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.

A book question for my readers

Hiking through the Hooker Valley in New Zealand

I don’t know about you, but the world is making me crazy. Not literally – not yet at least lol – but in a manner of speaking. Here in Ontario we’re entering our third lockdown, amid ongoing reports of people partying, breaking all the rules and creating superspreader events.

The longer people flout the need to wear masks and avoid gatherings, the longer this pandemic is going to drag on, and on. Surely as a global village we can unify and do something for the greater good?!

In the meantime, while I’m mostly stuck in my home again, I’ve signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo, which is the April version of National Novel Writing Month.

I’ve had several ideas for a non-fiction book in my head for a while, and this month seems like the perfect time to get one of them rolling. What I need, though, is your help in deciding which book to write.

Here are the three possible topics. I’ve had requests over the years for all three, and I would love to hear from you which one you’d be most interested in reading.

  1. Travel memoir with photos – My hubby and I have been chased by a hippo in Botswana, ridden a runaway camel across the dunes in Egypt, walked with lions, helped schoolchildren practice their English in Hong Kong, and explored remote temples around the world. We’ve been to six of the eight continents and had numerous adventures – a lot of which were unplanned, including five hurricanes, a bush fire, an earthquake, a tornado, bombings and much more. Along the way, we’ve learned so much about the world, and about ourselves, and met so many wonderful people who’ve reaffirmed our belief in the essential humanity of the amazing planet we all call home.
  2. Stepping outside your comfort zone into a larger life – There’s a saying that the world begins outside your comfort zone, and it’s one of the truest things I’ve heard. Comfort zones are reassuring places to spend time in, but they’re also traps that keep you from growing. Growth = confidence + resilience + agility in challenging times, and we have no better illustration of the need for those qualities than right now. Learn how to break the chains you’ve wrapped around yourself that keep you from making the most of your life.
  3. Using your bucket list as a chart of stepping stones to the life you’d like to lead – Bucket lists are fun things to dream up, but they can also be incredibly useful. In fact, they can change your life. For example, one of my biggest items many years ago was to overcome my fear of public speaking. Originally it was just so I could stop freezing up in meetings, but the journey took me so much farther than that and has opened more doors than I would ever have thought possible. Imagine what you could dare to dream – and then go on to accomplish!

With enough input from you, I can get a sense of which book I should tackle first. I’ll announce the chosen topic in next week’s blog!

All photos on this site are by me unless otherwise specified and may not be used without my express permission.

The final push

It’s the final five days of the November writing marathon. Some writers have already reached 50,000 words; others haven’t commented for days and I wonder how they’re doing. I have only a little over 6,000 words to go, so I’m on the home stretch as far as the contest target is concerned. The finished book will be quite a bit longer, though, so I have more work to do. On November 1st, though, I couldn’t picture myself getting this far, so I’m pretty pleased.

NaNoWriMo has been a great exercise in perseverance, and it’s shown me that I can actually produce a novel. There will be editing and beta readers down the road, but for now I’m looking forward to typing those golden words, “The End”, in the near future.

While I’m plugging away this week to reach the finish line I offer this tiny peek into my book’s first draft. It’s a dream sequence my heroine has one night after a strange and unsettling experience in an old library. Let me know what you think.

Out of the mind’s eye

It’s week three of the NaNoWriMo writing marathon and some participants are feeling frantic. I’ve seen comments from writers that they’ve got lots of words that in total feel like a confused mess, or they’re just now getting down to the brass tacks of writing after spending the first two weeks laying out the plot. We’re not supposed to worry about editing, but some people feel they need to in order to get back on track.

There are as many writing styles as there are participants. I went into this with a lot of background research already in the can – I’ve often used that type of research to spark ideas – as well as a pretty solid outline of my first book’s plot with threads that will tie into Books Two and Three. I also created detailed diagrams of two key locations in Book One, a small town where the bulk of the action takes place, and a college campus within that town. To me these places are vivid in my mind’s eye, but laying them out on electronic paper in a way that made them work logically solidified them. Now, when my heroine is exploring these places, I can describe her exact path as if she was navigating a real town or college campus, and I’ll be consistent every time the action takes place in these locales (I hope 😊).

Writing reminds me of taking photographs. For a long time on my travels I took photos of the famous places we visited. My slides of Egypt, for example, where my hubby and I went early in our marriage, are pretty standard shots – the Pyramids, each of us sitting on a block of the Great Pyramid, the Sphinx’s enigmatic face, the Nile, cruising up the Nile… Well, you get the idea.

But as time went on I began to use more of a painter’s eye, to capture more scenes that told a story. Paintings by the old Masters like Rembrandt are tiny novels in paint form – you have to study all the components to understand what they’re telling you, from the choice of colours, the use of light/shadow/emphasis, and the artist’s decision of what to include both in the foreground and in the background. Every single detail was put there for a specific reason, and so it is with good photographs, especially travel photographs.

I began to realize that most of my viewers would never actually see or experience what I was standing in front of at that moment, whether it was beautiful or ugly, so I wanted to be able to bring it to them virtually, through my photos.

A couple of years ago my hubby and I visited Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, a microcosm of the American Revolutionary war. The docents were exemplary in explaining in unflinching detail what life was like for residents on both sides of the conflict. Walking through one of the original houses from the time period, that of a wealthy landowner, I was struck by this document in the home and had to take a photo of it.

It lists the family’s possessions and their monetary value, and included in that tally were all the slaves. Along with items of furniture and garden tools, each slave was assigned an amount in pounds sterling, the currency in use in the colonies before the Revolution. Each of these humans were valued as pieces of property, and not even of equal value. If you were a strong adult male, for example, you were worth more than someone aged who couldn’t do as much work any more. There right in front of me was something that brought to life the awfulness of the slave system in a way more compelling than many shows I’ve watched, because it wasn’t just a portrayal, it was a real thing. Any person who sees this photo will likely be able to feel the same emotion I felt standing in front of that piece of paper.

As writers it’s our job to do the same thing as this photo or a piece of art, to create a scene which is in our head so vividly that our readers can see it too, and can feel the emotions of the characters, whether love, fear, anger, revulsion, lust, hope, despair. If we’re writing about something that really happened it’s easier, but if we’re creating an entire imagined world in a book we have to be able to see it as if we’d lived it before we can share it with you the reader. So I empathize with my fellow marathoners in trying to get that out onto paper. We do it because there’s a story that simply must be told.

The distant shore

Well, I’m about one-third of the way through my NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) goal of 50,000 written words by the end of November. I’m out in the middle of the lake hoping to reach the half-way point soon, and the far shore is in sight.

I can’t speak for everyone who’s determined to finally write their first/second/fifth novel this month, but so far for me it’s been incredibly rewarding.

Writing stories was my first love when I was growing up, but in my first year of high-school I fell in love with Biology and decided that’s what I wanted to study in university. I came by that honestly – my dad would have done the same if he’d had the opportunity, but when he was a young man in Europe he was expected to help out on the family farm. It was a waste of a great mind, and he supported me fully in pursuing the same dream. Although he’d already passed away by the time my hubby and I were able to go to Africa, I felt like maybe he was watching happily as our safari vehicle took us through so many fascinating landscapes filled with wonderful wild animal encounters.

All through adulthood I continued to want to write a little bit, jotting the beginnings of many different novels. Life got in the way, though, and I never finished any of them. A few years ago, however, I started homing in on an idea I’d had for a long time. I began doing a lot of background research and outlining some plot points.

Research and plot-tinkering are great ways to put off actually putting fingers to keyboard, though. I shared the same fear as many starting writers: can I write well enough to bring this story to life, or will I be wasting my time?

The great thing about this month of marathon writing is that it frees you to just write what’s in your head without worrying yet about getting it just right, and 30 days is not a very big chunk of time out of your life to give it a shot.

I had all the chapters worked out beforehand – the sequence of events that will take my (one-day) readers from the Inciting Event (the event that changes everything for the protagonist) to the (hopefully) thrilling Climax. And in my case, I also hope the first book will be enthralling enough to make my readers want to continue on the rest of the journey through books two and three.

What’s especially interesting about this process is that I started out worrying about how I was going turn my bare skeleton into a seaworthy craft, and then take myself on the actual journey with my heroine. What I’ve been finding is that the ship is in many ways building and sailing itself. When I sit down to write, the ideas are all falling into place. I guess that’s a good sign, and time will tell.

But more than that, the words are – mostly – coming out the way I want to express them. I’m not spilling out a confused mess just to get my word-count in, I’m writing paragraphs and scenes that I’m quite pleased with.

That’s not to say that I may not want or need to do a lot of editing and perhaps some rewriting before I let some beta readers have a look at it, and then some more tweaking based on their feedback. But I see the far shore, and there’s a landing site. And the journey to get there is a revelation.

So for all of you who have a pet project you’ve always wanted to try, just start doing it. You may find, as I am finding, that it’s like a snowball rolling down a hill that keeps gathering more and more snow and momentum as it goes until it becomes a fully-realized snow-person. It’s never too late to start one, and even if it doesn’t become an award-winning snow-person, in the end you can have the satisfaction of saying that you finally did it!

A new chapter

Sadly, Halloween has passed for another year. Our ‘Dr. Frankenstein’s Lab’ candy table turned out well:

We only had about ten kids come trick-or-treating, although apparently that was a good number compared to other neighbourhoods. The kids who did visit our house got quite a kick out of it, and my hubby and I did have a lot of fun handing out (touch-free) treat bags that way and sending puffs of fog out to drift eerily around the circle in the still cool night; we may turn it into a permanent tradition. I have to admit some disappointment that more people in our neighbourhood didn’t hand out candy — granted, my hubby and I have a lot of props on hand from various parties we’ve thrown over the years (in fact, he suggested we could probably have decorated our entire circle) — but this seemed like such a cute and fairly safe tradition to hold up this year, a much-needed breath of lightness into a dismal year.

No one has any idea so far regarding what the December holidays may bring, but in the meantime, this year I’m participating in the annual National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) event this month. If you haven’t heard of it, you can find out much more about it here. Each year thousands of writers attempt to pull a novel out of their heads and put it onto paper (real or electronic, whatever suits their style) with at least 50,000 words. The idea is to just get it written, a first draft unencumbered by worries about making it the perfect book of our dreams. As someone who’s been researching, jotting ideas down and drafting the odd orphan paragraph for years, I can attest to how freeing this process is.

We earn badges along the way for things like updating our word count each day, and we can connect to other writers through different groups with a specific focus, or during “write-ins” (short dedicated marathon writing sessions that encourage us to put more words down).

Personally I’m finding it rather liberating to just let ideas flow wherever my mind’s eye takes me and worry at a later date about which ones I want to keep for the final product, and so far, just sitting down with my fingers on my keyboard seems to bring all kinds of interesting ideas to mind. Maybe at some point I’ll run into writer’s block, but I’m content to enjoy the journey.

If you’re wondering what I’m writing about, for now I’ll just say that it’s an urban fantasy with some touches of sci-fi, about a woman who discovers that, far back in her ancestry, she is descended from a race on another planet, and that her progenitor was placed here for a specific purpose because of certain abilities inherent in her bloodline. The concept sprang from my family’s annual road trips to northern Ontario when I was a child — every time we passed an exit ramp leading away into the mysterious unknown, I’d imagine what it would be like to one day explore those other roads. From there my imagination, inspired heavily by Roger Zelazny’s Amber series, extrapolated to roads that led to other dimensions or other planes of existence.

For now I’ll continue sending my heroine on her warrior/hero journey. I know where she’s going and how she’ll end up by the close of the third and final book, but I’m having a blast getting her there and I hope that one day in the near future you’ll be able to read her story yourself. Today it stands at 6467 words, more than 10% of the ultimate goal. Stay tuned for more, and if you feel so inspired yourself, it doesn’t cost anything to sign up for NaNoWriMo.