ll have to watch “I’ll Push You.” From the trailer, though, it makes our little jaunt look pretty cruisy!