Saturday, June 30, 2007

O! Canada!

It was 1971.

I was nineteen, tired after a tearful parting from friends in New York and a long bus ride to Montreal.

I guess I didn't look too appetizing. Long hair, torn jeans and a tie-dye shirt, a scruffy hat and a guitar. I can only imagine what the Immigration officials thought of me at the border when they hauled me off the bus, put me through the third degree. (a) How long was I going to be in Canada? b) How much money was I bringing in? c) Who would I be staying with in Vancouver, etc. etc.

I can't say I was quite up front with them.
I told them a) a few weeks - even though I had no idea, b) I said $400 - I actually had $38, c) I said with friends, although I'd planned to sleep on the Beach at English Bay.)

So they strip-searched me. I guess expecting to find drugs hidden about my person.

(There were none to find).

An hour later I was escorted back to the bus, and handed up to the waiting driver who was trying to placate the passengers who hadn't come all this way in the middle of the night to be held up by a longhaired guitar-carrying hippie.

As he saw me on my way, the Immigration Officer said, "Welcome to Canada!"

How very Canadian, I think now. Personal violation and suspicion, promptly followed by ritual courtesy. (Although I won't tell you what I thought at the time!)

But I'm not bitter. And I'm still here thirty years later.
And glad to be.
Happy Canada Day to you!

Friday, June 29, 2007

Grasshopper mind

In my family we call it 'Grasshopper mind'* - the inability to settle on one thing for too long before we go hopping on to the next.

My paternal grandmother Granny-P had it worst. The syndrome affected her coversation so much that you stuck around just to see how she could get from A to Z in lightening time and still make no sense at all. But she made the best chicken pie of anyone, so could be forgiven her grasshopper mind and her obsession with good (= expensive) handbags and shoes, although she rarely went out.

Me, I'm all over the place these days like a demented child. Stuck in deep to my first children's novel Elsie and the Silver Rain, I soon decided it should be the first of at least two books, the second of which should feature Elsie' sidekick Scoop, thereby coming up with Scoop and the Boxcar Tourists.

So, Elsie done at 29,000 words, you'd think I'd jump right into Scoop. But what about Return of the Summer Fish, the morphing of my memoir-that-got-stalled Summer Fish - reflections of a childhood in Iraq into a children's novel?

Well, with that one outlined, and a new central character jetissoned in to provide the necessary conflict, I soon got sidetracked by an idea generated by a quick 'sighting' - you know, that spooky stuff we writers are so prone to - of a boy kneeling looking out of a window to watch a high-born lady walk down his front path. This coupled with my long interest in the Riverview lands which were home to BC's first arboretum, developed by the Scot Mr. MacDonald (he has a first name I can't recall right now) - and I have a new book Escape to the Summer House featuring 13 year-old Lionel (goodie, a historial novel for YAs with a male protaganist - agents/publishers, please take note!) .

I love them all; I know the MCs without having to dig too deep.

Elsie with her hat and her strong survival instinct when everything else is falling apart.

Scoop who hides his dyslexia with wiles and cunning and by taking to the rails, where "no one needs to read nothing."

Pauline who longs for the exotic life her sister recounted in letters - wild camel rides across the desert, tea taken in Sheiks' tents, long rides down the Shatt-al-Arab river on overloaded date boats, finding only heat and dust and a sister who's too busy with her own life to let her in.

And Lionel whose only goal is to find a way to give little sister Grace the love and security he feels he lost when his father was killed in a logging accident.

I can't decide who I love most, that's the trouble. I see their faces, hear their voices, and can't decipher who needs me soonest.

Right now I'm hooked on Lionel, and in the process discovering that history is not all dry dust and old photos. What was New Westminster like during the time that Mr. Macdonald was bringing over his first trees from Europe. How am I going to get Lionel and Mr. Macdonald together? How will The Hospital of the Mind - as it was called then - feature in the story? And how long can Lionel and Grace survive in that abandoned summer house before they are discovered. And by whom?

Meanwhile, I'm still not sure when or if Elsie's own father is going to turn up.

But until he does, her mother Peg and ne-er do well Uncle Dannell will just have to keep stagggering through the thirty-fourth day of their dance marathon, holding each other up while I stand on the sidelines, wondering whose trail I should be following this week?

So I skip from one to the other. Afraid to let any of them out of my sight unless they dispappear from view without telling me all their secrets.

Grasshoppers are agile. So maybe I can keep up.

Or break a leg trying.

* Odd connection to that grasshopper metaphor. One of the pivotal scenes in Summer Fish - and one truly taken from life - is the day the British Club in Basra, Iraq, was infested by a plague of locusts... which of course are related to grasshoppers.

Volunteers needed at the best writers' conference in N America!

The 2007 Surrey International Writers' Conference is coming together nicely. The full program should be on-line soon, and registration will open at noon on July 23. The conference dates are October 19-21, with Master Classes on the 18th.

Conference Planning Committee Chair Carmen Merrells has put out the following call for conference volunteers.

The SiWC cannot operate without its loyal volunteers! We need people to help out in various capacities during the conference, as well as pre-conference and post-conference presenter transportation. Some of the benefits of volunteering include:
(1) Free lunch! (on the days you volunteer)
(2) Opportunities to meet and work with other writers and the presenters -- great camaraderie!
(3) If you're doing presenter transportation, opportunity to pitch your work during the ride, reimbursement for gas ($10 round trip) and parking (receipted)
(4) Free workshops for volunteers doing workshop monitoring and introductions
(5) A thank you gift

For more detailed information or to sign up, please contact the SiWC's Volunteer Coordinator, Camille Netherton, at

I can only add that this is a great way to spend a weekend. This is probably the least hierarchical conference you'll run across. You'll meet the big names and the up-and- comers alike in meal line-ups, in the washroom, at lunches and coffee break, as well as learning useful craft tools, getting inspriation and motivaito for whateve ryou're working on, building your network. And you'll have a lot of fun in the process.

And whether you're there as a volunteer or fully paid up particiapant, drop by the Metta Publications trade table where I'll be selling/signing my book 101 - and more - Writing Exercises to Get You Stared & Keep You Going or drop into my workshop 'Having Your Say - Writing Personal Essays and Opinion Pieces'.

And check out the Conference website regularly, as more info. is being added all the time.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Time is running out

July 1 is the deadline for the BC Federation of Writers Literary Writes Contest. Complete info. here.

An earlier deadline of June 30 applies to The Writer magazine's fiction contest.

Speaking of The Writer, my article May I Put You On Hold - dealing with interruptions appears in the Aug issue. I have my copies, so I expect it will be on the newstands any minute. Check it out if you are interested to know how long it takes to 'recover' from a phone or email interruption while you're working.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Rant of the week - Boycotting the big boxes

Readers - and writers - may have lots of good reasons to visit Chapters or shop online at Amazon. Hundreds of good books (along with candles and yoga mats and coasters and music and notebooks and games and other stuff which seems to rise up in ranks and offer the buyer so much distraction that they may never get as far as the actual bookselves).

The reason many people shop there is because they can get their books cheap. And fast.

Which seems to be the priority for most consumers these days.

But what about supporting the independent stores whose owners live in your neighborhood, who are in touch with what you want and need, who ensure that local issues are reflected in their bookstock, that local authors get exposure?

You won't get that from the big boxes.
What about spending just a little more, waiting a little longer, and eschewing (I've always wanted to use that word, never have found a good reason until now!) the allure of more and quicker products in favour of closer to home.

As a publisher, I have good reason to aviod the big boxes - they just don't care about the little guys. It took us over two months to even make contact with a 'real person' in the national purchasing dept. of Chapters (couldn't even get the time of day from the local store manager) and having sent sample copies of our books to them about six months ago, haven't heard since.
And can't even get a return call when we try to contact them.

But not all independents are so friendly, either. Blackberry Books, one of Vancouver-area's oldest independent bookstores won't even consider independent publishers offerings, although they're more than willing to spend an hour flipping through a national distributor's catalogue and sneering at most of their offerings. (I know. I had the dubious pleasure of sitting in a public cafe and overhearing the poor salesperson being turned down on every page.)

While many independent bookstores obviously get more mileage from ordering from a big distributor, they will, if aproached properly, consider smaller publishers' books.

When Metta Publishers approached Munro's Books in Victoria - one of my favourite bookstores in the province - they said they didn't handle small publishers' work. But when we were in town, they were willing to sit down with us. At which time they said they'd buy two of each book, changed their mind and ordered five, and have since reordered both books.

Left. Munro's bookstore, Victoria, BC

Independent bookstores get my support - as a consumer and a publisher - and my dollars every time.

I don't even like Starbucks coffee, so I never have a good reason to even enter Chapters. And in my work at a library I use Amazon regularly to track down new books that customers are looking for.

But I prefer to spend my money elsewhere, in my own community.

It's worth the wait, and the expense to support the little guys.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Write to Win - a few current contests

New Works of Merit Playwriting Contest - 'an international contest whose mission is to seek out extraordinary, socially conscious scripts from around the world'. Deadline postmarked by July 15, 2007. First Prize: $300 and a reading in an established New York City theatre. Second Prize: a reading in an established New York City theatre. Third Prize: a reading in an established New York City theatre. Submission guidelines and application form here.

The Rejected Quarterly

Someone actually wants your rejected fiction! Fiction to 8,000 words. You must also submit 5 rejection slips with your entry. Entry fee: $200 / Deadline: June 30, 2007. Check it out

Arc - Canada's National Poetry Magazine contest
Deadline: June 30 / Entry Fee: $23 (includes one-year subscription). Prizes: $1,500 / $1000 / $750. Accepts email entries; more info.

Surrey International Writer's Conference
$1,000 First Place
prize in each of four categories: Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and writing for children. Note the earlier than usual deadline: Must be received by 4 p.m., August 3. Entry fee: $15. Details
here. Accepts email entries.

Federation of BC Writers: Annual Literary Writes Contest
Open to BC writers. This year's topic - Foreign Affairs: Travel Writing With a Twist. Entry fee: $15 members / $20 non-members. Prizes: $500 / $300 / $150 . Details

Want to know some useful strategies for entering contests? Check out the back issue of Imprint for my article Writing to Win. here. More contests listed at Place for Writers and The Writing Circle of Durham Region website (Canadian listings).

Monday, June 18, 2007

When a picture paints a thousand words / pointers for freelancing success

If this doesn't give you the chills, you've become immune to the world as it is. If this photographer doesn't win some kind of prize for this image, I'd be surprised. This appeared in Saturday's Globe and Mail over the cutline 'Hamas militiants seized control yesterday at the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt...' Photo. Hatem Otar / AP

And on another topic entirely:
Vancouver speechwriter Colin Moorhouse seems to have resuscitated his e-newsletter Freelancing Success, available through his website of the same name. When you subscribe, you can also receive a copy of his e-book Finding Work - Marketing mantras for the freelance writer. Lots of useful insights that might help you make some kind of a living in this business.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Sometimes all that words are good for, is for a good laugh

So, I'm looking for something to read on my coffee break. Something to see me through 15 minutes, a couple of glasses of water, and a chocolate digestive biscuit.

I cruise the magazine shelves at work (I work in a library). I gave up People and Hello in Jan 2006, no longer drool over Bon Appetit, couldn't find the recent issue of Yoga Magazine which I mostly read for Sally Kempton's wonderful articles, and I don't need the latest issue of the New Yorker as it's waiting for me at home.

Riffling through Vanity Fair I come across a wonderful photo of a Tuareg man ( I was brought up in Iraq, can still count to about twenty and say Good Morning and Good Evening in Arabic, and love anything to do with the Middle East or North Africa.) That will do me, I think.

And I'm on my way up to the staff room, flipping through the magazine, when it opens to an ad for water. Glaceau Water. 'Smart' Glaceau Water. 'Smart' Glaceau water, a bottle of which is held by a naked Jennifer someone (can't remember her last name - she was in Friends...).

And the tagline?

'The water with all the answers.'

I laugh so hard I just about fall down the stairs - all twenty of them. What the hell does that mean? Is it meant to mean anything?

Who are these people that come up with these ridiculous taglines that may sound good, but mean nothing.

'The water with all the answers', indeed!

Can you top that? Send me meaningless taglines that you run across in ads, on singage and bulletin boards. I'm going to start a collection. I'll add them to the list I started years ago when my father and I walked near a new housing development, which billed itself as 'Built for life - Designed for living' .

'The water with all the answers'! What I want to know is - what are the questions?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

News now here rather than on my website

I'm now using my blog to replace the News page of my website. I hope to add new information, resources, opinions, and event listings every day or so.

Of course you all know about the
Surrey International Writers' Conference. Three days of great presentations, panels, author and agent interviews, trade show, book signing sessions, etc. This year's line-up is impressive, and registration begins soon. You can sign up for early notification of the registration date at the website.

I'll be doing my usual gig of reading manuscripts in the Blue Pencil Cafe, presenting the workshop - Having Your Say - Writing personal essays and opinion pieces, and selling my book 101 Writing Exercises to Get You Started & Keep You Going and the new A Writer's Year. And this year, as well as being a sponsor of the Nonfiction category of the the conference contest, I'm co-judging with my good buddy Elizabeth Lyon. I'm looking forward to reading the shortlisted essays and articles and being on hand when the winner picks up their $1,000. All the contest info. is

During the conference, I hope to put faces to a few of the names I've recently encountered in the YA/Children's Literature section of Compuserve's Books and Writer's Community. What a supportive group of newbie and published writers to share with and learn from! Whatever you write, check out the forums to find writers working inyour genre.

The fact that you're here, means you have some interest in blogs. But to know more, and learn how they can benefit your writing, attend the Tues. June 26 meeting of the Shebeen Club when the topic is 'Blogging as Writer's Practise. Irish Heather Pub, 217 Carrall Street in vancouver's Gastown.

I'll be sorry to miss it, but it conflicts with the mandatory volunteer meeting for the Vancouver International Folk Music Fesitival. This will be my third year helping out in the Information Booth - a highlight of my summer. I was in the audience for years, along with my daughter who loved the freedom of spending a day in the sun on site with a couple of friends, only having to check back in once an hour. I quit going when it got too crowded, but when I started as a volunteer in 2005 I discovered that it's still possible to find a quiet spot to soak up the sun and listen to the music in the distance. Working my three shifts at the Info tent, I get to meet all kind of out of towners and new and older follkies, reunite people with their wallets, cellphones, and children, and soak up the music from a shady spot.

Over the past few months I've been acting as unofficial marketing consultant to the Young People's Opera Society of BC. They're staging the world premiere of a new work entitled The King Who Wouldn't Sing in early July and the rush is now on to put bums in seats for the 8 scheduled performances. It's exciting to be in on the ground floor of a brand new organization as it struggles to get support and public awareness, and involved with people such as Patricia Dalquist (librettist) George Austin (composer and Musical Director) and Barb Gould (Executive Director of the Society, and tireless advocate).

Learn from the insiders

June 12, 2007

Long time, no blog!

I'll now be using my blog to replace the News page on my website. So here you'll find a random mix of stuff, posted at least every second day.

You can take as many writing classes as you like, but finding out about the business from the inside is the best way to learn.Today I ran across the blog maintained by Jessica Faust of Bookends LLC - a Literary Agency. Lots of info about how an agent works, insights into what makes a good query, and loads of other invaluable stuff. Miss Snark may be no longer snarking with us (although her archives are posted), but we're not totally on our own.

Too bad I'm a Canajian, or I'd to submit my picture book story Tell Me Again to the Goodnight Moon 60th Anniversary bedtime story contest. If you're in the US or a US citizen,
check it out. Top prize $1,000 and publication. Update: just now noticed that you also have to be completely unpublished to be eligible to submit.

In case you wondered, Elsie and the Silver Rain will be done by the week-end - well, a good shitty first draft. Its sequel Scoop and the Boxcar Tourists will have to wait until I've finished the revisions on Elsie, because I'm already chomping at the bit to start work on Return of the Summer Fish. For anyone interested , these are the brief synopses of these WIPs:

Elsie and the Silver Rain
With the help of her friend Scoop, nine-year old Elsie sets about reconciling her family when it starts to fall apart under the pressure of change and poverty. This mid-Grade novel is set in Depression-era Vancouver.

Meet Elsie. I ran across this picture of an unidentified child in the book 'Children of the Deptression'. Without this face, I might not have a story. Her pic is on my laptop desktop, on the bulletin board, and tucked inside my notebook.

Scoop and the Boxcar Tourists

Exiled to the Fraser Valley to work on a farm for the summer, Scoop tries to find his own way home to his family and best friend Elsie, only to end up going the wrong way in the company of railroad hoboes. Sequel to Elsie and the Silver Rain.

Return of the Summer Fish
While eleven year-old Pauline Fraser has spent the last year at boarding school in England, her younger sister Gilly has been sending her letters about hunting jackals, riding camels, and drinking tea with sheiks in their desert tents.

When Pauline joins Gilly and her parents in Iraq, instead of the exciting summer she's expecting, she finds the culture overwhelming, her younger sister unwelcoming, and her own place in the family uncertain.
Then Gilly goes missing in a sandstorm, and Pauline discovers that she can not only negotiate Sally’s strange – and much exaggerated - world, but that she can also help her sister adjust to the idea of leaving her familiar environment and returning to boarding school with her when the summer is over. Memoir-based, set in the expatriate community of the Middle East in the early 60s.

Wednesday, June 27 is the first in the summer session Write @ the Library, a series of moderated critique groups and short workshops. All I need is enough people to cover the cost of the room and refreshments, and we'll run with whoever shows up. Complete info here.