Ten Things I’d Love to Say to My Neophyte Writer Self

If there’ s one word I would use to describe myself back then it would be LOST.

Sometime back in the last century I was floundering around, trying to figure out how to escape from my miserable existence as a cog in the government machine. I knew I wanted to write but didn’t have any idea where to start, how to get a book published, how to finish a manuscript. I knew next to nothing.

If there’ s one word I would use to describe myself back then it would be LOST. Nobody I knew in the world of government finance or statistics had any idea what I was on about when I suggested that maybe I should quit my job and try to write full time. Suggestions like that were met with raised eyebrows and a series of questions that began with, “What about your benefits?” and ended with, “Why don’t you wait until after you retire?”

Nobody took me too seriously. Except me. When I say I wanted to be a writer more than anything else in the world, I am not kidding.

Hey there, young, earnest know-nothing Nikki… let’s have a chat…

If I had the power to go back and talk to that much younger, very idealistic me here are just some of the things that I would like to say.

  1. Determination and hard work are more important than raw talent. You can get a long way without being the next Shakespeare, but you won’t get anywhere without good old-fashioned pig-headedness and a willingness to work for hours (weeks, months, years) without necessarily making a ton of fast progress. This whole writing thing? It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
  2. Start at the top. Reach for the stars. Go after a big agent. Try for a large publisher. You have nothing to lose. But at the same time, plug away from the bottom. The brass ring approach is a long shot, but don’t sell yourself short.

3. Be fearless in your writing. If you have anything worthwhile to say at all, you will wind up offending somebody. And that’s ok. Being a good writer is not a popularity contest. If you play it too safe and try to keep everyone happy, there’s a very real risk you’ll waste a lot of time writing forgettable stuff that really didn’t need to be published in the first place.

4. Spend the money on the occasional workshop or writing conference. The contacts and inspiration are worth their weight in gold. Make the sacrifices needed to take your writing to the next level.

5. This relates to #4. Believe that you can do it and that your efforts are worthwhile. That makes it easier to invest a little in your growth and development as a writer even when your time and resources are minimal.

6. Think outside the box. There are lots of free resources — the library, for starters. Make use of them. If you don’t have a lot (any) cash, trade your time or expertise for what you need.

7. Join a writing group. If you can’t find one that is quite the right blend of serious and loving (it’s a fine balance), then start one. [It’s easier now than ever before to connect with other writers in your community. Back in the day, we had to rely on putting up hand-written notices on corkboards at the local laundromat.]

Fortunately, we no longer need to hope that someone stumbles across our hopeful requests for other writers in search of a supportive writing group.

8. Share freely. Don’t be stingy with what you learn. Not only will your connections with other writers get stronger by sharing what you know, there’s a natural reciprocity that comes of genuine relationships. You reap what you sow… and along the way, you’ll make some lifelong friends.

9. Develop a method for cultivating detachment when it comes to harsh reviews, unhappy readers, jealous peers, and anonymous trolls. Enjoy your process. Do the best work you can. Let the chips fall where they may.

10. Never lose sight of why you want to write in the first place. And, don’t think that you are going to write in order to make a lot of money. Chances are, that isn’t going to happen. Maybe not ever. You need to be ok with that and keep writing anyway!

Never stop writing! Nobody else is going to write your story for you…

What would you say to your younger self if you could go back and say hello?

This post originally appeared over on Medium where I’ve been writing quite a bit about writing. I’ve also been pretty busy over on Facebook on Nikki Tate Loves Books (and writing). Come join the conversation over there, too… Want to write some stuff yourself? Download these free writing prompts. Enjoy!

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…)

New Book!! Yippee!!

It doesn’t matter how many times it happens, it’s always exciting when a new book arrives in the mail! Cliffhanger is part of a new early reader series by Pearson Educational Publishing. I love the look of this book – clear, colourful photos and a subject dear to my heart!!

Because it’s destined for the educational market in Canada, it may be a bit tricky to order a copy. I have a few on hand, so if you would like a how-to climb book for young readers, drop me a line and I can probably get a copy to you.

And now, back to work on editing the Orca Origins book about Christmas and researching the new Orca Issues book about physician-assisted death. (And, yes – the wide range of subjects and formats is one of the reasons I love my job!! Bored? Never!)

U is for Uneasy Bedfellows (AtoZ Blogging Challenge)

At this very moment, I’m sitting on a Via Rail train speeding along the tracks between Montreal and Toronto (I should maybe have saved ‘V’ for tomorrow… ‘Via’ – but hey why start planning ahead now? The alphabet is almost over!)

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I’m feeling a tad jet-lagged, but am determined not to nap so I can reset my body-clock as soon as possible. Before the day is done I’ll be in London, Ontario, settled into my hotel and trying to get a good night’s sleep before making an appearance at the London, Ontario festivities related to the Forest of Reading, Canada’s largest literary event for kids. Deep Roots (how apropos is that? a book about trees being up for a Forest of Trees award…) is a nominee in the Silver Birch non-fiction category.

 

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Lunch arrived while I was working on the train… looking at presentations and trying to decide how much I should talk about various different books… 

Over the next week or so I’ll do a number of different presentations and mini-workshops and will speak to groups ranging from modest (a class or two at a public library) to very large (the crowd at the big award gala at Harbourfront in Toronto draws hundreds and hundreds of students from all over the province…) I’m an introvert by nature, so you would think that the idea of getting up in front of people I don’t know, perhaps many of them at one time would give me the jitters. But it doesn’t. Anyone who has seen me on stage will know I’m pretty comfortable up there, doing my thing. Hand me a microphone and it’s like some other creature takes over and starts operating my control center as if I were a performing ventriloquist dummy. I do suffer from pre-performance anxiety, but I’ve come to consider those nerves and quivery-ness to be a good omen. If I am shaking in my boots before I start at least I know I’m wide awake and that rush of adrenaline will help keep me sharp when someone hands me a microphone. And, once I’ve started, it’s too late to fix any problems with my presentation – I have no choice but to roll with the punches and have some fun.

No, the “uneasy bedfellows” of the title refers to my status as a reserved sort of person who likes spending inordinate amounts of time alone doing exciting stuff like typing being thrown into the horrifying situation of having to spend time in small groups chatting with people I hardly know at all. This situation happens a lot at events like this. Tonight, for example, I will meet up with several other authors in an informal setting. We’re all presenting tomorrow in London and because a number of us are coming from afar, someone on the other end of the introvert scale from where I live has thoughtfully organized a get-together. Eek! Small talk! Ack! Casual chit-chat… Run away! Run away!

This is when an internal battle begins to rage. Part of me says that it’s perfectly reasonable for me (jetlagged and all) to just retire to my hotel room, have a shower, and go to bed early. After all, I need to be sharp for whatever tomorrow may bring. Such a grown-up tactic is just being professional. Another part of me guffaws and says, ‘But this is your tribe! Here’s your chance to chat over a glass of wine with some of the writers you admire most in this whole entire country!!!” Writers from eastern and western Canada don’t get together that often, and when we do, guess what? It’s always FUN! This is when another voice chimes in to this inner conversation and says, “Remember when you met so-and-so and you laughed so hard you spilled your orange juice all over the table? Remember when you met whosamacallit and you found your writing soulmate? Remember that time when you stayed up so late talking to whatsamawhosit you saw the sun come up and thought you wouldn’t be able to stay awake through your presentation the next day?”

Have I ever actually had a miserable time once I got over myself and left my hotel room and joined the gang? No. Au contraire, as they say in Paris (and Montreal). Some of the BEST times I’ve ever had in my life were at exactly this type of small scale gathering. The dread of the encounter is far worse than anything that ever actually happens. So what if I recognize a face but can’t quite place the name? That’s what these meet-ups are for! People introduce themselves.  Do I feel offended when someone can’t remember my name? Of course not. What if I can’t remember who, exactly, wrote what? Or which of the awards they are up for? Um, that’s what the question mark was invented for. This is how conversations get started.

 

Spending time chatting with other authors is a great chance to get to know each other. Sometimes, really great friendships form, friendships that last for years and survive long periods between meetings. (Didn’t I just spend a fabulous flying visit with the inimitable Monique Polak in Montreal??? Didn’t we meet when she was speaking at a library? Remember that, oh, voice of doom?) When the evening is well under way and the conversations are animated and we are all laughing, and yacking and having a great time I can’t actually imagine a better place to be. I know all that is quite likely to be the case over the next week as well, but honestly, it’s like that knowledge is trapped in some secret location somewhere that is not accessible to me as my train barrels along taking me to what feels more like an anticipated meeting with a group of hostile monsters.

This, of course, is ridiculous. Children’s authors are not hostile monsters. They will not laugh at me when I walk into the room. They will not pluck the olives from their drinks and throw them at me while pulling faces and pointing. They will not all turn their backs to face the wall rather than speak to me. They will not see me arrive, check the time on their phones and, as one, push back their chairs and say, “Well, that was nice. Here Nikki – have this table because we are all leaving now.” This may all sound very strange to those of you who belong to the extrovert camp, but this is the odd world where I live between social interactions which (though you may find this hard to believe, given this post) are generally reasonably normal. Fun, even. Sigh. It’s all a bit baffling, even to me and I’m the one who has been living like this for the past half century or so.

So, there you go. True Confessions Thursday, if that’s even a thing. What about you? Where do you fall on the introvert-extrovert scale? Get togethers with peers – are they your worst nightmare or what you look forward to most?

R is for Reading – in Paris

 

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Mecca for readers and writers alike – Shakespeare and Company in Paris

 

It always surprises me when students say they don’t like to read in a genre similar to their current work in progress. I’m the opposite. Writing a memoir about walking the Camino? Step one is to read every memoir I can get my hands on written by other people who have walked the Camino. Want to write a fantasy novel for kids? Now there’s an excellent excuse to immediately run out and procure an armload of fantasy novels for kids.

I don’t worry about accidentally stealing ideas – I have plenty of my own. I don’t worry about imitating someone else’s style – I try to find the widest possible range of voices and approaches when I’m reading. That pretty much eliminates any worry that I’ll find myself adopting another author’s writing style. Besides, by now I sure hope I have a style or voice I can call my own!

Nikki reading apartment 3

When I read books and articles by other people I analyze them to death. It’s the only way I can think of to see what works and what doesn’t. Do I find myself completely engaged in one account of a Camino trip and utterly bored by another? Why? What makes some writing so compelling and other writing so meh? I enjoy it when an author’s personality shines through, especially if the writer has a sense of humour. I like lots of anecdotes mixed in with my doses of hard facts. But, I do like those facts to be there as well. Does the author use sidebars to pull out the factual bits or roll everything into some kind of overarching narrative? As I read, I hold my observations up against what I’m trying in my own writing. Then, when I’m writing, I try different techniques, modifying to suit my own story and what I’m trying to accomplish. In recent years, I’ve found I’ve started reading almost exclusively non-fiction, but the range of approaches to non-fiction is almost as broad as the range of subjects covered. On one hand, that’s very liberating – there is no ‘right’ way to come at a project. On the other hand, all those choices mean it can be pretty overwhelming to figure out what the best approach might be.

What about you? When you start a new writing project do you shy away from reading related material? Or do you seek it out and immerse yourself in the works of others who have explored similar paths before?

P is for Pleading Paris

Well, sometimes things don’t go exactly as planned. Hence my jump from E to P in the AtoZ Blogging Challenge. When I started this challenge back at the beginning of April I didn’t expect to be hopping on a plane to Paris, but that’s what happened. And, sometimes, unexpected travel completely throws a wrench in one’s blogging plans.

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It’s hard not to enjoy the Eiffel Tower, especially on a glorious sunny day. 

Sometimes, an opportunity presents itself and you book a ticket and go. It looks like we will be here for a little longer, so I’m going to shift gears and think about what it means to be a writer on the go and, in particular, a writer in Paris. I may or may go back and fill in F to O at some point, I may not. That sort of depends on what experiences still await me here in the City of Love, City of Light. (hmm… maybe those monikers could be part of an ‘L’ entry… )

For the moment, that’s it. We are here. In Paris. In the springtime. How cool is that?

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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.

 

 

D is for Deadlines (AtoZChallenge)

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“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”
Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

Ah, deadlines. Love ’em. Hate ’em. I’m great at tackling projects I know I can deal with fast. I get them over and done with waaaaaay ahead of time. Why wait?

It’s those ugly, complicated, bit-off-more-than-I-can-chew projects that bring out my inner procrastinator. And, yes, I do all those classic procrastinator things: brush the cat (I’m not joking, the cat never looked glossier than when I was struggling through draft 12 of Battle for Carnillo), clean the sink, go for a walk, check Facebook, lift some weights (I don’t like lifting weights), plan some cool vacation that there’s no way I could afford but is oh-so-much-fun to think about, and then maybe take apart and clean the lint trap in the dryer. You know, things that just can’t wait, unlike the BIG IMPORTANT project with that looming DEADLINE.

The problem is, those big, fat, messy projects tend to have decently long timelines. So, what harm could another lap around the dog park possibly do when I have practically forever to get this draft/rewrite/sequel done? Yes, sure, I pick at projects like this – open a web page or sixty, do some preliminary research. I jot a few notes, sort out the single sock drawer, and then go to bed early because it’s exhausting not doing what I’m supposed to be doing. A nap should perk me right up, right? Except, a long nap in the middle of the afternoon never works too well. By the time I wake up I feel like I’ve been rolled over by a drunk elephant and the day is almost gone and dinner needs to be made and after all that, the dishes and some emails, and Facebook – what has been going on in my virtual world all day?

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You get the picture. Of course, that deadline doesn’t just go away. It gets bigger. And uglier. And more intimidating. It starts waking me up at night. Nightmares revolve around missing trains. I wake up in a cold sweat after receiving an email saying Karen Rivers was awarded my contract because I could no longer speak English. Not that Karen Rivers would not be an eminently worthy inheritor of a contract, but man… the obsessions start to take over everything. I brush my teeth and think, I should be working. I gulp down a cup of tea. Should be working. I have a doctor’s appointment. No time. Must work.

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And as that deadline nears, some panic-induced blast of whatever brain chemical goes into overtime when it’s about to be slammed into a wall kicks in and I start writing. And nothing will stop me. My child falls over and cries. Too bad. Go see the neighbour.  Hungry? There’s a stale cracker stashed in the filing drawer somewhere. Add a bit of mustard and, voila – a meal. Not that I would get up and eat a meal anywhere other than at my desk. Such is my state of wild work ethic at this point I would be more likely to make the sick kid find something easy on AllRecipes.com and have her cook us both something vaguely nutritious.

The nightmares stop because at this point, of course, I am not sleeping. My family hates me. The cat looks like it has spent the past year living in a mud hole. The dog looks at me balefully, perhaps imagining those good old early days when we wandered aimlessly around the dog park.

That deadline, in the end, becomes the most amazing source of inspiration ever. Deadline not met? No incoming money. Ergo, no food. Simple equation. And that spurt of creative energy driven by sheer terror generally results in, yes, a Barfy First Draft. Or, a rewrite. Or, a new presentation. Or whatever.

I like to eat, which is why I rarely miss deadlines. How about you? Are you one of those super well-organized writers who is able to work steadily and calmly from start to finish on a project? Do writers like that actually exist? Do you zoom through and get done as fast as possible? Or, do you tend to put things off until you just can’t put them off any longer? Leave a comment and let us know how you REALLY feel about deadlines.

D atoz challenge

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.