Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Setting as story

A waymarker along the South Downs Way

One of my favourite places in the world is the South Downs Way, an ancient 106-mile trail which runs through the countryside between Eastbourne, Sussex and Winchester, Hampshire in southern England. (Cooincidentally, I was born in Eastbourne, and my family has lived in Winchester for the past 35+ years).

A few years ago I did a solo hike - covering 85 miles of the South Downs Way from Winchester to Clayton in eight days - before being felled by a bone infection in my leg.

Each visit I make to England I do one stretch of it or another with my uncle, who is 'up on the hills' every day, as he's been for the past 50 years or so.
Last year my husband, Uncle Jim, and I explored the Cuckmere Haven, one of those ox-bow shaped rivers you might have read about in school. We ended our walk standing on the beach in the shadows of the Seven Sisters, a spectacular series of chalk cliffs that run along the Sussex coast.

Cuckmere Haven / Exeat Country Park, Sussex, England

High above us to the east was a road, next to which stood a small row of houses sharing what must be been a spectacular view of the English Channel. The day we visted was damp and blustery, but I know this part of the English countryside experiences all kinds of weather.

I've been thinking about those houses,their history, who might live there, and the affect that weather has on how people react and interact to their environment. (Having a borderline case of Seasonal Affective Disorder always makes me wonder how other people feel when the sun is shining elsewhere, but not on them!)

So using this evocative setting, in the past month I've started to make notes for a novel entitled And She Lived by the Sea which answers some of the questions that this view evokes. In a week or so, rain or shine, I hope be standing again on the beach in the shadow of the South Downs, seeing what other impressions and ideas I can gather for my writing.

Setting can provide powerful germs for story, whether it's close to home or far away in a place you might just visit once. It's often just a matter of taking in the scene with all your senses, then wondering What if? or Why?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

After the conference...

If someone were to conduct an 'exit poll' of writing conference participants , to see who had been invited by editors and agents to formally submit their work to them, and then they were to conduct another at the beginning of the conference the following year, I wonder how many writers they'd find had followed through on such invitations.

Not many, I'd bet.

I know the feeling. You plan your pitch, perfect your elevator speech so that when you run into anyone anywhere - the washroom, lunch line-up, or at the bar - you can give them a good, clear idea of the compelling project you're working on. You manage to do it almost word-perfectly at the agent's or editor's appointment. They say the right things, and give you their card. Tell you to send three chapters and a synopsis, the whole thing, tell you to contact them as soon as the conference is over.

Then you go home.

Where you look at the work again, and start to get some doubts, or get swamped by all the laundry or dirty dishes that accumulated while you were at the conference, get sidelined by everything in your Inbox when you get back to work, start to think about Christmas that will be here sooner than you think....

.... and soon you've let this chance slip by.


Years ago I pitched a YA novel to a senior editor of a reputable children's publisher. She listened closely, got quite excited, then told me that she didn't handle YA work. But her colleague did. Here was his card. I was not to wait. I was to call him on Monday. I was to explain I'd talked to her and that she'd told me to contact him and that I would be sending him an outline and three chapters as soon as I put down the phone.

Did I?

Hell, no. Even through the story outline was well-developed and I had about 120 good pages and the topic was timely, I got cold feet.

That book, Jimmy's River, sits in my file.

Meanwhile, I've published articles and short stories, contributed to anthologies, won contests.

Now I'm working on my novel Who Do You Wish Was With Us. This time next year it will be done and I'll be pitching itat the Surrey Writers' Conference. And if I'm asked to submit the work to anyone, I'll do it.

If an agent or editor showed interest in your work at the Surrey international Writers Conference which ended just one week ago, follow up on their invitation. You'll be one of the few that do.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

When the pen IS mightier...than just about anything

So, I'm in the third day of a three-day contract to record the proceedings of a pretty high-level symposium. I don't use a laptop to record notes as I'm faster in that setting with a pen, and someone using a laptop nearby can be intrusive for session participants.

I've been writing for two days. Have pages and pages of notes. But my contract states that I need to record the last session on the third day - a de-briefing meeting - verbatim. So I know this time I will have to rely on technology.

I make sure I have the right equipment. I test it the night before and the morning of, in my hotel room. I get to the venue early. Set up. Test it again. Grab a juice and a few carrot sticks from the lunch table as the meeting participants start to flow into the room. Then I relax for a few minutes before things get going.

The facilitator calls the group to order and makes a few introductory remarks. And I hit 'record'.

I watch the sound levels on my laptop screen to make sure it's recording, then return my attention to my notebook (wanting to look busy as much as thinking that I need to make much in the way of meaningful notes).

I'm engaged by the discussion (it's in a field I'm familiar with, on a subject I feel strongly about), and only after about five minutes or so that I check my computer screen again.

The sound level shows a flatline.

I hit 'record' again, hoping I haven't missed much. This time keeping my eye on the screen I see, to my horror, that the program will record for only 120 seconds each time before it quits. And I have to hit 'record again'. For two to three hours?

My only recourse is to return to my notetaking in earnest, and figure out what went wrong later.

I ended up with good notes, including the transcribed ones that the facilitator wrote on the whiteboard as the session progressed. I didn't lose my cool - at least not so it showed.

My credibility may be a bit bruised, but I'll compensate by getting the first draft of this partciular session done within 24 hours, at the the request of my client, despite the fact that it's not due contractually for another ten days.

And I will continue to use technology when I need it.

But I'll always know that my pen and thick notebook can still bale me out of almost any spot, and that it can beat technology at its own game - much of the time.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The fine art of profreading

Some people are naturals. Others, like me, can read, check, and proofread a document and still manage to overlook a mess of errors, typos, spacing problems, etc. (I'd like to think that it's because I'm better at big ideas and compelling themes than such minor, mundane, matters. But it could be because I'm just lazy. Once the damn thing's written I want to move on to other things.)

Luckily, there are some people who are natural proofreaders. My boss at work is one of the best (which means she'll spot the tiniest error in anything I put in front of her - not always the kind of feedback I'm looking for!) Jenn Sommersby Young who contributes in a very signification way to Imprint, the newsletter I publish 'for anyone who writes for pleasure or publication', is another eagle-eyed proofreader, who also has a paid gig as a proofreader for a health magazine, as well as being a dynamite writer herself.

Dorothy, our Admin Assistant at work is another one who can spot an error or oversight a mile off, but shrugs off the praise we heap on her everytime she proofreads the annual report or brochure copy.

Whether they've learned the craft by sheer hard work - and perhaps some training - or come by the skill naturally, good proofreaders are hard to find, but once you've got your hands on them, don't let them go.

Whether you write for pleasure, profit, or publication, being word perfect helps the reader accept your writing for the well-crafted work it is, and gives credibililty to you and your efforts.

If you do end up proofing your own work (not always the best idea), you'll find some tips here and here on how to do it well.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Dwelling on details

In his workshops, Canadian writer Andreas Shroeder often suggests that 'telling details' are the elements of writing that most involve the reader in a piece of writing.

Lately, a friend wrote that the taste of water was 'as cold as lettuce' in her protaganist's mouth. A forgettable movie showed a close-up of about a dozen mens' caps tucked in between the railings of a banister. A painting by an artist whose name I couldn't pronounce and no longer recall showed a young girl dressed for church in a prim wool coat and felt hat, with one sock slumped down over the top of her shoe.

These are the things that stay with me long after I've closed the book, the movie has ended, or the art exhibition has closed. It's not necessarily the grand sweep of the story or the immediacy of the idea, but the little things that
often reveal the true heart of the piece.

Writers need to look closely, to observe what they see finely, and involve the reader with details that engage all their senses.

One way to learn how to see better is by studying good photos, to get behind the photographer's camera and inside their head to determine what exactly they were looking at, why, and what it tells them about the world.

I've recently become a regular visitor to the CBC website - not necessarily to keep up on the news, but to check out the photo gallery of The Week in Pictures.

Other places to learn how to see are photo blogs, my favourite being Joe's NYC.

Most of them provide a new look at a familiar world. Which is what many writers try to do with every word they put on the page.

Writing with (consistent) style

For years, one of the best tools for checking correct usage of a particular word, how to punctuate, the difference between i.e. and e.g. has been the Chicago Manual of Style.

This is the style guide that many publications use to ensure consistent writing and formatting.

It's a great tool to have at your elbow whether you're a writer or editor, but you no longer need to weigh down your bookshelves with the brick-sized tome. It's now online, and anyone can sign up for a free one month subscription to check out the full version, including searchable access to the complete manual content, and along with the latest opinionated responses to questions such as whether to capitalize after a colon (answer=sometimes yes, sometimes no), and how to number pages on a manuscript submitted to an agent or publisher. It's well-worth the $30 annual subscription fee if you want the full monty.

But the free content of the site is well-worth bookmarking - and using often.