Monthly Archives: September 2011

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The Toughest Question

The other day in the shower, which is a good place for ideas, I got to thinking about the kinds of questions I’ve been asked since I “came out.” Yes, I write fiction. What’s it to ya?

I began to ponder what, as a writer, is the most difficult question someone has asked me. I decided pretty quickly that the most difficult question is not: what’s the most difficult question someone has asked me. In fact, that one’s pretty easy.

I thought of a few good posers and have listed them below with some added insights and possible strategies for dealing with them. Writers: feel free to use any of my suggestions.

Where do you get your ideas?

For me, this is by far the hardest question. For any one story, the ideas might have hundreds of sources, from newspaper articles to books I’ve read, to experiences I’ve had and people I’ve known. And let’s not forget to credit pure imagination. Clearly, there’s no single answer to this.

On the few occasions I’ve tried to articulate where I get my ideas, I’ve managed to blather incoherently at length as if speaking in tongues, or perhaps I spoke goat in a former life or some dialect of chimpanzee. Either way, my patient listener always looks troubled by the end. Possibly thinking I need some kind of help of the men-in-the-white-coats variety.

However, if my listener is bound to end up thinking I’m a bit crazy anyway, I’ve devised another strategy. I shall pull out a hat-shaped piece of tinfoil and place it upon my head (shiny side out) and say, “Lord Xanax of the planet Prozac sends me ideas using a combination of microwaves and invisible lasers.” That ought to do it.

I guess the best answer to this one is no answer. Bite my lip, smile coyly, change the subject.

What’s your story about?

This one should be easy, right? I wrote the damn thing. Surely I know what it’s about. Well, of course I do, but conveying that in a few articulate sentences is not as easy as it sounds. Unless you’ve memorized your “elevator pitch” (which is defined as that quick-sell speech you’d give if you happened to be trapped in an elevator with an agent or editor for two minutes; unless the contraption breaks down in which case you might have as long as a couple of hours before panic sets in) you find yourself scrambling for words. In trying to relate the gist of my story, I’ve certainly resorted to spewing the incoherent, goat/chimpanzee-influenced blather mentioned in the first question, above.

However, I have a new answer to this question and I’m definitely psyched to try it out. Ask me what my story’s about, go ahead: It’s about 300 pages.

Why do you write?

I don’t think I, personally, have been asked this question, though I know several author friends who have. My first thought for the cheeky asker is, “None of your bloody business.” But that lacks a modicum of tact, I think. After all, I still want people to buy my work.

Turning tables is a possibility. Ask your dear inquirer what they do for a living. Now ask them why they do it. Who walks up to an accountant or lawyer or surgeon and asks, “Why do you account/law/surge?” Just doesn’t happen. We assume they do what they do because they’re good at it and enjoy it. And because they can make money at it. Well, two out of three ain’t bad. I think I’m good at writing, I know I enjoy it, but only time will tell if I can make enough money at it to do it for an actual living. I know a lot of writers who make a living doing what they love, and some of them are even novelists. Most novelists, however, hold a day job so the repo man will allow them to keep the plasma HD TV with the amazing picture quality and surround sound.

If not for the money, why, pray tell? Simple, I love to write.

What kind of stories do you write?

Again, this should be a no-brainer. I wrote the stories; surely I know what category they fall under. The problem here lies not with the stories, but with the methods of categorization. This is further complicated by my own predilection to write each book in a different genre. The middle grade novel and young adult novel are easy: MG and YA (or it would be easy if my YA novel wasn’t originally written for adults and is actually “edgy” YA).

But the adult-oriented novels I’ve written are more difficult. I could say literary, but people then pipe up, “Like Margaret Atwood?” Well, no. Only Margaret Atwood writes like Margaret Atwood. “Oh, then like Alice Munro.” No, again. I don’t write short stories (at least not ones that sell) and my work isn’t exactly like hers. The only way to get out of the dilemma is to revert to describing the story, which again has me speaking chimpanzee, possibly while wearing the tinfoil hat.

I suppose I could get all high dudgeon on your ass and say, “My work defies categorization.” Because that would just be cool.

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So, if you’re a writer, what’s the toughest question you’ve been asked? Feel free to comment on the post and vote for your favourite.

Cottage Musings

Summer is drawing to a close and things feel fall-ish. The air is crisper and leaves are dropping, creating piles of gold across the grass. The school doors have opened and children have returned to days of early rises, school bus friends, teachers and recess.

While I make school lunches… okay, that’s the husband’s job. While I work to oversee mounds of homework and drive children to piano and dance classes, I reflect on the summer that was. Did I use it wisely, those weeks of humid heat and long, languid days? The children did some camps and I went to work, but our yearly standout vacation is a week at a rented cottage. Each summer since 2005, we’ve loaded up the car and headed to a cottage with five other families. Yes, you heard it right. Six families vacationing together. That’s 12 kids and 12 adults for a total of 24 people. Sound like chaos? It used to be.

When the kids were all small, cottaging was work. We had to count heads every few minutes, station someone by the water at all times, make sure they got fed regular snacks to forestall tantrums, and strap life jackets on to the weaker swimmers, whether they wanted to wear them or not.

The children are now teens and preteens and they practically disappear into the water the moment we arrive. For us adults, it has become downright blissful.

On the first day of every cottage week, the hours stretch before us, meals yet to be enjoyed, bonfires yet to be lit and books yet to be read. But too soon those hours are gone. How does cottage time go both slower and faster than time spent at home?

The sun goes down on the last cottage evening and we stand by the lake for an annual photograph. One with the children, one with adults and one with all of us, sun kissed, relaxed and smiling.

We’ve created lasting memories: tubing behind a jet-ski; swimming in inky water beneath a starlit sky; hours of chips, beer, and competitive euchre (that last one’s the adults, by the way).

The bonds of friendship that the kids have with their cottage pals are unmatched with their non-cottage chums. There’s something about holding hands while jumping into a lake, still as glass, that cements a lifelong kinship.

Upon reflection, I do think I used my summer wisely. At least that cottage week, anyway.