Wednesday, September 30, 2009

klɪˈʃeɪ/ (Clichés)


Scene: Jan in her backyard, stretched out on her patio chair, soaking up the last of the autumn sun, critiquing her friend’s manuscript, and listening as the apples fall off the tree. Suddenly, Jan leaps from the chair and shrieks.
Jan: OMG!
Neighbour (working in his garden, pops his head up over the fence): Jan, what’s the matter.
Jan: I just read a sentence with three clichés in it!
Neighbour: Oh, I thought you’d been eaten by a coyote or attacked by a Sasquatch.
Jan: It would have been less painful if I had.
A cliché, is a saying, expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has been overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, rendering it a stereotype, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful.
Here’s a conversation I had with a friend who asked me to look at a covering letter she wrote. Note: the only time I speak about myself in the third person is when I give editorial feedback.
Jan: What does Jan think about clichés?
Amber: Jan hates clichés.
Jan: How do clichés make Jan feel?
Amber: Angry, clichés make Jan feel very angry?
Jan: Then why does Jan have a document with clichés in it?
Amber: (long pause)
Jan: The correct answer is “I’m an idiot.”
Amber: Because I’m an idiot.
Jan: Fine, lets move on …
Cliches are not good writing. We all know that, and need to be diligent about them. Because they are so ingrained in the vernacular sometimes it’s easier for other people to spot them in our manuscripts. I know what you’re going to say “ it’s not me who’s using them, it’s the character. S/he speaks in clichés.” Well, if that’s so, then your characters are stock and clichéd. Take a cliché and stand it on its head. In the second of the Megabyte Mystery series, the protagonist Cyd, realizes that she’s blunt. I was tempted to have the character say ‘subtlety is not my strong suit’ – cliché. Instead the character, a computer savvy kid, says “Subtle is not my best font.”
So, I’m not going to beat a dead horse about clichés, because you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s better late then never to rewrite. But of course that’s easier said then done. I know I’ve hit the nail on the head with this blog post, and to add insult to injury I have a sneaking suspicion that I caught you in the nick of time and you are sadder but wiser. I think I’ll quit while I’m ahead. ;-j

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Shrine to the original Dead Frog on the Porch ...

It’s not often I get to introduce myself like this: “Hi, I’m the friend of your mommy’s who killed her frog when we were little.” Jane is the childhood friend whose frog I unceremoniously, accidently, killed when we were kids. Hence the title of my book: Dead Frog on the Porch.

It started as a writing exercise. The ubiquitous ‘write an incident from your childhood.’ The opening scene in the book is pretty much the frog-killing-on-the-back-porch-incident. From there it evolved into a mystery adventure novel. I wanted to re-create a time when kids filled their summer days by biking around the neighbourhood, going to the pool, and reading Nancy Drew mysteries. I must have re-created it accurately because when my childhood friend Sandy read an earlier draft about a decade ago she phoned me one day hopping mad. She said: “one character is me and the other character is you and your character is picking on my character.” Honey, it ain’t all about you.

Let’s get back to Jane. I’d lost track of Jane over the last 20 years. The last time I was in my home town I dropped in to see if her parents still lived down the street. They did. Her dad remembered me and gave me Jane’s number. Turns out she not only lives in my town, she lives about ten minutes from me. I told my eight year old nephew how happy I was that I was going to be friends with Jane again.

His response: “She’s not going to want to be your friend.”

“Why not,” I asked.

“Janet, you killed her pet frog.” (everyone who’s related to me or has known me since before God was a cowboy calls me Janet)

“Yes, I did, but she forgave me and we were friends after that.”

“You killed her frog. If you kill someone’s frog, they’re not going to be your friend anymore.”

His words ate at me. I was a little worried when I got home the next night that, yeah, maybe she wouldn’t want to be my friend again, because in my nephew’s equation, killing friend’s pet = end of friendship.

She was expecting my call. And she didn’t even remember me killing her frog (accidently, of course). Her response was, “What was the frog doing on the porch?” What indeed.

The real life Jane, like the character Jane, loved animals and she still does. At her house she introduced me to her dog, two guinea pigs, and, wait for it … three frogs! She still likes frogs and has frogs … all over the house. There are the real frogs (who said I should talk to their agent if I wanted a pic) and the ceramic frog on the soap dish. At one point I screamed, “OMG there are frogs everywhere.” It was like her house was a shrine to her dead frog! Her memoir would be entitled The House of Frogs.

Jane assured me that I shouldn't feel bad. She'd had a lot of pets as a kid, and she had buried a lot in the backyard. She also went through a lot of frogs. It’s not so much that I still felt bad; it was an incident that I remembered and used it as a jumping off point for fiction. You’ve heard: ‘write what you know.’ But this one is better: ‘write what you feel.’ I felt bad. The main character in Dead Frog on the Porch felt bad when she killed her twin sister’s frog, and that was both her motivation, and her inner conflict, to solve the mystery of why the scientists were creating giant frogs.

It was great to see my childhood friend and we had a few of those OMG-it-was-your-wiener-dog-that-got-run-over-by-the-bread-truck moments (that’s in the book as well BTW). ;-j

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Dead Frog on the Porch Book Cover!

Here are the front and back covers of my novel Dead Frog on the Porch!
Thanks to Crystal Stranaghan, Publisher of Gumboot Books for the cover design, and thanks to Mike Linton awesome artist for the illustrations. Mike, brought the characters alive and kept the frog, er, ah ... dead!
Dead Frog on the Porch will be available soon in local independent bookstores and on Amazon.
Here's a preliminary list of book launches and readings:
Calgary - Saturday October 17th, 1 p.m. MonkeyShines Children's Book Store (Let there be cake. Oh, there will be cake!)
Surrey, BC - Saturday October 24th 5:30-7:00 p.m. at the Surrey International Writers Conference, Sheraton Guildford Hotel. The Book Fair is open to the public and conference participants. The book fair will feature the work of the authors speaking and participants of the conference who have books published.
Calgary - Saturday November 7th, 2 p.m. Owl's Nest Books (Owlets Children's Store)
Vancouver - Sunday November 8th, 10 a.m. (This is an all day event which will launch eight new Gumboot Books) Once Upon a Huckleberry Bush
Calgary - Saturday November 14th 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. Calgary Children's Book Fair and Conference at Hillhurst/Sunnyside Community Centre. Local and regional children's authors will be on hand to read from their books and make presentations about writing. Books will be available for purchase.
I'll keep everyone up to date on additional launches and readings, I'm still working to firm up a couple more events!

Galley Ho! and my what's-it-script

The galleys of my novel for middle grade readers Dead Frog on the Porch arrived this week. And the galleys weren't all Pirates of the Caribbean. Galleys are the final typeset copy of the manuscript. It is the author's first glimpse of what the book will actually look like. And it's the author's responsibility to go through and look for glitches. So I went through it with a fine point mechanical pencil, got a little obsessive and had a whole virtual em dash vs. en dash smack down (don't get me started).
The galleys didn't look like this either because we have like, er, computers and stuff now.
I love the layout, and the text and chapter title fonts. Soooo close now!
The whole process got me thinking of some youthful advice I got from my niece a few years ago when I was still workshopping and rewriting my manuscript. This is a conversation between my niece (who at the time was 9) and me while driving the long lonely highway between Calgary and Edmonton.

Me: So, I got some feedback on my Dead Frog on the Porch manuscript from my writing group.

Niece: What did they say?

Me: They said my verbs are boring.

Niece: Oh, yeah, you have to use exciting words like Suddenly. What else did they say?

Me: They said I need to draw out the action. Do kids like action or interesting characters?

Niece: Action Jannie, kids like action.

Me: So I’m going to do some more rewriting.

Niece: So, you know your, ah, what’s-it-script?

Me: My manuscript.

Niece: Yeah, your what’s-it-script. Do the people in your writers group publish your what’s-it-script?

Me: No, they read my manuscript and give me feedback on how to make it better?

Niece: Why don’t you send it to the, ah, what do you call them, the people who make the books?

Me: You mean like the editors and publishers.

Niece: Yeah, why don’t you send your what’s-it-script to the editors and publishers instead of your writers group? Maybe then it will get published.

Me: Hmmm, never thought of that ;-j

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

" ... a man-like life-form of gigantic proportions" The Sasquatch and the writing process


Writers talk a lot about process. Some writers have a ritual where they play classical music, light incense, and sip camomile tea. Then they dance with the muse. Not me.

I like to Sasquatch myself. As writers we not only get to make up words, we get to put a new spin on old favourites. My favourite word is Sasquatch. You know it as a noun, the elusive hairy man/ape like guy (or maybe you knew it as a former boyfriend or husband – I’m not here to judge).

I use the word sasquatch as a verb, as in to sasquatch oneself or to be sasquatched.

To be sasquatched is to sequester yourself in your writing room, eschew all thoughts and practices of modern hygiene such as bathing, and only emerge to endlessly refill you cup of milky tea and occasionally gnaw on some beef jerky.

So I can be heard to say: “I’m going to sasquatch myself this weekend” or “I’m going to be sasquatched this weekend.” The result of sasquatching yourself is that you get a lot of writing done, and people leave you alone (because you smell).

This Sasquatch seems to like beef jerky and could use a manicure. Here’s the quote from which I pulled the title …

“One is forced to conclude that a man-like life-form of gigantic proportions is living at the present time in the wild areas of the north-western United States and British Columbia. If I have given the impression that this conclusion is-to me-profoundly disturbing, then I have made my point. That such a creature should be alive and kicking in our midst, unrecognized and unclassifiable, is a profound blow to the credibility of modern anthropology.”
- Dr. John Napier, Bigfoot, the Yeti and Sasquatch in Myth and Reality

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Bob Cratchit, Luddites and the dark side of technology

People like to make fun of my lack of electronic technological savvy. I am routinely invited to join the 21st century (that’s the century we’re in right?). Heck, I make fun of myself. I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a luddite. Webster’s dictionary definition of luddite is “ …one of a group of early 19th century English workmen destroying laborsaving machinery as a protest.” The current usage describes “ … one who is opposed to change, especially technological change.” It all stems from Ned Ludd, an 18th century Leicestershire workman who destroyed a knitting frame. Rock on Ned. I wouldn’t say I’m opposed to technological change; I’m just waiting for the technology to catch up with me. To me, technology is a tool. If I need it, I will learn how to use it.

I still have a VCR (for taping Coronation Street – yes, I know, PVR – I’m getting there) and I just got my first ipod (which I call my jpod). I’m on facebook, but I’m still at the who-are-all-these-people-and-why-are-they-telling-me-they-don’t-like-cauliflower? stage.

Everything I’ve learnt about Google chat, Google video chat, blogs, websites, and You Tube I’ve learnt from my 11 year old niece. In her words “twitter is for celebrities, facebook is for cool Canadians and math.com is for nerds.” I did however teach myself to upload digital pictures and download podcasts. And I am quickly becoming the Empress of the embedded link.

But I recently had an incident where I thought – I’m there, I’ve crossed over to the technological dark side.

I ran into the president of our community association Caroline, at a conference, and ended up sitting beside her in some of the sessions. Caroline had this notebook that was like a giant accounting ledger, you know the one with the pages embossed with little squares. This is our conversation as I saw her flipping it open from time to time and writing in it:

Me: Did you have to time travel back to Ebenezer Scrooge’s office and snag that ledger off of Bob Cratchit’s desk?

Caroline: (half-hearted guffaw) No, I just bought it in a stationary store, you can get them anywhere.

Me: What do you use it for?

Caroline: (flips open the ledger) I use it for everything. To take notes, make lists, rant and rave (she shows me one of the rants), I stick in pictures, recipes, poems, quotes and newspaper articles. (She keeps flipping) I write down books and movies I want to see. I write my ideas, dreams of things I want to do in life. It has everything…

Me: (interrupting her) So it’s kinda like a blog!? Like a blog but on paper.

Caroline: Yeah, kinda like a blog.

At that moment I knew there was no going back for me. Time to trade in my Sony Walkman for the 21st century. Where do I buy a flying car?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Atticus Catticus and why you should follow submission guidelines ...

This friend of mine Amber has a cat. Well she has two cats, but this is about her cat that is a crabby tabby. His name is Atticus Finch.

The cat goes by a number of aliases including Atty, Atticus Catticus, Weiner Muffin, Stink Box, Stink Bug, and the Jerk. When people come to her house she tells them not to touch Atty because he will hurt them. Hurt them bad. Slice them up like a melon until they bleed. This is why her real estate agent found himself dripping blood on her kitchen floor after being attacked by Atticus Catticus.

“Why would he attempt to pet the cat after you explicitly told him that the cat will go all medieval on him and bleed him out like an old fashioned blood letting?” I asked.

“Because everyone thinks they are frickin’ Dr. Dolittle. Everyone thinks it will be different for them.”

Agents and editors complain about this phenomenon a lot. That’s why they get submissions for things like medieval sonnets about blood letting when they explicitly say they don’t represent/accept medieval sonnets about blood letting. But the author thinks ‘my work is so good that they will stop what they are doing and represent/accept me in this emerging genre of medieval sonnets about blood letting.’ They won’t. I’m not an agent or editor but I know that they won’t. I see a lot of writers put years of their life into writing the novel but no time into doing their homework.

Do your homework or a medieval blood letting may ensue. Submit to an agent or editor who represents/publishes the writing in your genre. If you can’t figure out what genre your work is, then do some more homework and look at similar books and see how they are classified. Quell the urge to break the rules. Until, of course, you are a good enough writer to not only break them, but to rewrite them.
P.S.: Amber’s other cat is called Boo Radley (aka Boo Bear, Bugbear, Boolicious, Booeautiful, and Sexy Boo), and is not crabby.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Shout out to my photographer ...

You'll notice new photos on my blog Three Dead Moths ..., Jacket Flap profile, Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) profile, Facebook, and soon to be on my website. (Older photos, that still represent a reasonable facsimile of me, yet taken by not-so-innocent bystanders, can be seen on my Ezine and Writers Guild of Alberta profiles.)
Wow, I've just blurbed myself like six times when I'm supposed to be giving a shout out to Ashley Bristowe, friend and awesome professional photographer. She did the photos you will see on this blog and those sites, and another one you will soon see on the back of my book cover. She does author photos, portraits, and lots of magazine and newspaper photos. She's currently in Denmark on a Canada Council sponsored photography project with her writer husband Chris Turner.
You can see some of her work on her website. Check it out!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

What Lime Marmalade teaches us about Character Development


A few years ago I traveled to London, England to visit my friend Kate and go to her 40th birthday party. Kate and I met in West Africa in the late 80s. So I hopped over the pond and we had a marvelous reunion. Kate is a nurse so she’s one of those caring, nurturing types. For the first few days I stayed in the attic bedroom, it was very Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? – it even had the wooden stairs that you pull out of the ceiling from the second floor.
The second day I was there Kate woke me up from my jet lagged induced coma. Sun was streaming in through the small attic window, which I had tried desperately to open at about 4 a.m. (but apparently they lock down everything in London).
Kate: Here’s some tea and toast with marmalade (she plopped it down on the table beside the bed).
Me: Oh, no, I don’t like marmalade.
Kate: Eat it anyway and shuuuuddddduppppp about it!
With that Kate turned, her long flowing robe spun in the breeze, and stomped down the attic stairs. Okay, there was no breeze. It was hot and stuffy and there was no air in that attic. Did I mention she’s a caring and nurturing nurse?
So I ate the toast with lime marmalade and loooooovvvvved it.
I loved it so much I wanted it the next day. But it seemed Kate had scrapped the dregs of the jar for me that first day and there was none left. I offered to buy a new jar but Kate didn’t want sugary marmalade in the house for her to be tempted by once I’d left. I knew enough not to buy a glass jar with the stickiest substance in the world in it, and then pack it in my suitcase to take home. Surly, I could find it back in Canada.
When I got home I scoured the supermarkets for it. Lots of lemon and orange marmalade but no lime. It had to be lime. I went to the British store and found it. I had to sell a kidney to pay for the outrageous cost of it being imported from England, but it was worth it. I took that jar home and had toast with lime marmalade until it was done (which took months). Then I was done and haven’t eaten it since.
Characters revels themselves through action and dialogue. Put your characters into situations that stretch them and make them feel uncomfortable. How they cope with the situation – through action and dialogue – reveals their character to the reader. In Dead Bird through the Cat Door, the second in the Megabyte Mystery Series, characters Cyd and Jane are faced with lunch with the evil culprits and are served such Scottish fare as blood pudding and haggis. How they react shows more about their character than me telling you what type of kids they are.
What did my obsessive search for Lime Marmalade tell you about me as a character? Maybe I was just trying to stave off scurvy?