Thursday, October 29, 2009

Do I have enough story in my story? And why you should torture your characters.

Do I have enough story in my story?

That was a question that was asked a lot this past weekend by the presenters at the Surrey International Writers Conference.

Robert Dugoni, New York Times Bestselling author of legal thrillers, presented a workshop on Bringing Your Novel to Life.

Your story has to have enough story to be a story.

What is a story? A story is both a physical journey and an emotional and spiritual journey. Character and plot are side-by-side (or side-by-each as they say in some parts of Canada). The story unfolds through the character’s POV.

In a classic story structure you have a character in an everyday world who is called to adventure – an incident that starts the story. Opening scenes are external, not in someone’s head. There should be a story question for the overall novel (a long story question) and a series of questions (or obstacles) in each scene. In between the opening and the conclusion of the long story goal, pose a story question (after question) that creates tension.

If you want people to care about your characters, write about heroes. Write about people you want to be. Characters have to be real and they have to be flawed (and I'd add likable). This will emotionally invested the reader in your characters.

Robert suggests we torture our characters. Readers love it when our characters are in peril. Conflict is much more interesting than harmony.

Next post: What does the Buddha have to do with character development? And why has Jocosa of the Earrings taken a vow to stop cutting her hair. Intrigued? I can't imagine why you wouldn't be with a double-barreled cliff hanger like that!

Here’s a picture of a torture machine you can put your characters through ;-j

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Headhunters, micro-tension and aliens up the protag’s nose …

This was going to be the mother of all blog posts about the Surrey International Writers Conference that I attended last week, but I decided to break it up into a series of blog posts.

Once again the conference rocked in its awesomeness. It is truly one of the best conferences in North America!

If you haven’t heard of the SiWC, in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada then you’re more of a Sasquatch writer than I am. I attended workshops presented by some of the top authors, editors and agents the world over. Each participant had a blue pencil session with an author, as well as an agent/editor meeting. As a participant with a book published I was invited to participate in the book fair.

For those of you who did not attend, I thought I’d write about some of the highlights for me, and some of the learning’s I took away from a writing POV.

The highlight for me was when they announced the publication of my debut novel Dead Frog on the Porch as a Surrey success story (in front of 500 people). Surrey was instrumental in my quest to find my publisher Gumboot Books. Last year they announced the contract at Surrey and now a year later the book is published!

Another highlight was seeing my writer friends again. Believe it or not, I have writer friends in Calgary who I only manage to see once a year at Surrey, and I met a lot of new writers from Calgary. I also hung out with my writer friend from New York who you know as Jocosa of the Earrings. She was a rock star at Surrey this year and was invited to submit to one of North America’s top agents.

I had a really good blue pencil session with Richard Scrimger. He writes these awesome books for kids where the protag has an alien from Jupiter living in his nose (who knew!?).

Here are some of the mots justes (translated from French that means super awesome dead on advice) from the conference workshops.

The first Master Class was with Michael Slade. Michael Slade is a pseudonym of Vancouver criminal lawyer Jay Clarke and his daughter Rebecca Clarke. He is a bestselling author of mystery/triller novels.

Plot is not an idea. Move an idea into plot. A story requires two separate ideas that come into collision or conflict. His advice was to take the worst thing that happened to you in life and figure out the neurosis that came out of it. Use that to drive your story. For him it was headhunters. Turns out he saw an image of a headhunter on a magazine when he was young and shortly after, his father was killed in a plane crash. He developed an irrational fear of headhunters and the store where the magazine was sold. He channeled that fear into the novel Headhunter. If the image above freaks you out, check out the kids goofing on headhunters.

Other bits of info:

Flash backs interrupt the story and the tension. The three elements of suspense are: fear, hope, and a tight time limit. And finally, for those writers inclined to Sasquatch themselves, get out and live your story, the world is writing your story for you.

The Master Class with Donald Maass was awesome as usual. It was called Writing the Irresistible Novel. Donald has a new book out called The Fire in Fiction: passion, Purpose and Techniques to make your novel great.

Donald took us through a guided process where we rewrote scenes from a work in progress. He said that most manuscripts he sees as an agent don’t commit themselves to the characters and the story. He said resistance is a signpost you must push past as you are writing toward an irresistible novel. As writers, he said, we must go toward the resistance and go toward what makes us uncomfortable in the character and plot to write the irresistible novel. The character needs to feel what they feel all the time. He said the character has to be alive and fully committed to the moment each and every moment.

Donald Maass came up with the concept of having ‘conflict on every page’ (yes, he’s that guy) well now he’s come up with ‘micro-tension’ (and will hereafter be known as the micro-tension guy). There are three levels on which a novel needs to work at all times: plot, scenes and line-by-line tension (aka micro-tension). Micro-tension makes us uncertain about what happens next. Micro-tension is the simmering tension, the expectation of change, the friction between friends, internal tension, and conflicting emotions. Action does not automatically create tension. Tension comes through emotions.

Next post: Do I have enough story in my story?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Dead Frog on the Porch has leaped onto Amazon!

The friend I went to India with, Amber, says that all of my stories start with “Back in the 80s …” and by 80s she means the 1880s! Sure, a lot of my stories start with “Back in the 80s …” but I don’t think that things were better then. In fact, I’m loving what technology has done to book marketing and social networking.
In the 80s there was a popular television commercial for shampoo, with the tag line “I told two friends, and they told two friends and so on, and so on.” If you admit to being around in the 80s you’ll remember it. If you weren’t around in the 80s then check it out below. And yes, that is Heather Locklear, complete with the big hair from the 80s. (I think the video has been locked in a dusty vault since the 80s because the sound quality is crappy).
That commercial is an analogy for social networking. Now a-days you can ‘tell two friends’ (and many more) through email, face book, blogs, twitter etc., with the click of a mouse. It’s much easier to get the word out far and wide. Internet social networking is the super caffeinated, hyped up, you’re-not-in-the-80s-anymore-Dorothy version of that commercial.
This brings me to my point (yes, I have one thank you!). My debut novel for middle-grade readers Dead Frog on the Porch is now on, and
I’m requesting (nay, challenging) all of my blog readers and face book friends to ‘tell two friends’ (and then some!), to fully launch my novel into the blogosphere! (or should that be the webospher?!).
Oh, yes, you know Amber from her Forgotten Bookmarks fame and her bloodletting Cat Atticus from Atticus Catticus and Why You Should Follow Submission Guidelines.
Take it away Heather.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Out of the inkwell and on to the page ...

Everyone I meet is envious of my writers’ group. I call it my group, but it was around long before I moved here. I thought it started back before Jesus left Moose Jaw, but The Kensington Writers’ Group (KWG) started 24 years ago. Everyone in the group, me being the latest, has now been published. For all of us it has been a slow, steady, and incremental climb out of the inkwell and on to the published page. We developed our skills as writers together and we got better at critiquing our own, and each other’s work. It's a testament to the group members that it is still together after all this time. I reflected on some of the challenges of keeping a group together in my article “What do I know from Kosher: Lessons Learned from a Cross Cultural Writers’ Group.”

Many of the founding members, like current member Allan Serafino, and previous members, poet Bob Stallworthy, and Judy Galbraith, took a writing course at the University of Calgary in 1985 from Leslie Bell. Allan arranged for them to meet at his work, the Scouts Canada office, for the month of June. We continued to meet there up until Allan retired a few years ago.

The group quickly added a few more members and did a joint publication of short stories and poems called Tilted to the Plane of the World (1987, Galbraith Publishing). “Numerous copies of which apparently still serve as a structural foundation for Judy’s basement,” said Allan.

Over the ensuing years several members were added and subtracted. The current contingent reflects a major shift around the turn of the century to short story writers and novelists. That’s when I infiltrated the group and brought two children’s writers with me from another group.

“Our purpose now, as it was way back then, was to create a “working” writers’ group that was serious about helping each other en route to publication, and definitely not a social club. I think the working atmosphere of an office space helped to do that,” Allan pointed out.

Allan Serafino will be at the Calgary Children’s Book Conference and Fair, as will I, on November 14, 2009. He has published three collections of poetry, Troubled Dreams (1995), Alien States (1999), and Another Way (2003) from Ekstasis Editions, Victoria, as well he has had numerous poems published in Canadian, American, UK and Australian magazines. He was the founding President of the Calgary Writers Association and both past President and Poetry Editor of Dandelion and blue buffalo magazines. His first novel for young adults, Blood Jaguar, was published by LTD Books, in May, 2002. It was runner–up winner of the Golden Eagle Children’s Choice Book Awards. Raedwald’s Ghost is the follow up companion novel. The young adult adventure Seven Words for Sand, published in October, 2004, has been short–listed for several awards. A fourth novel, The Memory Project is pending.

I'll be profiling other members of the group over the next couple of months.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Dead Frog leaped off the Porch … and on to the bookshelf!

As I was driving to the launch today the Miley Cyrus song Party in the USA came on. I cranked it up. I’ve heard the song a gizillion times because my niece likes it, but I had never really listened to the lyrics. Stuck in pre-football game traffic on Crowchild Trail, (how dare the Calgary Stampeders and the Saskatchewan Roughriders schedule a game for the day of my book launch!), watching each minute tick by, I had the chance to listen to the lyrics.

So I put my hands up, they’re playin’ my song. The butterflies fly away.

Got my hands up, they’re playin’ my song. And now I’m gonna be okay.

When those lyrics came on I got a little choked up and was overcome by emotion (which is unusual for we strong prairie types). It wasn't because I can relate to a teenage pop star with two personas I can never sort out despite repeated explanation from my niece. But because the book being published and launched was the culmination of a dream, hope, a lot of hard work and persistence (and of course, stalking ;-j). The feeling of accomplishment washed over me. Like it should when any of us accomplish anything significant. I was inspired by Miley and hit with the sense that inspiration and creativity know no boundaries, no age limit, and no restrictions. I think Thursday's blog post highlighting Mariatu Kamara proved that.

Got my hands up, they’re playin’ my song. And now I’m gonna be okay.

The book is my song. I decided to rock that launch and rock it I did.

The launch was an overwhelming success. The bookstore sold out of books and then some!

My good writerly friend Shenaaz Nanji, introduced me. Shenaaz was nominated for the Governor General’s award for Literature (2008) for her young adult novel Child of Dandelions.

Thanks to Sue Hill and the staff at Monkeyshines Children’s Book Store.

Thanks to everyone who attended the launch. I hope you enjoy the book! I hope I didn't traumatize my friend Jane by having her re-live the accidental killing of her frog that is described in graphic (comic) detail in the opening pages experience. The picture up top is two of my cousins and I at the reading.

Dead Frog on the Porch is available in Calgary at Monkeyshines, Pages in Kensington, and Owl's Nest Books. And in Edmonton at Greenwood’s Book Shoppe – Small Worlds.

The book was just launched on and will be on shortly.

Sing us out Myley …

Friday, October 16, 2009

Dead Frog on the Porch … is on the porch!

The book arrived today! It’s a real live book! Oh, what a feeling holding that book in my dry, chapped, Calgary weather beaten hands. The book is here, the drycleaner found the pants that I plan on wearing to the book launch, and there is a cake with a very exacting facsimile of the cover etched in icing! Life is good! The book looks and feels awesome. Kudos to Gumboot Books.
Here’s what I’ve learned this week while waiting for my debut novel Dead Frog on the Porch to arrive:
  • standing in your living room, starring out the picture window, holding your arms up and yelling to the delivery gods “where’s the truck” does not make the truck appear, it just confirms what your neighbours already think about you;
  • the Purolator truck racing by your house will not turn into a DHL truck no matter how much you want it to (that goes equally for the plumbing, furnace and city water trucks); and,
  • the delivery guy will probably materialize as soon as the hair dye you’ve applied starts dripping down your forehead.

The launch is tomorrow, Saturday October 17th, at 1 p.m. at MonkeyShines Children's Book Store, in Calgary at 113, 2215-33rd Ave. S.W.

Let there be cake. Oh, there will be cake!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Waiting for the dead frog to arrive ...

In order to take my mind off the fact that my book launch is in two days and the books haven’t arrived, the drycleaner lost the pants I want to wear to my launch and that my phone hasn’t been the same since I dropped it in the tub I went to Wordfest yesterday. Oh, yeah, I ran out of cat food and the cats have been nibbling on the dry skin on my heels, but that’s another blog post.

I went to see my writer friend Rukhsana Khan. I meet Rukhsana in 1990 in a writing for children class taught by Barbara Greenwood in Toronto. After the class ended I organized the members of the class into a critiquing group. The group lasted until I moved to Calgary, then a few of the more dedicated members kept meeting. Many of the lessons I learned in that group, I wrote about in"What do I know from Kosher: Lessons Learned in a Cross Cultural Writers' group." Since then Rukhsana has gone on to publish 11 books! She’s one of the hardest working writers I know. Her latest is Wanting Mor (Groundwood 2009) it’s set in post Taliban Afghanistan and is the story of a young girl who’s mother dies. The girl is abandoned in a market by her father. Rukhsana presented to highschool students and I have to say she rocked the auditorium! They laughed, they were moved to tears, and they were inspired by her quest to become a writer.

The other presenter was Mariatu Kamara her book, written with Susan McClelland is The Bite of the Mango. Mariatu’s was born in Sierra Leone and lead a carefree life until she was captured by rebels when she was 12. They cut off both of her hands. The Bite of the Mango is the story of her journey from the African bush, to a refugee camp, and final to Canada where she is in university. It’s a story of survival, redemption, and forgiveness. She told the students that she never considered revenge. Both speakers were inspirational, entertaining and informative. If you have an opportunity to see either of them at Wordfest over the next week I’d recommend it. Also, check out their books.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Advanced praise for Dead Frog on the Porch and a slightly menacing email from a young reader

wanted to give a big shout out to the two writers who gave me back (and inside) of the book quotes. They are Teresa Toten and Shenaaz Nanji.

I first met Teresa in Peter Carver’s writing for children workshop at George Brown College in Toronto in the early 1990s. When I entered this class I knew I was playing with the big dogs now. Many writers in the group have not only gone on to be published, but they have gone on to have their work recognized with literary nominations and awards. When I started the class, Teresa’s first book The Onlyhouse, was put under contract. This didn’t stop her from being helpful and supportive of the new dogs in the class. I still have a hand written critique she did of an earlier version of the manuscript.

Shenaaz Nanji is currently in my writers’ group and will get a longer writer up when I profile each group member. I first met her in the writer’s community in Calgary. Her enthusiasm for writing and desire to continuously grow as a writer made me realize I needed her in the group I had formed. When I outgrew the group I left her holding a whole plate of samosas (“Jan, these other ladies don't eat samosas the way you do!”) and I infiltrated her into the group I had just joined (and the group we are still in).

Both of these talented writers have been nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Literature. For those of you outside of Canada, this is the country’s highest literary award. When I was telling my niece how excited I was to have two GG nominees write my quotes she said: “You should be one of those – a GG nominee.” Yes, I will get right on that!

Here are the quotes for Dead Frog on the Porch:

"Shady scientists, fraudulent frogs, and two terrific twins adds up to a delightful mystery. Cynthia and Jane are fearless in their quest to end "crimes against amphibians." This story is full of outsized characters, outrageous creatures and a sweet goofy humour that propels each page. Tons of fun!"

Teresa Toten Author of The Game, Governor General Awards nominee 2001; and Me and the Blonds, Governor General Awards finalist 2006.

“Readers who enjoy a good laugh and a good mystery will devour this uproarious, fast-paced story in which the feisty twin sisters Cyd and Jane take a megabyte out of crime! It is Nancy Drew for the iPod generation! Markley’s debut novel filled with suspense and zany humour and told with pizzazz ushers in a new voice in the mystery genre. A sure winner!”

Shenaaz Nanji Author of Child of Dandelions Governor General Award Finalist 2008.

It’s a good thing the book will be available in the next couple of days because I'm beginning to feel the pressure already. I received a menacing and slightly ‘threatening’ email from a young reader, the daughter of a friend of mine. You may remember Lydia from the blog post Getting Down and Dirty or Why you need to get the words right.

Here’s the email:

Hi Jan:

For my birhtday party, the loot bag is going to be your book. i thought you shoud know. so it better be out by then. lydia

My response: Ohhhhhh, I'm shaking in my bunny slippers!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Sasquatch - a Superhero for Writers

Someday I'll do a blog post that doesn't involve the Sasquatch, but it's not today.
I've received another Blog award. It was from Jade, over at Jade Hears Voices (I think they have medication for that now). Jade is one of my followers (that word makes me want to find a balcony and belt out the lyrics from Don't cry for me Argentina) and describes herself as a slightly crazed wannabe writer - I think slightly crazed is a prerequisite to being any kind of a writer. Check out her blog, she's got a funny and quirky down under kinda voice to her writing.
This time it was the Batman Looking Over Gotham (Blogman) Award. Which is fitting because I had a crush on the original Batman when I was 12 years old. I missed most of the Batman movies as an adult because I was out of the country at the time. But I did manage to catch the one with Val Kilmer as Batman with my nephews years ago. The only seats left were in the front row and I spent the whole movie staring up Val Kilmer's noes. But, really I digress here ...
So these are the conditions of getting the award...
1. Tell us your favorite superhero and why 2. Copy the badge and post it to your blog 3. Present the badge to five other worthy bloggers 4. Post links to five people you nominate 5. Let your nominees know they've been chosen
Despite my early crush on Batman, he's not the superhero I would choose. It's an unlikely choice, but I'd have to say that the Sasquatch is my favourite superhero; and I think writers the world over should adopt him as their superhero.
The facts don't lie. Sasquatch has the super ability to sequester himself for long periods of time and eschew human contact for even longer periods of time. Sasquatch has the super human ability to stand the smell of his unwashed body for longer than most writers can. And despite his lack of hygiene and avoidance of human contact, he appears to have access to his emotions (if we chase him, does he not flee? if we find some of his fur, do we not DNA him?) which is essential for a writer.
Those are qualities that writers value, so why not declare the Sasquatch the writers' superhero? Why not indeed. I challenge anyone to come up with a better superhero for writers.
My latest favourite blogs that I would pass this award on to are:
That's all I can think of right now ... must return to Sasquatch cave ... must keep writing ...;-j

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Three Dead Moths gets Wordled!

Wordle: Dead Frog on the Porch
Here's something cool. It's called Wordle. It takes the text on 
your blog or website and converts it into a graphic. 
Very cool. I was surprised that the word 'Sasquatch' didn't come up more often ;-j
I found the link on the Dystel and Goderich site. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Advice I got from Candace Bushnell

On the eve of the publication of my debut novel Dead Frog on the Porch I got some advice from Candace Bushnell, celebrated author of Sex and the City (and numerous other novels). She was speaking at an entrepreneurial/motivational conference in Calgary, Alberta called the Business of Bliss Live a Life you Love.
It was put on by a group called the Glinda Girls - Business women who are "Creators of Cool and Purveyors of Possibility." There were a number of motivational speakers including the MC Peter Walsh, who works on the Oprah Winfrey Show and The Learning Channel's show Clean Sweep. Other speakers included life coach and author Martha Beck, entrepreneur, author and motivational speaker Danielle LaPorte, and visionary entrepreneur Ben Barry who started his own modeling agency when he was 14 and continues to change the face of fashion. Local entrepreneur Jane Walter, creator of the company organicKidz which produces stainless steel baby bottles, was recognized for the overwhelming success of her new company. It was a truly fabulous day and the speakers were inspirational.
Candace spoke about her process of writing, and I was happy to hear that she Sasquatches herself. She mentioned that she just spent the last ten days in her cottage writing. She would write for up to eight hours a day and then collapse on the couch to watch Dr. Phil and Judge Judy. She also talked about the lean days, and how she was a writer for more than a decade before she had her first book published.
I asked her if she had any advice for me, a debut author, on the eve of the publication of my first novel. Her answer: "Don't have too many expectations." She explained that she didn't mean to be discouraging, but that you shouldn't have high expectations for your first book. She recounted the moment when the galleys from Sex and the City arrived for her to review, and she exclaimed in despair: "Where is my red carpet moment!" She said I should celebrate moments in the process of writing, like when I finished the book and found out it was going to be published. Those were my red carpet moments. She said that "success comes from commitment - commitment to the kraft and art of writing, and commitment to the writing itself. Aspire to write a great book." Excellent advice.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Brutal Truths about Publishing

There’s a good book that I think every writer aspiring to be published should read. It’s called Some Writers Deserve to Starve: 31 Brutal Truths about the Publishing Industry by Elaura Niles. I read it and I agreed with 30 of her brutal truths. There’s one I had a lot of trouble with. While it may be a brutal truth, I have rarely experienced it. It’s this one: Truth #12: Writers Rarely Help Other Writers.

I won’t even go into the whole ‘writing is a solitary activity’ shtick. We all know that. Natalie Goldberg in her book Wild Mind: Living the Writers Life, recounts a conversation she had with her Zen Master. She complained about how lonely it is to be a writer. His response: “Anything you do deeply is very lonely.”

In my many years as a writer, when I’ve left my Sasquatch cave, I’ve found my fellow cave dwelling, ink spillers to be supportive. I can only recall two instances when a writer wouldn’t help me out with a piece of advice or the name of an editor. Most writers I know, in the various writing communities I belong to, are kind, enthusiastic, and generous with their support. From the first draft, through the rewrites and critiques, to the back of the book cover quotes, my writer friends have been there for me.

I’ve found the Surrey International Writers' Conference (SiWC) to be a particularly supportive atmosphere for writers at all stages in their development. Every year I meet new writers and last year was no different. Writers come from all over the world to attend writing workshops, pitch to editors, and stalk agents ;-j

Last year I met Jocosa, she’s from New York and writes woman’s romance. Not only is she a diligent and gifted writer, she’s a super supportive friend. She’s one of the sweetest people I know, and has the coolest earrings. Her earrings are so cool that I have been known to muse out loud that there wouldn’t be a court in the land that would convict a writer for breaking another writer's mechanical pencil to try to get her funky earrings (not that anyone would ever do that).

Here’s an e-card she sent me this summer as I was doing the final revisions on my debut novel Dead Frog on the Porch.

Jocosa was one of a group of writers I hung out with at the conference last year. The others were Jeff, who wrote a heartfelt and poetic young adult manuscript about a quest for self-discovery set in an Aboriginal community, Canadian author Cathy Beveridge who has several contemporary novels for young adults and historical novels for middle grade readers published, and Frances Hern who’s in my writers’ group, and has one picture book and two works of historical young adult non-fiction published.

The brutal truth that I’ve found about publishing is that you need a supportive group of writing friends and they are everywhere to be found. Start forming your network. SiWC is a good place to start.

Here’s to another great, productive conference at Surrey. ;-J