by Vera Constantineau
I’m entering a creative phase. I can feel it in the way I want to scribble down my observations. Everything inspires me to pick up a pen: the way someone steps off the sidewalk, the look in a person’s eyes when a car gets too close in the crosswalk, a woman’s hair shaved so close on the sides and flipped in front the way a man in the fifties who used Brylcreem would have done. Every visual is a potential writing gift.
I know I can write about these things and you will understand, because we’re writers. We all have flashes of inspiration, bursts of internal dialogue, the dream that delivers the exact word or phrase or clue we needed to finish a story that’s been nagging at us.
I stopped writing in June, just stopped.
At first I thought there was no reason. I thought that I was tired, mentally snuffed. In hindsight I think the stoppage was a little more specific than that.
I got an e-mail containing a link to a writing call. I often get such e-mails, no surprise there. This time though, when I read the fine print, the gatherers specified that in writing this submission, we, as contributors, should be gut-wrenchingly honest.
The phrase gut wrenchingly honest ran me off the writing track, slammed me hard against the imaginary bales of hay I have placed at my imaginary limits, a writers crash and burn.
I tried to settle on a topic for this essay call, tried to come up with an idea that was fresh and interesting, nothing. Or at least nothing I wanted to write about in detail. Nothing that required producing a dose of gut wrenching that would be considered effective on both the sending end and the receiving end. I stalled for weeks. During the stall I found it increasingly hard to observe in my usual way, even worse, I recognized the lack.
In 2013 I signed up for an online course in Nonfiction Creative Writing offered through the community college online network. I’ve taken more than a dozen courses over the past five years and I have been to many workshops. I am accustomed to tapping into my deep dark places, so imagine my surprise when I tried to complete my first assignment in this course and discovered I had developed a severe aversion to telling, what amounted to me, to be my secrets.
In hindsight I can see that this was gut wrenching honesty, round one.
The course came perilously close to memoir and I have always stepped gingerly around that topic.
This call for (gut wrenching honesty in our) submissions was for personal essays. I guessed I was not ready to spill blood onto a page for the benefit of a phantom reader.
Correction, I wouldn’t spill blood in large quantities. In Haiku and Senryu I have dropped my share of blood-load. Through Haiku I’ve dealt (honestly) with my mother’s death, the curse of my illegitimacy, cancer, and other topics, all of which definitely qualify as gut wrenching. I just couldn’t see myself drawing on the kind of details that would get me published in this particular magazine.
Until last week I remained snuffed big time—a snuffing of monumental proportion.
Then … I received a copy of Wah.
Wah is a Haiku journal from India with the sole purpose of developing a cultural exchange between Indian Haiku poets and poets in the rest of the world. The first of four poems they accepted was there, printed in English on page 41 and facing it on page 42, in Punjabi.
Getting this journal in the mail was exactly what I needed. I read through the list of contributors and found fellow Guild member, Irene Golas, as well as others I admire locally and in the broader world and I stopped feeling tired. I stopped feeling mentally snuffed. And Halleluiah, I returned to my favourite pastime, the observation of my fellow humans.
The writing process is not something everyone understands. I think only those of us who look past the surface and see past the green hair will truly relate to the crushing pain a good snuffing delivers.
If I am ever again called upon to deliver gut wrenching honesty I know exactly what I will say: Writing is hard.
I’m not going to get into the details, other than to say that NaNoWriMo is the shortened form of National Novel Writing Month. If you want to find out more about it, it’s history, what charities it supports (note: not registered in Canada at this time), and all that other writerly goodness, hie thee to NaNoWriMo.org.
I’m the kind of writer that likes to present herself with challenges. What would be more challenging than to write 50,000 words in a month? That’s a functional draft for most genres, and even if you’re writing something like fantasy or science fiction that allows higher word counts, it’s a lot easier to “write up” to length than to implement a scorched Earth policy to edit down.
As WANA founder Kristen Lamb says, life doesn’t reward beginners. It rewards finishers. Since nearly every first draft in existence is crap anyway, why not give yourself permission to get that crappy draft done so you can edit it into the work of art we all know it can be?
What does 50,000 words in a month mean? What does it “look like,” in workplace parlance?
I like to draw on my background as an academic and a corporate trainer for this. As with any exam or paper I had to write, or any project I have to manage, I look at the time I have and divide the work into equal portions, account for planned, and even unexpected events, and set reasonable goals based on that accounting.
I also like to do something called front-loading. I aim for a daily goal slightly higher than what I absolutely have to get done. If you’re ahead of the game, then an unexpected crisis (or utter exhaustion) won’t derail you nearly as much.
There are 30 days in November. 50,000 divided by 30 is 1,667 words per day. If you aim for 2,000 words a day, you give yourself some wiggle room.
Planning is critical.
I’m an unapologetic pantser, that is, I write by the seat of my pants. I don’t plot out my novels, identify my major turning points, etc. I just write. Having said that, my ideas are fairly well thought out ahead of time and I often know what the climax of my novel is.
Even so, I had to give over my pantsing ways for NaNo.
I chose an older idea that I actually had written a chapter outline for. I had even written down some ideas for the opening chapters and inciting incident.
If you have research to do, do that in advance as well, or work out a system whereby you make notes for yourself for future research (e.g. 18th century dress for description of protagonist and love interest; Where was the post office in the original Copper Cliff? Herbal remedies and midwifery in frontier Canada.).
The point is to write. Get your ideas down. Try not to edit as you go. I say try, because I gave into the temptation and redrafted several chapters. Sometimes you have to because an idea or new direction will pop up when you least expect it and require some rework to proceed.
Having said all that, you will probably deviate from your plan for the very reason I just stated. This is true especially for the pantser, for whom all the planning in the world can be only the starting line, or jumping-off point. Prepare for the deviation, for the new idea that will not let you go, and figure out a way to address that serendipity.
Planning is never wasted, though.
I was fortunate last year, because I was on leave until November 17th. Knowing that, and that I had planned a visit to a friend for a few days in early November, I front-loaded big time, sometimes writing more than 3,000 words in a day to make up for the expected shortage of time when I returned to work.
Recruit your family and friends to help. Let them know how important this is to you, and ask them to help out with housework, cooking, shopping, or whatever other tasks you would normally do in the course of a week. Would they mind eating take-out a day or two a week (can you afford it)? Will the grandparents or a favourite auntie and uncle mind watching the kids for a few days? Can you negotiate a regular block of time that will, for all intents and purposes, remain sacrosanct for the month of November? Will you have to relocate for the weekends in the month to ensure your most productive writing days remain just that?
What other routines will have to change to accommodate NaNo? For example, I am going to cut down the frequency of my blogging, and do all of my blogging on the weekends, so I can just send out my posts on their assigned days. I’m getting in the habit of doing it this month, so the adjustment won’t be so big. I will probably be difficult to find on the interwebz for the month of November as well. Every second really does count.
I’ve been writing, pretty much daily, for years now. It was good to have the time off to devote to the daily writing quota NaNo requires, but I can probably manage it working.
No, I’m not taking time off this year to do it.
Yes, I have a workshop I’ve committed to in the month of November. It’s just two days, but still.
Yes. I’m crazy, but in a good way.
I’m addicted to word count. I’m not draconian about it (i.e. no self-flagellation involved), but I’ve been tracking my output using a fantastic spreadsheet Jamie Raintree developed. I’ve learned that by not even trying, I can write anywhere between 12,000 and 18,000 words a month (including my blog posts).
I’m planning and researching this month like a good little do-bee.
Because of work, I’m adjusting my schedule to focus my efforts on the weekends because I know I’ll be lucky to get 1,000 words in on a weeknight. There are five weekends in November. It’s doable. It is.
I’m letting the housework go for the month (except laundry, ‘cause I don’t have that many clothes) and I’m not going to let it bother me. So there.
As I mentioned, I’m going to be less active on the interwebz and prepare my week’s posts on the weekends. If this doesn’t prove effective, I’m prepared to take a blogging/social media vacation. I’ll do it. I swear.
The feeling of accomplishment, of achieving that 50,000 word goal, of knowing that I have the working basis of a novel, can’t be beat. It’s a gamification of writing (the satisfying “ding!” of levelling up). NaNo will even give you a certificate you can print off after you validate your word count on their site.
Plus, you get all sorts of perks for being a winner: a discount on Scrivener software (which I purchased and am going to use for this new project), free or discounted publishing on Lulu and Createspace, and other writerly consumables.
Even if you don’t “win,” and really, your only competition is yourself, you still win. Say everything goes to hell in November and I only manage 20,000 words. That’s 20,000 words I didn’t have before. That’s no reason to be ashamed. It’s pride-making, confidence-building, and craft-validating, in fact.
There will be people who will tell you that NaNo isn’t worth it. It so is. Don’t listen to them. They’re full of shit.
Agents and small publishers will tell you how they are inundated with crappy NaNo drafts in December. Um . . . jump the gun much? The point of NaNo is to get a working draft that you can revise, edit, and polish into a gem. That can take the rest of the year if you focus on the one project, more, if you write and work on several projects at once (as I—remember, I’m crazy—do).
In the immortal words of Larry the Cable Guy, Git ‘er done!
If you choose to accept the NaNoWriMo challenge, I hope you get as much out of it as I did. More even. Moar!
And I sincerely hope that you got some writerly goodness out of my sharing my NaNo experience with you.
Writing tips — much like inspiration — can be found almost anywhere. Every writer has thoughts on their craft and most are happy to share these. The late Elmore Leonard — author of numerous bestsellers, such as Glitz, Get Shorty, Maximum Bob, and Rum Punch — limited himself to ten. He wrote the following list to explain his writing and help others looking to improve their own work.
10 tricks for good writing:
1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10 — If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
October’s meeting of the SWG will be based around writing tips. Members are asked to bring tips they’ve found helpful and share them with the group. (No limit on subject — structure, ideas, even scheduling/organizational tips are welcome — but please bring between two and five total. Thanks.)
Last year I participated in the Playwrights’ Junction workshop offered by the Sudbury Theatre Centre and led by playwright-in-residence Matthew Heiti and it was one of the best learning of experiences of my writing career yet. They’re currently taking applications for the 4th season of the workshop (Deadline is September 15th) and I want to tell you why you should consider applying.
“But I’m not a playwright and have no intention of writing for the stage.”
When I applied last year I had no illusion that I was a playwright, but I didn’t let that stop me. Writing for the stage is a unique experience, but there is a whole lot of overlap between writing prose for novels as there is in writing for theatre. I went in with an open mind. One of the things about being a “new” writer is that we are often trying to find our voice. Part of that journey can be experimenting in different genres and different mediums.
Here’s just a few of the things I appreciated about the workshop and that helped me grow as a writer.
I can’t say enough about Matthew Heiti as the instructor. Matthew is knowledgeable beyond his years when it comes to writing both prose and for the stage. He treated us fledgling playwrights as peers and gave us this once in a lifetime look behind the scenes of what goes into developing work for the stage.
I am forever grateful for the experience of being a part of the Playwright Junction and I hope you’ll take the opportunity to apply.
I’ll be in the audience cheering you on if you do apply.
Saturday, August 2nd was a big day — the official launch for Creepy Capreol: Chilling Tales From a Railroad Town.
Young Street was hopping all day, with hundreds of people gathered for Capreol Days. Vendors of all sorts were parked between King and Front — selling everything from food to jewellery. Things were just getting started when I arrived downtown at 9:30. I had a prime spot in front of Lynn’s Place and, with a few quiet spells, was kept busy throughout the day. In fact I sold an amazing 73 copies of Creepy Capreol! Of the original 120 I’m now down to 9 (I sold some before the launch and gave a few away). So it’s time to order more.
Capreol Days proved a big day for MadCap Publishing (my fledgling publishing company) in other ways too. CC sold extremely well, but even my older titles moved. Plus we received a full page spread in Saturday’s issue of the Sudbury Star — on Page 1 … of the Leisure Section. Bob Michelutti’s illustration looked great — I might cut it out and frame it!
Better still three of Creepy Capreol’s contributors made it out — Sudbury Writers’ Guild members Betty Guenette (with husband + dogs) and Lisa Coleman-Brown (and husband), plus former Capreol resident Jason Shayer (with his wife and kids). All three have now received their free contributor’s copy, and two got the original artwork for their story.
Fellow SWG member Renny Degrott-MacKinnon joined me to sell her book Family Business. She had a good day as well, selling nine copies and earning herself some fan mail.
Up next … Valley East Days in early September (Renny will be joining me there too) and the Terror Train/Fright Night events come late September through October. And maybe, maybe, a signing at Chapters and/or the City of Sudbury’s main library. Fingers crossed!
by Renny deGroot
Left-Right-Left! Maybe it’s because, decades after leaving the military, those words and the accompanying thump of boot heels hitting the parade square in precision, can still make my heart beat faster. Maybe it’s because both my parents had also been in the military and organized our family with crisp routines. Whatever the reason, discipline comes naturally to me which is a good thing because that’s what it took for me to get all the way through the drafting, writing, re-writing and editing process of successfully producing the 240,000 word novel Family Business. Discipline and having a compass.
Early on in the process I decided that I would work on the book three days a week. It was a realistic target given my other commitments. I also had a goal for each session – usually a page count and I stuck with it until I got there. I had a separate writing space in the house where I would go which immediately got me into the right ‘head space’ for writing. In the summer months I treated myself. I set up my computer outside in my screened in deck with the sound of the waterfall in the background, but it was still a mental ‘going to work’ kind of experience. So – applying myself in a disciplined approach was one element to successfully getting the novel done.
“Where’s the story?!” was a favourite cry by my first creative writing instructor, James Purdie. It was a bit like when one of my English Lit professors used to tell us to apply the ‘So what?’ rule to everything we wrote. Every sentence, every word needed to have a point. Purdie used an example that still stays with me twenty-five years later: “The King died, and then the Queen died” (not a story) “of a broken heart.” (A story!).
What I took from this was that the theme, in my case, the concept of freedom both at a macro level and at an individual level, needs to be clear and everything must be grounded around the theme. I wrote an outline to have the main milestones and timeline determined, but after that I trustedto my theme to continue to move me forward. Whether it was about the oppressive mother attempting to control her sons, or the occupying forces restricting the Dutch population, the theme of freedom was my compass that kept me moving forward. I have heard of people who prefer to have only the vaguest notion of what they will write about when they begin and that may work for them. I tried that as well once and I never got further than ten pages of aimless clutter. For me, having a framework of main milestones and a thematic compass, worked well. It still left me plenty of scope for creative discovery. How wonderful it was to realize that Tiineke was such a strong young woman and well able to deal with her mother-in-law. The characters seemed to reveal themselves as I wrote, without conscious effort on my part.
In mid May, as we honoured our Canadian military effort in Afghanistan, I reflected on my ten years with the Canadian Forces. Honing my discipline, teaching me to keep commitments, learning to set a course and stay with it – all of these skills have helped me to become a writer.
Although, to tell the truth, using an actual compass was right up there with using a slide rule; I never did quite perfect it.
Tracy Pepper grew up in Hanmer. In 1985 she was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer and was not supposed to survive. Last year she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money for ovarian cancer.
Here’s a link explaining her story: http://www.stuff.co.nz/stuff-nation/assignments/share-your-news-and-views/10231872/Cancer-survivors-drive-to-help-others
That accomplishment got her invited to contribute to a book project called Dreamers & Doers – inspirational stories of women who have climbed Kilimanjaro (see attached posters). Tracy loved the project because it supports another charity, every book sold buys a textbook for a child in Tanzania. They believe every child has the right to an education.
Tracy is now working with a charity in Tanzania and will be driving across Canada this summer collecting unwanted winter clothing for the porters of Kilimanjaro and school supplies for the Kilimanjaro Orphanage. She is also promoting this book and looking for businesses and book stores who would be interested in supporting this mission. Every book sold supports a charity that buys a textbook for a child in Tanzania.
Here’s a link to the video that explains the project.
Tracy will be at the Fromagerie on Elgin on Saturday, August 9 at 3:00pm to tell her story, sell some books, and collect donations.
Sudbury’s new Poet Laureate Tom Leduc is hoping to make a mark on the city. His initiative, Moving with Poetry (see attached poster), will put two unlikely things together: poetry and public transportation.
Soon the city’s commuters could be reading your creations. Those chosen for the project will see their writings posted on transit buses.
So, if you are a poet — or just love words — grab a pen and start composing. The topic is Sudbury. Submit an Ode to Ramsay Lake or an Elegy to the Fallen Water Tower. Write of your love for the black rock, sweet blueberries, or the bear that goes through your trash. Just capture a piece of the city — it’s feel, history, or people. It doesn’t even have to be poetry … short stories are accepted too (remember space is limited so keep them short!).
Link to poster for moving with poetry
Enjoy Jazz on Saturday night (July 26) and join us for Special Guest Poets the next day.
Sudbury Poet Laureates past and present will read from their works at the Gore Bay Harbour Centre on Sunday, July 27, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Hear Roger Nash (past President of the League of Canadian Poets & Inaugural Sudbury Laureate), Tom Leduc (current Poet Laureate of Sudbury & Sudbury Writers’ Guild member)
Plus Manitoulin poets:
Ron Berti (De-ba-jeh-mu-jig Storytellers), Fay Becks (Manitoulin Writers’ Circle), and Margo Little (Sudbury Writers’ Guild & Manitoulin Writers’ Circle).
Book Sale & Signing
More info 705-282-1714 or 705-282-2040.
Special Thanks to Ontario Heritage
What motivates us to write about ourselves? Perhaps it is a desire to tell our personal stories for therapeutic reasons or to find a way to heal ourselves. Maybe it is to share our experiences and educate others on the lessons we have learned, or to hold others accountable for their role in our misfortunes or trauma. Possibly it is to leave behind our stories for future generations. Whatever the reason, the memoir is a powerful way of coping with the past, making sense of the present and creating connections with the future.
Over the past two years, I have been researching, interviewing and writing a story more personal than I could ever have imagined, a tale in which I am deeply immersed, and one that is a powerful part of my personal history. In many ways, I feel like I am writing a memoir. But the stories are not mine. They belong to my father.
For many months I interviewed my father, sitting in the worn blue armchair in my parents’ 1950s brick bungalow, my fingers tapping on my laptop keyboard as I frantically tried to keep up with his narration about his experiences as a concentration camp prisoner in Poland during World War II. I became absorbed in the time period, his life as a young boy in Oulu, Finland, the bombings of his hometown by the Russians during the Winter War, his exploits as a merchant marine sailor at the tender age of fourteen. His storytelling led me from his ship in the port of Danzig to the cattle car that transported the crew to KL Stutthof. His voice brought me to the Death Gate, where I waited alongside the Finnish sailors with fear and anxiety. Before long, I felt as though I became part of his experiences, first empathizing with the prisoners who endured forced labour, malnourishment and beatings, then envisioning the Death March, the naval evacuation and the traumatic day of his liberation.
While memoir relies on the first person narrator, the family memoir is usually written in third person, details a particular time in a family member’s life, uses supplemental research and relies on the literary techniques usually found in novels. After careful study of the time period, specific dates and events to ensure I was as accurate as possible, I knew I wouldn’t be satisfied with a retelling that read like a history text. Instead, I wanted his memories to come alive for the reader. For that reason, among other literary techniques, I incorporated dialogue and details about setting to recreate scenes, relying on my imagination to describe what it might have been like for him. These literary techniques, so often used in family memoirs, allowed me to write about the events in a more vivid manner. Fortunately, I also have my father as a first reader to confirm all of the details.
In the end, the family memoir is the perfect vehicle for telling my father’s story. More importantly, I hope that by recounting the events he has been able to heal some of the deep wounds he has carried with him for the past seventy years. His story teaches invaluable lessons about hope and resiliency and bears witness to the crimes committed on millions of victims. As a writer, I am able to share my father’s story with my children and my children’s children, thereby creating an indelible connection to his past, our present and their future.