T is for Taking Time (To write, in Paris) AtoZ Blogging Challenge

I should know better. You can’t live a whole week and not make an effort to write some stuff down. Like, details. In the moment when life is actually happening. The problem is, the mind is designed to forget. And, rightly so. I mean, there’s just way too much information coming in to possibly absorb and remember it all. If you don’t write it down while it’s going on, poof. All but the vaguest of impressions disappear.

Take time to watch
Step 1. Take the time to watch. Stare out the window. Pay attention. Spy relentlessly.

Being out of my element makes it even worse. I’m making a real effort to see at least one new thing each day I am in Paris. Most days, I wind up discovering a gazillion things.  A whole week without writing stuff down means the end of week summary sounds like a long shopping list. And we all know how interesting (not) shopping lists are to read.

 

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Parc André Citröen

 

Case in point, I had a really busy week last week and didn’t do much journalling. By the time I found a few minutes to write down what I’d been up to it was late one evening and I was too tired to write much so I did this:

  • rode carousel
  • bought fancy cake
  • photos of graffiti
  • Montmartre
  • drug dealer phone
  • remote presentation
  • edits on Love and Belonging
  • photos of Joan d’Arc statue (dancing umbrellas)
  • French lessons (the Camino mag)
  • in search of the best baguette
  • Michael Rosen at Shakespeare and Co.
  • cool paperies – in search of notebooks
  • meet-up Shut up and Write
  • Metro stop a day project
  • outside my bedroom window – life in the plaza
  • working out under the bridge (oh my aching abs)

 

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Detail from the Palais Royal Metro station exit… Taking this photo was part of my plan to pop out at one new metro station each day that I’m here in Paris and then record my findings. 

 

Any one of these bullet points could have been expanded into some sort of blog entry or article or at least a decent journal entry but no, instead I fell asleep. And then, the next day arrived and I was up and at ’em and busy living again and adding more stuff to the list.

 

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Had a great time doing research for a possible article, “Best Playgrounds in Paris” but haven’t actually done any writing on the subject… yet. 

 

 

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Step Two: Take the time to write. I’m the one hugging the bagel during a writing session at the local shopping mall. While our apartment was being fitted out with wi-fi, I wound up heading over there to work as they have plugs, free wi-fi and don’t mind if you bring your own baguette. In case you are curious, the mall is called Beaugrenelle and it’s about two blocks from our apartment.

My goal for the days ahead is to slow down and do what I know I should be doing: building time to write about what I’m doing into the schedule every day. Today’s objective is to visit the Museum of the Cinémathèque and then, afterward, to find a café where I can sit down and write a bit about that experience. There. I’ve said it publicly. Now I HAVE to do it.

 

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Enemy of Creativity (AtoZChallenge)

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia PlathO

Oh, Sylvia – thanks for saying it. Yes, self-confidence is a key ingredient in the creativity pie.

What does it mean to be creative, anyway? I’ve always thought of it as the ability to make something from nothing – to allow an idea or a thought to bubble up from that mysterious well from whence such bubbles rise and then… to do something with that thought or impulse.

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We all have ideas. Dreams. Thoughts. So what is the difference between someone who then goes on to make something with that raw material and someone who doesn’t? I agree with Sylvia Plath that self-confidence, or lack thereof, plays a big part in the expression of creative projects.

Self-doubt is crippling. The minute you begin to question whether the idea is good enough, whether you are going to be able to find a way to express that idea, whether it is worth playing with, exploring, developing – it’s pretty much game over that that point. The willingness to explore, to set off along hopeless paths, to experiment, to play, to fail – all that is part of the messy creative process. It takes a certain boldness to be willing to be wrong and being creative is a lot about being wrong. Perhaps wrong isn’t quite the write word. But it’s rare when exactly the right expression of an idea emerges fully formed and perfect. In my case, never. As a child, when I was making something or drawing or writing a story it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t come up with something if I just kept going. I created with little regard for how it would all turn out. Like most kids tend to do, I picked up a pencil or a pair scissors and started experimenting.

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Somewhere along the line, we learn that there are right ways and wrong ways to create – that one person’s drawing is better than another’s, that a story doesn’t mean the same thing to a reader that one thought it would. And when that door to failure opens, that’s when the doubts creep in. It’s easy to get so intimidated that we just stop trying.

I think that’s what happened to me with visual expression. As a kid I loved to draw, paint, make collages. I don’t know exactly when it happened, but at some point I concluded I could not draw. So, I stopped. For some equally mysterious reason, I decided I could write stories. Looking back, I don’t think I had a particular talent in one direction rather than the other. But what I did have is a complete lack of self-confidence on the visual arts front and a sense of confidence on the writing front. So, I wrote a lot of stories when I was a kid and never really stopped. When I read those stories now they are not particularly good. I’ve read far better stuff rich with real raw talent in some of the student submissions I am lucky enough to get to read now when I teach writing workshops. What I did have in spades was enthusiasm and the belief that my ideas were worth writing down.

I have no idea how many words I must have written before, finally, things started to improve and the creative impulse and dogged persistence merged to produce something worthy of publication. Lots (during my recent move I found hundreds of pages of dreadful drivel, some of which goes back to my earliest childhood scratchings).

These days, I still struggle to shape my sometimes wild ideas into a form that is readable. That process has not become  easier despite the number years I’ve been at it and the number of things I’ve wound up publishing. What has become easier is the belief that if I work at it long enough, rewrite often enough, keep at the shaping and molding and massaging of the article/story/book, eventually it will come together. That confidence in the process, the willingness to be patient is as important as any initial juicy idea or creative urge.

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Not that long ago I decided to see if this theory about having confidence and forging forward could also be applied to drawing. It’s been an interesting process, hushing the inner child who thought she couldn’t draw (since this is a series of posts about writing I won’t go into a lot of details here…). First, it is possible for someone as ancient as I am to have a change of heart about something I thought was a fact (my inability to draw). Turns out, patience and practice result in some surprisingly not dreadful outcomes. I’ve tried my hand at a few different exercises – from drawing cartoon faces to a few simple sketches to go along with my sailing course notes. No, I haven’t discovered my inner Michelangelo, but I am no longer scoffing at the idea of picking up a pencil or paintbrush and working to find ways to express creative ideas visually. It’s actually been kind of fun at least as much as it has been messy and frustrating.

What about you? How important is confidence in your creative process?

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This post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge in which bloggers from all over the world write a blog post every day in April. There are a LOT of other bloggers taking part. Visit the A to Z Challenge blog to see who is posting what each day.

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Enjoy the blog? Consider becoming a patron to support the creation of these blog posts, photo essays, and short videos. In return, you’ll have my undying appreciation, but you’ll also get access to Patron-only content, advance peeks at works in progress, and more – all for as little as a buck a month! It’s easy – head on over to Patreon to have a look at how it all works.

 

B is for the Beauty of Barf (AtoZChallenge)

With apologies to anyone emetophobic who may be reading
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There are some writers who agonize over their first drafts. As I understand it, their process goes something like this:
1. Write an opening clause
2. Reconsider
3. Rework the opening clause, add a comma and consider how to continue. For half an hour. Tentatively write the second part of the first sentence and realize that there was a much better way to write the first half.
4. Rework the first half of the sentence. Fiddle about with word choice for another 20 minutes. The chosen words seem ok, but the order isn’t quite right. Rearrange.
5. The first part of the sentence is sounding pretty good but now it doesn’t flow well into the second half.
6. Rewrite the second half.
7. Read both halves together and realize perhaps the opening would be stronger with two sentences.
8. Remove comma, period and capital letter.
9. Both sentences are now too short. The opening is definitely choppy.
10. Enhance both sentences. This takes up the better part of an hour.
11. At the end of all that (and a bit of final tweaking) the opening sounds pretty damned fine. It’s lunchtime but half a paragraph is better than none.
I imagine this meticulous ‘edit-as-you-go’ strategy is why some writers take a decade to get to the end of their first draft. For those who manage to stay the course and actually get to the end of anything by writing this way, wow. Hats off to you! (And please, if you are a writer who works this way, please leave a comment and share how on earth you motivate yourself to keep going and also, how do you cope when an editor makes a suggestion? Or, does this method work so well for you that no further rewriting is necessary?)

Farting Around As I Go is Not For Me

You don’t have to be a genius to figure out I don’t work this way.  I am firmly camped in the school of barf. Now there’s a sentence that might not get past a writer who insists on perfection at every step of the way. Mixed metaphors, images that make little sense, a spare adverb. A certain ‘huh? I think I get what she’s trying to say’ response quite likely to be elicited in the reader. Nevertheless, for the sake of this example, I will press on with this messy first draft and try to describe what my puking on the page process looks like.
1. Even though I’m not exactly sure what I want to say I start writing anyway. No outline. No list of key points. Today, there’s not much more than a vague idea that I want to a) use a keyword that starts with B and, b) write about something to do with writing.
B AtoZ
2. I write the letter b. Book comes to mind. Yep. That’s how bland things looked when I started out. Boring.
3. Stare out the window.
4. Make tea.
5. Stare at the word book on the screen.
6. Delete all but the b.
7. Realize this is so bad it’s making me want to puke. I don’t have forever to write this. Too bad puke doesn’t start with B. But Barf does! Beautiful!
8. I have a title! And from there, I just begin to spew – everything I can think of to do with heaving stuff onto the page with little regard for how it will all hang together.
9. One thought leads to another. I can’t write fast enough to keep up.
10. Stray words slip into the margin to remind me to come back and explore related thoughts later
11. I write without stopping for perhaps ten or fifteen minutes and the basic content of the post is there.
12. I take a moment to reread. Divide the post into two sections. Expand the bit where I imagine how a more meticulous first drafter might handle this challenge.
13. I take out the terrible vomit joke.
14. And that’s it. A sloppy, kinda stinky not quite right draft.
It’s only then that I sit back and reconsider. Sitting back and reconsidering is immediately part of the revise, rewrite, edit, chew over, regurgitate (to stay with my theme) part of the writing process. At this point, the barfing slows down unless I need to add a fresh chunk to the mix.
What’s the advantage to this method? I always have something to work with. I don’t tend to get stuck. I don’t limit my ideas. I allow my writing to be terrible. I don’t worry that the phrasing isn’t quite right or even if I’ve made my point. That all takes place after I have finished with my initial projectile blathering.
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I know that there will be lots and lots of time between spewing out that first draft and the day anyone (even my editor) will get to have a look. I’ll talk about the revision, rewriting process elsewhere (perhaps for the letter R), but what I do know about puking my ideas all over the page is that at least then I have a starting place.
It may be messy and inadequate and confused and incomplete, but it’s somewhere to begin. It’s like having a glorious damp lump of clay sitting on the table in front of me, all bulgy and misshapen. Somewhere inside that lump may be an elegant sculpture waiting for my tools to reveal its hidden form. That’s how the messy first draft feels. Like a voluminous blob of potential
What about you? Are you a spewer like me? Or someone who likes to coax each word, each phrase, each image into being in its most perfect form as you move from sentence to paragraph to chapter to book? Hey – waddya know? Book found its way into this blog post all on its own!
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This post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge in which bloggers from all over the world write a blog post every day in April. There are a LOT of other bloggers taking part. Visit the A to Z Challenge blog to see who is posting what each day.

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Enjoy the blog? Consider becoming a patron to support the creation of these blog posts, photo essays, and short videos. In return, you’ll have my undying appreciation, but you’ll also get access to Patron-only content, advance peeks at works in progress, and more – all for as little as a buck a month! It’s easy – head on over to Patreon to have a look at how it all works.

Welcome to Patreon – Video

I recently decided to set up a Patreon account as a way to help smooth out the fiscal bumps and hollows of a life spent writing. Patreon guides you through the steps of setting up an account and as part of that process they encourage creators to make a short intro video… I am, for a change, playing by the rules… And so, I present to you, my intro video for Patreon:

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Enjoy the blog? Consider becoming a patron to support the creation of these blog posts, photo essays, and short videos. In return, you’ll have my undying appreciation, but you’ll also get access to Patron-only content, advance peeks at works in progress, and more – all for as little as a buck a month! It’s easy – head on over to Patreon to have a look at how it all works.

**Also published over on my other blog: Dark Creek Farm: The Further Adventures of a Former Farmer

15 Painful Phases of Writing a Book

Want to know what’s going on in my head during the course of a book’s lifetime?

Scroll down for Fifteen Painful Phases of Writing a Book.

Imagine my delight when Orca Book Publishers let me know that Deep Roots: How Trees Sustain Our Planet has been long-listed for the 2017 national Green Earth Book Award, awarded annually to children’s and young adult literature that best convey the message of environmental stewardship. (For more details, visit the official website.)

deep roots cover

The book has had some terrific reviews (including this one at CM Magazine) and was chosen by the New York Public Library system as one of the Best 100 Books for Children and Young Adults in 2016. It’s been nominated for a Silver Birch Non-fiction Award (I’ll be heading for Toronto to take part in the celebrations in May and speaking to students at several school and library presentations), which is pretty exciting.

Of course, I am delighted to see a book is finding such a warm response out there in the world. But on the other hand, I’m scratching my head a bit, too. I mean, I’ve written a lot of books now (30 or so, and counting) and I have never  been able to predict which ones will take off and which ones won’t. You’d think that after spending decades writing I would get a feel for when something is decent and not so much. What actually happens is pretty much the same process for every book. Here’s what’s going on in my head at each stage…

Fifteen Painful Phases of Writing a Book

Phase One: Getting Started

I LOVE this project! This is the best idea I have ever had! I can’t wait to get writing! I can’t type fast enough! My ideas are FLOWING! GUSHING! My life is a string of gleeful exclamation marks! My fingers are dancing over the keyboard! Yipppeeee!! (And, yes, I use words like Yipppeeee! in everyday conversation when I’m in Phase One and never again throughout the entire book creation process).

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It’s all good… in the beginning…

Phase Two: Getting Serious

Hm. This is harder than I thought it would be. I’m not quite sure I’m heading in the right direction. Maybe I should go back and start again. No, that would be a bad idea. Keep going. You can write your way out of this.

Phase Three: Mild Panic

What was I thinking? This is awful! Nobody will ever want to read this. I should stop and start a new project. Where is the paper shredder? So boring. It is agony to sit at my desk. My fingers are leaden and uncooperative. Oh, look – Facebook! Was that a dirty dish I heard calling my name? Yes, I think I need a long walk to clear my mind. Oh, man – I’m so tired after that walk. A nap would be the best thing. I will wake up refreshed and ready to get back to work. I feel like death warmed over. Tomorrow will be a better day.

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The dog days of book-writing… Let me sleep. Let the misery end…

Phase Four: Repetitive Face Palm Syndrome Sets In

I have lost it. I can’t imagine I will ever get to the end of this excruciatingly awful project. What made me think this was remotely a good idea? This is so bad. What a mess. I should retire. My favourite coffee shop has a Help Wanted sign in the window. I was a great waitress back in the day. I don’t even go near my desk. What’s the point?

Phase Five: Resignation

Ok, it’s terrible, but I am so close to the end I might as well just finish it so I can start on a new, better project.

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In those dark, dark moments of believing what I have produced is utter garbage, I bribe myself with the promise of a new project that, surely, will be better than the dreck in which I find myself mired… 

 

Phase Six: Submission

Well, it’s done now. Be strong. Click ‘send.’ Aggghhh! Off it goes to the editor. Steel yourself for the worst. Start another project.

Phase Seven: Really?

The editor doesn’t hate it. In fact, there are some redeeming qualities. Yes, some editing to be done, but actually, now that I’m sitting down to work on it again, the edits are doable. and there are parts that aren’t hideous.

Phase Eight, Nine, Ten… : More Editing

Ok, this is getting old. I am now more sick of this project than seems humanly possible. If I have to write another draft I. Will. Die.

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May as well take a long walk off a short pier at this point… 

Phase Eleven: Survived!

Hm. I am not dead. The book is in production.

Phase Twelve: A long time later…

Hey! A box of books arrived in the mail! Did I write that? It was all so long ago… Well, I’ll be… some of this isn’t too bad! Oh dear – I’d change that bit if I could. Too late now… Let’s hope someone else out there reads it and doesn’t hate it.

Phase Thirteen: Reviews, or Silence

With any luck, someone will care enough to read and review the book. I try not to read reviews too carefully – sort of skim through them to see if there’s anything really bad and otherwise file them away and try to ignore them. Ditto with lists of nominations – I have done my best and making it onto long-lists or short-lists is completely beyond my control. This is when I put on my best, ‘whatever will be, will be’ face.

Phase Fourteen: Shockingly short timeframe later…

The book goes out of print. Did it ever exist? Does anyone care? Does anyone else miss the book the way I do now that it’s gone?

Phase Fifteen: Return to Phase One

Because, you know… I’ve got this GREAT IDEA!!

(Images courtesy of the talented photographers at unsplash.com)

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Enjoy the blog? Consider becoming a patron to support the creation of these blog posts, photo essays, and short videos. In return, you’ll have my undying appreciation, but you’ll also get access to Patron-only content, advance peeks at works in progress, and more – all for as little as a buck a month! It’s easy – head on over to Patreon to have a look at how it all works.

The Book that Almost Wasn’t (and which is now, apparently, very popular with New York Public Library librarians…)

Where do you get your ideas?IMG_6884 grassi lake-2.jpg

Whenever I do a presentation, someone inevitably asks where my ideas come from. It’s a hard question to answer because my ideas come from everywhere, all the time. Getting ideas isn’t much of a problem as pretty much anything anyone says or does, or things I see on my travels (or in my back yard or my dreams or …), snippets from the news, or a passing comment on Facebook or a cool image on Instagram or… well, you get the idea… the sources of inspiration are everywhere. The problem is always turning the idea into some sort of narrative, and that’s true whether I’m writing fiction or non-fiction.

In the case of Deep Roots: How Trees Sustain Our Planet, the idea resulted from a question I always ask when I’m giving a talk about books in the Orca Footprints Series.

What do we need to thrive on this planet?
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Kids have no problem answering the question, “What do we need to thrive on this planet?”. Food. Clean water. No pollution. Shelter. Those are the answers that come up right at the top of the list. Several times, though, students offered the answer trees. Which, to be honest, was not on my initial list of things essential to human survival. I only had to think about that suggestion for a few minutes before I realized just how right the kids were. Trees are actually a fascinating subject and, yes, trees are essential to our survival on the planet.

Did you know baobab flowers bloom at night and are pollinated by bats?

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Note: This is NOT a baobab tree.

 

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The more I read about trees (including The Wild Trees by Richard Preston which is just excellent and proves that if you are a good enough writer you can make any subject heart-stopping…) the more I realized that trees would be the perfect subject for another Orca Footprints book. I pitched the idea to my editor and, I have to say, the response was lukewarm.

I persisted and started doing research. And writing. And pestering (very politely) my editor. And thinking about what trees have meant to me over the years (each Orca Footprints title incorporates some personal connection the author has with the subject). Before I knew it, I had a manuscript. The editor started warming up to the subject. The designer started laying it out. We all found photographs of glorious trees making people happy. And, before long, Deep Roots was born.

Well wouldn’t you know it, that book has struck a chord! It has been nominated for a Silver Birch non-fiction award and, just yesterday, it showed up on the New York Public Library list of the 100 best books for children in 2016!! (Here’s a link to the full list.) The Korean rights have been sold and the book seems to be finding an audience for itself!

Trees? You think anyone would care about trees?

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Peeling bark on a madrona tree (aka an arbutus tree) on Sidney Spit, just off Vancouver Island. I LOVE these trees. They are just gorgeous! 

You may wonder what other suggestions from the students I’ve taken to heart. One of the things that was on the list of human ‘must haves’ (according to my informal student polls) was love. It took a little head scratching to figure out how an abstract concept like love could possibly work as a Footprints title, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized the kids were right. Alone, we are small and vulnerable: people need each other. The working title of the manuscript I just submitted this week? Love and Belonging: Family, Friends, and Communities Working Together to Create a Better World. I suspect the title will be shortened before the book comes out, but it turns out the manuscript was really interesting to write.

It’s all about love. heart-love-romance-valentine

At this point (we’ve had no editing rounds yet) it includes material as diverse as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, prison nurseries, the UN Charter, the Human Genome Project, what it means to have a BFF and the Los Angeles Police Department’s take on gangs. And trarantulas and the people who adore them. The book is not scheduled for publication until 2018, so we’ll all have to wait and see how it does, but the success of Deep Roots gives me hope that listening to my readers is perhaps the best place of all to look for inspiration.