Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Blue Period

I feel funny about writing this so soon after many posts about being grateful and optimistic, but the truth is, sometimes I get really down.

I think the word "depression" is overused, so I won't refer to it to describe this feeling, as there is a big difference between being clinically depressed and getting a bit sad from time to time.

I'm generally a positive person, so these blue periods often catch me unawares. Since I'm analytical, I will spend much time and energy trying to figure out why I'm feeling this way...is it a lack of exercise? Too little meaningful connection with family or friends? Not enough vitamins? Who knows? All I know is that, most of the time, the sadness will leave as swiftly as it came on, giving me no further ammunition to fight it the next time.

Being sensitive is great for creativity and expression, but it can also bring on the blues. I will shed tears over stories of animal abuse or environmental woes. Sometimes it doesn't take much to make me sad: a missed opportunity, a harsh word from someone I thought was a friend, an inability to do something I've been successful at in the past, a cruel comment on this blog, or simply making a mistake. As much as I try not to "sweat the small stuff", sometimes I just do, and I've had to accept that. On the flip side, I'm incredibly strong when a genuine crisis comes along. Go figure.

It's difficult to enjoy the journey when you feel like you've been running in place for years. Yes, I'm out of debt, but because of our ambitious plan to save everything we can for a move, travel, and long-term savings, I still have to watch every penny. My rewrites are finally progressing nicely, but let's face it--that road to publication is so long that I can't begin to glimpse the end of it yet. I've been freelancing for almost 20 years, but I'm still paid peanuts for the work that I do. The list goes on...there is always a positive and a negative way of looking at things, and I'm very good at both. And knowing there are many people who have it much worse than I do doesn't snap me out of a funk...it just adds guilt to the mix. I hope that one day, I will look back and be able to see a purpose and a positive result for how hard I've worked to make things happen, but when you're the hamster on the wheel, it's difficult to have that perspective.

Sometimes it just helps to talk about it. Thanks for listening.

Do you ever encounter the blues? How do you battle them? Do you think it's just the price we pay for being creative, and therefore sensitive?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Enjoy the Journey

When you're a writer, it's easy to get hung up on where you want to be, instead of appreciating where you are. Sometimes it feels like the writers with bestselling books or big deal publishers have won the lottery...and you aren't even sure where to buy a ticket.

But there are some wonderful perks to being unpublished...yes, perks! that you may not have considered.

1. You can write what you want. Just think--this may be the last time you get to write a book that pleases you. You can write what you want, when you want, however you see fit, without anyone telling you it's not marketable enough, or that it doesn't fit a desirable niche. Enjoy it.

2. You can take as long as you like. Need to spend five years on that book to really get the feel for your protagonist? Go ahead...you're not under contract to write three books in three years.

3. Tired of rewriting? You can start something new. Unpublished authors don't have to deal with the expectations of agents and publishers, so they can write to please themselves. That's how they get good, by writing a lot and trying new things when it's still fun.

4. You don't need a lawyer or an agent. You might not even need an accountant. Publishing contracts can be scary and confusing. Unless you're a skilled negotiator, you may want some help wading through one.

5. Your potential is still limitless. Maybe you will be the next J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. Maybe you will write the classic novel of our time...who knows? When your publishing history is well-established, you will have a strong indication of where you stand. Before you're published you can dream as big as you like. There are no limits.

6. Writers are still your comrades in arms. When you're an unpublished author, there is no end of like-minded people to commiserate with. But when you land an agent, that pond gets much smaller, and when you get published, it shrinks again. Look at your writing friends now, appreciate them, and accept that they might not feel the same way about you once you find success.

7. No one is judging you but yourself. Right now, you're your own worst critic. Get published, and you will find people dying to tear you a new one on Amazon.

8. You're not pigeonholed. Similar to #1, just because you've written a mystery for teens doesn't mean you have to keep writing them. But once you get published, your readers (and your publisher) will understandably want more of the books that they're loving and selling.

9. The only pressure is self-inflicted. The more popular you are as an author, the more pressured you are to keep repeating that success. Right now, the only person you have to answer to is you.

I often feel the conflict between "live each day like it's your last" and "think long term". There's a danger in truly living each day as if it's our last--imagine what would happen if everyone quit their job, cashed in their savings, and moved to Aruba.

But there is a way to enjoy every step of the process. Whenever you're fretting over not being published, remember the advantages you do have, and enjoy them while you still can. It's kind of like being single--those carefree days are only truly appreciated by the married.

Friday, February 24, 2012


Happy Friday, Dear Readers.

Let's face it: life can be very hard, and it can be cruel. Sometimes even the day-to-day routine of paying bills, cleaning the house, driving the kids to a gazillion different places, and putting in your time at a day job can wear you down. It's so easy to forget to be grateful.

I'd like to think I've learned a few lessons about gratitude in my time. I was supposed to be in a wheelchair by my early twenties. My best friend died in a tragic accident when I was seventeen, and another young friend committed suicide. So I know life is short. I know that there are no guarantees, so you should be kind while you can and grateful for what you have.

But sometimes, I forget.

Right now, I'm grateful that I was born a storyteller. Since I can tell stories, I am regularly connected with people who have the most amazing stories to share. Sometimes they are simple, like that of the  man who left a Hutterite colony with only the clothes on his back, and now runs one of the most successful catering businesses in the province, if not the country. Sometimes they are more unusual, like the elderly woman who as a young girl carried messages in her shoes to the Allied Forces during World War II, while a Jewish family hid for their lives in her home. I never know at the start what each interview will ultimately teach me, but it's quite often a lesson of gratitude, courage, and resilience.

Human beings are nothing if not resilient.

My most recent lesson in gratitude came from a 28-year-old heart transplant recipient. Kristin found out she had a heart condition at 18--news that was a huge shock to this healthy, active woman, but which never stopped her for a second. When her nasty "stomach flu" in 2009 turned out to be heart failure, she faced each challenge with love, laughter, and such optimism. This young woman--who has already been through much more than most of us will ever face in our lifetime--made me laugh...and cry...several times during our interview. And she generously allowed me to tell more of her story on this blog, which I will do at a later date. I want to take the time to honor her story.

I am grateful that people like Kristin are willing to open up and share their stories with me, so I can share them with you. This is a gift I never take for granted. And I'm grateful that my own heart--though bruised and somewhat jaded--is still open to being moved and changed by the people I meet through my writing.

What are you grateful for? Have you ever met an extraordinary "ordinary" person?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Good News!

February has been a great month for my little writer's group. A publishing company just offered our romance writer a contract, and I couldn't be more thrilled.

A close friend warned me that once I was published, my life would change...and not necessarily for the better. "You'll find out who your friends are," he said ominously, intimating that many of my writing pals would not be comfortable with my success.

I didn't want to believe it, but--even without selling a novel-- I've already experienced a small amount of this. After landing an agent, I was suddenly persona non grata at a little gathering of writers, as one of my colleagues thought I should find a group that was more "on my level". I was stunned, and hurt. When I first ventured into the corporate world, I was introduced to everyone on my first day as a "well-known journalist". Many of my new co-workers told me they had seen my byline in various magazines. The more compliments I received, the more I could feel tension brewing between myself and the woman who held a similar position in the company. By the end of the day, the damage was done--she hated my guts, and did everything she could to make my life miserable.

I don't get it.

One of the things I want most in the world is to be a published author--to make my living writing fiction, and I still feel nothing but joy at my friend's success. She has been offered a contract, which is not only a tribute to her hard work and talent, but also a sign of hope. If you see someone you know offered a publishing deal, you have tangible proof that this happens--that being a novelist is still an attainable dream. Knowing something on an intellectual level, because you believe that it is true, and witnessing it happen to someone you know are two very different things.

Everyone in my writing group dreams of being a full-time writer. We all have different ways of going about it, but that's the common goal--that's why we're there. So I can't imagine feeling anything but happy when one (or more) of us achieves that dream. I believe we will all achieve it--it's just a matter of when, and who happens to be next in line. But if I wasn't writing myself, if I wasn't happily ensconced in my rewrites of Dragonfly Summer, maybe it would be different. Maybe I'd have more time to cultivate this "jealousy" thing. I'm glad I'm too busy.

How about you, Dear Readers? Have you ever been the victim of the green-eyed monster? Or felt that way yourself?

Sending big congrats to Dee-Dee, who deserves this success more than anyone I know. You've worked hard for this--enjoy it!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Next Generation

One of the most inspiring things you can do as a writer is take public transit. No, really. Anyone who has traveled by bus, subway, or train on a regular basis knows that you come across the most interesting people and situations.

The other day, I overheard a conversation that gave me hope for the future. It's worth sharing.

A small grade-school boy was sitting on a bench at the front of the bus with a much older teenage boy. I originally thought they were together, as they were chatting and wearing similar jackets. But then the teenager moved behind me, to sit beside another grade-school boy.

"You'll understand this more when you get to high school," the teenager said to the younger boy. "But you just don't bully people."

The young boy mumbled an excuse that I didn't quite catch--something about how the kid sitting on the bench brought it upon himself.

"That's how he gets attention," the teenager said. "He probably doesn't have any friends, right? That's how he gets attention. You NEVER bully anyone. They might kill themselves. Lots of nice people have killed themselves because they were bullied."

As the bus trundled to the teenager's stop, a group of teenage girls gathered around the young boy sitting on the bench.

"You have such a cute smile," one of the girls told him. Apparently, the kid sitting behind me had pushed the boy on the bench and taken his Jets cap, which was now back on his head. All of the girls urged the bullied boy not to let such things bother him.

Then they left, and the boy noticed me watching him and smiled. He did have a cute smile. "I don't even know those people," he said.

Sometimes it's worth taking the bus.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Morning Page Fail

The Woman in Black from the original British mini-series.
One nasty ghost!

Happy Friday, Dear Readers!

I have a confession. I suck at morning pages, for one simple reason. You're supposed to write them in the morning, when you first wake up.

I always plan to get up earlier. I also plan to go to bed before it's the following morning. Neither plan is often successful with me. I wonder if evening pages would work just as well....

Last week, I was able to complete the morning page exercise three times, and a funny thing happened...everything I wrote about came true. I wrote about wanting to return to the gym, and I went back the following day. I wrote about needing to get back to my rewrites, and I did. (I didn't write about winning the lottery, but maybe I should.) I think I get it now. Putting your thoughts down on paper can transform them into action. It's a powerful thing.

But this week I messed everything up by sleeping in until the last minute and not writing those morning pages once. I did  have some help: two fabulous novels that are highly addictive: Woman in Black by Susan Hill, and Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. A remake of the movie version of Woman in Black is in theatres now, and I hear it's terrifying, but you should still read the book if you enjoy a good ghost story.

Thankfully, I'm managing to put in some solid work on my rewrites everyday, even though my gym attendance is still suffering.

Did you try the Morning Pages? If so, how did you fare? How are you spending your long weekend? If you've seen or read Rebecca or Woman in Black, what did you think? Would you recommend them?

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

So You Want To Be A Freelance Writer

"Sure, I have that number."

A woman approached me at a Christmas party. I'd never met her before, but she told me she'd seen my byline in the Free Press, a paper I'd started writing for almost twenty years ago. Then she cut to the chase:

"I'd like to freelance, too. Can you give me the number of the editor I can call to make this happen?"

You will not believe how many times I've been asked that question. I'm not Batman, and there is no magic Batphone that will turn you into a successful freelancer. That said, freelancing can be a wonderful way to make extra money in your spare time (I don't recommend it as your only source of income, unless you have a steady, well-paying contract and plenty of savings to support you in lean times).

If you're serious about becoming a freelance writer, here are a few things to keep in mind.

  • First, anyone who can write anything--be it a short story, poem, or university paper, thinks they have what it takes to be a freelance journalist. But that's not the case. Journalism is a learned skill. It's a trade, and it has a very specific formula. You can forget about the fancy sentence structure. You can forget about all the ten-dollar words you use in your literary novels. You'd better know what an inverted pyramid is, and how to use it, and if you don't...you'd better learn.
  • Very few people walk off the street and start writing for a big paper or magazine. When you're starting out, editors want to know two things: your education, and your experience. You can get away without the first, but only if you have quite a bit of the second. Be prepared to email an editor your previous work, or come with clips in a portfolio if you meet in person.
  • If you want to write for a national or international paper or magazine, your best bet is to send the appropriate editor a query letter outlining your fabulous idea. This query letter is very much the same as what you'd send to an agent or publisher for your novel.
  • When you're starting out, your best bet is to approach smaller, community publications and offer your services. You will have to work cheap in order to gain experience, but never, EVER work for free.
  • Once you agree to a deadline, stick to it. If the deadline offered is completely unrealistic, say so (often, editors will give new writers a very short deadline so that they have time to commission another writer if the resulting story is unusable or doesn't show up). Yes, there are such things as deadline extensions, but use only in case of emergency, and never as a beginning freelancer. Once you've written for a publication for some time, you have a bit more leeway.
  • Make sure your copy is clean before you submit. Spelling mistakes and grammar errors are a huge no-no.
  • Make sure your copy is accurate. Recording your interviews is always a great idea, as long as you know you have technology you can trust. I've had a recorder shut down in the middle of an interview without realizing it--not fun. Cleaning up quotes in order to make your sources sound intelligent is fine; changing the meaning of what they say or using it out of context is not. This may sound like a no-brainer, but many journalists have knowingly used quotes out of context. You can be sued for this.
  • If you want to be this guy,
    use your computer
    for something
    other than writing.
  • Make sure your copy is interesting. I once gave a friend the opportunity to write an article for a major newspaper. He sent me his story to review before submitting, and I was disappointed to see that all of his source's quotes were dreadfully dull. When I pointed this out, my friend's response was: "Well, he never said anything interesting". Part of your job as a journalist is to make people say interesting things by asking interesting questions. 
Successful Freelancers:

  1. Are eager to take on stories about any topic. As a freelancer, you have to be adaptable.
  2.  Meet their deadlines. It sounds so simple, but you'd be surprised how many people don't.
  3. Can work quickly. Otherwise, the pay isn't worth it.
  4. Can wait to be paid. Expect to wait a month after publication for that cheque, or even longer. It's a scandal, but there are thousands of people willing to take your place, so this business definitely favors the editor, not the writer.
  5. Can make anything interesting. Don't find plumbing that exciting? It's your job to make it exciting. If you try, you can find something fascinating about almost any topic. Trust me.
  6. Submit clean copy.
  7. Are reliable. If you promise to do something, do it. If you're having trouble, let your editor know right away, not the day before the story is due.
  8. Can write to word count. Bigger is not better. If they ask for 1,000 words, give them 1,000 words.
  9. Never work for free. It hurts the entire industry--never do it!
  10. Don't expect to get rich. When I freelanced full-time, I made a very nice living. I met interesting people, was exposed to wonderful opportunities, and was able to work in my bathrobe at home. But Bill Gates, I was not. Usually, a good rule of thumb is this: higher pay cheque = higher level of BS. The amount you're paid often directly correlates to how much time you spend in boring meetings.
Good luck! Feel free to ask questions if there's anything I haven't covered that you'd like to know.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Best Medicine

I have a co-worker that I absolutely adore, in part because of the way she makes me laugh. After having lunch with her, my sides ache and my stomach hurts. As painful as this sounds, laughing that hard is a bright spot in my day, and when she isn't around, I'm the lesser for it.

Everyone loves to laugh. We may not like jokes, which--more often than not--tend to be more awkward than funny, but I've never met anyone who doesn't enjoy a good giggle.

The rewriting process isn't a barrel of laughs, but I have one beta reader who softens criticism by using his sense of humour. It's been almost a year (for shame!) since he sent me his comments on Dragonfly Summer, but reading through them was a joy (even though they meant more work for me), because they made me laugh.

An example of my editor's commentary: Is Jack wearing lace panties or boxer briefs? (His way of saying this male character is sounding more like a woman.) Or, my favorite: Did Amanda turn into a medicine man? (This isn't the way people talk in real life. Too dramatic.)

My boss also uses humor to soften the less-than-pleasant messages he needs to get across, such as in the report he sent to his department before his vacation. He titled it, What? You are taking a vacation NOW?, and included instructions for what to do if:
  • You think your hair is on fire
  • You know your hair is on fire
  • A UFO lands on the Planetarium and kidnaps some of the staff
I'm often asked how to critique a friend's manuscript, especially when what you have to say isn't all roses. For these situations, I highly recommend the Oreo Approach (one not-so-nice comment sandwiched between two positive ones). It depends on how well your friend responds to criticism. Personally, I want my novels to be the very best they can be. As much as I like to hear that people enjoy my writing, saying "Good job!" when what was really meant was "Trite cliche!" is not going to help me achieve greatness. I want the truth, and I want my reader to give it to me straight. That said, a little humor always helps.

When you use humor in a critique, you're taking a risk. Humor can be highly subjective, and if the person is very sensitive or unused to having their work critiqued, they might think you're making fun of them. But if you suspect that it will have a positive response, or if it's just in your nature to be funny, go for it.

When I slip into a narrative, expository voice, I'd rather read "Too much Bill Kurtis" than "This sucks! Boring!" But maybe that's just me.

Rewrites suck in general. A little humor can go a long way.

Have you ever used humor to soften a sharp message? Or have you appreciated a humorous critique? Please share...we can all use a good laugh.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Big VD, Reprised

Whether you like his holiday or not, St. Valentine was quite the righteous dude.

Happy Valentine's Day, Dear Readers!

So, what do you think of Valentine's Day? Do you love it, hate it, or are you on the fence? Do you turn up your nose and sneer that it's a "Hallmark Holiday", or do you jump at the chance to come up with new, creative ways to show your love?

Since I work at a museum, I used to have to go on a morning news show once a year and explain the historical significance of Valentine's Day. It was interesting, if a bit sad. The real Valentine was a Roman priest who became one of the most popular saints in England and France after his death. When Emperor Claudius II forbid marriage, proclaiming that single men make better soldiers, Valentine secretly continued to marry people. When Claudius found out, he was pissed. He ordered Valentine's execution.

While in prison before his death, Valentine sent his lover a letter signed ‘from your Valentine’, leading to widespread use of the phrase. The first true Valentine card was sent in 1415 by Charles, duke of Orleans, to his wife. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London at the time.

As for me, I admit I used to dread Valentine's Day. In girl world, it always seemed to be a day when your significant others "proved" how much they loved you, which of course is ridiculous. I hated the pressure, but now that I'm with The Boy, I no longer worry about that stuff. Although he did get this ghost-story writing girl the best present ever: a night in a haunted hotel room!

My co-workers would appreciate this one!
How are you spending the holiday? How do you feel about it? Do you think it creates unfair pressure or is designed to make singles feel miserable?
In the meantime, here's Annie's recipe for Valentine's chocolate sugar cookies.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Snarky Advice

Hi everyone,

I'm sorry that, once again, my posts on this blog have been sporadic. Originally, I started this blog for two reasons: to inspire me to write again, and to track my progress as I prepared to fight in the ring. I thought it might be interesting to share the process, which would also keep me accountable.

In many ways, the original purpose has been fulfilled. I finished a new novel, and I finally had my first fight. While I still have goals, they are very different from what they were when I started this blog. Currently, I'm obsessed with finding a new place to relocate in the next few years (still in search of a life less ordinary), and rewriting Dragonfly Summer so I can submit it to agents and publishers. As much as I love kickboxing, and will continue to train on a regular basis, I've had to come to terms with the fact that my plan was never to be a professional kickboxer. I want to be a full-time fiction writer, which requires...yep, you guessed it: writing.

One of my favorite blogs was written by a literary agent who told it like it is--in a big way. So much so, she went by the moniker "Miss Snark". Hapless writers would send her questions, and on one occasion, a writer asked about blogging, and what was appropriate to post. This was Miss Snark's response, which I feel is appropriate to share here. Substitute "Facebook" for "MySpace" and the meaning is still the same.

Since when is it your job to be inspiring to other writers?

Your job is to write.
Unplug the damn internet and get to work.
If you need to buy another computer that doesn't actually hook up to the net, do it.

Blogging is not writing.
Looking at MySpace is not writing.
Friending on MySpace is not writing.
Posting chapters and feverishly checking for comments, then obsessing about comments, and parsing out the hidden meaning of comments like "this blog is great. Have you enlarged your penis yet? Here's my blog that tells you how" is not writing.

Checking site meter stats to see if anyone from NYC is reading your blog is not writing.

There's a lot to be said for sitting down with your ownself and writing. Nothing, literally NOTHING replaces that. Focus. You're wasting time.

And don't post your work on the web. It's not silly or savvy. It's pointless.

So please forgive me if I don't post as often as I used to. I'll still post, especially when I have something to say that's worth reading about, but I'm not going to hold myself to the same insane five-days-a-week.
The reason for my absence is simple: I'm actually writing.
What have you been up to, my Dear Friends? I hope 2012 is treating you well.