Musings on the Art of Writing

As a child, I discovered fantastic worlds created in books. When I began writing about the worlds of my own imagination, I realized how hard authors work to set their characters free to live for our enjoyment. This blog will explore that weird and wonderful process.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What's in a Word?

This past weekend, the National Post had a feature where they asked various authors what was the one word they would use to describe/characterize their work. Writer's being what they are, gave a single word but then offered an explanation for why they chose that word. Over the past few days, I have thought about what word characterized my writing.


I think it's because I write fantasy that justice prevails in my work or perhaps it's because real life is not fair and by writing, I create a place where right always conquers wrong. The first tales I ever told were classic 'fairy' stories where good triumphed over evil (and there were never any fairies!). I was twelve or thirteen and had seen that life was not always fair but felt it should be. I still believe that.

I could have easily said questing or journeying feature prominently in my books which they do but my characters are always searching for justice as they travel through their worlds. Tarr wishes to save his people from the slavery that is the Black Pirates and Geri must destroy the witch who is laying waste to his land. White Crane defeats a dragon who is bent on wiping out her people and Sarah must save a fantasy world from the ravages of a disease created by an evil overlord.

I also write mysteries. Solving a crime is to bring about justice. The evil in my mysteries isn't as black and white as it is in my fantasy because the children solving the crimes shouldn't know hardened criminals or face the reality of evil in the modern world. I believe they can bring about justice in their own way without reality's harshness. Sam chases her thief and finds her to be an unknown aunt bent on making a connection with Sam's family. Mercy finds the Crusader's Cross in the hands of a nurse who doesn't want her master to abandon his pregnant wife to fight in the Crusades. Neither 'bad guy' is truly bad and their crimes are minor but justice is brought to bear by my protagonists. They make a wrong a right.

I would like to think that this is also how I live in my real world, too.

Friday, November 26, 2010

It's Mostly Done!

I set myself the task of finishing the revision of White Crane before Christmas. I'm early but since I leave at the beginning of December, this is a good thing. And, of course, the work is not yet done. What began as simple revision to get the piece ready for publication became a complete rewrite. The great fun of new characters and new plot lines consumed me. I've done little else this past month and now must gently set it aside and let my characters rest.

The Christmas season begins and I must ready myself for the celebration. Gifts must be wrapped and cards sent. Friends and family who have suffered from lack of news over the past months become my focus. I have two weeks to prepare before I leave Calgary and much must be done between now and then.

However, in the pauses between parties and doctor's appointments, I may again slip into the ancient prairies that White Crane inhabits. She is an unusual girl with white hair and a desire to stay a child forever. Just as reality thrusts me into preparing supper, her reality pushes her to grow up. In the end, she faces a dragon and becomes a woman. It has been a delight to watch her grow but the time has come to take off my writing hat and put on the one of editing.

I must forget how wonderful it is just to write whatever happens to pop into my mind. When I'm inspired, dialogue flows, scenes come and go, and surprises happen. Characters become people with their own dreams and destinies. What I thought was the story that had to be told turns into something completely different. Minor characters want their say and major ones dictate what direction I should take. It is an exhilarating experience.

Then why does it ever have to end?

Well, life does intrude and the reality is you can't stay in your story's world forever. When in the throes of writing, you live and breathe your ideas, thinking of them when cooking, cleaning, or eating. You get lost in your thoughts as you hear dialogue or realize you must rewrite a scene because you've discovered a better way of telling it. Your family may or may not understand why you aren't quite 'there'. It's hard to tear yourself away from this world of your creation to deal with financial problems or relationship woes.

So, today, the book is complete. As it stands, it is only 58,000 words but I have learned that this is its bare bones. In the heat of writing, I see my characters and landscapes but never quite get all the description down. Readers forget who has a mole and who has blue eyes so I must remind them. This is what I do in my second draft. I stop and 'smell the roses'. I hear the wind in the fir trees, smell the crackling fire, see the pastel clouds of sunset, taste the sticky, sweet marshmallow, and poke the glowing embers. I check my passive verbs and silly adjectives. I cut out repetition and delve into my Thesaurus. I worry a sentence until it flows or cut it out completely. I say farewell to characters that don't fit or scenes that waste time. I have to believe words are not sacred because one word is always better than three.

Over the next few months, I'll mold this story into a manuscript then send it out into the world. I may even publish it on-line and save a few trees. Who knows? In the meantime, I'll enjoy Christmas in my real world knowing I can always return to the one I create.

Friday, October 8, 2010

When is writing not writing

I've been busy the last few months not writing as much as writing and yet, I sit at my computer most days and spend at least an hour tapping my keyboard. Does this 'count' as writing? I'm honing my skills as a communicator, editor, and yes, creative writer but is it what I want/need to do to be an 'actual' writer? I'm not sure.

Since June, I've edited 3 chapters of my aboriginal fantasy novel, White Crane, written blog entries in my travel blog (and travelled), I've made daily comments on Facebook, and perhaps twice daily comments on Twitter. Am I doing too much communicating and not enough writing? Probably. And yet, I'm doing what I love--putting my thoughts down on 'paper'.

But, those words are fleeting things; in cyberspace (thanks, Mr. Gibson) one minute, gone the next. Is that what I seek? No, I wish my stories to be read and re-read, hence my determination to get published. Yet technology entices me away from my goal. Family and friends come first when I have time to write and so they should. No writer lives in a vacuum.

I'm reminded of another Canadian writer who also spent time communicating rather than 'writing' and that was Margaret Laurence. In her later years, she said she spent more time writing letters to friends than writing stories (it was in the days before blogs, Facebook, and Twitter). Ms. Laurence and I share two things other than a love for communicating with friends and family. She addressed my graduating class of 1974 at Carleton University and on January 5 (my birthday), 1987, she committed suicide (her death day). Odd how such things happen.

So rather than spend hours on this blog communicating, I hope to keep it short and sweet in the future so I can spend more time writing stories.

Monday, June 21, 2010

What Now?

Friday, I finished the penultimate edit of my manuscript, Quest of Balthasar. It seems rather weird to have nothing more to do with the characters who have been part of my life since April but were created seventeen years ago. This book is the beginning of a series so I won't be abandoning Tarr and Argus but it is time to let the book rest before I commit it to a publishing venture.

The tale begins with Tarr, a scrofatan from Lochnaera, in a foreign jail with a gold ring stabbed through his nose. His cellmate, a black scrofata called Argus Sustilla, wants Tarr to tell of his adventures while they plan their escape.

Tarr begins his tale with The Hunter and his Black Pirates landing on Lochnaeara where their superior weaponry slaughters those who try to defend the planet. Tarr's father dies after eliciting a promise from Tarr to evoke the ancient magic of the Lochnaeran Cluster. Tarr, his brother, and their friends escape the pirates and reach the Cave of Peace where the Cluster is hidden. Unfortunately, the key to the cave, the Ring of Peace, has vanished.

From a clue left behind, the group must travel to the planet of dragons if they are to unlock the magic of the Cluster. After narrowly escaping both the Black Pirates and a space vortex, they arrive at Haulwaiqua. A meeting with the dragon queen does not go well until Tarr flourishes his father's dagger which they refer to as Dragon's Bane. Then Dragonlady listens to Tarr's request but tells him the ring he seeks was stolen by the people of Bulhagan.

Tarr agrees to help her re-negotiate a treaty that used to bind Haulwaiqua with Bulhagan. He finds this desert planet inhabited by a people dying due to lack of water. He is captured but with the help of Prince Amad, escapes. The Sultan of Bulhagan told Tarr the ring was in the hands of the Mystragaellans so he flies there. It is this braided gold Ring of Peace that ends up piercing his nose when he is caught by the Mystragaellans.

Tarr and Argus finally make good their escape from jail, Tarr's quest for the Ring of Peace complete.

The book ends and so does my editing. I must say goodbye to my characters and begin on something new. But what? I have several projects on the go but I am also leaving Calgary for our condo in Victoria.

My writing muse haunts this BC city so I may bring one project with me only to have another story blossom there. It is with an underlying sense of excitement that I prepare to leave the prairies and head for the seaside.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Golf is a Good Walk Spoiled

Mark Twain said, "Golf is a good walk spoiled" and I wondered as I played golf with my husband last Friday if perhaps his view of golf was similar to my initial view of editing. "Editing is good writing spoiled".

When I first began to write, I had issues with editing (I think I'm basically lazy in nature). My stories were scrawled on paper using a pencil and erasing was how I made corrections. When the paper became too thin to erase, I stopped making changes. This made for some bad writing, of course, but it did save a few trees.

When I graduated to the typewriter, there were the white-out issues of sticky brushes and more white goop on my fingertips than in the bottle. My prose became heavy (literally) with the added weight of white-out. Typing on top of such blobs required skill and patience which I lacked. Worse was re-typing a page, with cutting and pasting an equally unpleasant task.

I was born to write on a computer where corrections are quick and painless. Typing became less onerous; cutting and pasting didn't require glue. White-out is a word that has since vanished from our language, thank heavens.

Mark Twain felt golf spoiled a good walk but I've come to learn that golf can enhance your walking experience. First you have to let go of the competitive spirit that drives us all and then you must stop and enjoy the experience. On a golf course, you are usually in a lovely locale with green grass and trees. Water and sand enriches the scene as does wildlife. I listen to the birds while I putt, feel the warmth of the sun on my face as I stare down the fairway, and know the heat of sand beneath my feet.

I've come to learn that editing does not spoil good writing. It enhances your writing experience. I write quickly when I first scribe a story. Details are scant and I'm more worried about my characters, their dialogue, and the story line than proper grammar and sentence structure. That comes later when I can sit back and enjoy my characters in their setting. I linger over description so it flows with each word and play with subplots and foreshadowing so 'surprises' are plausible and almost expected. I move sentences around, modify their length, and slay the horrid 'passive verb' beast.

It takes me a couple of months to write the bones of a story but I can work for an entire year on editing. Like golf, it gets easier with practice. Just as I can spend an hour working on one aspect of my golf swing, I can also labour on one paragraph or even a sentence. Playing with words is like modifying one's grip on the club, you try different versions until one works. The feeling of exhilaration when you nail the sentence or the ball is the same.

I strive for perfection in both editing and golf and neither is spoiled because I may fall short. With each reading of a manuscript, there are fewer pauses to make corrections and with golf, there are fewer shots per hole. Will I ever write as well as Mark Twain? Will I ever play golf as well as Tiger Woods? Probably not, but I strive to do the best I can given the tools I have. So I now view editing as good writing enhanced.

Thursday, May 27, 2010


My agent sent me a list of publishers who have recently rejected my Sceptre of Terran-Gayle manuscript. Not suitable was their only comment. I could rail about what is suitable and what is not but I won't. I will do what I usually do, pick up the pieces and continue to write and submit. Why? Good question. The only answer is: I have no other choice. I'd go mad if I didn't write down the stories in my head.

I've been receiving rejection letters for over 30 years so you'd think I would have either gotten used to the pain or given up. But no, it is the odd personal letter from a publisher that keeps me doing what I love to do. My picture book, Mama's Big Black Umbrella, was on the 'perhaps' pile for months before being returned. I was elated by that rejection. It meant I got close. Last summer, Terran-Gayle made it through several editorial committees before being rejected. The publisher loved my writing style but in the end, it was 'not right for them'.

Why do my manuscripts miss out?

For one, I don't write main stream fiction or non-fiction. I wrote fantasy before J.K. Rowlings picked up a pencil and yet I am told I shall never compete with her. I have no intention of doing so. My fantasies spring from my love of history so that is where I base them. I've researched medieval culture and witch hunts so my stories have a sense of time as well as place. Historical fantasy seems to describe my work best but today I am working on a science ficiton/fantasy so no wonder publishers find my work unsuitable. They can't classify it. What can't be shelved in a bookstore, won't sell. I understand that.

Will I stop writing? No. Will I stop submitting my work? Probably not. So rejection is in my future as it was in my past and, as it was today. Tomorrow I pick up the pieces and continue.

Friday, May 21, 2010

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

It is only fitting I should begin this blog with a quote taken from 'Tale of Two Cities' by Charles Dickens. Most think this is the first sentence of the book but it is only two phrases of a much longer one. In fact, Dickens continues in this same vein for a whole paragraph!

I first read 'Tale of Two Cities' when I was in Grade 7 and it inspired me to believe I could also write. I had always told stories -- some outright lies, some tales from my imagination. It seemed like a good idea to write them down for others to enjoy. My school teachers encouraged me with good marks, praise, and special writing projects. Little did they know the writing life I desired was fraught with such wonderful elation and such deep depression.

I began my career with a pencil and pad of foolscap. Just the name of the paper should have alerted me to the game I had chosen to play. Any fool can write; it takes an educated fool to write well. I honed my skills through years of scribbling stories and poems on scraps of paper. Finally, I taught myself to compose at a typewriter. Computers freed me to take risks with my prose and to actually edit rigorously.

Writing for me has always been about the best of times and the worst of times. I love the excitement of a new project, the researching of ideas, the developing of characters, the flow of dialogue, and the burst of description that comes to one in a flash. But, when the story is done, I must switch gears and become analytical, scientific even. Gone are the long sentences that would have made Dickens proud. Gone is the flowery language. Gone are the repetitions and the words that one loves to use.

Why can't 'undulate' appear where ever I wish?

Right now, I'm in the middle of editing a book I wrote years ago as a trilogy. I'm determined that the first book of the series stands alone. It is called the Quest of Balthasar and is a fantasy/science fiction novel for young adults. I will share my trials and tribulations of the editing process in this blog. It might also help me sort out what really matters and what is just fluff.