Reading in Public and Paying it Forward

On the first weekend in May, I went to an event I’ve been attending for several years: the Ontario Writers’ Conference. This is a wonderful opportunity for writers to mingle; attend writing workshops on practical matters like plotting and point-of-view; meet publishers, agents and editors; and generally spend time in the company of like-minded people.

I remember attending my first conference, when I nervously eyed all the “successful” Writers and felt like a fraud. Sure, I wrote stories and I’d completed a novel or two but, really, who was I to call myself a Writer? That title is for real Writers, like I saw all around me. I didn’t really belong there among them. All I had was a stack of rejection letters. Little did I know: nothing makes you a real Writer like having a stack of rejection letters.

I found out about the conference through social media and there were a few people I’d met online that I could now meet in person. I stuck with my friend from home whom I’d travelled to the conference with, and my little group of online (now IRL) friends, and stared out, wide-eyed, at that world of writers that I didn’t think I was, or could ever be, part of.

By the end of the conference, I almost felt like I could someday be a legitimate Writer. I was exhausted and elated, inspired and motivated. I went home and worked. I worked and worked. And then I dug deep into my shallow barrel of courage and submitted that work. Rejections still came, but they started to be personalized. And I also got requests for material. Partials at first, and then fulls. Gears began moving slowly forward.

At the 2011 conference, I pushed my introverted self to meet those Writers. I also had news. I’d signed a contract to publish my first novel. From the get-go, despite the initial excitement, I was sure that it was some kind of cosmic trick, so I kept it low-key. You never know when the rug can get pulled out from under you. As the 2012 conference approached, my novel neared publication. It finally felt real. The rug would not be pulled out.

It pays to use social media and network at conferences. Not only do you meet really fantastic people, they actually want to help you. There might be stories out there about shark tanks full of competitive writers ready to attack their counterparts, but I’ve only had positive experiences in meeting my fellow authors.

My friend and mentor, Kevin

And now we get to my friend and mentor, the wonderful poet and novelist, Kevin Craig. He’s on the organizing committee for the Ontario Writers’ Conference and is a tireless champion of all writers, everywhere. Several weeks before this year’s conference, I got a message from Kevin saying he would try to get me a reading spot. He and the other wonderful conference organizers wanted to start a new tradition of giving one first-time novelist, and past conference attendee, an opportunity to present their work. Needless to say, I was thrilled, excited and slightly nauseated at the prospect.

I soon discovered I had five minutes, at precisely 9:08 am. This was good. I like to know exactly what’s expected. Plus, reading in the morning would allow me to get it over with so I could relax and enjoy the rest of the day. I practiced my scene over and over at home, using an online stopwatch to gauge my time. I consistently came in at 5:07, but I figured I’d be nervous and would read a bit faster anyway. But, oh, how I agonized over those seven seconds.

The wonderful Canadian writer and member of the Order of Canada, Wayson Choy

Only a couple of weeks before the conference I got another message from Kevin: would I like to drive the conference’s honorary patron, Wayson Choy, to the venue that morning? I immediately responded: hell to the YES!! And then contacted my friend who was driving me to the conference that morning. Thankfully, she also said hell to the YES.

I’ve listened to a speech by the beautifully eloquent Wayson Choy every year. I’ve also read all his books. His quiet grace, lyricism and no-nonsense approach are always inspiring. I’d been awake since 4:45 am and I was jazzed, nerves jangling, but determined not to miss the opportunity.

“I’m doing my first public reading today, Mr. Choy. Do you have any advice?”

He thought for a moment. “Always remember that they want to hear what you have to say. They want to hear your story.”

I thought about that. I focused on it over the next hour, while I nibbled at a muffin and added caffeine to my nerves. These were my peers. They wanted me to succeed.

Finally, I heard my name and began the long walk to the podium. Deep breath.

I read. I didn’t know if they were listening or perusing the day’s agenda or talking among themselves. But they were out there and deserved my best, so I focused on my story. My words.

When I was done, they clapped. I felt the faintness of relief. Release. Well or poorly, I’d done it. I’d read my little story in front of two hundred writers, readers, agents, editors and publishers.

We all began to make our way to the washroom, and then on to our first workshop of the day. Before I left the room, I got stopped by several groups of people, congratulating me on how well I did. I was stunned. A lovely young lady had already gone to the book table and bought a copy. Would I sign it? I did. The response overwhelmed me. I felt like Sally Field. They liked me!

The fabulous Adrienne Kress

From this, I gained courage and met more people than I ever had. And I was thrilled to finally meet in person a friend I know through social media, the fabulous author of several very successful children’s and young adult novels, Adrienne Kress. Get your kids to read Alex and the Ironic Gentleman. It’ll change the way they see the world.

So, Writers (and those who write are Writers), take every opportunity that comes your way, find the courage to attend conferences, submit work, read aloud, meet your peers. We aren’t here to compete, we’re here to elevate, inspire and encourage. There’s room for all of us to publish our best work.

And, if you’re ever in a position to help a fellow writer, do it. I sure plan to.

Success!!

On April 12, I held a book launch party to celebrate the release of my debut novel, Voiceless. In my opinion, it was a great success and lots of fun.

I held the launch at an independent bookstore for a couple of reasons. First, stores will sell the books for you, rather than having to sell them yourself if you choose a private space, like an art gallery or even your home. Second, independent bookstores are becoming fewer and they need the exposure. Many of the attendees at my launch hadn’t been to this store (some hadn’t even heard of it) but all loved it and vowed to return.

The store’s event coordinator told me my launch was the first time all the books sold BEFORE the author did the reading. By the time the evening ended, he’d already contacted the book distributor to order more copies.

Based on my relatively limited experience, here are some tips for making a book launch successful.

Invite Everyone You Know

Now is not the time for quiet modesty. You wrote and published a BOOK. Holy cow, celebrate it by telling EVERYONE you know. Twice.

Maybe I’m just lucky to have wonderful people in my life. But you can keep in mind that, in almost every case, family, friends and colleagues are as excited as you are about your success, and equally anxious to help you celebrate.

Use Media to Get the Word Out             

Social media is the obvious choice. Facebook and Twitter, et al, are the perfect vehicles for keeping people informed about the date, time and location of your launch. Don’t go overboard and tweet every five minutes, but keep the event in people’s minds by posting or tweeting reasonably frequently, especially in the days leading up to it.

Another choice is print media. If your city or town has a local weekly paper, contact them. They would love to do a story on a local author. Make sure they publish the launch details with the article they write about you and your book.

Do a Reading

Yes, I gave a short speech and did a reading. Boy, was I nervous, but I felt I owed it to the people who went out of their way to attend and buy a copy of the book to thank them for their support and read a scene from the novel. It wasn’t easy and I don’t know how well I did, but I did it and you can’t beat this kind of experience. If you’re going to have to do readings, it’s best to begin by looking out on a sea of friendly faces. Someday you might have to read to hundreds of strangers. Yikes!

Bonus Tip: If you’re over 40, keep your reading glasses handy.

Have a Signing Table

Make sure to have a dedicated table just to sit and sign books. If you’re lucky, there’ll be a

At the signing table

modest lineup. The lineup, either at the cash register or signing table, can get people excited about buying a copy of their own. It’s also a good place to take photos with the people who bought your book.

Provide Food and Drink

If you can afford it, make sure to provide refreshments. Having a wine glass in hand and eating tasty nibbles gets people talking and mingling. It also might get them in a buying mood.

I hired a caterer, but you can get reasonably priced platters of veggies and dip, sandwiches or cookies at the local grocery store. If you’re worried about the details, a caterer is a good idea because she’ll refill the platters of food and keep the drinks topped up, leaving you free to chat people up and enjoy the moment.

Have Fun!

Of course coordinating something like this is stressful, particularly if you’re going to give a speech and read from your work. But this is YOUR party. You worked hard and earned your success.  Try to let yourself enjoy it and have a good time.

The Book Launch

This is, without a doubt, one of the most exciting times in my life. The launch of my first novel is the culmination of years of hard work, not to mention the heartache of rejection and (for some reason even worse) near-misses. Although being able to entirely paper a small room in rejection slips feels a bit like a badge of honour. Like a battle scar.

Not only does my novel’s publication come with a sense of childlike excitement, it admittedly comes with its fair share of stress. In addition to life recently handing me a series of obstacles to overcome — including illness, an accident and extensive home damage from a broken toilet — I have set out to find the perfect book launch venue.

I should know better than to expect perfection in anything. I should have given up that dream when my first kite, rather than soaring to the heavens, got caught in the top of that tree during its maiden voyage. Anything that we expect to be great could potentially get torn to shreds by a tree.

So I researched book launch venues with cautious optimism. I wanted to have my launch at an independent bookstore, rather than at a big retail chain. Indie bookstores promote local authors and bring communities together, and there are far too few of them these days. So I called around to give myself some options. The first place I contacted sounded perfect: an indie that’s not too far from home and has a great local reputation. I went for a visit. Now, the event coordinator warned me that they were doing “some renovations” but I wasn’t quite prepared for the scene of destruction. Wow. Although assured the renovations were scheduled to be completed by Easter (I wanted to hold the event on April 12), I’ve heard enough horror stories about renovations to realize an end date is “flexible”.

Another idea popped into my head. I’d attended a friend’s birthday party at a funky local gallery and loved the atmosphere. It had been a really fun evening. What about that? I called the gallery. The owner quoted a weekend price that made my knees collapse. I told him I wanted it for a Thursday, for a book launch (pulling the “I’m too poor” card) and he gave me a special rate. Even the special rate brought on diminished-bank-account heart palpitations.

An independent bookstore right downtown was having lease issues and couldn’t commit. The feminist indie in a trendy neighbourhood told me they usually didn’t do launches for books like mine, and then didn’t call me back. I felt like I was going through a series of bad relationships. And the launch date was getting closer and closer.

I didn’t want to change the date. It felt right. A couple of weeks after the book’s publication but not too long to have the blush of excitement wear off. Plus there were people coming from out of town who were definitely available on that date.

And that brought me back to my first choice. My first love. I had another talk with the event coordinator and he promised that, if the renovations weren’t absolutely completed on time, they’d make sure to cordon off a space that wouldn’t look like a construction zone. Well, he had me at cordon.

Nothing is ever perfect. There are only degrees of I-can-live-with-it. My launch will go on either way, and it will, I hope, be perfect enough, in its fashion. As long as it’s not battered to death by the Whomping Willow, I’ll be happy.

Resolutions & Emergency Rooms

Is it too late for a post about New Year’s resolutions? I spent New Year’s Eve in the hospital, and the following seven days in bed with pneumonia, which has basically reset my clock by a week. So, here’s a blog about resolutions (one week late for all you healthy souls).

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions.

Except this year I resolve not to spend my next New Year’s Eve in an emergency room. There can be no worse day, I think, than New Year’s Eve and the wee hours of New Year’s Day to go and hang out in a hospital. Thankfully, they seemed to separate the ill from the injured and drunk. Thus my area of the ER, while busy, was relatively quiet.

Just for fun, here’s Emergency Room Tip #1: If, while sitting in the waiting room, you turn a ghastly shade of green, puke into a plastic bag, and try to lie down on the filthy floor, the nursing staff will give you a bed. And a blanket from the big warming contraption.

Why do I not do resolutions, you might ask? Generally, I believe they are an exercise in futility. Most resolutions are so sweeping in their generality, so utterly unachievable, they fail before they get to the starting gate. Setting myself up for failure is something I can do anytime. I don’t need a special occasion, like the turning over of a new year.

In and of themselves, resolutions can be a Good Thing, if you take the right approach. I’ve decided to view resolutions as goals that meet at least some of the following criteria. Feel free to poach any of my ideas and apply them to your own yearly goals/resolutions.

And don’t forget to resolve to stay out of the emergency room; it just makes good sense.

Achievable

I will join a gym.

It sounds achievable and I’ve actually made and kept this resolution several times. Too bad that, aside from the day I signed over several months’ salary, I never again set foot inside said gym.

It’s important to make sure the goal is realistic for you, given your time constraints and lifestyle. Before deciding on a resolution or goal, take a look at the time and money (if applicable) you can afford to throw at it. Make sure you won’t fail by making the goal too vague (join a gym) or too lofty (win world weight-lifting championship).

Walking for twenty minutes, at least three times a week is an achievable goal and not a half-bad resolution. It helps if you acquire a dog that will sit upon your chest and pant into your mouth with its hellacious breath until you take it for a walk.

Incremental

A resolution needs to build on itself. Small, incremental goals can add up to a pretty big achievement, if you’re willing to make a plan and stick to it. I’m not willing to go to the trouble this time around, so I’ll leave this one with you. Good luck.

Measurable

I will finish my novel.

Another one that sounds good, but how to go about it?

The ability to measure your progress can be a great motivator. As a writer, if I resolve to write x number of words each day or each week, I can keep a running tally (in a spreadsheet if I’m tech-savvy and anal) that illustrates my progress. In this case, success can beget success (yes, I just used the word “beget”). The closer I get to the ultimate goal of finishing that story or novel, the more motivated I am to do just that.

In Your Control

This is the one thing that many people fail to take into account when making resolutions. Can I make this happen? If you’re putting your fate in other people’s hands, your success or failure is no longer under your control.

This year, I will find an agent.

It sounds like a good resolution, right? Wrong. Getting an agent is entirely OUT of my control. Crafting a killer query letter, assembling a stunning query package, researching and sending the query to the RIGHT agents. Those actions are under my control. Whether or not an agent decides to take me on is entirely up to her.

Decorations

Before my husband and I were married, we moved in together. Scandalous, I know.

We had just graduated from university. I was selling lingerie at the mall for a lump of coal every other Friday and doing data entry on a seasonal basis for Revenue Canada tax returns (may I never have another government job). He was driving across town at all hours (shift work) to sort packages at the UPS warehouse. Thank God the brown uniforms are so sexy. We had nothing but each other and a slightly squalid apartment carpeted in green shag. The place also overlooked a marvelous graveyard. But at least the neighbours were quiet.

For our first Christmas together, we smuggled a real tree up in the elevator (I don’t believe we were allowed to have one) and erected it on the shag in our living room. We’d splurged on a few boxes of cheap glass balls and some lights. A week before the Big Day, we decorated our tree with great delight.

We had also bought our first commemorative ornament. It was a hollow ball with a clear plastic front. Inside you could see a tiny living room, decorated for Christmas: a tree, fireplace with stockings hung, a window with snow falling, and a couple sitting on a couch. When you plugged it in to one of the light sockets, the fireplace flickered to orange life. If it was depressing that an ornament displayed a nicer room than the one we were living in, I didn’t notice.

When I look at the pictures from that Christmas, the tree so sparsely decorated and the young version of ourselves looking so pleased, I can see behind us our first decoration hung upon the tree.

And last week, when I pulled out that ball, with the words “Our First Christmas Together, 19 (none of your business)” printed on it, I was reminded of that time. Those days at the start of our lives when all it took to make us happy was being with each other.

Merry Christmas to everyone who celebrates!

Me and My e-Reader

The other day, on the way home from the office on the bus, I finished a book on my Kindle. The ability to read for 20 uninterrupted minutes, each way, is the only thing that makes working downtown worthwhile. During the first year (which is the only year I kept count) that I commuted downtown, I read more than 40 books. Which, for an admittedly slow reader, is quite an accomplishment.

The night I finished my novel, I had a dinner date with friends and didn’t get home until after 9 pm. At which time, I found myself without a book to read. For an avid reader like me, this is entirely unacceptable. In days gone by I might have panicked. But this is 2012 and I own an e-reader. I logged on to my account on the Kindle website and found a book I wanted to read. I clicked one button, enabled the wireless connection on my device: et voila. The book magically downloaded itself through the ether with the help of unicorns and pixie dust (don’t kid yourself; it really works this way). I didn’t have to wait for the book to arrive in the mail nor did I have to trudge through the cold, dark winter landscape to a closed store, my nose pressed against the frigid glass, unable to reach the beloved book of my dreams.

I’ve had an e-reader for about six months. At first, as a long-time lover of books, their smell, feel, taste (yes, I’ve licked a book), I felt hesitant to give up my traditional method of reading. But, over time, I relented. I’m married to a rabid techno-geek. Inside my house is every electronic gadget you can imagine. My living room has so many cords snaking through it that the floor looks like the bottom of the pit in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I believe I was relatively slow to embrace e-reader technology not because I would have to give up books (because I have absolutely no intention of giving up books) but because I wanted the technology to give me everything I might need in a device. My husband bought a Kobo early in its release. I tried it. I did not like it. It was slow to download and slow to load each chapter (depending on length). I had no idea where I was in the book because there was no percent counter. Sure, you could see a page number, but that changed every time you increased or decreased the font size, so it was essentially meaningless information. It had no search function so when I inevitably had no idea who the character Fizzbot was, I couldn’t look back to his first mention and read about him again. Not without going through every slow-to-load page.

When the Kindle came out, I read about its features with growing excitement. It had a percent counter and a full keyboard with search function. It was the size of a book and I could buy (not cheaply, mind you) a cover with a built-in light. It used e-ink and wasn’t backlit, which is important for getting that “it’s a book” feel. Some of the new devices, like the Kindle Fire and Kobo Vox, have backlit screens. So I’m glad I purchased the older version. I work on a computer all day so the last thing I want at night is too look at another computer screen. Ugh.

In my opinion, just when the perfect e-reader came out, the manufacturers decided that wasn’t enough and tried to fancy it up with operating systems, touch screens, and back-lighting. But maybe there’ll be a backlash against the back-lighting, at the very least, among the eye-weary workers who just want to read something that resembles a book.

Speaking of which, simply because I own an e-reader, as I mentioned earlier, doesn’t mean I’ve stopped buying and reading books. For several reasons:

Tradition

I still love me a good new book. The sound of riffling pages and the smell of binding glue is part of the joy of it, for me.

Autographs

I’m not only a reader, I’m a writer and I know other writers. There’s great joy and excitement when someone I know successfully publishes a book. Damn right I’ll be buying a copy at the first opportunity and annoying them until they sign it for me.

Shelving

I have to put something on my shelves and I’m not into knickknacks. The ability of e-readers to store hundreds of books is a bonus. Now I don’t have to worry about where to put them all. However, I also love to be surrounded by books that I love. If there’s a particularly exciting and anticipated book release by an author I love, I’ll buy it, read it and display it. And then I get to sit in a room surrounded by my favourite books and that’s what life’s all about.

Look at Me!

One summer day, when my son was four years old, he called out to me.

“Mom, look at me! Look what I can do.”

I looked and there he was, riding his bike alone for the first time. He was wobbly but he was upright and going forward, faster as he went. I clapped for him and praised his success. It was neither the first nor the last time he’d call attention to an accomplishment. Look at me. See what I can do, Mom.

Since the beginning of our lives we value the love, acceptance and praise we get from others. It’s so important to the human child to make a parent or teacher proud.

As we get older, we begin to see success as its own reward. But always – in the back of my mind at least – is the idea of making a parent proud.

Growing up, my father was a strict disciplinarian. He ran the house and we knew it. The household atmosphere depended on whether he was home and what mood he was in when he was home. My father was many things to me and our relationship could be complicated but he also led me to become who I am. He had a strong work ethic. Never late, always impeccably dressed (the clothes maketh the man, Caroline), dedicated and disciplined. He expected no less from me both while at school and in the work world.

After I moved away from home, my father sat on my shoulder whenever I felt like I might be late. Or if I were ever tempted to call in sick when I wasn’t or otherwise shirk a duty. I studied hard and got my university degree. I went back to school for a diploma and worked two jobs all at the same time. When I got married, I worked at my relationship. When I had children, boy did I work hard to the best mother I could be.

All the while, hoping I might make my father proud. We weren’t the sort of family who talked in those terms. I didn’t ask if he was proud of me and he didn’t say he was. We talked about the weather. We talked about his games of golf.

But I felt it, his pride in me.

Way back in 1987, he suffered a heart attack and had to undergo quintuple by-pass surgery. It took a long time, years in fact, but he recovered and was a better man, and father, for it. He was less Type-A and mellower, more philosophical. Before my wedding, when everyone else had gone and it was just me and my father alone in the house I expressed to him my nervousness and fear. Getting married was a big step, after all. He said, “Don’t worry. I might not even be here right now. This wedding, all of this, is a bonus.” That was precisely the right thing to say for me to put events in perspective, relax, and enjoy my big day.

Years fly by. I made many of my life choices based on expectations. I needed a career to earn my own money. I had my children. We bought a house to put the children in. One day, amid the chaos of young children, two dogs, piles of laundry and a seriously filthy bathroom, I locked myself in the fourth bedroom and wrote a story.

I’d read hundreds of books and written my own stories when I was child, shy and lonely and looking for escape. But that compulsion had become buried under busyness and noise. That day, I rediscovered the joy of words. The sheer pleasure of creating a story. It was probably terrible (I haven’t had the courage to look back at that particular piece of writing), but it was my start.

After that, I wrote and wrote. I took writing courses, joined writing Internet sites. And then I wrote some more. First it was short stories. I submitted them and received so many rejection letters I could probably completely wallpaper a small room. I tried novels. Daunting at first, I finally found my story-telling niche. I was a novelist.

Eventually, so consumed was I by this hobby, this passion, I told family and friends. I got quizzical looks but mostly encouragement. Including from my father. He didn’t judge me for writing fiction and even urged to me to continue. I wasn’t quitting my day job, after all. I received a couple of small short story contest awards (second and third place, never first). And he thought that was great.

In our weekly phone conversations (my parents had retired to Victoria, B.C.), I told him every little success and he basked in it. I was pleased to detect a note of pride in his voice.

On October 18, 2010, my father got up from the kitchen table after eating his lunch and collapsed from a massive stroke. One day later, he was dead.

In December of that year, I got a letter from a publisher offering me a contract for my first novel. A bittersweet success because I couldn’t pick up the phone and tell the one person whom I knew would be proudest.

I can finally ride this bike, Dad, and how I wish you could see me now.

Can Reading Save?

There is no greater loss than the loss of a child. When a parent buries a son or daughter, the grief is immeasurable. When the cause is suicide, the tragedy is compounded by a single burning question: Why?

The death of Jamie Hubley by suicide has shed an ugly light on bullying in my community. This fifteen-year-old child went to my son’s school. I’ve seen him perform with the glee club. He grew up around the corner. Ignoring the tragedy of this death is impossible when it strikes so close to home.

Being a teenager has never been easy. Hormones, acne, fear of the future, math class, are all inescapable realities. And of course those bullies. Bullying has always been there and their targets don’t have to do much to draw the attention of the oppressors. Simply being too tall, too shy and too academic was enough in my case. But being gay, with its persistent social stigma, is often irresistible for these thick-necked brutes.

Recently there was a backlash against young adult fiction that people (parents, mostly) feel is too “edgy” for their children. They feel this fiction will give their kids ideas about such mature topics as eating disorders, depression, cutting, homosexuality, taking drugs or underage drinking. However, it’s a different world today and our children know all this stuff without being told. Today’s young adult fiction, as it always has, reflects our world rather than guides it. Many children find comfort in characters who are going through the same trouble they’re going through. When children discover they’re not alone, they might be more inclined to talk to a friend, parent or other trusted adult. Tellingly, the Twitter hashtag for supporters of edgy teen fiction is #YASaves.

In the 1970s, Judy Blume took teen fiction in unheard of directions. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret gave legitimacy to previously taboo subjects like menstruation and sexuality. Girls, hungry for meaningful stories about their personal struggles, ate it up. Finally, a character they could relate to. And, of course, parents balked, refusing to allow their daughters access to this wonderful story. (We found it anyway, Mum. At camp, a ragged copy, with the racy stuff underlined, got passed from cabin to cabin, read by flashlight and shoved under pillows at the approach of a counselor.)

With frankness and humour, Blume tackled subjects never before broached in contemporary fiction. Blubber, for example, gave a voice to victims of bullying and allowed the bullies themselves to view life from a different perspective.

Unlike television, which gives us superficial situations that are resolved within a forty-two-and-a-half minute timeframe, novels delve deeply, take time and effort to finish. Jamie cited Glee as a favourite program, and character Kurt Hummel (the only out gay boy in his school, like Jamie himself) as an inspiration, but felt he couldn’t cope as well as the character seemed to. The problem with television is that it can’t, given its limited format, show how difficult things are. Achievement and success are hard work and hard won. The It Gets Better YouTube campaign encourages gay teens to hang in there because it gets better, but Jamie had three years of high school left. When you’re fifteen, three years might as well be a lifetime, and it’s definitely longer than forty-two-and-a-half minutes.

Having flawed characters like Holden Caulfield in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (another book parents and communities frequently try to ban) or Pony Boy in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders to read about and relate to has, for decades, given legitimacy to the problems faced by young people. Today, there’s an abundance of edgy young adult novels that address many issues teens face. Cut, by Patricia McCormick, addresses cutting from the first-person perspective of fifteen-year-old Callie. Freewill, by Chris Lynch, tackles the difficult and dark topic of suicide. My own young adult novel, Voiceless, addresses homelessness, bullying, prostitution and rape.

Teens who read this fiction come to realize their depression and feelings of hopelessness and alienation are not theirs alone. Other teens feel this way and, by reading their stories, they can get into their heads and gain sympathy and understanding. Stories that feature engaging gay characters might help to de-stigmatize homosexuality, giving bullies less ammunition against their victims.

A secondary problem of bullying is blaming the victim. Why do you have to look so different? Can’t you try to fit in? Stop drawing negative attention? Why do you have to act so…gay? It’s akin to a rape victim “asking for it” because of her short skirt. When do we let the victims be themselves and target the bullies for a change? We need to isolate the bullies from the groups that give them strength and send them for counseling or sensitivity training. Introduce them to stories told from a victim’s perspective and encourage them to analyze and deconstruct them to understand their own victims’ feelings.

But sometimes the pain runs too deeply. Depression, sadness, hopelessness, anti-gay bullying and loneliness create a perfect storm that causes a young person to make a drastic and irreversible decision. Depression in teens presents differently than in adults and, rather than seeming sad, they seem irritable and aloof. They become secretive and withdrawn and no longer share what’s in their minds and hearts.

We need to protect our children. Encourage them to talk or write about their feelings. Get the bullies into behavior modification classes. Work with our schools and communities to seek out and help both victims and bullies.

Why do we wait for a terrible tragedy before we take action?

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.