Victory lap

Another November has wrapped up, and I’m very pleased to once again have achieved the 50,000-word milestone with Book 2 in my urban fantasy/sci-fi trilogy.

This contest felt different than last year’s. I started Book 2 armed with the knowledge that I already have one completed book under my belt, so I knew i could finish before I even began. That’s one of the benefits of experience: you already know what you’re capable of. Next it’s time to find out how much you can grow.

I’d debated whether I wanted to start working on the second book before I heard back from all the beta readers for my first book. Maybe no one would even like Book 1. By the time I’d completed three edits, I was too close to the book to do anything other than email it to my test readers to see what their feedback was.

But Book 2 had lit its candle inside my head and refused to wait. This year, I found the first few chapters challenging in a way that I hadn’t last November: after the climactic ending of Book 1, how would I segue effectively into the next part of the story? Things heat up quite a bit in Book 2 — my protagonist has come to terms with her new life touched by the supernatural, but by the end of the first book she’d found herself in quite a pickle, and now more enemies are getting involved.

She has to think fast and evolve even faster, while trying to hold on to her own humanity. I’m having a blast writing Book 2, watching how my heroine handles everything that comes her way.

Last year I took a break from writing all through December and January, but not this year. I simply can’t lay the proverbial pen down this time.

My hubby has shared with me that he’s enjoying the book, even though it’s not his usual genre, but he’s saving more detailed comments until after he’s finished the entire thing. In between prep for the holidays, I’m waiting as patiently as possible for feedback from the beta readers, and I thank them all so much for devoting some of their precious time to help me.

I hope that all my readers are making some delightful plans for a little bit merrier holiday this year, while still staying safe and healthy. The pandemic hasn’t gone away — it’s evolving as well, so we must just keep plugging away as best as we can.

Diving in to my alternate reality again

It’s that time of year again, when published and unpublished writers dedicate the entire month to getting 50,000 words’ worth of writing toward a new novel. I’m working on Book 2 in my trilogy; Book 1 is going through one more edit for style, and I hope to get it out to my team of beta readers in the next few days.

It’s an interesting sensation, putting your baby out there for someone else to read — especially to beta readers, because you hope they enjoy it but conversely want them to point out whatever they didn’t like. I am incredibly grateful to the people who’ve volunteered to do this for me.

I read through the NaNoWriMo forums from time to time, and participate in a couple of groups. With one completed novel under my belt, I think I can now offer the following recommendations if you decide to join the fray and become a novelist:

a) Have an outline of your novel with at least all the main plot points mapped out. During the NaNo writing sprint, the challenge is to get your ideas out of your head and onto the page, but if you have no idea what should be happening, I’m not sure you’ll get very far.

b) Get into the head of your protagonist. Your story is going to put her/him/them in a series of challenging situations — you should know how they’re going to react (although on occasion they may surprise you).

c) Reduce distractions. If you’re anything like me, you’ve had the story concept for years but put off writing it out, so don’t waste more time by procrastinating. The NaNo writing month isn’t meant to create the perfect book, just the book that’s been in your head, even in rough form. Making the book better happens in the editing.

d) As I went along, I started a spreadsheet on which I noted ideas for what should happen next and later on in the book. As I was moving through the story, more scenes and events began to pop into my head. It didn’t take me long to have the story completely fleshed out. I don’t know how other writers do it, but this really worked for me.

e) Figure out what you want the ending of the book to be. This helps you determine what needs to happen in the protagonist’s journey to arrive at that point. It’s like a beacon far away, reminding you which way you need to be headed.

f) Just write. Nothing else happens until you write those words.

Good luck to all my fellow NaNoWriMo writers!

Lest we forget — Remembrance Day November 11th

The little writer that could

I think I can, I think I can, I think I can write a novel…but I didn’t for a couple of decades, or more. Actually, I’ve been jotting ideas for a very long time. With every approaching milestone birthday I’d set that date as a deadline for writing a book, but it never came to pass.

You see, nothing new ever happens unless you take a chance, take that first step outside your comfort zone.

I have finally finished that first book, and I did pop the cork on a bottle of champagne. I typed “The End” on August 1, and thought I’d run out to get a nice new bottle, but as fate would have it, all the stores were closed for our Civic Holiday. Drat! I hunted through the stock of wine in our rec-room bar, and finally found one old bottle that someone had given us for a gift a while ago. It was dusty, and debatably drinkable, but it was the only option, so after dinner we opened it up, hoping for the best. Luckily, it was still potable, although I suppose it wouldn’t have mattered if it wasn’t.

What really mattered, of course, was the achievement, and even if the book never gets published, the fact that I wrote it means a great deal.

I’ve backed up the files onto two separate portable drives, and am determinedly leaving the pages to rest for a while. It’s been surprisingly difficult to step away – I have so loved telling the story of my tarnished heroine and her adventures into the supernatural – but during the down-time I am getting caught up on quite a few chores that took a back seat for the past few months, so that’s a good thing anyway.

Editing will begin in a couple of weeks, coinciding with the return of kids to school at the beginning of September. I wonder if that may be fate; as a child I always loved restarting school each autumn. I may have grumbled about homework and occasionally day-dreamed about being outside on a beautiful fall day if I was bored in class, but I loved the atmosphere of learning.

Learning to me is one of the greatest gifts in our lives. There are so many fascinating things to explore about our world! Today is World Elephant Day, for example, and I just read that elephants have about 150,000 muscles just in their trunks, which are remarkable appendages that they use to drink with, breathe with while wading in deep water, and pick up food with – anything from small twigs to large fruit and grasses. When we were in the Okavango Delta of Botswana we watched one elephant rip up great hanks of grasses with its trunk and stuff them into its mouth.

I learned a great deal from writing my novel, and for anyone who thinks they’d love to write as well but are too worried about their ability to finish to even begin – as I was – I can tell you what guided me to that final page:

  1. I had a good idea of what my heroine’s journey was going to be – in other words, a plan. I would have found it virtually impossible to start cold turkey. Maybe some writers can do it that way, but I couldn’t.
  2. I was worried whether I’d have enough of a story to tell, but as the heroine’s journey went on, a lot of events fell logically into place. After all, every action has consequences, and I was interested to see them play out. Sometimes the results surprised me as much as they did the heroine, and that was half the fun!
  3. I wrote every single day throughout November to get to the desired goal of 50,000 words. That was really important to me – it was my barometer to decide whether I was capable of producing an entire book. Every successful author’s advice has always included one particular message: perseverance is key.
  4. Embarking on this project was a big leap of faith, but I didn’t want to reach the end of my life (some day in the far distant future, I hope) without having at least tried. At the beginning I worried about all the same things as other would-be authors, I’m sure: am I worthy, can I fill up an entire book, can I come up with believable dialogue… In the end, my journey was as intense as my heroine’s, and we both discovered new things about ourselves.
  5. Every big project looks intimidating at the beginning. The road to success consists of achieving one part of the big picture at a time. Writing that first chapter wasn’t too bad, and then the second, then the third…and one day eight months later the last.
  6. Finishing the book has given me an enormous confidence boost. If I can do it once, I can do it again – for Books 2 and 3 in the trilogy (for which I’m furiously jotting down ideas even now), and for a couple of non-fiction books I also want to write.

Goals and journeys are only ever achieved by taking that first wobbly step into the unknown. I’m nervous about editing my draft, wondering how painful/frustrating it’s going to be, but I forge ahead in the knowledge that I have a dedicated group of beta readers waiting excitedly to see what I’ve created, and I can’t wait to show it to them. I hope they love it as much as I do, even if parts of it stink and need revising. Then, like the Little Engine that toiled determinedly over the crest of the hill, I’ll be able to say, “I thought I could”.

Reflections

Apologies, folks — I was busily working on the final handful of chapters of my first novel and neglected to post my blog last night!

It’s now been about nine months since I took that first step in creating a book out of the ideas floating around in my head for years. I embarked on the NaNoWriMo November event last fall just to see if I could actually put together the first 50,000 words of a book. For many years there was one thought that held me back: what if I put a lot of time into a writing project and it goes nowhere. In other words, could I actually produce something cohesive to begin with, and see it through to completion?

The answer to that, of course, is that I would never find out if I didn’t try. So last fall I decided that I’d make the attempt — one month wasn’t too much to devote to it, and if I didn’t get anywhere, at least I would have given it a shot. But if I did get somewhere…

I joined one of the NaNoWriMo writing groups; there are hundreds of them in all kinds of configurations, for like-minded writers to chat and support each other. Mine was a small group, comfortable for sharing ideas and questions, and for cheering each other’s progress.

I had a very rough outline for the first novel of what will someday become a published trilogy, I hope — just the Inciting Incident, a few key points of the protagonist’s journey, and the climax. On November 1st I began writing.

When you announce your project on the NaNoWriMo site, your profile allows you to record your progress towards the ultimate goal of having written 50,000 words by the end of the month. I calculated how many words I’d need to write each day (on average) to achieve that goal — to me, that would be a measure of whether I could produce an entire book. And every day, I stuck to it.

You receive badges for a variety of milestones, including whether you write every day, and I wanted that badge to appear, because it meant that I was staying on track. Some might dismiss this approach as gamification, and it is, but as a novice novelist, I found it to be a great motivator.

Soon I had one full chapter under my belt, then a second, then more and more. As I wrote about my protagonist and the challenges she was facing, the story began to flesh itself out. More and more ideas kept popping into my head: what’s going to happen next, how will she react, what if this twist took place? The garden of my book kept growing, often in ways I didn’t anticipate.

My protagonist has taken me along on her journey, not the other way around. One of the things I discovered, and have enjoyed the most, is that the characters in the book have to a large extent taken on a life of their own. They are complete beings in my head, who often say and do things that surprise me, and that’s been one of the things that has kept me writing — I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen next!

I can’t speak for everyone who’s tried to write a novel, but for me there’s only been the odd day or two of what I might call ‘writer’s block’, and that’s just been when I wasn’t sure how the next scene should start. When that happened I let the story stew in my head for a couple of days, and soon an idea would pop to the surface.

Our subconscious mind is powerful, if we give it a chance to participate. My best writing has come when I let it flow instead of trying to force it into submission.

My biggest problem, to my mind, has been the flood of ideas, not the lack of them. The novel has become so much larger than I expected. Each chapter sows a bumper crop of possibilities, and very often I have to consider whether that patch of unusual but interesting flowers will add to the story or detract from it. Usually I include them anyway, figuring I’ll leave the weeding and pruning to the first edit.

So in a week or so, after months of challenging but really enjoyable work, I’ll be typing the words “The End”. I plan to uncork a split of champagne. After decades of jotting hundreds of ideas, writing and discarding, and numerous aborted starts, I will have finally written a book. Whatever else happens from there, I will be able to check off that item on my bucket list.

Of course I hope to publish it, even if I decide to take the self-publishing route on Amazon. I think I’d like to try and find an agent, though — but that’s still months away. First, I’ll post to my NaNoWriMo group that I’ve finished it. Then I’ll put the book aside for a month, as per the organization’s instructions — we are to just leave it be for a while. I have a few other things to catch up on in the meantime (like weeding my actual garden in our backyard).

In September, instead of going back to school, I’ll be hauling out the book and doing my first edit: I’ll read the whole thing en masse, and fix things. I’m sure I’ll be tweaking some of the wording, and I’ll spot discontinuities — something I wrote in one chapter that either doesn’t match or wasn’t followed up on in a subsequent chapter. Hopefully there aren’t too many weeds, mostly beautiful flowers.

Once that’s done to my satisfaction, I have a crew of enthusiastic beta readers who are eagerly, I’m happy to say, waiting to read the book and give me feedback. I’m really looking forward to that part — I hope they enjoy the story, but I want to hear what parts of it aren’t working. I’ll need to know where the story might fall flat, where a scene doesn’t make sense or is hard to follow, where the plot has bogged down or dropped the ball, and certainly if the climax is exciting enough. After I review their feedback and make the necessary changes, I hope to have a book I’m proud of, one that will attract an agent.

While all this furious writing has been going on, my hubby and I have gotten our second vaccination, as have most of our friends. The second shot left us a little under-the-weather for two to three days, but nothing that wasn’t manageable, and now we’re confident that we can hold up well against any bugs.

The fact that the world’s researchers were able to come up with a viable vaccine in such a short time is almost miraculous. By contrast, researchers have been trying to develop a vaccine against malaria for decades. I know a lot of people worry about the short timeline, which necessarily means that testing was minimal, but in Ontario alone the number of cases has dropped from over 4,000 a day in April to less than 200 a day now. That’s a massive decrease, partly enabled by the lockdown to contain the spread, but in greater part because of the vaccinations.

In a week or so, I’ll be able to go to see the new Jungle Cruise movie with friends. Our little movie group hasn’t been able to get together in over a year. I consider us all very lucky — we lost one Christmas out of the pandemic, and spent a few months holed up in our homes. Aside from unrelated illnesses, which surely were a challenge during the past year-plus, those of us who took the precautions have stayed safe. Now we can begin looking ahead again, cautiously for now, until Covid-19 becomes a historical footnote, like smallpox.

I dream of finishing my complete trilogy, and maybe one day signing a copy for you in person at Comic-Con, where we can safely shake hands and chat. Wouldn’t that be a fabulous denouement to this grand writing adventure I’ve been on?! For anyone who’s had a long-time dream and been too afraid to start it — too worried about whether they’re worthy, or have the stamina/perseverance, or rich-enough soil to germinate their idea — there really is only one way to find out. You’ll likely surprise yourself with the result!

As always, all photos are by me unless otherwise stated, and all rights reserved.

Signs Part 3 — Poignant reminders

Taking a mental health break during pandemic lockdown in March

There’s a box of three-ply surgical masks on the stairs in our entryway, and another box on the console in my hubby’s truck. We never imagined the day that we’d have that necessity.

Two weeks ago we had our first Covid-19 vaccine shots, in a big arena with row upon row of chairs for people to sit during their 15-minute post-inoculation wait period. My hubby and I have had many inoculations over the years for our travels, delivered one-on-one by our family physician most of the time, but at a small travel clinic for the Yellow Fever shots needed to go to Kenya and the Amazon Jungle.

(If you’re wondering, I’m pretty sure we’re not radioactive or sending out electronic signals to governments since the shot 😉 )

After months of flaring virus cases across Canada, our numbers are thankfully falling again amid thousands of people getting their shots, and most of the provinces are talking about their reopening plans. We’re not out of the woods yet, but just like the odd mild day in March heralds the advent of spring, we can look forward with hope toward the point when the pandemic is no longer such.

There are a lot of signs we’ll remember when we look back – Curbside Pickup Only, Takeout Only, If You Have Any of These Symptoms…, Only xx People Allowed Inside at One Time.

Signs have been put up over the centuries to commemorate significant events. They’re poignant reminders of a time when history was made, usually not in a good way. Will our governments erect signs related to the pandemic, do you suppose? I guess time will tell.

We’ve seen many such signs on our travels. Reading them is a solemn activity as we acknowledge the pathos of the event they refer to.

This sign is at the Gettysburg National Cemetery in Pennsylvania, a tribute to the thousands of men who fought bravely on either side and gave up their lives for what they believed in.

This exhibit sign inside the Gettysburg Museum of History highlights the impact of the war and what it was being fought for.

One of the most poignant wall murals in Belfast is this image of a giant quilt highlighting the voices of women in the ideological conflict. The mural contains a softer message than the more violent artwork it replaced, offering instead words for peace, love and hope.

A small white and red luggage tag represents the baggage loaded onto the SS Nomadic as passengers and cargo were transferred by tender out to the RMS Titanic at Cherbourg, France. The Nomadic is the only remaining original White Star vessel, dry-docked permanently in the Titanic Quarter in Belfast. Visitors can go aboard and imagine the happy faces of the passengers as they set off on what was to be a great adventure on a great ship.

Here’s a sign from last fall, when we visited a Halloween-themed attraction during the brief window when there were enough facilities open for us to take a short vacation break. The historic site that hosted the attraction, Upper Canada Village, was closed to visitors during the day; it only opened at dusk to limited numbers. We waited in line, separated by six feet from other waiting groups of varying sizes, and allowed to enter only after the previous group had completely cleared the ticketing area. I missed walking around the village during the day, but the flip side was that the evening attraction was really cool to visit without crowds. I could take as much time as I needed to capture the wonderful light displays after dark with a little monopod. Silver linings 🙂

I’m not sure many visitors to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles notice this small memorial to one of the most famous actors in movie history. The little Cairn Terrier who played Toto in The Wizard of Oz will be forever remembered by generations of movie fans, though.

I don’t know if this billboard is still up. When we visited Botswana in 2010, AIDS was still a major problem in the country, although scrupulous safari operators made sure that guests had nothing to worry about. Botswana is one of the most progressive countries in Africa, and had mounted an aggressive campaign to educate its citizens about the dangers of HIV, while many other countries still refused to acknowledge the issue.

You may or may not recognize this bus, with its number “2857” and route sign “Cleveland Ave.”. It’s the bus on which an ordinary black seamstress in Alabama refused to give up her seat for a white person, and changed the course of history. She took great personal risk in doing so, and decades later her battle continues in a different form, but she demonstrated that even ordinary people can have the power to change something unjust.

Large and small bits of history give us pause to think, to look through a window onto what it was like to live through those times, and to remember those who did.

All photos by me and all rights reserved.

Blossom time in Niagara

This week we’re celebrating blossom time in the Niagara region, which is Nature’s sign that spring has truly arrived.

Every May fruit trees all over our farmlands cover themselves in gorgeous flowers. The blossoms don’t last long, and the timing is tricky if you want to see them — like fall colours, it’s all dependent on the weather. This year, with plenty of mild weather, sunshine and rain showers, the blossoms have arrived right on cue, and I thought I’d share them with everyone who can’t come and see them in person during the continuation of the pandemic.

Our sublime May light makes the blossoms look almost incandescent — rows of glowing colours in orchards, lining our parks, and dotting our city streets.

In the photo below, cherry trees line the fringes of a historic site called McFarland House, built in 1800, and the thick showers of pink blossoms contrast strikingly with nearby red maples also flaunting their best spring outfits.

The resplendent clusters of pink flowers pop against the trees’ craggy grey-green bark.

I believe these are Japanese flowering cherries; here’s a closeup of the blossoms and new leaves for anyone who might have a better idea than I do.

It’s not just fruit trees that are livening up our landscapes; here at Queenston Heights in Niagara Falls, vibrant tulips are showing off their best colours. This historic site, which commemorates the first major battle in the War of 1812, is also the southern terminus of the Bruce Trail, the famous hiking trail that runs for 900km (about 560 mi) from Niagara northward to Tobermory on the shores of Georgian Bay.

I’m partial to variegated tulips…

…but all of the flowers were putting on a grand display of their lush petals and intriguing variety of reproductive configurations.

Niagara Falls also boasts quite a pretty 10-acre lilac garden.

The garden is free to visit; you can spend an entire morning or afternoon there, inhaling the wonderful perfume of the flowers…

,,,and admiring the different varieties. There were a handful of us getting some outdoor exercise on a lovely day, although rain was on the horizon.

I loved the pretty variegated leaves on this shrub.

Turning back toward Niagara-on-the-Lake, I found numerous pink-strewn cherry orchards…

and white apple orchards lining the roads.

Clusters of white apple blossoms were bursting out on all the branches, their sprays of delicate pistils making them look like lace.

Even the other trees are sporting froths of bright new leaves. I love this time of year, when the air is fresh and invigorating, and the sunshine begins keeping its promises.

Heading to the Fonthill area, numerous farms are studded with the stubble of last year’s corn stalks.

Even though the region is starting to drown under the weight of wineries (over seventy in about 700 square miles), if you take the time to wander the back roads you can still find pretty farms tucked away.

In fact, a leisurely wander is the best way to see the region’s spring beauty when you have a chance. You might even spot some of the area’s wild turkeys searching a field for lunch. There used to be one that patrolled an intersection near where I live, stopping traffic for the better part of an hour as it strutted up and down the road. (If you’ve never seen one for yourself, they’re huge birds, up to four feet tall and rather ornery.)

Hiking trails abound; this section of the Bruce Trail is twinned with a trail project in South Africa, surprisingly enough.

Even here the trails were luminous in the afternoon light.

At some time in the future, when life has returned more closely to normal, you may want to visit the Niagara Region in the springtime, when it shows all of its prettiest colours. In the meantime, I hope you have some lovely areas to explore and let Nature work her magic.