Monthly Archives: March 2016
As is my wont, I’ve spent a good portion of the off-season travelling. This latest jaunt was to Tennessee, for the Smoky Writers Retreat: 2016 Edition.
Logline: Words. Food. Booze.
One-line summary: Twenty-ish writers in a cabin in the mountains write a lot.
Thirty-word synopsis: Twenty-ish writers rent a cabin for a week. Quiet writing hours are strictly enforced. Afterwards—socializing and talking shop. Amazing food abounds, and our public bar is truly impressive.
I went last year and had a fabulous time. It’s the ultimate workaholic’s holiday, because we’re writing for ~7 hours a day (and God help you if you disrupt the quiet). We break into small groups and share 10-minute segments of what we wrote that day. Then,the socializing with writer-friends I don’t get to see that often, the learning that inevitably arises from such conversations, and those moments when business and fun blur into each other.
I locked down a cover artist and composer for Six Stories while I was there. And stumbled into an anthology. And met with editing clients.
Now, I could wax eloquent about the week, but that wouldn’t really capture it. So from here, I’d like to offer snapshots of Smoky.
All of Pigeon Forge, TN. Take your pick from Biblical Dinner Theatre, the Family Comedy Barn, Lumberjack Dinner Theatre, Hillbilly Mini-Golf, or the ubiquitous Dolly Parton billboards.
Visiting the Titanic Museum on our break day. Despite a horrid, chintzy exterior, it is shockingly well done. Sensitive, clever interpretation, excellent design, and smatterings of museum theatre.
Best Melding of Work and Play:
Composing tunes with Starla Huchton at 2:00 am with the help of a recorder and piano app.
Sticky toffee pudding. Proper sticky toffee pudding. Need I say more?
The Cuvée Special Reserve Ale that I brought down from Nicklebrook Brewing Co, but the local Yee-Haw Dunkel was surprisingly good, if peculiarly named.
Favourite Daily Ritual:
I love the readings. It was so wonderful to hear what other people had gotten up to during the day. Plus, while these people are all my friends, I’m not super familiar with all their writing. I loved seeing the awesomeness they produce. Traditional reading hour drinks were also lovely. 😉
Moment of Squee
For most of the week, I was writing buddies with audio-producer extraordinaire Bryan Lincoln. We colonized the basement media room, and typed away quite companionably in our writing cave. Since we were the only two on that floor, we sometimes broke the rules and talked.
So I learned a lot about audio dramas—amazing. But even more amazing—he congratulated me on the grant for Six Stories, saying, “I see what you’re up to on Facebook, and I really root for you guys.”
Coming from a) a friend, and b) someone whose work I really respect and admire, it meant a lot.
Moment of Unadulterated Joy
Lauren Harris came up for a few days! Sure, I saw her two weeks ago, but that doesn’t matter. I greeted her with a flying tackle hug, we broke out the booze, and then all was well.
Christiana Ellis introduced me to Over the Garden Wall. It’s a complete animated miniseries, and we binge-watched that sucker in two nights. Oh, it was exactly my humour: very clever and self-aware, with generous dollops of absurdity.
Also, I’d never properly hung out with Christiana—I knew she was awesome, but it was nice to experience her awesomeness for myself. 😉
Moment of Disaster
On the last day—at our parting pancake breakfast—my glasses broke. I have a very old pair at home, and lots of contact lenses at work, but that’s not super helpful right now.
(And yes, I’m mostly blind without them.)
Because of the way the arms attach, I’m pretty sure I need a new pair. Emails have been sent, and for now, I’m keeping things together with duct tape and prayer.
I wrote four short stories this week. My favourite centred on a magical glassmaker and a young boy. Here’s a sneak excerpt:
Day after day, night after night, she hunches over her worktable. She buys her love with quaint little scenes. She tells herself that she is an artist, but she knows that this is not the case. Her globes are spun not from glass, but desperation.
Perhaps for this reason, her beloved’s interest wanes. Bright-polished globes sit in their paper wrapping for months. New worlds receive barely a glance. She sits amid the glass and the baubles, and she wonders how it has come to this. And then—always, always—she bends over her work again, and tries to do better.
Super raw, super rough, but with a good edit and polish, I think I should be pleased with it.
There’s so much I’m not touching on. The late night conversations, the delight in looking across the table and seeing so many amazing people. The superb meals, the tiny, quiet moments. But I am so happy, doing what I love with people I love.
Tomorrow, I return home. I print out the novel I wrote last month.
And I continue on: bending over my work again, and trying to do better.
What I’m Listening To This Week
The only drag was that I missed Easter. But I listened to this on the drive back to VA. This piece is spring to me: …the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.
That’s how I feel, these days. After a long, long time, the winter is finally past.
Editing the HEARTSTEALER audiobook continues apace. As with every new type of project, I’m learning lots: some things about particular voices, some things about my own idiosyncrasies in writing (they’re a lot more obvious when read aloud…).
Blythe’s narrating, of course. It’s been fascinating for me, because the two characters that blow me away are the two I never would’ve pegged her for. Naturally, she’s doing stellar work with the entire novel – but these two broken, fragile, hard-edged women are standout performances.
Naturally, that got me thinking, and I realised something:
I write best when I get out of the way.
I’ve had this nagging insecurity for a while. When I write characters for Blythe to voice, they’re…well, they’re good. They’re funny, sad, scary, whatever. But we’re not getting to that same depth I’m seeing in HEARTSTEALER.
And I finally realise:
When I write like that, I’m not giving her space.
I sing the praises of collaboration all the time. How different artists bring different aspects to the piece. How no one has to carry the entire piece alone, because the others are there, giving their support. How they are some things an actor or composer can do that a writer can’t, and so the words don’t have to try to do everything.
I’m not doing that.
It’s almost like I write to a certain level. There’s a ceiling. This is what I’m giving you; this is what you can do with it. It’s very difficult to rise past that level, because there simply isn’t enough there. Perhaps for the reader; not for the actor. It’s like how in prose, you have to leave room for the reader to bring something: otherwise, you smother them and there’s no engagement. You can’t resolve the chord for them.
So what makes Evelyn and Charlotte different?
I never wrote them to be performed aloud. I never wrote HEARTSTEALER with the intention of releasing it as an indie audiobook. And they are not the well-loved character types I’ve seen Blythe play a hundred times before.
You know that saying, “Dance like no one is watching”? That’s how I feel about them. I wrote like no one would be acting. I wrote them because I wrote them. They are what they are because they are, not because I think it’ll be challenging, or funny, or show off a particular strength.
They don’t have ceilings. There’s room to breathe.
A quick survey of my stable of short stories shows the same. The best stories are the ones I just wrote. Not the ones I wrote to further some grander design, or to vent, or because someone asked me to. I wrote as though no one were listening – I wrote for the story.
It’s hard. I’m looking at Six Stories, Told at Night (Secret Canadian Folklore Podcast: we got OAC funding!), and the play I’m noodling, and I wonder. After this long, how do you not write for a specific voice? Once you’ve seen the basilisk, how do you un-see it?
A line from Eliot comes to mind: “Teach us to care and not to care.” It’s a balancing act: giving the actor enough to chew on, not enough to choke them. Which means trusting more, I suppose. Trusting their art, trusting what they bring.
It also means letting go, a little. Focusing not on the other voice, but your own writer’s voice. Paradoxically, I think that’s how the actor finds theirs: when you half-forget they’re there. You may write assuming one actor or another will play the character, but it mustn’t affect the writing itself.
“Teach us to care and not to care…”
I’ve learned to care. Now, teach me not to care. Teach me to sit still.
What I’m Listening To This Week
I know this clip is 20 minutes long. I’m only listening to the first minute and a half. I looked, but the only recording I found of Eleanor Daley’s “Requiem Aeternam” is bundled into the entire requiem.
This piece haunts me. The choir sounds like passing bells: a hypnotizing chant, over and over. But it’s the words that get me: a setting of Carolyn Smart’s “The Sound of the Birds.” It captures grief and loss so very well, it’s like glass to the heart.
“Each night, I listened for your call.
And I but witness to the end.”
My decision to become a writer was made on a ski lift.
It was March Break, we were visiting friends in Calgary, and it was a long way up. Passing over the snow-covered runs and dark trees, with the sharp-edged Rockies looming to every side, a story idea struck me. Not just a story idea. A novel idea. It was for Phantom of the Opera fanfic, but still. Right there on that ski lift, I decided that a) I was going to write this story, and b) I was going to be a writer.
I was fourteen-turning-fifteen. It’s March Break next week, so that would’ve been…almost exactly ten years ago.
Like most writers, I’d written through childhood, of course. Hosting Lauren Harris at my mom’s house this week has given me the chance to reread an epic ferret fantasy I wrote when I was about ten. I never finished it, which is unfortunate, because good heavens—that cliff-hanger.
But it wasn’t a consistent thing. I wanted to be an actor. I wanted to be an Egyptologist. I wanted to be a marine biologist. I wanted to be an astronaut. I really wanted to be a NASA Flight Director.
And now it’s been ten years since I said, “Nope. I’m going to be a writer.”
Reading old writing is like leafing through childhood photos. You look different—oh, that gap-toothed smile, and ouch, those pimples—but you can see the bone structure beneath. You can see the adult who will emerge.
And like childhood photos, old writing has a sense of innocence and play. I had so much fun writing my Phantom story. I remember going to the library and checking out stacks of books about opera and Italy and Paris. Curling up with my hardbound notebook, letting the story spin out under my pen. Everything was so shiny and bright: the early spring mornings of a writing life, when everything is possible and you don’t know about the obstacles yet. You can’t even imagine them, because you’re so wide-eyed and full of wonder.
I hope we keep some of that wonder as we mature into our writing selves. Of course, there’s a naiveté to that “young” writing that makes us cringe when we look back. Experience and maturity—seasoning—they allow for richer, fuller, deeper stories. As you continue writing and reading and thinking, you also start to sort out what sort of writer you are. Almost like you’re deciding what you want to be when you grow up, all over again. Your voice changes, cracks, and eventually breaks. You’ve all seen that here on this blog. Stonecoast was essentially my authorial puberty: when my cute little treble voice finally broke and I decided that when I’m a grown-up writer, I want to make art.
We harden and sharpen in some ways. We lose some of that innocence. Ten years ago, money never crossed my mind; not in a writing context, anyway. It’s an important consideration now. I don’t just think about what would be fun to write. I think about what would be a) fun and b) best for my long-term career. I think about the way I come across on social media, at conventions, over email. The fan-girl instinct is still there, but it’s been heavily trained and reined.
That’s all part of growing up, I think. We lose some of that innocence—I’m not entirely convinced that’s a bad thing. But I really hope we don’t lose the wonder. I really hope that when deadlines are mounting and the rejections are piling up, when the contract needs another round of negotiations and you really need to sell a story soon because it’s been too long and you could use the shot of cash—
When there’s all of that, all the things we don’t even think about when we started out, I really hope we keep the wonder. It’s that excitement when a character springs to life; the sense of astonishment and power as a world knits together; the sheer joy of telling a story. That’s why we got into writing—wherever we started, whenever we started.
That’s why I became a writer, anyway.
It’s been a good ten years.
Here’s to many more, and the wonder they bring.
What I’m Listening to This Week
OMG we pulled this piece out at rehearsal recently, and I’ve been listening to it nonstop ever since. I’ve loved Vivaldi’s Gloria since I joined my first choir. There’s so much I could go on about: the galloping brass and strings, the way it leaps and flashes, the breathless moments of pause (0:30 and 2:02—that is all). You need to do this piece light and quick: not like a brook falling over rocks, like a stream surging ahead.
Of course…because I love this piece, and because it’s so much fun, it does bring out one of my bad chorister habits.
“Keep still,” I’ve been told. “You’re trying to conduct—that’s my job!”
And I laughed aloud, because that’s exactly what it is. On certain pieces—usually ones I know and love—I totally bob and weave all over the choir stalls. I do need to stop it, but it’s hard, because OMG THE MUSIC IS RIGHT THERE.