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, August 16, 2011


Many years ago, all the how-to writing books I read cautioned against 'vanity' publishing. One could spend thousands of dollars and have a printing/publishing company make a few copies of your book allowing you to see your name blazoned on a book jacket. Hence the descriptor, vanity. Then your books would languish in the garage as there was no follow-up marketing (i.e. book tours). In the end, you were no further ahead in your writing career.

I took this advice to heart and struggled through years of writing, editing and mailing out manuscripts. I received more rejection letters than I care to remember. I then began to question the label I had given myself. Was I really a writer?

Recently, I read that the late Martyn Godfrey said if you wrote, edited your writing, and sent it out to publishers, then you were a writer. I met with him years ago and he recommended I talk to an agent about a fantasy I wrote called The Wizard's Stone (written 10 years before JK Rowling published her first Harry Potter book). That advice resulted in thousands of dollars spent on a similar result--no published work bearing my by-line.

Then came the advent of on-line publishing. Vanity publishing now takes on a whole new aspect. For no cash outlay, an author can publish their work on-line and see what happens. The book is not printed until someone buys it and is often sold as a version for those with electronic readers. No fuss; no muss. There are even sites associated with big-name publishers who won't accept unsolicited manuscripts but troll their on-line publishing house for books which show promise.

"If you build an audience; publishers will come." Many on-line authors have proven this mantra true so, after so many years of beating my head against the publishing wall, I decided to try it. I still submit publishing proposals but as the market for unsolicited manuscripts dries up, on-line publishing becomes more alluring.

Last year I wrote on this blog I was on the penultimate edit of The Quest of Balthasar. I lied. I finally finished editing it this spring then set about publishing it on-line at Lulu. This required several more edits to get the look right then I bought a single copy. When it arrived, instead of elation, I felt disappointed. It was not what I had envisioned. It sat on my coffee table as I decided what to do. In the end, I went back to the Lulu and revised it.

To see the results, go to:

Here you may purchase this speculative fiction novel for young adults -- Prince Balthasar (Tarr) of Lochnaera, haunted by the grizzly deaths of his parents, searched the galaxy for a legendary ring to bring peace to his planet and fulfill the promise made to his dying father.

Have fun reading The Quest of Balthasar and I'd love to hear what you think.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Seven Pleasures of Writing

One question every non-writer asks when they learn what I do is, "Are you published?"

It used to bother me. Is being published the only justification for the hours I spend honing my writing skills and polishing my prose? Is it the only measure of success for a writer? No, because true writers don't write to publish; they write because they must.

When I was in elementary school, we had English Composition classes. I loved them as I could write my stories and get marks for them -- rewards for writing what I imagined. It wasn't work; it was fun. It still is. So, even though I earn next to nothing from my writing, I can't stop.

Both my children write well and I steal this idea of seven pleasure of writing from my son's blog, RunBikeNerd. He explores seven (a prime number that can't be divided) pleasures in his life and I thought I'd do the same, although to me, seven is more of a magic number.

My writing pleasures are (in no particular order):
  • seeing the first chapter of a novel emerge in my imagination
  • hearing my characters' voices for the first time
  • wrestling with descriptive words until they say what I see
  • the surprise twists in my plots that even I didn't predict
  • watching rapt faces at a reading
  • changing a passive verb to an active one
  • using the subjunctive so it doesn't sound weird
Perhaps every writer should pause and ask "Why do I write?". If you can list the seven pleasures (or more) you derive from the process, you don't need to justify the time you spend doing it. Being a writer is who you are, not what you do.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Eagle

Last night, Glen and I saw the movie, The Eagle. Glen is a fan of anything Roman and I had read the book the movie was based on. Like most things in my life, there is a background story to this.

Forty-five years ago, I was in Grade 9 in Laurentian High School in Ottawa, Ontario. I'd moved to the city the year before and was 'the new kid' in Grade 8. When we went to high school, our class merged with others and we were split up among 5 classrooms. My original circle of friends shrank.

Over the Christmas holidays, our English teacher assigned Rosemary Sutcliffe's book, The Eagle of the Ninth. Before I could begin reading the book, my grandfather died while swimming in Florida. The upheaval of this and the holiday that is Christmas meant my homework was forgotten. My father helped his stepmother organize the funeral while my sisters and I spent time in the 'smoking' room of the funeral parlour. I told stories to amuse them as there was no TV or books. To this day, I love the feel and look of comfy brown leather sofas. Grandpa's funeral was held after New Years so I was a week later returning to school.

The day I came back, I learned we were to have a quiz on The Eagle of the Ninth. I thought I'd throw up or cry or both. Never did it occur to me I had a valid excuse for not writing the test. Instead of falling apart, I went to work.

Before school began, I grilled my three close friends on what the book was about and who were the main characters. I aced the test! I was the only one to get 100% but I felt I had cheated. I quickly read the book then the class began an in-depth study of this classic children's historical novel.

How did I know the questions to ask my friends to glean the knowledge I needed? I'm not really sure and I've puzzled about it for years. Perhaps it was because I was such an avid reader.

In Grade 7, our teachers introduced me to the Scholastic Book Club. I became a bibliophile and ordered whenever I could, reading everything from Dickens to Bronté to Verne. I also discovered astronomy and mythology which is probably why I find it easy to move between the ideas of science and fantasy. In Grade 8, I discovered Farley Mowat and read all his books. I also began the classic 'Coloured' fairy tale series by Andrew Lang. I haunted both the school and public libraries, unafraid to tackle anything that interested me whether it was deemed adult, teen, or child.

I believe reading good stories gave me a sense of how a novel works. I knew a story's elements instinctively from reading other authors. In telling my sisters fairy tales, I learned how to introduce characters (a poor girl with a wicked stepmother), how to make life hard for them (toiling all day cleaning and cooking), how to give them goals (wishing to attend the prince's ball) and giving them tools to achieve this (a fairy godmother). I also knew the story should be darkest before it ends (midnight strikes and our girl loses a shoe) and then a satisfying ending (she marries the prince).

Note: I didn't write 'happy' ending as books often do not end happily but all lose ends should be tied up so when a reader puts the book down, they can sigh and say 'That was a good book'. All their questions about the character and plot have been answered.

The point of this post is to be a good writer, one must also be a good reader. When someone says every plot has been written, they aren't far wrong because most stories follow the same pattern. Knowing this pattern helped me pass my Grade 9 test and allows me to write without an outline. Not that I don't plan a story but I always let it unfold and tidy up my wanderings with strict editing.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


The most difficult part of writing, for me, is avoiding labels when trying to describe characters. I want my readers to know these people as well as I do without using a label that might not properly tell who they are. None of us are 'black and white' and neither should the characters who walk the pages of our books.

My father was a great one for labels. He'd describe someone as materialistic, or an artsy. Once he had decided on a label, it became written in stone. Of course, he was an idealistic scientist and would never stoop so low as to be materialistic but he always found an excuse to buy the latest technology and he had a musical talent even if he didn't nurture it.

Labelling is an easy trap to fall into as a writer. The white hatted 'good' cowboy or the 'evil' witch. Sometimes we rely on these stereotypes to populate our stories just as Hollywood uses extras to make their films come alive. For our main characters, though, we must flesh out these labels so perhaps the good cowboy really enjoys branding cattle and the evil witch loves puppies. Like my father, they are not one trait or the other; they are human with nuances of both.

How do you create characters who seem real? There is no easy answer as every writer seems to approach it in a different way. I begin with visualizing how my character appears, how old they are, what their goals are. Then I begin to fill in their background. Where were they born? How did they spend their early years? However, the best way for me to see these people is to have them talk. Once I 'hear' their speech patterns and have them tell me their stories, then I begin to feel I know them.

The first draft of my books looks more like a script than a novel. My story plays out with people talking to each other. I sketch in the setting and plot but dialogue comes first. It is good to know how a story might progress but don't be surprised if your characters have other ideas on what should happen and tell you with their dialogue. That's the fun part of writing. Letting the people in your books take you where you have to go and dispelling the labels you have given them.