On Reviews: How NOT to Respond (or “Do this, and sink your writing career”)

When I read this exchange between an author and a reviewer on a public community blog, I was stunned, and a little fascinated:

http://booksandpals.blogspot.com/2011/03/greek-seaman-jacqueline-howett.html

The author refuses to acknowledge the points the reviewer (a volunteer) made, and soon became combative and even verbally abusive! It was a fascinating example of an emotional meltdown by a (fragile) author, and the resulting wave of community support for the attacked reviewer. Some commentators also worried that the tenor of the exchanges would reflect poorly on the perception of self-published authors in general, and reinforce a stigma against “indies” by the publishing industry.

I do not revel in the pain of others, but this author’s reaction to what seems to be fair criticism fascinated me in the same way that I’m fascinated by videos of fools injuring themselves undertaking ridiculously dangerous stunts, crashing their ATVs, or taking golf balls to the crotch. All these self-inflicted injuries to the ego and the flesh fall under the category of “EPIC FAIL”.

Now, it’s gone viral on Twitter…

So here are a couple of lessons that you can take away from the above example:

  1. If you can’t say something professional, say nothing at all: If you voluntarily submit your work to any kind of critique, always take reviews calmly and professionally! Learn from them. If you can’t do this, it’s better not to respond at all.
  2. Take responsibility for your words: Information and commentary published online may remain there indefinitely, or may be republished or syndicated continually. You words (or words that are electronically associated with your content or online identity) will be indexed by Google or any number of other search engines and propagation methods.

Bottom line: act like a pro, and you’ll be treated like one.

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The Monument for East Vancouver

Ken Lum’s public art piece, “Monument for East Vancouver” transforms an ad-hoc symbol of regional pride (or defiance, membership or territorial claim) into a new landmark on the city’s skyline.

This piece is controversial… Some people love it, and some people hate it.

Ken Lum’s public art piece, “Monument for East Vancouver” transforms an ad-hoc symbol of regional pride (or defiance, membership or territorial claim) into a new landmark on the city’s skyline.

This piece is controversial… Some people love it, and some people hate it.

There are many opinions and interpretations of where the East Van cross came from, and what it means…

http://www.straight.com/article-281162/vancouver/what-heck-east-van-cross

http://vancouverisawesome.com/2010/01/12/east-van-cross/

I have gradually grown to love this piece. It stands at the corner of Clark Drive and Great Northern Way, facing downtown Vancouver like a ginormous middle finger, as if to say “Take that, rest of the city! We’re East Van!”

Like it or not, it’s definitely a symbol.

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On Writing: Emily Carr’s life stories are an inspiration…

I just finished reading “The Emily Carr Collection”, which includes four of her books: Klee Wyck, The Book of Small, The House of All Sorts, and Growing Pains. Emily Carr’s voice has become familiar and sympathetic to me. Reading her is like listening to an old friend. In my mind, she is not Emily Carr, internationally reknowned Canadian painter. She’s just Emily.

I just finished reading “The Emily Carr Collection”, which includes four of her books: “Klee Wyck”, “The Book of Small”, “The House of All Sorts”, and “Growing Pains”.

Emily Carr’s voice has become familiar and sympathetic to me. Reading her is like listening to an old friend. In my mind, she is not Emily Carr, internationally renowned Canadian painter.

She’s just Emily.

I find it ironic that I never read her writing before. Here on the west coast of Canada, she’s an icon. I’ve heard about her since high school. The art college I studied at for four years was named after her. I’ve seen her paintings a number of times in the Vancouver Art Gallery downtown. But I never heard her voice.

Emily’s passion for her natural surroundings and her love of Western Canada is evident ion the way she describes every person, plant and animal. In particular, her description of forests, trees, and totems are vivid, portraying the life growing around her, and the symbolic life that the natives imbued in their totems and houses. Emily felt this quite deeply.

Her friendships with the natives in her time (poor, sweet Sophie!), her sensitivity to unfairness and hypocrisy as a young child raised in the English tradition, and her continuous pursuit of her artistic truths – all these themes resonated with me so strongly. The impression I have of Emily is that she was not a religious person at all, except insofar as it was required by her family and culture. Spiritually, I think Emily identified most with the nature and native art of her beloved west coast of British Columbia.

Almost 100 years separates us (Victoria would be absolutely unrecognizable to Emily if she were to see it today), but still, the connection and recognition I feel is very strong indeed.

When Emily describes Victoria places such as Cook Street, Fort Street, Fairfield Road, and Rockland Avenue – these are streets that I romped along as a little kid in Victoria in the 1970s. When she describes a little old lady strolling by outside her parent’s fence while she was playing in the yard with her sisters – I can picture the same thing happening to me and my sister Kim, as we played in the front yard of Poppy’s house at the corner of Cook and Rockland. Christ Church Cathedral, Beacon Hill Park and its Peacocks, the look and smell of Arbutus and Cedar trees – all of it touches me in a personal way. We lived in different worlds, but something seems to have persisted through her words…

She’s also just an inspiring, amazingly strong woman. Her determination to follow her own path, and her unwavering love of living things – these were personality traits that I thought my sister Kim could appreciate, so for Christmas this year, I sent Kim a copy of “The House of All Sorts”, which focuses especially on Emily’s success as a dog breeder, and her struggles as a landlady. On the one hand is the unwavering devotion and love of her dogs for her, and on the other hand, the cruelty, idiocy, and deceit of many of her human tenants in the House of All Sorts. These were themes that I think my sister Kim could probably appreciate.

True Life – My Own Memoir

Reading Emily’s biography also inspires me to continue developing me own. Since about 1998, I’ve been slowly cobbling together an illustrated life story on my website, at http://truelife.ejohnlove.com

I think that I must one day work harder to complete True Life, or perhaps bring it to life in a book. I love fiction – reading and writing – but there is something very powerful about reading someone’s autobiography. Literally, the realness of the thing makes it so much more powerful.

Of all I read from Emily, the biggest theme I took away was to maintain one’s integrity, and one’s personal vision – to remain true to oneself.

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On Writing: John Steinbeck, the Grapes of Wrath, and my Dad’s Stories.

My Dad was born in 1921, and as a young kid, knowing that he grew up during the Great Depression had always fascinated me. During the Great Depression, times were tough for Dad’s family, I’m sure, but I would learn in Social Studies class that other families had it much worse during that time, particularly farmers, and especially in the United States. That is the setting of Steinbeck’s major novel, “The Grapes of Wrath”.

Of Mice and Men, Grapes, and my Dad…

Back in high school English class, we read “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck. At the time, I remember thinking how old the book seemed, in terms of the language the characters used, and also how much the character Lenny’s mental slowness frustrated me.

I think that in my young mind, I was invested enough in the story to feel empathy and frustration at the behaviour of the characters, but back then, I couldn’t really evaluate the story or the writing – I just reacted to what I experienced in the book.

I’ve read “Of Mice and Men” again a couple of times over the past three decades, most recently a year or two ago. As I did, I began to enjoy Steinbeck’s voice, style and depictions very much indeed. So I decided to finally crack open “The Grapes of Wrath”.

My Dad and the Great Depression

My Dad was born in 1921, and as a young kid, knowing that he grew up during the Great Depression had always fascinated me. I used to ask my Dad what it was like for him, growing up in Prince Rupert back in those days. He’d tell me stories, like the times when he and his brothers would go down to the docks and ask the fishermen to give them their leftover fish heads. Dad said that his Mum would cut the cheeks out of the fish heads and make the family a nice fish soup.

I’d ask him if his family were poor, and he’d say no, but they weren’t rich either. His Dad worked for the Prince Rupert Telephone Company, most often splicing cable, up on a telephone pole, soldering cable with a little blow torch. Times being what they were, he shared his job with another man, working different shifts. In a house with five kids (Dad, his three bothers, and one sister), and with their Father working only part-time, I’m sure the Love family of Prince Rupert had to tighten their belts a bit. Still, there were still lots of trees for the local Mills, and still lots of fish in the sea, even if the economy had gone to crap. Everyone in the Love family worked, kids and all. Dad always impressed upon me the importance of working for a living, and the value of a dollar.

The Grapes of Wrath

During the Great Depression, times were tough for Dad’s family, I’m sure, but I would learn in Social Studies class that other families had it much worse during that time, particularly farmers, and especially in the United States.

That is the setting of Steinbeck’s major novel, “The Grapes of Wrath”. The Joad family, Oklahoma sharecroppers for generations, are wiped out when the “dustbowl” (drought) wipes out their crops, and they become too far in debt to the bank. Their little farm, along with many others in their area, are taken over by the bank, and turned into industrial farmland. So, the whole clan (Grandparents, Parents, and brothers and sisters ranging from preteen to adult) head West with all their possessions strapped onto the back of a jury-rigged truck.

Along the many thousands of miles journey west to California, they enounter cold, heat, starvation, death, violence, kindness, cooperation, prejudice and eventually, some forms of redemption.

If you’ve seen the movie by John Ford, you’ve got a little taste of the story, but only a little. The novel is so much more than the movie. Steinbeck takes you into the hearts and minds of each of the family members in turn, over the course of a journey that must have only been a few months chronologically, but experientially was much more difficult than the miles traveled and the days spent.

Here are a few of the significant themes from this incredible novel:

  • The Mother is the provider of life, the supporter, nourisher and guide; the centre of everything. The sheer amount of work and responsibility that Ma takes on daily impressed me throughout the story. To a lesser but still significant  degree, Rose of Sharon represents the mother, being pregnant and on the edge of bringing new life into the clan.
  • Rose of Sharon and her Grandparents also represent the frailty – and sometimes the futility – of survival.
  • Tom Joad is the angry young man, fighting against injustice, and suffering because of how his fighting spirit and moral outrage places him potentially at odds with the capitalist farm owners.
  • Pa Joad and his brother represent the impotence and powerlessness of the old male generation – still able-bodied, but wracked with guilt or turoil from many challenges, and with their family authority essentially tossed aside and taken over by others. This represents how the former sharecroppers had their authority or rights taken over by larger interests.
  • Communism (or Socialism) vs. Capitalism.

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On Research and Digging Deep: Setting the Tone for Believability

The raw material of a story or any creative work probably comes from at least two kinds of sources: the Subjective, and the Objective. Somewhere between these two seemingly opposite categories sits the Artist, who must decide how and when to engage either approach, and whether to use an unbalanced or balanced approach.

(This is a brief followup on the theme of researching for my next novel, “The Two Sisters”.)

I’ve probably stated this before in previous posts, but factual research is a big deal to me. I don’t claim to be the most tenacious digger of facts, but if, as a Reader, I can’t relate to some level of realism in a story or its characters, the author will easily lose me.

The raw material of a story or any creative work comes from two categories of sources: the Subjective and the Objective. Subjective material includes events, memories and things of with which you have a direct personal involvement and/or memory. They can also be fuzzy, under-defined, elusive or prone to contradiction – after all, they are your memories – and from my experience, human memory is fragile and subject to change without notice. But, still, it’s yours and you own it, and it’s there to be utilized.

Objective material means, to me, information that has been documented, and hopefully verified, by third parties, associations, papers or contains some testament as to its proof, like scientific research.

Somewhere between these two opposite categories sits the Artist, who must decide how and when to engage either side, and whether to use an unbalanced or balanced approach.

For example, I remember an article by James Bond creator, Ian Fleming, who advised writers that when creating a thriller novel the author must include enough realism to provide a solid base upon which the more fantastic elements of the story can stand. In other words, Fleming said that if you can initially establish believability and credibility in the known and possible elements of your story (the recognizable places, personalities and objects), the reader would be more likely to accept and engage in any unknown or seemingly impossible elements.

This kind of social realism is a core approach that I took in my first novel, Owe Nothing, where I tried to create a detailed, recognizable, and somewhat gritty  portrait of my home town of Vancouver, BC. I tried to kind of iconify settings such as rusted, rotting motels, junk-strewn alleys and fast food drive-thrus. I’ve read some novels which, in my opinion, have almost no scenic descriptions at all; everything is described in between a character’s ears, but almost nowhere else (“The Boys From Brazil”, I’m looking at you).

By contrast, thriller/detective authors like Ian Fleming, Dashiell Hammett and especially Raymond Chandler, have a way of bringing places to life and almost transforming them into characters in their own right. In “The Lady in the Lake”, Chandler makes you taste the dust inside the deserted lakeside cabins in a little town. In “Live and Let Die”, Fleming evokes the neon sights, blues and jazz music, speech patterns and emotions of Harlem in the mid-50s (at least from the perspective of a middle-aged Englishman). Rich settings like this help to involve the reader in the world to a greater degree, and to legitimize and contextualize the characters.

Subjective work can be more elusive and difficult to feel confident about. I have a major character in “The Two Sisters”, Rose, who in her teen years suffered a horrific personal assault – the kind that I’ve never experienced personally. To create this event for Rose, I had to dig down into a few scared, sad moments from my own youth (as well as read testimonies from other sources) and synthesize the character’s physical and emotional responses, layering them with the in-the-moment sights and sounds that add a level of irony, symbolism and drama, all while relating to larger plot line and themes of the story.

Often, the subjective and objective aspects are intermingled. In her later years, Rose becomes a long-term resident of a psychiatric hospital. I began to describe her appearance and behaviour quite easily, since I based her on my late mother, who was a 14 year resident of BC’s provincial mental health facility, Riverview Hospital.

However, describing the specific medication or intimate details of the day-to-day life of a Riverview resident are much more difficult, and require research to be accurate. Few people will ever try to refute your subjective personal experiences or opinions, but things that are objective, verifiable matters of record are certainly more vulnerable to scrutiny.

It’s the Author’s job to set the terms for believability and plausibility inside the worlds and the characters they create. I haven’t become skilled enough to let my characters push the bounds of believability within their own worlds (i.e. to bust through that invisible wall to the audience, as it were), and use the voice of an incredulous reader (“that doesn’t seem real to me”, etc.) but perhaps one day…

At the end of the day, no work can be perfect. I think that most readers are willing to forgive minor inconsistencies or errors, so long as they believe that the author has made their best effort to get the facts straight and to present an entertaining and believable story.

Related: http://ejohnlovebooks.com/2010/08/research-photos-from-riverview/

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Research: Photos and Feelings of Riverview Hospital

My second novel, tentatively named “The Two Sisters”, deals with some aspects of mental illness and alcoholism, through the lives of two sisters, Connie and Rose.

Rose has a history of mental illness, as well as substance abuse issues, and when my main character, Jack (her nephew) encounters her for the first time, Rose is fairly heavily medicated and tied into a wheelchair so she doesn’t fall out. Rose is a long-term resident at Riverview Psychiatric Hospital, a slightly fictionalized version of the real hospital, which is located in Coquitlam, BC.

My second novel, tentatively named “The Two Sisters”, deals with some aspects of mental illness and alcoholism, through the lives of two sisters, Connie and Rose.

Rose has a history of mental illness, as well as substance abuse issues, and when my main character, Jack (her nephew) encounters her for the first time, Rose is fairly heavily medicated and tied into a wheelchair so she doesn’t fall out. Rose is a long-term resident at Riverview Psychiatric Hospital, a slightly fictionalized version of the real hospital, which is located in Coquitlam, BC.

Writing Convincingly About Mental Illness

I won’t write about something unless I have at least a little experience with it, and I try to do enough research to fill in any remaining credibility gaps. That’s my explanation for studying and sharing the photographs at the links below. But that’s just the external research part: my claim to street cred regarding Rose’s mental illness and being at Riverview Hospital comes through my mother, Angela Huntley Love (nee Clarke), who was a long-term resident at Riverview for 14 years. A good deal of my portrayal of Rose’s initial appearance and behaviour was based on my poor Mum. My wish is to use the events and emotions from my many visits at Riverview with Mum to evoke some of the sadness, joy and confused feelings that I experienced.

Riverview Hospital seems to be often in a state of transformation. This is probably a reflection of our gradually changing approach towards mental health care and the mentally ill in general. I hope it will continue to change for the better, in order to better serve those people who need it. In my only moderately informed opinion, there are still too many folks on the street who need mental health care.

Photos of Riverview

Here are a number of photo galleries I’ve found of Riverview Hospital complex. Some of them are quite beautiful, displaying the trees, flowers, lawns and sunny days that you’ll find on the grounds during the spring or summer months.  There are also quite a few photos that show the disturbing amount of degradation that old age and lack of maintenance have wrought on the closed buildings. West Lawn in particular, is the most haunting. It was already closed in the 1980s when I started visiting my Mother at Riverview.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/bobkh/sets/72157594534559416/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ephotography29/3258999854/

http://www.flickriver.com/photos/the-bh/1067953811/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/shoes_on_wires/4448755346/

The darker photos in these collections reflect, to me, the downsizing, decentralization and relocation of hundreds of patients during the 80s and 90s.

Showing these darker images is not intended to stigmatize mental illness in any way, but instead to show how our major institution has changed over time. The images also helped me to connect with feelings of despair, sadness or loss that I once felt for my Mother. That is real too.

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Meditating on Now, the Past, and Raw Material…

Sometimes, a good moment in the present helps you to reflect better on the past, or plan for the future. In my case, a yearly summer vacation to a lovely ocean-side spot near Parksville, BC provided a welcome chance to unwind and reflect.

I also started reading Craig Ferguson’s biography, “American on Purpose”, and even after just a few chapters, the man’s wit, silliness, and achingly honest description of his family and his life have inspired me. Craig’s description of his parents in particular, and the almost glamorous impression they left with him was strikingly familiar to me. He describes his father’s handsome, slender appearance in one instance, and in another instance after his father has become drunk, his biting sarcasm or bitter authority.

This depiction of two-sided grace resonates strongly with my own memories of my parents. Probably everyone wants to remember their parents in a positive way if they can. Children (at least the youngest ones) tend to idolize at least one parent, and place them high on the idolatry scale. I think this must be related to bonding and learning by example. It can be heartbreaking and devastating to find out just how weak-willed, vulnerable or unworthy a parent can be. As kids, it can be hard to  watch our parents (or any significant adults in our lives) act badly or make all-too-human mistakes.

Like Craig Ferguson’s Dad, my Dad was tall, good-looking and smelled of Brylcreem. Like Craig Ferguson’s Mum, my Mum was a physically beautiful woman whose image haunts me. I’m convinced that my Dad was an extremely intelligent man, who was often frustrated by the idiocies he saw perpetrated around him, and possibly convinced that he was smarter than most of the people around him. I don’t doubt that he was right either. Dad was proud, smart, and independently-minded.

My Mum had multiple creative and artistic talents: singer, musician, actor. She also struggled with manic depression (bipolar disorder) and alcoholism, throughout her life. She had a light within her that I never really got a chance to see.

Both of them, at their best, loved to laugh and quote silly humour like poems by Ogden Nash, phrases from Groucho Marks, or sing along to silly songs with lyrics like “Boop Boop Diddim Daddum Waddum Choo! | And they swam and they swam right over the dam!”

Maybe life ground them down more and more as they went through middle age – maybe depression took over. Maybe the silly little joys just evaporated from lack of practice. Maybe happiness gradually gave way to depression, and light-heartedness just transformed into tension and pressure.

Perhaps “unrealized potential” is the term that describes my Mum and Dad best of all: feeling trapped in a life that seems to be preventing you from doing what you want, or getting to a point in your life where you feel like all your dreams have gone past you and all opportunities for success have been spent.

I think that with more care and more support in their lives, perhaps my parents might have been able to shed their alcoholism and self-destructive tendencies and might have had more of a chance to have a real life together. I often imagine a mythical Jim and Angela, healthy, smiling, talking together, traveling together and living together – living lives that are similar to the life I enjoy with my wife. I guess that means that I am happy. I wish they could have been happier too.

For me, the lesson I take from them is that one must make one’s own opportunities in life, and find or manufacture ones own happiness and fulfillment. The saddest people either forget this, or feel that they will never achieve it. The happiest, I think, are those who strive for it in spite of any obstacles. The best of us are those who help others to achieve their bliss in some way.

What I have left is a number of photos that prove that once upon a time, my folks were indeed happy and bright, and optimistic about the future.  Once, they ran a small household, went on driving trips through the western provinces, camped in a camper truck, and visited their relatives.

Maybe for some people, happiness appears to be a limited time affair. I’m not a recovering alcoholic like Craig Ferguson (thank god). The stats say that I should be. But, I do believe that Craig and I have something in common: a belief that happiness is tied to personal growth and health, and is a daily work in progress.

Anyway, nice book Craig. Truly.

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Owe Nothing: a different look at life in Vancouver…

Recently, people from all over the world have been watching Vancouver, BC perform at its best, and there certainly is a lot to be proud of.

This city has many sides to it, and truly, no two people experience this town in the same way.

Owe Nothing is a non-mainstream look at this city: an adventure novel based upon real people and places that I knew when my family lived in dodgy Vancouver Motels for over a year. The names of the people in Owe Nothing are fictionalized, but the events and feelings are based in reality…

Meet a few of the characters…

Jack Owen:

A young guy looking for adventure, and an escape from his lower-class rut. By accepting a bizarre job offer, he soon discovers that the back alleys and rooftops of East Vancouver hold more mysteries than he may be able to hide from his Dad or his Sister.

Parminder Singh:

Jack’s buddy from work, and his companion through some bizarre surveillance tasks that they’ve been recruited to do for a man they’ve never even met. Parm’s not sure if this is on the up and up, but he’ll do it for the money.

Mike and Chris Coffey:

Brothers, and friends of Jack from the neighbourhood. They’ve got to find a way to get rid of their violent alcoholic step-father Ted, without their mother Regina finding out. Maybe Jack can help them…?

The Reviews are Good:

Readers have given me some very positive feedback:

“Awesome”, “Engaging, endearing… with a deft humorous touch”, “a great read!”, “A real coming-of-age story”, “Vancouver is a city without much appreciation for its history… you’ve rendered a great service with such a vivid picture of that time and place”

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Process: Casting a play with composite characters…

My first novel, Owe Nothing, was finally published on April 17, 2009. This is, of course, the achievement of a personal goal that took me years to accomplish (I write slowly). It’s also an accomplishment in how it has allowed me to continue writing about my family history, using surrogate characters instead of directly writing about the real people.

Owe Nothing takes scraps and bits of my own personality and embeds them into the main character, a twenty-ish young man named Jack Owen, and to a lesser degree, his father Jim. Jim embodies little pieces of my Dad (also Jim) and of my brother David. Aspects of my sister Kim live on in the characters of Jack’s older sister Kelly, and in Regina Coffey, whose struggles with her abusive partner Ted form a central theme in the book. Old men look back with regret on the mistakes and losses from their past, women struggle in abusive relationships, and young people try to learn about who they are and where they are going in their lives.

The list goes on and on and on through the dozen or more characters that appear throughout the novel. Structurally, it represents the method and challenge that I put to myself when originally embarking on this long writing project: How can I use the memories, emotional energy, joy, anguish, smells, temperatures and opinions from my scattered memories, and form them into a cohesive and compelling story.

Almost like a form of psychological recycling; taking images and impressions from my past, reforming and refocusing them, and spinning them out there in a new form. My hope is that it will result in a story that others will recognize and enjoy – something that resonates outside of its pages.

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