NaNoWriMo2018: My Three a Day

 

In this case, I’m not talking about meals in a day. I’m talking NaNoWriMo Sprints.

I believe they are designed as a way for NaNoWri-mers to motivate each other to put in the time and come out with a bunch of words.

I’m racing against myself.

I read somewhere, quite long ago, that for many people a 90-minute working stretch is the most profitable period of time to commit to one task. And it’s worked for me for quite a while.

For the purposes of NaNo, and during a very busy November at work and in life, I’ve been aiming for 3 x 30-minutes Sprints a day, writing against the clock, using one of the actions identified in my Writing Down the Page exercise – which is as far as I’ve got with outlining or plotting this baby.

It turns out that my average production rate in a 30-minute stretch is 1,000 words. Work it out. If I managed to do Three a Day, I’d accomplish over 3,000 words, well over the average of daily 1,667 words required to meet the 50,000 word goal by the end of the month.

I’m lucky if I do manage two sprints. But even at that, I might stand a decent chance of making the Finish Line in 13 days.

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NaNoWriMo 2018: Then What? – a quick plotting exercise


Whenever I find myself treading water on a piece of fiction – can’t figure out where to go next, how to get where I think I am going, of am just plain bored with where I find myself – I fall back on a practise that came out of a workshop presented by the dynamic duo of Jack Remick and Robert Ray.

JR WEN

It’s called Writing Down the Page… or, as I call it And Then

I begin with a very brief summary line to conveys my starting place (sometimes picking it up from the MS), then riff down the page one line at a time, each of which begins And Then

As this is a brainstorming exercise I don’t judge or edit what gets listed, but I do try to start each line with an active verb – which helps provide momentum for the scene.

This is what one riff looked like, when I was stuck in place on a chapter book entitled Cheese Dreams.

Set-up: Brianne and her brother Peter have just arrived at the new apartment over the shop that their dad will be running as a cheese shop and deli. His businesses always fail, forcing the family to move, yet again, which means Brianne finds it hard settling in and making friends. She hopes this will be the last time they have to move if her Dad can make a success of the deli.

Their mother starts unpacking in the upstairs apartment.

And Then (AT) Brianne follow their father downstairs to inspect the shop
AT – When Dad unlocks the door, the alarm goes off
AT – B is sent upstairs to ask her mom for the alarm code
AT – Her mom tells her its in her dad’s pocket
AT – B races back downstairs to tell her dad.
AT – Brother cries because the shop alarm hurts his ears

AT – Their dad finds the code, punches it in
AT – the police arrive
AT – While Dad huddles with the police showing proof he owns the shops
AT – Brie and her brother go inside to look around the premises
AT – Their father joins them, to show them where the coolers and the counter will go
AT – As leads them out, Brie notices what looks like a mouse hole in the skirting board
AT – She hurries her dad outside before he sees it
AT – Back upstairs Breanne wonders how she can get rid of the mice before they ruin her dad’s business by eating all the cheese.

This seems – and is – a very simplistic example, but the process can be helpful in keeping you going when it feels as if you’ve come to a dead stop. And it can work even better when you get someone else to throw ideas at you. Don’t judge them, just keep And Then-ning until you run out of steam. 

Then you can go back and see what elements work to bring the scene alive.


NaNoWriMo 2018: Give them faces

When I teach Writing Historical Fiction to school students, I first give them a whole raft of pictures of people’s faces of many eras, pulled from all kinds of sources.

I get them to pick the picture of a face they ‘like’ – one that appeals to them for any reason – then their first assignment is to create a frame for the picture, then name the subject. That person will be their main character.

In a similar exercise, when I first start a story I go in search of a face to represent the main character.

In this case, I selected this person to be a stand in for my character Rowena Cole. (She is fact, Nancy Talbot Clark, the first women to graduate from medical school in the US in 1852).

I like the vulnerable, but somewhat determined look in her eye. The plainness of her hair, and for the purposes of writing THE ROUGH DRESS, the man’s hand on her shoulder which conveys an element of the story.

I will probably print out her picture, and put it in this frame, the same one I used to house the picture of Elsie Miller, the main character in my midgrade historical novel SILVER RAIN.

Elsie

Elsie Miller, protagonist of SILVER RAIN

If Nancy Talbot Clark could overcome all kinds of obstacles to forge a career in medicine, I can surely write 50,000 words!


NaNoWriMo2018: The perils and pleasures of research

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As THE ROUGH DRESS is in three parts – one set in rural England, the second in the inner city of London, and the third in Ontario (all in the mid-1800s) – there’s lots of research involved.

Which I love – often to the detriment of the story. I get so involved that the time goes by and I have no writing time left. Or I end up with so much research material that I have no idea how I might use it all.

I’ve partially solved this by:
1.   Separating the processes into two separate working sessions. I work on research for 60 to 90 mins in the morning, then do the writing for the same period of time later in the day. (Reversed today, as I woke early at 4:45 am and put in my writing time then.)

2. When I reach a place in the draft MS when I need more information or want to confirm a factual detail, rather than stopping and reverting to research mode, I type in a double ?? – or insert a footnote to specify the info I need – then keep writing. At the beginning of each research session I review the MS for the ?? and footnotes, and only then pursue the information.

3. For the month of November, the only reading I will be doing is research-related. Books on my To Read list for this project include, among others:

  • Voyages of Hope: The Saga of Bride-Ships by Peter Johnson
  • London Labour and the London Poor by William Mayhew
  • Across the Waters: Ontario Immigrant Experiences  1820 – 1850 by Frances Hoffman 
  • Roughing it in the Bush by Susannah Moodie
  • The Makers of Canada: The Pioneers of Old Ontario by W.L. Smith
  • The Rural Life of England by William Hewitt

And just to ensure I don’t get non fiction overload, I will also probably reread

  • The Frightened Man by Kenneth M. Cameron (an adult mystery set in Victorian London – wonderful voice, and great relationship between the protagonist Denton and his manservant Atkins)
  • The Agency (and others) YA series by YS Lee
  • Bleak House or David Copperfield
  • and any other new Victorian-era fiction I come across (suggestions welcomed)

Insanitities

And I will read, reread and savour all over again, Margaret Atwood’s wonderful poem Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer, the first piece I read that gave me what felt like an authentic feeling for the pioneer experience.

 


NaNoWriMo – In at the Deep End

I finally figured if I was ever going to reach The End on any of my current projects, November might be the month to do it.

So I am using National Novel Writing Month to work on The Rough Dress, a Victorian-era novel built around the true story of Urania House – the ‘House of Fallen Women’ – established by novelist Charles Dickens and philanthropist Angela Coutts to help rehabilitate women who had fallen foul of the law, and prepare them for emigration to ‘The Colonies’ as domestics.

It’s not quite cheating. I’m digging into past Shitty First Drafts, rewriting scenes as I go, with the goal of having a somewhat coherent 50,000-word story by the time I’m done.

Why The Rough Dress, when I do have at least two other novels in various stages of dress and undress? Because it has a connection to Canada, in that three of the women from Urania House did emigrate to Canada, so the third part of the book will feature Rowena Cole’s settlement in Ontario – hopefully making the book easier to sell to a Canadian publisher.

Not that finishing the damn thing is in any way guarantee that The Rough Dress will ever find its way into readers’ hands.

But I do know that if I don’t finish it, it has no chance at all.

AC

Philanthropist Angela Coutts

So I had better get to it.

Novelist Charles Dickens

Novelist Charles Dickens


When less is (maybe) more

 

I just received an email from the presenter of a photography workshop I will be taking in August. It includes useful info about the wheres and whens of the various sessions, what he expects to cover, and what we’ll be doing.

It also included a list of what I need to know about my camera before I start. Much of which assumes that my camera is much more sophisticated than it is –  and that I am much more tech savvy than I will ever be.

The truth of it is that I will be using the most simple point and click camera, which has worked for me for the past few years – traveling, taking family pics and in my early ventures into street photography. And that any ‘post-production/editing’ work I will be doing will be with only the very simple tools supplied by iPhoto on my iPad and laptop.

I long ago gave up trying to understand f-stops, exposure, shutter speeds or any other camera-speak. Or trying to find my way around Photoshop. And assumed I would never need to.

Just as when I took up sketching and decided that I wanted to travel with only one sketch pad, two pencils, one sharpener and one eraser – I also eschew the paraphernalia of photography for reasons of economics, storage space in my small apartment, time to grapple with the learning curve of new tools and techniques, and ability to haul the stuff from one place to another on my arthritic back.

(In fact, when I go shopping for pants, I always take my camera to ensure they have a pocket that it will fit into. (MEC’s Sandbagger pants are perfect, with a thigh-height pocket with a zipper).

I am looking forward to the weekend of taking photos and learning from a pro. And I know there will be moments when I will suffer pangs of camera-envy along with a degree of tech-talk overload. But it’s the outcome that matters to me. That I have a good time taking pictures over the weekend, and bring home new insights, a few new skills in composition and technique, and a handful of photos that are about just a little more than they are about – a quality I look for in my writing, sketching and photography.

 

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This is a fossil grinder in Morocco. He has been working at this trade for 35 years. 35 years of inhaling stone dust, with only a cloth covering to protect his face. ‘But at least he has a job,’ as one fellow traveler said. I did not buy any fossils…
Photo: L Peterson


Reverse Outlining: A revision tool that might work for you

 

The challenges of revision came up at yesterday’s critique group session, and again this morning on a Facebook page.

I developed my Reverse Outlining process a number of years ago as a way to dig into specific craft elements of the text of a manuscript of one of my kids’ books, and have since found it useful as a way to identify how a work in progress develops on the page, and provide info about what to do next.

While this  process was originally designed for fiction, I have had a couple of memoir writers use it successfully, too. You are free to use it, share it, and adapt the chart and the notes for your own use. If you are a professional editor writing coach, please ensure you credit me.

2018 Rev Outline chart

2018 Reverse Outlining notes

And if you find this useful in your work, please comment here, or drop me a 1-2 line testimonial which I can use to help pitch workshops in which I demonstrate how Reverse Outlining works.

 


Picture #4/66

Picture # 4/66

“Sometimes there’s no picture… no picture.” Thus spake Henri Cartier Bresson. And having spent quite a bit of time recently reviewing hundred of pictures posted on blogs and Facebook pages by street photographers, I see his point. Some pictures are just… well… pictures. If that. With little resonance, metaphorical heft.

No story.

I took this picture on a bus traveling through Rajasthan. A women engaged in what looked like a hopeless task. Sweeping an empty lane on a multi-lane highway as trucks and buses slowed down to pay the toll.

There would be no end to her sweeping, and the little she did would make no difference.

To me, it is a compelling instance of the infuriatingly complex nature of India. And I wished then, as I wish now, that I were a poet. I think then I might find words to describe the feeling I got when I saw her, and when I clicked the shutter.

But without the viewer knowing where she was, and what exactly she was doing, this picture is a ‘no picture’.

Just as on so many occasions I have a germ of a story, that is not a story. Until the second shoe drops. Until another element couples with the first germ to create something compelling and resonant.

Sometimes there’s no story.

Sometimes there’s no picture.

But we write it any. We take it anyway.

Because it was there. And so were we.


The Decisive Moment

A picture is like a Chekov story. A Maupassant story. There’s a whole world in it.
Henri Cartier-Bresson

HCB / Photo. Lens Magazine

I was a young teenager when I first came across Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photos. And not long after learned a little about the concept of  ‘The Decisive Moment’, the element that makes his photographs – and those of others working in the genre – so arresting.

I have watched this wonderful movie of Cartier-Bresson’s work many times. One in which his own narration conveys so much about his unique personality and provides insights into his philosophy and how he works.

Years later I discovered Vancouver’s own Fred Hertzog, and since then have often been arrested by spontaneous sightings of street photography in magazines, books and galleries.

Much as I enjoy taking pictures on my travels, they are more likely to be shots of familiar places and images that convey something of the spirit of each destination, rather than candid shots of people and places who live their lives on the streets of Guanajuato, San Francisco, Avignon, Jaipur, Fez, Winchester, Rome…

Version 2

Chinatown Lonely (LP)

Just once in a while, such as on a photo outing to Chinatown with a friend a few years ago when I went out looking for such images, I am gratified to find a few that fits the criteria of street photography.

For the past few months I have been preoccupied by the genre, reading biographies and manuals, and scrutinizing images by contemporary street photographers. I recently signed up for a weekend workshop in August with Vancouver photographer Ian Macdonald, and every day pore over new postings at the Street Photography in the World Facebook Page, trying to figure which images I find most compelling, and how the photographer has achieved the effect.

None of that has much to do with my previous preoccupation with writing. But with this new perspective, I have now unearthed a teen novel I began a few years ago called Shoot (as in cameras rather than firearms). And I have started a photo/essay project called 66. This will be 66 images – some of my own, others I run across, with some sort of accompanying text. Not for the purposes of publication. But for my own interest as I undertake this new journey of discovery.

(’66’? I am 66. And if I want to keep going – both with photography and the life itself – I can easily rebrand the project as ’99’.)


Back to work

 

In just over a month I turn 65. I am moving into Elderhood as graciously as I can. And perhaps not in the normal way of doing things, I am going back to work.

Not at the library, this time.

Last summer when I was planning my move to Nanaimo, I started looking around for a community of like-minded people. Having been a member of the Unitarian Church of Vancouver, which nicely mirrored and supported my values in both my everyday and spiritual life, I was hoping to find the same in my new neighbourhood.

shelter1I did. I was thrilled to discover the First Unitarian Fellowship of Nanaimo (FUFON), where I was welcomed in so warmly to its inclusive, open congregation.

And where, very early on, I discovered important work being done.

The Unitarian Shelter has been providing a non-judgemental welcome, a warm bed, hot meals, and companionship to Nanaimo’s homeless for eight seasons. This ‘low-barrier’ shelter, supported by the Fellowship’s congregation, the community, and with federal and provincial funding and a grant from the City of Nanaimo, will open its doors again in October offering a safe, warm and dry overnight environment for men and women from Nanaimo’s streets.

someoneAnd I’m thrilled to begin serving as the shelter’s Executive Director on August 1.

I won’t be making beds, preparing meals, overseeing the laundry, or cleaning the washrooms – other than on an occasional volunteer basis. That is best left to the Shelter Coordinator and his dedicated team of staff and volunteers. I’ll be ‘in the back’, helping build and maintain relationships with the FUFON congregation, funders, donors and volunteers and looking for new ways to spread the word about the shelter, generate funds, and build awareness of homelessness in our communities.

I am so proud to be doing this work.

And so very sad that in these times, it still has to be done.


“Do not avert your eyes.
It is important that you see this. It is important that you feel this.” 
Kamand Kojouri


After the deadline

Dressed for the weather in the Quantock Hills of Somerset.

Like many, it snuck up on me when I was not looking. And as deadlines go, it was a small one, for a 1,200-word article for Inspired Senior Living, a monthly magazine which is one of the few still open to freelance travel articles.

And I was writing about something I love to do – walking in the UK.

But I got the assignment in November 2016. Which I promptly ‘sidelined’ in my mind as the deadline seemed seemed so far away.

I did other things… mainly traveled, got involved in quite a bit of volunteer work, spent lovely times with family and friends here, and on the Lower Mainland. And on my return from an 8-week trip to Europe, somehow thinking the deadline was for Aug 1, pulled out the assignment email.

Turns out it was JULY 1, just three weeks away.

It’s been a long time since I wrote an article… you know what Mark Twain said, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” It took an indorndinately lot of hours to draft those 1,400 words (yes, longer than assigned, but I think I am good as some of them are As You Go notes, which I hope aren’t included in the word count). Then, with no in-house First Reader, I needed a pair of fresh eyes – which I found in fellow Nanaimo writer Judy Millar.

Then the issue of pictures. The ones I had in mind had disappeared from my laptop. Or maybe were never there. I trawled through every directory, my two iPads, my external hard drive. And then remembered a thumb drive to which I had uploaded pictures from my previous computer.

But where was it? After two days of turning everything upside down in my house, it literally fell into my hands when I was searching through a closet I had already checked.

I had pictures.

Then I had to figure out how DropBox works – the favoured way of forwarding images to editors these days, I’m told, but had never used before. But thanks to the expertise of another fellow writer Julie Ferguson, I soon had that figured out.

So today both article and pictures were sent off, duly acknowledged by the editor, and I’m done.

And now I’m basking in the post-deadline glow. It’s done. It’s gone. And in August I will see just how those words and pics look on the page. 

Meanwhile, I hope to have dug back into another project which is my priority for the summer and fall. A project with no deadline, which means it could take forever.

 

 

 


Pitching in 140 characters

 

Picture books are devilishly hard to write. I continue to toy with them from time to time because I love the form so much.

I agonize over every word and phrase, read them aloud, and more often than not put them away in a drawer to ‘season’.

Ocassionally I send them out and watch as boomerang-like they return to me. Sometimes with an encouraging note. More often with a form rejection that I know REALLY means, “Please never bother us – or any other publisher or agent again – with such drivel.”

But being an optimist, I persist.

Tomorrow is Picture Book Pitch Twitter Day. And today I have been trying to condense a couple of story summaries into 140 characters. 140! If I thought writing a 300-600 word book was hard, this was pure agony. But worth it. In that it really helped me drill down to – what to me seems to be – the heart of the matter.

Even if the two stories I pitch tomorrow meet with only resounding silence, the effort of refining, revising and editing the pitches will give me tools I can continue to use as I continue my quest to place just one picture book story in the hands of young children and their parents.

#pbpitch

 


It’s been a while…

 

… but I will be back in the classroom in July to present a four-hour workshop to members of the First Unitarian Fellowship of Nanaimo.


You’re on hold…

I tried to get too clever with a few website updates today, and all my splash page menu tabs disappeared. Give it a few days and Kyle Reid of Conceptic Design will help set me straight.

(I did work one of those switchboards in my very first job in London many aeons ago!)


Gulp!

 

I had an idea for an adult story a couple of days ago, this after weeks…months…a couple of years of very little motivation to write anything.

Knowing that I write fast and dirty, and needing to break this logjam, I decided to write 1,000 words a day of the new work for 60 days. Without fail. And see what comes out of it.

Dec 27: Day One of Holiday Let – 1113 words – this included about 800 words of a scene, and a couple of hundred notes about what was going on in my head as I worked on it.

Dec 29: 1079 words of another scene.

Dec 30: Three (today) – 1206 words of a third scene.

I have my three main characters on scene, with reference to two others who may be significant. A few plot points have spontaneously developed as I’ve been punching words onto the page. And I’m immersed in the setting of the North Cornwall beach town of Perranporth, complete with the ‘lost church’ of St Pirrans – in both the present and late-60s when my family rented a holiday house (a ‘Holiday let’ as they are known in England) each summer for a number of years.

My voice is rusty. My typing not so hot. But I am determined to keep plugging on, writing full scenes, worrying about the narrative connective tissue later, doing nothing more than giving each day’s work a quick read through and adding a few thoughts for next day’s session as it occurs to me.

I’ll check in here from time to time to post an update on how I’m doing. And if you have any thoughts that will help me keep going, do share them here.

lp-beach

LP posing on Perranporth Beach, about 1966… Photo courtesy my boarding school friend Barbara (Babs) Tipson.

 


A Room of One’s Own

Virgina Woolf’s writing room at Monk’s House, Rodmell, Sussex.

When I first downsized from a two-bedroom condo to a one-bedroomed one, I was quite happy with my new workspace – the kitchen table.

But it turned out not to be the best space for me – as I also used it for eating, checking email, playing dominoes with my grandson, mixing scones, reading the news, online research…

Like Virginia Woolf and her Room of One’s Own, I needed a designated space that triggered my writing muscle as soon as I sat down in it.

So then I had to go in search of a small table, figure out a space to put it in my living room, and pick up a couple of chairs to go with it. Thanks to Craigslist, that most valuable of online shopping venues, I was able to find what I needed at a great price, and these things are now in place.

dscn2382

Since I moved my writing into the living room, I not only find I am more productive, less-easily distracted, and quite comfortable, I also now have a space to store the clutter of paperwork that somehow still seems an inevitable bi-product of this ‘paperless work world’.

I’d certainly prefer a little house at the end of an English garden, although I do note that Woolf’s room of her own is disconcertingly close to the Ouse River where she took her own life.


Getting back to work

This quote by the American Poet Mary Oliver has always rung true to me.

“If Romeo and Juliet had made their appointments to meet, in the moonlight-swept orchard, in all the peril and sweetness of conspiracy, and then more often than not failed to meet — one or the other lagging, or afraid, or busy elsewhere — there would have been no romance, no passion, none of the drama for which we remember and celebrate them. Writing a poem is not so different—it is a kind of possible love affair between something like the heart (that courageous but also shy factory of emotion) and the learned skills of the conscious mind. They make appointments with each other, and keep them, and something begins to happen. Or, they make appointments with each other but are casual and often fail to keep them: count on it, nothing happens.”

My life has been rather disrupted by life’s upheavals and a recent move, so I’ve done little writing for the past few months. But it’s time to get back to it.

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I no longer have a study, having moved from a two- to a one-bedroomed apartment. But I’ve become quite comfortable running much of my new life from the kitchen table, where I have good light, space to spread out, and the teapot close at hand.

Now is the time to assert a little discipline, to strengthen my resolve to get back to it, and to apply my seat to the chair and not get up until I’ve sweated a little blood.

A few other writers I’ve talked to about my recent hiatus and the challenge of getting back to work have suggested that I will start to write again when I’m ready. I tend to think I will only be ready once I do get back to work.

I can think about the projects languishing in my drawers all I like. I can talk about writing from dawn to dusk. But until I make an appointment to work, and keep it – nothing will happen.


Doing it for free

 

They come from all over – requests from libraries, schools, community groups – asking for free presentations, workshops and readings from writers.

A number of years ago, when I was trying to explain that this was not something I could accommodate, I did suggest that if the teacher was willing to forgo her wage for teaching that day, I might be willing to donate my time, too.

Dead silence. Then a kind of choking noise… Laughter? Outrage? I never did find out as she hung up pretty quick.

But perhaps you get my point.

I work at my craft. I take time from other necessary activities in my life to put into my writing. I make an investment in space, equipment and supplies. I make part of my living from my writing, and all the activities relating to it.

And I no longer do it for free.

Libraries have budgets and can apply for grants. If schools value literacy, they should also value the writers who contribute to helping develop it in their students. We live in a society that – rightly or wrongly – shows the value of something by attaching a dollar value to it.

I have worked for free in the past for the right person, project or organization. I mentor other writers. I donate copies of my  books. But I do maintain the right to say No.

Today I received the latest request. Sadly, this came via a writer who was also once the ED of a provincial writers’ organization. Who should know better.

I wonder if she understood when I said no. That this was something I could not do, ‘like many other children’s writers who cannot work for free.’

I wonder if next time the library needs its plumbing fixed, it will ask the tradesperson to do it for free.

Although I bet they DO have a budget for that!

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Moving On

Enough changes in three years… the end of my marriage, loss of both my parents … now I am adding retirement and moving to the litany. Which puts me at the top of the list for a heart-attack or some such stress-related fallout, I’m told.

But luckily I am one of those people who is energized by the idea of change… although perhaps not always by the work involved in bringing it about.

In mid-summer I move to Vancouver Island, closer to my daughter (and only child) and her family, to a small somewhat shabby rented one-bedroom apartment while I decide where I really want to be. What I want to do. Who I want to be in this, my next ‘new’ life.

Which means sorting, culling, clearing out and reducing.

Which means going through all my books and sorting out which ones I REALLY need to keep. My criteria is 1) Those I KNOW I will read again, 2) Those that are least likely to be perennially available at libraries, 3) Those that have sentimental or significant meaning to me.

moving-boxesThe writing-related books are different. I can admit that many on my shelves I have not actually read. Picked through, perhaps. Lent out to others.

I have managed to reduce their numbers from four shelves to two by giving away handfuls to my writing group members and students in recent classes.

I know that somewhere down the line I will be looking for one of them, only to find I have given it away. But hopefully, there will be other writers in my life, ones I leave behind here on the Lower Mainland or new ones I meet on Vancouver Island, who will help me find what I’m looking for, and help me find my way as I make new connections, find a place in my new community, and take on new projects and challenges.