Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Velociraptors, missed connections and getting caught between knitting needles

My favourite part of Jurassic Park was when things went terribly wrong. There was action, conflict and characters (and dinosaurs) at each other’s throats. Something similar happened when I went to meet the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) London members a couple of weeks ago. I described the elusive and divinci code like directions of Candy Gourley’s that I had to crack in a previous blog post. So, I headed out, with my friend Kate to meet at the appointed place and time at the Royal Festival Hall. When we got there we circled the whole building and then I saw it, written in big bold lettering.

“Royal Albert Hall” I said.

“Yes,” Kate replied “Royal Albert Hall.”

“Royal Albert Hall” I repeated.

“Yes, Royal Albert Hall,” Kate repeated, as if I had just read my first sentence ever.

“But we’re supposed to be at Royal Festival Hall!” I said.

That’s when we were at each other’s throats like those velociraptors.

Actually, it was all very polite British and Canadian behaviour with both of us taking partial-maybe-might have been me-might have been you responsibility for the mix up.

We hopped a cab. In the cab we got a text from Candy saying that the SCBWI group was in amongst a “large group of knitters.”

Quite convinced it was a blunder of fast texting, Kate and I proceeded to figure out what Candy really meant because why would knitters surround a small group of children’s writers? There wasn't a centuries long feud between the knitters and the scribes that I didn't know about, right?!

When we got there we found the SCBWIers surrounded by a large public display of knitting. Taking knitting to the mean streets of London. Knit one, pearl two hundred or so knitters. Seems it was a stitch and (word that rhymes with stitch that in common usage means: to complain) session that was instigated by a call to yarns on a website. (Why can’t we get that many people out to book readings…?! Just saying!).

Kate (a non-writer – I know right!? I guess I have to have some friends who aren’t writers) and I had a lovely time with Candy Gourlay, Nick Cross, Jenny Woolf and Jackie Marchant talking children’s book writing, drinking wine, and trying to decipher a menu that had things like duck confit and egg pie on it.

The weirdness with directions didn’t stop there. Candy and I discovered that we were going to be on the same flight to the SCBWI Symposium in Bologna. That morning Kate got a text from Candy saying she was taking an earlier flight.

Fast forward through the seething masses of humanity that accompanied me on the gong show that was my flight to Bologna on Ryan Air to me walking with my nephew through the major square in Bologna that evening.

Candy is walking toward us. Here’s the conversation that followed:

Candy: Oh, good, you got my text.

Me: Yes, the one that said you were taking an earlier flight.

Candy: Well, you must have gotten the other one telling you to meet me here at Neptune’s statue at 6:45 pm because you’re right on time.

Me: That wasn’t my phone that was Kate’s phone that you left the text on. I never got the second text.

Candy: Then how did you know to meet me here?

Me: Weird geographical, directional karma.

So it went on like that until we had exhausted the bizarreness of it and grew weary with contemplating the cosmic geographical phenomenon of me showing up on time, at the right place, for a meeting I didn’t know I had.

Next blog post: The SCBWI Bologna Symposium, silly putty and the record player.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Characters who talk about me behind my back, packing and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups

So, I’m at the ‘seriously-I-don’t-have-more-clean-underwear?!’ stage of packing for my trip to London and the SCBWI Symposium at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair when I realized that my main protag Cyd jumped out of my book and wrote a guest posts on Ailie Mooney's blog, the main character of Melanie Jackson’s y/a novel Midnight Blue Marble.

Writers talk about characters that have a mind of their own and take over the story. I’ve experienced that. In the first Megabyte Mystery Dead Frog on the Porch the dad was on sabbatical and the mom was around. In the second in the series Dead Bird through the Cat Door the mom wasn’t going to be in the book and the dad would be the main parent. Then the girls’ teenage sidekick Todd (he had a small part in the first book) developed a crush on the mom so I had to leave her in.

But never have I experienced a character leaving the pages of the book and writing a blog post. The blog post is called Out, Out Damned Frog. And Cyd talks about me which is a bit creepy since she's never met me! Check it out!

I’ll be taking a bag of assorted Reese’s Peanut Butter products to my friend Kate in London. You’ll remember Kate from the blog post about what lime marmalade teaches us about character development. Well it turns out that Kate loves Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups more than Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups love themselves! Mind you, she's trusting me with them and who knows how many will be left after the flight ….

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Obscure directions, disappearing bees, and King Tut

I conducted my research for my Master of Arts Socio/Cultural Anthropology degree on the Peigan Nation (now known as Piikani) in southern Alberta. I was researching how people created their cultural identity through their participation in spiritual and cultural activities. So, I went to a lot of ceremonies, and interviewed elders and participants in their homes on the First Nation. When I asked for directions to the ceremonies or the homes, inevitable the directions would be something like this: 'do you know where the tall skinny tree is where the fat tree used to be?' My reply: ‘ah, noooo!’ Eventually I figured it out – even with my self-confessed navigational deficit disorder. But it makes sense that in a rural setting the landmarks would be trees or coulees.

So imagine my surprise, when I set up a meeting with members of the London chapter of Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), and the directions I got from writer Candy Gourlay were like this: 'the best spot to meet is just beyond the shop, to the left of the bar near the tall plate glass windows. Or just look for the table to just beyond the shop (there's a small shop to the left of the cafe, the bar is directly behind the cafe so we will be to the left of that).'

C’est what!? You lost me at plate glass window! Thank goodness for text messaging! I’m looking forward to meeting the SCBWIers in London and talking about writing for children.

I’ll also be doing some research for the third in the MegaByte Mystery series Dead Bee in the Sarcophagus. Egyptologists, ancient honey, and King Tut’s tomb lead Cyd and Jane on a quest to discover why the bees are disappearing. I’ll be spending some time researching the Egyptology exhibit in the British Museum.

Then I'm headed to Bologna for the SCBWI Symposium and Showcase at the Bologna Children's Book Fair! Tres exciting! I wonder if there are any tall skinny trees there ...

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Thank Buddha for editing – it’s not about the writing it’s about the editing

Writers complain about rewriting and editing. I say, thank Buddha (or the pray guy of your choice) for editing. What if we had to go with the first thing we flung on the page. What if we had to use the first half-baked idea that came into our milky-tea addled brains. Thank Buddha for the sober second chance (and third and forth) that rewriting gives us.

I am reminded of two incidents. The first was with my friend Sandy. We took a pottery class together. She had taken one before but had forgotten how hard it was. She’d forgotten that it takes about three years to learn how to centre the clay on the wheel. She’d forgotten about the extensive clean up ritual that involved scrapping the dried clay off the table so there wouldn't be any clay dust in the air. It takes a long time not to suck at pottery. So, as the first class progressed, we both realized our visions of giving clay mugs and pots away for Christmas were dashed. Attempt after attempt resulted in Sandy destroying her pottery.

“I’m no good at this,” she grumbled.

“Think of each attempt as an entry into the diary of your progress as a potter,” I said.

“You better have Scotch at your house,” she countered. My house was within walking distance of the studio.

By the time the class was finished, Sandy realized that if she quit she wouldn’t get her money back. She was going to get a doctor’s note saying she was allergic to clay.

Janet Reid posted an inspiring story on her blog about a ceramic artist and the process she goes through creating a pot. Instead of deleting words and editing a sentence, she smashes each pot that isn't perfect to discover why, and to start again.

The other incident was in Peter Carver’s Writing for Children class in Toronto. One woman was late for the class. She rushed in and declared that she had pulled over on the side of the road to write a story about a dog. Her daughter, who was teaching in a remote northern community, had phoned the woman before class and told her about this stray dog. She read the story in class. She had the story down as a narrative (all telling, no showing) now she needed to write it as a story.

In your development as a writer, at a certain point it’s not about the writing. The writing is good. In fact the writing is as fine as sour ju jubes dipped in chocolate. It’s about the editing. It’s about the story. It’s about dissecting your story like a frog soaking in formaldehyde to see what works, and what needs to change to make it work as a story.

Once again, thank the supreme being of your choice for editing.

Sandy didn’t quit pottery, she did get better, and the scotch helped.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Why am I such a good literary stalker?

If you've followed this blog for a while, you'll know that I believe the three keys to getting published are re-writing, persistence, and stalking.
I will be off to the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Symposium in Bologna in a week or so (more on that in future posts) and it got me thinking about literary stalking, the original networkers, and my older nephew Peter - who I'll be able to visit while I'm there.
Peter did a year of university in Thailand. He spent some time traveling around on his own with a backpack. Travelers are the original networkers - as soon as you arrive somewhere you seek out other travelers and exchange stories and tips about where you’ve been.

At one place, a fellow traveller regaled my nephew with his travel tales. My nephew stopped him and said: “Dude, you think you’re hardcore, my aunt did this in the 80s!”

Yes, the 80s, that was before they invented anything like the Internet, electronic banking, and gum. I’ll be the first to admit traveling is much easier with all those things, especially the gum.

The other thing I did in the 80s (and 90s) was live through two recessions in my working life. In order to get a job you had to stalk the hidden job market. That meant cold calling and following up on a regular basis to see if there might be a job. You learned to follow up in a persistent, yet professional manner. You kept your ears tuned to opportunities by networking. Take the same approach when you approach publishers and agents. Be professional. It’s like a job application/interview. You need them more than they need you.

The other reason I’m such a good literary stalker is that I worked as a journalist for many years when the only stalking tool was the phone book and your network of professional contacts. It kills me when someone searches the internet to find someone, and when they come up with nothing they don’t even bother to look in the phone book where inevitably the person is listed.

The internet has made it much easier to do your homework about a publisher or an agent before you submit.

And we've learned from my friend Amber's cat, Atticus Catticus, what happens when we don't do our homework and don't follow submission guidelines.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Roots of my empathy, exotic ideas, and the bread truck

I spent a lovely day presenting to four classes at the Webber Academy in Calgary yesterday. The students were in grades 4, 5 & 6. They had some interesting questions. After hearing me read the first chapter of my debut novel Dead Frog on the Porch. One boy asked how authors get such “exotic ideas to write about.” Hmmm giant genetically stretched frogs and protags who want to save the world one frog at a time – don’t all authors have ideas like that? We did a writing exercise (and they created some awesome writing) and I talked about how writers write what they know and what they feel.

Then another boy asked what books had inspired me.

This got me thinking about what I read as a child. My parents had a den/library in our house where I discovered many books over the course of my life and that’s where I found my favourtie book Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham.

There was the requisite Funk and Wagnall Encyclopedia set, and up until recently my parents thought that one of their grandchildren could use them (Hello! Have you heard of the Internet?) Of course there were books from the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series. My brothers gravitated toward the Hardy Boys while I read every Nancy Drew mystery and swapped books with my childhood friend Sandy. I loved The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.

But there was one book that I don’t know the title of. It was a small hard-backed blue children’s book about children in a Japanese dye sweatshop that profoundly affected me and I believe formed the roots of my empathy. The bookcase was where I hid the candy the bread man gave me (seriously, how old am I? The bread man?!) that I’m pretty sure my brother ate. Every time I go back home I search the bookcase for that thin volume and the candy. I’m sure they are both in there somewhere.

Does anyone know the book I am talking about? It would have been published in the 60s or before?

I am always thrilled to be in a school library where the teachers and librarians are passionate about reading and writing, and the Webber Academy was such a place. It’s a school full of readers and budding writers.

What books helped form the roots of your empathy?

P.S.: The bread truck of my childhood looked nothing like this; but, it did run over my friend Jane's wiener dog.