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?

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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!

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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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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.

A is for Authorly Angst (#AtoZChallenge)

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

As writers, we choose our subjects in many ways. As a working author (I don’t have another job other than putting words to paper) sometimes my topic selections are very practical. I’ve written several books in the Orca Footprints series, for example (Deep Roots: How Trees Sustain Our Planet, Down to Earth: How Kids Help Feed the World and Take Shelter: At Home Around the World). I love the concept of the series (non-fiction titles looking at complex environmental issues and asking the question, what are the things we need to live and thrive on our planet?) so it isn’t a stretch to want to dive into the research and then write books that are meaningful but also attractive and engaging. But truth be told, choosing to write another Footprints title is also very practical. The books have an audience and that means I will receive a royalty cheque and that means I will live to eat another day. Ok, I don’t eat days, but you get my meaning.

Though the process of writing any book is challenging for many reasons (this series of blog posts over the next month will touch on some of them), books like the Footprints titles, or novels for which I have a reasonable idea and a solid plot or a character I like, don’t keep me up at night agonizing over whether I should proceed with the project.

But there are other kinds of stories to tell, those that gnaw holes in your insides until you let them out.

But there are other kinds of stories to tell, those that gnaw holes in your insides until you let them out. Those are the stories that reveal things about you and your life, your beliefs, your fears. They are the stories that weigh heavy, that you agonize over how best to share or whether sharing is even appropriate.

Many years ago I heard an author speaking about stories like that (I sure wish I could remember who it was!) who said that keeping those most powerful of stories inside because we are afraid of revealing too much or because we are afraid that readers ‘won’t get it’ is a kind of narcissism. We imagine that our stories are so out there, so unique that nobody else will be able to relate. The opposite is true. We don’t need to have shared an exact experience with someone else to be moved, to learn, to understand, to appreciate the emotional truth that lies at the heart of the story.

Those are the stories we remember: they are the narratives that have the power to change the way we see the world.

If the story is written with integrity, with emotional honesty, we tap into the deeper emotional truths that make us human. And if we are brave enough to go there, those deeper emotional truths are what make the most profound impression on our readers. It doesn’t matter if one person has survived a bombing and another an attack by a dog and someone else a car accident – the raw underpinnings are the same – fear, coming face to face with our mortality, loss of control, and the randomness of unexpected events are experiences we all share at some point. We connect to these stories at that very basic level. We ask ourselves, what would I have done? We empathize. We imagine ourselves in similar circumstances. We weep. We laugh. We are inspired. Those are the stories we remember: they are the narratives that have the power to change the way we see the world.

For many years I have been careful about revealing too much of my own story or the stories of those closest to me. When I have tackled difficult subjects (suicide, poverty, racism) it has been done in the context of fiction. Now, though, things are changing. I’m getting older (nothing like being on the far side of fifty to make you realize there are a finite number of books left to be written) and I have stories untold inside me. As Maya Angelou says, it’s an agony not to let them out.

The big writing projects on my desk are all non-fiction and they are all causing me a whole new level of grief. I’m working hard in ways I’ve never worked hard before. I’m struggling to find the balance between digging deep and spinning a readable yarn. I’m writing about loss and failure, challenge and adversity, hope and bearing down. These are my family stories, my own struggles, and subjects that have remained tucked away and waiting for later for too long.

These manuscripts wake me up in the middle of the night. But they are also manuscripts that feel really good to finally, finally be getting my full attention.

Do you have a story inside you need to tell? What’s stopping you? Be brave. Let it out. Start today.

A atozchallenge

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.

 

 

A to Z Blogging Challenge – Write On!

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Ok, I’m a little late to the party with my theme reveal post, but despite the fact I am looking at a pretty busy April, I am going to take part once again in the A-to-Z Blogging Challenge. This year, I’ll be writing about writing, which will be a real challenge as writing is my life and, like so many things we do a lot of, I confess I find talking or writing about writing a wee bit boring. Hm… I should have saved that for C is for Confession day…

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Some of the things I thought I might investigate during April are favourite quotes by and about writers, writing tips, and updates on various writing projects (I have several of the latter on my plate so surely I can come up with something you won’t sleep through…). If there’s something you might be interested in hearing about, please leave a comment. Unlike some of the very organized participants, I don’t have a master plan going in so your suggestions for topics would be well received!

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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.

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.)

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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.