How and what will I try to say today?

With just a little time, there’s a chance to flex my mind…
How and what will I try to say today?

Will it be words, peeping out from pigeonholes?
Scraps of memories in my ear…

Will it be pencil scribbles or little points of light?
In a way that you can see but not quite hear…

I guess it’s a wealth of riches – raw materials with nowhere to go.
I’ll give it up for now, and try some other day.

Maybe a little poem – painting pictures with words?
If only I could think of something clever to say.

 

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Sandwiches by the Lake

I just had this image of my Mum and Dad, not as they were in most of my memories, but from a time years before me and my sister were born, a time when they were younger, healthier and happier – maybe a time when they were truly in sync and in love as a couple.

In my mind, I expand it out into a littLe fantasy, where they’d rent a cabin at a rustic little vacation spot, adjoining a campground, near a lake.

Dad’s hair would still be mostly black with just a touch of grey near the temples. He’d wear a white knit pullover with a vee neck and short sleeves, and he’d be trim and in good shape, the way he was when they first got married in 1961.

Mum would have curly dark brown hair that was worn up off her neck. She’d wear a knee-length dress that had the colour and pattern to remind you of autumn leaves.

They would be on a vacation that they’d been looking forward to for months, and both of them would be smiling the whole time.

At lunchtime, Mum would cut a fresh loaf of white bread into thick slices and butter them, while Dad sliced up baloney or corned beef. They’d bring their sandwiches outside to their cabin’s tiny little front porch, and sit on a bench made from a split log, while munching away, talking and sipping on sodas. They’d watch the campers in their tents, and listen to kids splashing in the lake about fifty yards away. Maybe there’d be a nice sunset, and later, a clear and starry night sky.

I only have some snapshots of them in these clothes, driving to some location together on some bright sunny day. Why not complete the story, and wish this for them? At earlier times in their lives, they surely must have had it. They really did love each other once.

This is the kind of afternoon that I enjoy with my wife, at home or away, in our hearts, whenever we want. Just some food, some peace, and some good loving company.

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Meeting Michael Slade and talking about eBooks

Earlier this week, I had an opportunity to sit down with Canadian author Jay Clarke (aka “Michael Slade”).

He’s a former lawyer and the author of over a dozen crime novels, in a genre sometimes referred to as “Mountie Noir”. (It’s a great label – almost as good, IMHO, as “Tartan Noir”, which refers to Scottish crime novelist Ian Rankin.)

Mr. Clarke is currently doing a Writer in Residence at Vancouver Community College, and during that time is making himself available for one-to-one’s with students and staff, as well as conducting some presentations or classes. Check out his personal “Special-X” website.

What did I learn from talking with Michael Slade?

Michael Slade appears highly energized, with a laser-like focus and a rapidity of speech akin to a machine-gun. In answering my questions, he flowed breathlessly from one story to the next, in effect raising me up out of my chair a little, buoyed on his waves of enthusiastic patter. The man has a lot to say, and says it with a quickness and precision that had me picturing him sweet-talking many a jury back in his day.

I had hoped to ask him some questions such as who his favourite writers were, what fiction had influenced him, etc. I had considered my questions around in my mind, but I never asked them. I never even got close to ’em. That’s because when I spoke, my mouth began telling him about how I hoped to find an Agent or a small publisher to help me repackage and market my first novel. I suppose this is what I was really frustrated by – a lack of success in selling my books.

What he told me was this: the eBook revolution is still a work in progress. The market will soon “tip over”, and eBook sales will eclipse print book sales entirely – not just at Amazon, but everywhere in the market. The tablet and eReader markets are making this happen, and the traditional publishing industry will be changed forever.

What does it boil down to?

My efforts as a novelist are split down the middle by an important boundary, One the one side (the side I love and am blindly devoted to), there lives me, the caring creator, trying to formulate and legitimize a mythical world of characters and events through the written word. On the other side, there’s this realm of unknown results and lack of predictability, where I stuff little messages into bottles and fling them out into the sea, hoping for one of my books to get purchased. On the first side of the boundary, the one where I’m synthesizing out of fragments, I’m in familiar territory. I know I can do it and have confidence that my skill will improve over time with lots of practice. On the other side, it feels like a no-man’s land, with me flailing around in the dark.

All the same, the aspect of both those things is the concept of me remaining in control of the work and the process. Above all, that is what appeals to me the most.

The books I’m trying to write (and Jay, if you read the copy I handed you of my little novel, Owe Nothing, then bless you sir), are vastly different in content, pace, and tone from anything by Michael Slade, whose last novel, Red Sun was described by one reviewer as “Ian Fleming-esque in its narrative drive”. I am still developing my voice.

But, we’re all working in the shadow of the same industry-changing technological tide that is putting more emphasis on writers becoming their own publishers, and paper turning into pixels.

The stigma attached to self-publishing (“vanity press”) is eroding as more readers and writers get involved online, and as the barriers to “getting published” continue to transform.

Jay Clarke also named quite a few famous authors who initially self-pubbed (Mark Twain?) or who had struggled for decades before their big book came (Elmore Leonard!). He mentioned that every author tends to compare himself to another whom he admires, whether newer or older. We’re all influenced or inspired by somebody else.

I believe what Michael Slade was telling me was essentially this: Don’t quit. Keep trying, and keep control of your work, because the sea change is coming…

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On Process: How Scrivener is changing how I write…

I’m still getting used to working with Scrivener, but its design is encouraging me to organize my manuscript in a better way.

When I wrote Owe Nothing, I saw individual scenes first; specific exchanges between characters, or particular story “beats” that were important to me. However, I didn’t start with much of an overall framework in mind – I went back later and analyzed my half-finished manuscript, documented the various plot-points, and tried to resolve or relate sub-plots. Then, I had to decide where to put my chapter breaks, make sure I had good hooks at the end of chapters, or create good break-points if there weren’t any.

Bottom line: Working that way, I wasn’t really in control of my story, because I didn’t create much of a plot skeleton for it when I began.

Scrivener’s design encourages the creation of an outline by making it easy to create little index cards on which you can bang out basic plot points and major events, and then progressively fill in details as you work from general to specific to develop each scene. Working with modular chunks of story (scenes) is the way it should be done, and Scrivener makes rearranging scenes as easy as dragging a piece from one place to another in the story outline.

This author has some good points on writing your content as scenes first, and then compiling them into Chapter folders after:
From “Clay’s Site” – “Using the Scene writing method with Scrivener”

In my last post about my own writing process, I covered a little about how Scrivener (and other tools) have helped me learn and improve my work-flow.

 

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On Process: Getting to Love Scrivener

Have I said how much I am loving Scrivener?

I am loving Scrivener.

When I started writing my first novel, Owe Nothing, my initial tools were a notebook (the dead-tree-based, spiral-bound kind) and a variety of ballpoint pens. I wrote a dozen pages at a time, “long hand” as they say.I would write at home, at a cafe, and anywhere else I was when some inspiration or scene idea would cross my mind.

As material began to accumulate, I started adding little codes, yellow highlighter, page numbers, arrows and sticky notes. What a disorganized mess it became. Then, the fun task of typing in and organizing all those hand-written notes. Bloody hell…

Handheld Devices and Laptops

Later, I began using my PDA (a Palm Tungsten, then a Treo) and a little keyboard to write scenes. This worked pretty well but must have looked ridiculous, judging by all the looks I got and the resulting conversations with curious strangers.

Later still, I finally bought myself a little netbook and started moving text from the netbook to my desktop PC using a USB key or emailing it to myself and composing snippets of text into a manuscript later. The netbook was orders of magnitude better for sheer typing speed, but gave no relief in terms of information organization and consolidation. Blech.

Needless to say, while I think it’s fantastic to be able to write anywhere I can, whenever the fancy strikes me, it has sucked hard trying to keep all my raw material organized and centralized across different input sources. Man cannot live by Word(tm) alone.

Writing Tools That Have Helped Me Stay Organized

Next, I played around with FourSquare for almost a year, and it helped to centralize my manuscript and research materials better than before. I began to see that having digital research material adjacent to my working draft manuscript was extremely helpful and motivating. Unfortunately, I found importing and exporting my project to a flash drive to get it from one PC to another turned out to be a total pain in the neck. Because of that, I just didn’t sync my Foursquare project data all that often.

Recently, I discovered Scrivener. This tool is like a complete working environment inside one app: For research, I can import text, photos, and web links. For high-level organization and outlining, I can modularize my words as “index cards” or folders of text, and it’s easy to move chunks of my story around in order to get a flow that I like. Most recently, I’ve used the labeling feature to colour-code scenes according to the major plot to which they belong. This gives me a sense of the balance of the overall piece, and will make it easier to decide how to move scenes around if I want to contrast things against each other or change the flow of the story.

As for portability, moving my Scrivener project between my laptop (for those productive Starbucks sessions) and my desktop PC, it’s easy to transplant my project by dragging one folder into a common location. Dropbox is the best answer for that. Drag and drop. Boom. Done.

In terms of composition, Scrivener is a full-meal-deal editor, providing enough tools to format my text, but not so many that I’ll get lost amongst features that I rarely ever need (unlike Word).

For distribution formats or special projects, where a particular template is required, I can burp out my manuscript in a paperback novel format, an eBook, or reformat it as a screenplay or something else. I haven’t done this yet, but it sounds pretty cool.

But it can’t make me create…

…so, for that I use Write or Die, because no one tool can do everything.

I still keep a pen and paper handy too, just in case…

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On Research and Creativity: Archetypes and Inspiration…

I’ve been revisiting and researching famous stories and hero myths, starting from the most recent, pop cultural stories and their influences, and then digging down deeper into personal territory, furrowing paths that lead me to my mother and father, and to my images and beliefs of myself.

I’m a fan of pop culture, comic books, and sci-fi – not all of it – and during the years when I grew from a kid into a teenager, I absorbed a lot of pop culture stories and artwork. Here are the particular works that affected or influenced my outlook as I was plodding through my angst-fueled tweens through teen-hood:

Star Wars:
I had just turned eleven, and this movie was a religious event for me. I read magazines about the movie’s plot and its production, collected every bubble gum card in the series, and collected some of the action figures. It had aspects of the Wizard of Oz, along with a somewhat gritty “used” aesthetic that made it feel worn and lived in. I wanted to live in it. It was the last movie I ever saw with my mother, and the last movie that she ever saw outside of a hospital television. For Mum, Dorothy left the farm in Kansas to see the world. For me, Luke left the farm on Tatooine to find his destiny.

Superman, the Motion Picture:
A year after Star Wars landed, another big cinematic event for me. Christopher Reeve inspired me that a man can be an honest, virtuous hero, impervious to negative influences and corruption. He gave the most convincing, wonderful performance, and the movie’s physical and optical effects had reached an amazing level that convinced me that a man could fly.

Famous Monsters of Filmland:
This was a science fiction/fantasy/horror movie magazine that showed me that movie monsters were brought to life by actors, designers and writers, and that movie monsters could be funny as well as shocking. The magazine’s editor, Forrest J. Ackerman, was lovingly referred to as “Uncle Forry” by me and a whole generation of young fans and future movie makers. Real life provided me with enough real scares and true monsters, but Uncle Forry made his world fun and safe.

Archetypes – Parents and Other Important Grown-ups:

My parents, only one generation younger than their wise elders, seemed to contain all the chaos the world had to offer, and served it up around me far too often. Mother and Father were the seat of drama and hot emotions in my life. My father could be gentle, but when challenged or threatened would become authoritarian and rigid – someone to fear and obey. My mother could sometimes be fun or spontaneous, but was most often depressed, uncommunicative or just unavailable.

My grandparents were all dead by the time I was twelve. I only got to know one of them really well (my maternal grandfather). I’m also grateful for the careful attention of my father’s aunt, who gave me and my sister quiet, safe times to learn, draw or just hang out. I had learned from watching how each of them lived that life could be uncomplicated, rational and peaceful, with simple joys like a brisk walk while sucking on a fresh peppermint.

Later on, a couple of years into adulthood, I’d encounter a teacher who provided me the educational and professional mentorship I had craved. He began as a kind of “Obi-wan Kenobi” to my eager young “Luke Skywalker”, showing me new ways to look at the world around me, and in the years to follow as I matured and accumulated more of my own wisdom, I saw him more clearly as a man, idolized him less,  and liked and respected him even more.

Wise elder figures in fantasy (Obi-wan Kenobi, Gandalf) or familiar celebrities (like Uncle Forry), represented safe and reassuring proof that there was fun, reassuring elder wisdom to be had for uncertain youths.

Each of These Figures Goes into the Mix…

For me, I suppose that the symbolism of my family and life sums up something like this:

  • Parents teach more by the example of their lives, than by anything they tell you about them. Do as they say, but watch out for what they do. In my life, I learned what not to do and how not to live, by watching their living examples.
    • Father: Strong, fearless except when his fearlessness is in question, and moral, except when his morality is in dispute. When he’s good, he’s Superman. When he’s bad, he’s Darth Vader, or Dracula.
    • Mother: Beautiful to look at, a songbird to hear, but unstable and unreliable. Tragic and flawed. Someone to love en absentia, and then posthumously. Referred to in the past tense, even during her life; zombie-fied and burnt out, like a poor, patchwork Frankenstein’s monster
  • Grandparents tend to be wiser than their children, and tend to mourn and regret their antics, even into their adulthood. Because of their roles, they can provide comfort, but are often ineffective at being parents to their adult kids. The old wizards and warriors have had their day, and must yield the field to their younger counterparts – for better or worse.
  • Teachers tend to be the most objective and reliable source of information and inspiration. They also represent the emotional oasis that is school and higher learning in general. They don’t get involved directly with any of the above.
  • The Hero/Heroine of your life is you (in my case, me). You take everything you can get, learn all the lessons, suffer all the trials, and watch all the examples of each of the above people in your life.

This is the raw material that has gone into the characters and events in my own fiction, such as Owe Nothing, and its sequel, The Two Sisters.

In looking back at my life, and what I’ve made of it, I acknowledge the roles and influences of my parents, grandparents, teachers, idols, and fantasies. They all represent parts of a tapestry (if you’ll indulge me in a weaving metaphor), the threads of which I’ve extracted to knit into something new. The individual threads (snippets of a personality, an action-reaction, a core value, feeling or sense-memory) don’t reveal much of their source, but careful composition allows me to create figures, worlds and events that can resonate for a reader, without devaluing the original threads and those who spun them for me.

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On Research: Joseph Campbell and The Hero’s Journey

I’ve only ever read snippets of Joseph Campbell’s books on heroes and heroic tales and myths, so I never expected to find influences in his works. Yet, the influence is there. Many other writers and film-makers *have* studied Campbell (not the least of them being George Lucas). So, in being a fan of modern epics like “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings”, it follows that I must have subconsciously absorbed and recycled some similar ideas and themes when writing my own little book, “Owe Nothing“.


Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth (Hero With A Thousand Faces)

The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation–initiation–return: which might be named the nuclear unit of the monomyth. Stages of the hero’s journey:

1. Birth: Fabulous circumstances surrounding conception, birth, and childhood establish the hero’s pedigree, and often constitute their own monomyth cycle.

2. Call to Adventure: The hero is called to adventure by some external event or messenger. The Hero may accept the call willingly or reluctantly.

3. Helpers/Amulet: During the early stages of the journey, the hero will often receive aid from a protective figure. This supernatural helper can take a wide variety of forms, such as a wizard, and old man, a dwarf, a crone, or a fairy godmother. The helper commonly gives the hero a protective amulet or weapon for the journey.

4. Crossing the Threshold: Upon reaching the threshold of adventure, the hero must undergo some sort of ordeal in order to pass from the everyday world into the world of adventure. This trial may be as painless as entering a dark cave or as violent as being swallowed up by a whale. The important feature is the contrast between the familiar world of light and the dark, unknown world of adventure.

5. Tests: The hero travels through the dream-like world of adventure where he must undergo a series of tests. These trials are often violent encounters with monsters, sorcerers, warriors, or forces of nature. Each successful test further proves the hero’s ability and advances the journey toward its climax.

6. Helpers: The hero is often accompanied on the journey by a helper who assists in the series of tests and generally serves as a loyal companion. Alternately, the hero may encounter a supernatural helper in the world of adventure who fulfills this function.

7. Climax/The Final Battle: This is the critical moment in the hero’s journey in which there is often a final battle with a monster, wizard, or warrior which facilitates the particular resolution of the adventure.

8. Flight: After accomplishing the mission, the hero must return to the threshold of adventure and prepare for a return to the everyday world. If the hero has angered the opposing forces by stealing the elixir or killing a powerful monster, the return may take the form of a hasty flight. If the hero has been given the elixir freely, the flight may be a benign stage of the journey.

9. Return: The hero again crosses the threshold of adventure and returns to the everyday world of daylight. The return usually takes the form of an awakening, rebirth, resurrection, or a simple emergence from a cave or forest. Sometimes the hero is pulled out of the adventure world by a force from the daylight world.

10. Elixir: The object, knowledge, or blessing that the hero acquired during the adventure is now put to use in the everyday world. Often it has a restorative or healing function, but it also serves to define the hero’s role in the society.

11. Home: The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

 

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On Connecting to those worlds out there…

In a recreation centre basement, a middle-aged man feels that old anxiety – the anxiety of having to speak in front of a group of strangers. The address he must make now is especially poignant. He clears his throat and swallows the fat dry lump that had formed there.

He pictures a room filled with men and women, some older than him, many younger. He closes his eyes and sees row after row of folding metal chairs, each physically supporting a soul not unlike his. It’s just like an Al-Anon meeting, except that he really can’t see his audience very well until individuals make themselves known by responding. He feels like he’s standing in a dimly-lit room full of cardboard cutouts.

“My name is John, and I’m addicted to the Internet.”

Instead of a verbal welcome from his audience, he receives a chorus of invisible mouse clicks from unseen hands. Supportive audience members register “likes” and RTs, or vote their approval by forwarding his statement onward to their own circles of friends.

The reaction of the group is organic and almost immediate, but it’s far from natural. But this is the way many of us share our personalities with each other nowadays.


Recently, we suffered a power outage in my part of East Vancouver. It affected almost 8000 citizens for kilometres all around us. There was that funny buzz or “thump” and everything suddenly went pitch black. After a few moments of disorientation and cursing, we got some candles lit and phoned the local power utility to get an ETA for when they’ve have power restored. Once we had an idea of a timeframe established, we sat down at the kitchen table and ate a few cookies by candlelight.

What struck me was how very quiet it was without the constant background hum of our building’s ventilation system, electrical power supplies, elevator motors, or the buzz of fluorescent lighting. All those little mechanical noises become the background noise of one’s life. We get used to never hearing the absolute silence of a powerless town.

I also noticed that the sky outside was a lot brighter than I’d realized. With all the streetlights off, my eyes quickly adjusted to the relatively light early evening sky. The electric lamps that we power on to help us see at night seem to make the night sky look much darker than it is, so we become dependent upon them.

Even though I live in a condominium surrounded by a couple hundred other occupants, I would only recognize a handful of them by sight, and only a few of them in the dark. We live in physical proximity, but also in relatively anonymity. By comparison, I can identify most of the personalities who associate with me online, and I know how and why we are connected.

It was only a few moments before I began to feel bored, “jonesing” for information. With no AC, there could be no radio, but I found immense satisfaction and relief in the fact that I could tether my laptop to my smartphone to get Internet access. This allowed me to go to the power utility’s web site and see a Google map of the areas affected by the blackout, and a revised estimate of when power might be restored. Twitter and Facebook provided echoes of what other citizens were experiencing, in real-time.


The Internet and social media kind of serve to connect my mind to others in a personal way. It surprised me how much I missed having access ti the Internet for real-time news updates, and to social media for that weird invisible community.

It’s the same feeling of fascination I get when I get a headache and realize it’s because I haven’t had a coffee yet. My body is telling me I’m dependent upon that thing.

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On Writing: Chasing Echoes and Ghosts

For me, the energy and desire to write always seems to get bogged down in the necessity to research. It’s just part of the process. In my fiction, a certain amount of factual research is needed in order to pin characters, places and things down in a realistic, believable way.

When it works, and I gather information that qualifies some details, it fills me with a sense of accomplishment and closure: I feel that I can build on the objectivity I have established, and move on from there. However, there are times when I can’t get the answers I’m looking for, or no clarity or objective detail can be established on some topic. In those cases, I feel like I’m staring into a gap in the tableau I’ve been developing, and in my insecurity and self-consciousness, I become convinced that the gaps are big enough to drive a truck through. I’m left with a lingering lack of confidence.

If I cannot establish some kind of adequate, believable, factual precedent for an idea, character or locale, then at some point, I find myself faced with “Plan B” – I use my imagination and whatever other information I have gathered in order to close the gaps.

When it doesn’t work, I feel like I’m chasing wisps of ideas, ghosts of people, down unfamiliar alleys, following echoes to who knows where.

I don’t get writer’s block. I get lost in a conceptual morass, looking for the way out. Eventually, once I dig back into the world I’m building, I’ll find the beacon I need to make my way.

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Enigmatic Memes: Bathroom Grafitti I Have Known

Bathroom wall graffiti gives a glimpse of the way people think: it is drect, anonymous and comes with little sense of responsibility, similar to how most people’s backyards tell us how the homeowner truly lives.

Bathroom wall scribbles hardly qualify as art or creative writing, but I can think of some that is more creative than others.

Back in 1985, when I was a first-year student at the Emily Carr College of Art, the men’s room in the Foundation Department had some enigmatic and interesting graffiti. Above one of the urinals, written in tiny letters in the grout between the tiles, were three words, a little zen riddle which puzzled me in the back of my mind. Weeks later, for some reason I can’t recall, me and a few classmates were standing in the hallway at lunch hour, discussing bathroom grafitti. Shaun Hayes-Holgate only had to say the words “Toast or Pockets?” and we all knew what he meant, and exactly where we all, er, stood.

Gossip also went ’round about a long exchange between a student and one of our instructors, which apparently became fairly heated, to the point of using very blunt expletives. The instructor in question was known for writing copious notes on sheets of paper on his classroom walls using a brush pen, which gave his writing a distinctive calligraphic style. Apparently, the instructor’s brush pen was equally effective on drywall and may have given him away. So much for an author’s anonymity.

By comparison, I found the bathroom grafitti at UBC rather disappointing. In the men’s room in the Student Union Building at Western Canada’s largest, most prestigious University, I half expected some sort of first-year philosophy course scrawled across the tiles. Instead, it was the same sort of racist, homophobic ranting and cartoon genitalia that you’d find on the walls of any high school. So much for higher education. (My wife, defending her Alma Mater, declared that these were just first-year students.)

Today, 25 years later, Emily Carr seems to have kept some of its off-beat, enigmatic flavour, but overall, I find that my old school seems so much more mainstreamed and packaged than it was back in my day. Certainly, the quality of bathroom discourse seems to have degraded. Maybe students and teachers have their meaningful exchanges in Twitter and Facebook nowadays. All I know is that today, over the toilet in the Emily Carr Foundation men’s room was scribbled “Kelsey Grammar, bitches!” to which someone had replied “Hell yeah!”

Perhaps devolution is real, or perhaps I expect too much from post-secondary education.

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