Serious About Being Funny

Serious About Being Funny

Ruth E. Walker

Every year at Turning Leaves, our fall writers’ retreat, we invite a special guest to join us for the weekend. Usually the guest is an author but we’ve also had one of Canada’s top literary agents.

No matter who we have join us, they always bring inspiration and ideas to our participants. We thought it would be interesting to visit a few of our previous guests’ websites or blog posts, and offer you a peek into the people who bring their magic to Turning Leaves each year. Let’s start today with award-winning children’s author Richard Scrimger (Turning Leaves 2012).

Richard had to be one of the funniest guest authors we’ve had join us, posing in his unique way for our traditional group photo.

His website is a delight, especially his “nothing” link that links to, well, lately, it’s been a crazy excerpt from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing featuring Richard. Sort of.

But Richard is serious about the craft, and has written lots for adults with an acclaimed novel and recurring appearances in the Globe and Mail, Chatelaine and, most recently,Today’s Parent.

Richard is also a highly successful author of award-winning books for young readers, from picture books to young adult novels. He’s recognized by librarians, booksellers and his many young fans for his snappy dialogue, intriguing characters and courage to take on difficult topics in a refreshing way. His most recent book, Downside Up, explores how a young boy deals with heartbreaking grief by travelling to an alternate universe.

On Richard’s website, the FAQs (frequently asked questions) are rich in humour and his trademark directness. Geared for his younger readers, there are some gems for writers of all ages. Here’s a couple of examples:

9) If you get ideas from other people, isn’t that stealing?

Yes. What’s your point?

9A) Isn’t stealing a bad thing?

No. Of course I don’t steal anyone’s words – that would be plagiarizing, and a very bad thing indeed – but I’m always on the lookout for a good idea. When I come to a really interesting bit in a book or a movie, I think: How did the writer do that? Then I try to figure out a way to use the idea myself.

17) What advice do you have for someone who wants to become a good writer.

This one is easy. In order to write well, you have to read well. Art is derivative. Your teachers are right when they tell you to Write what you know, but part of what you know is what you read, so I’ll say: Write what you read. If you love science fiction, try writing a science fiction story like your favorite author. Read everything. If they tell you to read a book, give it a try. If you like it, read some more by the same author. (If they tell you not to read a book – read it anyway. I’m no good at censorship. Hate literature is evil, but I figure you’re smart enough to spot it when you come across it.)

All right, I have time for one more question …..

18) Where do you get your ideas?

Think of my head like a department store. I go through it floor by floor and pick out what I need to furnish my story. 1st floor: painful camp memories, humorous lunch-room episodes, first love, Christmas Eve, going to the beach. 2nd floor: yesterday’s newspaper, last week’s visit to the dentist, favourite books, meals, Simpsons episodes, dance moves. 3rd floor: that weird thing my friend Fuzz found in his attic, my aunt’s memory of the great depression, Grandpa’s best birthday ever, and so on. You can do this too. Your selection will be different, but the process of idea collection is the same. Don’t forget the Bargain Basement, where all the really scary stuff is.

Needless to say, our weekend with Richard was a learning experience. It was also a lot of fun. In future posts on The Top Drawer, we’ll stop by the websites of some of our other guest authors. Poke around. See what we can find.

And share a few gems with you.

DID YOU KNOW?

At Turning Leaves writers’ retreat, our guests offer a Friday night fireside chat where we all get to ask questions and learn insights into the craft or the business of writing. And on Saturday morning, there’s always a hands-on workshop, created by our guests especially for our retreat participants.

Our 2017 retreat is nearly full but we still have a couple of spots open. All the lakeview rooms are taken but we have landview options or, if you’re located close by, we have a day rate available.

One Woman Crime Wave

One Woman Crime Wave

In Conversation with…Vicki Delany

So many of us dream of being a full-time writer. But how many of us would sell our house and retire early from a job as a systems analyst with a major bank to do it? Vicki Delany made that gusty move in 2007. Now she rarely wears a watch and can write whenever she feels like it. In just ten years, Vicki (also writing as Eva Gates) has more than 20 crime and mystery novels to her credit .

And she finds time to give back to the writing community. For two years she was Chair of Crime Writers of Canada, and is also a member of Capital Crime Writers and Sisters in Crime. Just this last Labour Day weekend she was an organizer for the first festival of Women Crime Writers: “Women Killing It”.

Plus, she’s taking precious time out  to join us as Writescape’s guest at this year’s fall retreat, Turning Leaves 2017.  Perhaps you’ll join us too, but right now, take a glimpse into the writing life of this prolific, energetic and generous crime and mystery writer.

What attracted you to the mystery/crime genre?

Mystery novels really do fill the spectrum from light and fluffy to very dark indeed. Something for everyone in fact. Darker crime novels, such as psychological suspense, show the human psyche under pressure.

They take (usually) normal people and put them through a heck of a lot. Some survive, some do not. Physically as well as mentally or morally.

Crime novels allow the reader to ask him or herself: what would I do in this situation? What would I do if this happened to me? How far would I go to save my child/defeat my enemy/get revenge/save myself? What would I do for money/for love?

I’m not interested, as a reader or a writer, in explicit violence or international spies. I’m interested in character and character development, good and bad. It’s through the lens of the crime novel that we can explore people under extreme pressure. The use of a crime or a mystery allows the author to up the stakes for the characters, but the essential humanity and the complex range of human emotions are what’s all-important.

At the moment, I’m writing mostly cozy books. Cozies are all about friends and family and community. The tone is much lighter, there is never any real danger to the main characters, and not much in the way of tragedy or angst. Sometimes a little dash of romance, but the friendships are all important. People love these books because they come to love the characters and the town they live in. And the food. Food and books are often important in cozy novels.

What books are on your bedside table right now?

I’m reading The Perfect Spy by John Le Carre, recommended by a friend. A powerful, complex, intricate novel by an author at the height of his powers. I’ve just finished Dust and Shadows by Lyndsay Faye. In the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop series, all the books and merchandise for sale in the shop exists in real life. I don’t read everything my fictional character stocks, but I do like to dip my toes into Sherlock pastiche now and again.

Up next? Probably In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant. I am not a big historical novel reader, but I have loved Dunant’s books. I’m looking forward to the September release of Collapse of a Country: A Diplomat’s  Memoir of South Sudan by Nicholas Coghlan because I have been to South Sudan and I set one of my adult literacy novellas there. (Juba Good)

Tell us about your most recent mystery book series

The latest series is a cozy series, meaning very light, an easy read. No human tragedy or angst here. Gemma Doyle owns the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop and Emporium on Cape Cod. The first book in the series is Elementary She Read.  When Gemma finds a rare and potentially valuable magazine containing the first Sherlock Homes story hidden in the bookshop, she and her friend Jayne (who runs the adjoining Mrs. Hudson’s Tea Room) set off to find the owner, only to stumble upon a dead body.

elementary-she-read-rgbThe higBody on Baker Street - finalhly perceptive Gemma is the police’s first suspect, so she puts her consummate powers of deduction to work to clear her name, investigating a handsome rare books expert, the dead woman’s suspiciously unmoved son, and a whole family of greedy characters desperate to cash in on their inheritance.

But when Gemma and the ever-loyal, but often confused, Jayne accidentally place themselves at a second murder scene, it’s a race to uncover the truth before the detectives lock them up for good.

The second in the series hit the shelves last week on September 12, and is called  Body on Baker Street. The series is a lot of fun with lots of Sherlock Holmes references, but the books can be enjoyed by people with no interest in the Great Detective at all.

Describe a typical writing day/week

When I am at home I write every day, seven days a week. I get up in the morning and go to my main computer in my office, and read e-mails, read the papers online, spend a bit of time on Facebook or Twitter.

Then it’s time to start to write. I walk into the dining room and stand at my Netbook computer which is on the half-wall between the kitchen and the dining room.  As I pass through the kitchen, I put one egg on to boil.  (In the summer, I might sit outside on the deck). I always write, standing up, on the Netbook. I read over everything I did the previous day, doing a light edit as I go. I then take my egg into the study and eat it while checking email.

Then back to the small computer for several writing hours. Discipline is important to me, or I’d never get anything done.

What was the best piece of writing advice you ever received?On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

In On Writing, Stephen King says to be a writer, you have to read and you have to write. Read, and read a lot. It’s the only way you are going to learn the craft of writing.

What are you working on right now?

The fourth, as yet untitled, book in the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop series.  I am about to start going over the publisher’s edits for The Spook in the Stacks, the fourth in the Lighthouse Library series I write under the pen name of Eva Gates.

 

DID YOU KNOW

At Writescape’s Turning Leaves 2017 fall retreat November 3rd to 5th, you can meet Vicki Delany at the author’s chat on Friday evening and take a workshop with her on Saturday morning, as well as enjoy her company at meals and social times.  

A Poet’s Gift: Patience

A Poet’s Gift: Patience

Ruth E. Walker

Ingrid Ruthig

At a Spring Thaw retreat, one participant spent much of her time squirreled away in her room, papers spread across her bed, editor’s pen in hand. Poet and artist Ingrid Ruthig was completely focused on her manuscript and surfaced occasionally for meals and evening chats.

After the retreat, Ingrid continued to refine her manuscript. A poetry collection is meant to be far more than the sum of its parts. Not only does each poem have to stand on its own, but there needs to be an cohesive “whole” that pulls together the entire work and leaves readers changed.

As poet Emily Dickinson would have it: If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.

Right on, Emily.

Eventually, Ingrid’s manuscript was accepted by Canadian publisher Fitzhenry & Whiteside. And the collection, This Being, was launched in 2016. And then, just last month, Ingrid was awarded the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. This League of Canadian Poets’ prize recognizes the best first book of poetry published in Canada, and This Being fits that bill completely.

We are thrilled for Ingrid. She’s an artist on many levels and brings an architect’s precision into everything she does: from curating collected works and shepherding insightful essays on Canadian poets, to designing exquisite chapbooks of her poetry and textwork, to preparing solo shows of her outstanding art — all of it, perfected before she releases it to the public.

So what drives a poet — this poet, in particular — to be committed to exactitude? And what happens to that clear direction when creativity pushes its inevitable way in? A recent interview on her publisher’s website intrigued us, so we’re sharing it with you today…

Congratulations, Ingrid. What was your initial reaction on hearing that your first collection of poetry,This Being, was awarded the League of Canadian Poets’ Gerald Lampert Memorial Award?

I punched the air and whoohoo’d! And I knew for a fact, then, that patience can pay off.

You worked many years as an architect and have written a fair deal of criticism. How has this affected your writing of poems?

It is all related, I suppose, but it’s not easy to measure or describe – it’s a way of thinking, of approaching the task at hand, which is to order and resolve something that is, at first glance or in a sense, chaotic. By inclination and training, I’m used to connecting dots – I notice things on a number of levels and begin to sort, align, or discard them, paying as much attention to detail as context. Then I set out in one direction, following clues, trying to keep sight of the big picture or the intended plan, hoping I will arrive at some kind of resolution. Sooner or later the creative process takes over, and I have to give in to it. Without that willingness to relinquish a measure of control, there would be no discovery. And it’s at this stage that writing poems veers away from kinship with raising a building off paper and up out of the ground. In architecture, surprises are usually costly and unhappy ones!

The opening poem in the collection is “Ten Mile Point”, which starts at a stop on a journey – Manitoulin Island – with car doors flung open and “water far as you can see.” But as you turn the reader back to land, with its gift shop and model tepee and our commercialized habits we’re led to something gently epiphanous, that we are somehow standing at a brink. Why did you choose this poem to start the collection?  (Click here to see the poem Ten Mile Point.)

Although the poem was written much earlier than others in the collection, it seems even more timely now. It’s a recognition of the most important moment – always and ever the present moment, because we can’t go back and change what has passed, and the future is impossible to grasp. So, here we are, teetering on the edge of a precipice, surrounded by all this apparently endless beauty which also sustains us, but rather than pay attention, we let ourselves be distracted by the shiny stuff. The land’s continuance, and ours as well, hinges on the choices we make from here on in, individually and collectively. This piece set the right tone for what follows – an invitation to the reader to look around and see where we’re standing at this moment in time. To see how we change, and can change. Hopefully in time.

In terms of change and its possibilities, what can you tell us about the title, This Being?

A title, in my view, is like a key that unlocks the door of the book. This one rose slowly to the surface and insisted on staying put. Those two words brought together weave a mystery, and the meaning remains fluid. While it points at humans as beings, it also points to the act of being, of understanding we’re only able to exist in the present, and there’s no living in the past or future. So much about us, about our habits, doesn’t change. Nevertheless we remain fluid as we move from moment to moment. In fact, we’re always changing. And in those small, sometimes imperceptible alterations lies the possibility that we might yet become something better.

Is that the ultimate goal of poetry, to help us become something better?   

W.H. Auden, who is quoted excessively from his tribute poem to Yeats, wrote, “poetry makes nothing happen.” Of those who read poetry, many, including me, will disagree – it can strike a chord and resonate long after the book is closed; it reveals things we’ve become blind to; it settles or unsettles by mirroring shared human experience; it stirs thought and emotion. It changes the reader. If we look again at Auden’s poem, it goes on to say “it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth.” Maybe that’s as close to an answer as any. A poem offers a different way of being. It’s an open mouth providing a way to speak and the words for what’s next to impossible to say, even if it’s only a trace of what we really mean. Yet, we keep trying.

DID YOU KNOW?

Revered American renaissance poet Emily Dickinson (1830 to 1886) was known for her reclusiveness, remaining much of her later years in her bedroom and refusing most visitors. Maybe the reception her poems received from publishers contributed to her solitary lifestyle.

Fewer than a dozen of her nearly 1,800 poems were published in her lifetime. That’s probably because nobody really knew what to do with her poetry at the time. The ones that got published were edited to fit what constituted “true poetry” at the time (you know: pure end rhymes, regular stanzas, no darn dashes…)

She probably just gave up in frustration. And can you blame her?

What would Emily make of how her poetry is viewed today? Her work is studied in schools and universities throughout the United States and beyond, and you can’t pick up a decent anthology of English language poetry without a Dickinson poem or two in there. The renowned critic, Harold Bloom, cites Dickinson as one of 26 central writers of Western civilization. Her poems and her strange, solitary life have inspired music, plays and feature films.

Is there a lesson here? Emily Dickinson wrote her poetry, her way. The world wasn’t ready. Eventually, the world woke up. Patience, as Ingrid Ruthig notes, can pay off.

The lesson for you: stay true to your creative vision and your voice. Hope that others get it but if they don’t, that doesn’t mean it isn’t exactly what the world needs.

Up Close & Personal: Writer Jenny Madore

Up Close & Personal: Writer Jenny Madore

Jenny Madore pictureJenny Madore didn’t always know she wanted to be a writer. It took packing up husband and kids for a move to the rainforest of Panama for a year and a single copy of “Twilight” to nudge out the writer in her. Shifting from “I could write Bella into a better situation” to “I could write my own stories”, Jenny discovered her passion before moving back to Canada in 2008.

Now the author (J.L. Madore) of a self-published, urban fantasy series where alpha women kick butt and devour the gorgeous male warriors around them, Jenny is working on becoming a hybrid writer and breaking into the traditional publishing market. She is also in her second term as President of The Writers’ Community of Durham Region, a 280+ member umbrella organization that offers networking, promotion and education opportunities to its members.

Writescape caught up with Jenny this week to learn more about her as a writer:

What is the most important thing a self-published writer needs to consider?

That creative minds aren’t always the best prepared to tackle marketing, or websites, or newsletters. Points to self. The effective marketing of a novel once you’ve self-published takes a gazillion hours, dedication, and a thoroughness that some of us just don’t come by naturally. It can be learned, or hired out, but you have to identify your weaknesses and make allowances for them.

For example, I know I have to keep current content on my website to sweet-talk the algorithms of online booksellers and search engines, but when I pull up my website, my last post was for May 30th . . . of 2015. Yikes. If earning a living at writing was my goal, I’d be upset at how badly I drop the ball at times. Thankfully, writing is my goal. Growing as a writer. Improving. I’ll get back to marketing at some point. Maybe soon. Maybe not.

What does being a “hybrid writer” mean to you?

Honestly, I picture ‘Hybrid’ as being the best of both worlds but can’t say for sure . . . yet. What I like about the idea of straddling the indie and traditionally published worlds is the freedom of one, while coveting the guidance of the other. I’d like to work with house editorial staff and have people picking at the minutia of a story that they see hitting the mark of the ever-changing market. I want to grow. Know what they know. See the things they’re looking for in my own work for future reference.blaze-ignites-front-cover-promo-image

But not all stories are going to hit the appeal of publishing houses and that’s where indie rules. When I first wrote Blaze Ignites, I shopped it around first. I received rejections saying “great writing but fantasy is in a downturn,” or “Elves just aren’t sexy.”

Hello? Legolas Greenleaf isn’t sexy?

I beg to differ. That’s why I went ahead and independently published that series. I’ve got so many stories circling in my head, I want them out there entertaining people. Well, I hope they’re entertaining people.

What are you working on now and how different is it from the urban fantasy series you started out with?

female-316703_640I’m currently editing the finished first draft of a Roman time-slip historical romance. The working title is, In The Shadow, and I’m very pleased with how it’s shaping up. I found it very different to write historical, because it is an actual moment in time which has been documented and studied by academics and enthusiasts for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

I put a great deal of pressure and author responsibility upon myself to get the details right. Did a Praetorian wear a white toga or a violet one? What flowers bloomed in ancient Rome in 79CE? When would a patrician woman wear her hair down? What did the streets of Pompeii look like, sound like, and smell like before the eruption of Vesuvius?

The dialogue is crucial to selling the time period (Latin sentences often omit pronouns), as is the setting and, most importantly, how the love story evolves under the stresses and strains of a violent and unhindered society (Sin and shame are concepts which evolved much later in history).

The fantasy series I write allows me freedom to make things up to suit the story. As long as I justify what’s happening in the world, there’s really no wrong answer. It’s freeing and fun. Writing historical fiction offers me a sense of personal satisfaction I hadn’t realized before. When I get it right, it’s really right, and even if the reader doesn’t know it, I do.

How do you balance family life, the volunteer leadership role for a dynamic organization and your needs as a writer?

Balance is the operative word, though it has recently become easier. With my kids grown and newly establishingborg_dockingstation themselves out in the world as successful young adults, I’m finding my hours are my own for the first time in 23 years. As a full-time, at-home mother and wife, I became accustomed to working with crazy schedules and multi-tasking for the benefit of the collective.

We are Borg.

Those skills translate perfectly into running an organization like The Writers’ Community of Durham Region (WCDR). I want the members to strive for their dreams and have what they need for success. That’s why I initiated Bookapalooza, Skip The Slush Pile Pitches, Blue Pencil Bonanza, Novel Whisperer, etc. I’m available to help if I can, organize events, make concessions if obstacles arise, and ask for help if things get complicated. I love the WCDR and its members. In my mind, the organization is simply an extension of family.

As for my writing . . . well, I’d like to say I set aside time every day, but that’s not always possible. The WCDR is an active, vital organization and when events approach, there is no end to the preparations to be made or work to be done. I can safely say, that I work on my writing often. Sometimes mornings. Sometimes nights. Sometimes just a few moments before I have to start dinner or leave for a meeting. Stories are always in the back of my mind, ideas, characters, and conflicts percolating until I can get back in front of my laptop.

Describe your favourite writing space — what does it look like?

Easy, (looks left and right). I’m on my bed, knees up with my laptop in front of me, a mass of pillows behind me, and a dozen reference books and novels scattered across my comforter and end table. Stryder, my Panamanian dingo dog I brought home from living in the rainforest, is lying beside me, snoring through his doggie dreams, the tip of his tongue slightly out. Perfection.

If you could have dinner with anyone (living, dead or fictional) who would that be?amy-sherman-palladino-02

Ooh, tough one. So many names come to mind for so many reasons. I think it would have to be Amy Sherman-Palladino, writer of Gilmore Girls. Not only is she quirky and odd, (which would make dinner a hoot), she wrote one of the greatest, wittiest, fastest paced, most-heart-warming collection of moments ever seen on television. (Newsroom and West Wing also in that category) The writing of Gilmore girls hits all my buttons: intelligent characters, flawed relationships, unconditional acceptance, family love, romantic love, loyalty, off-beat humour . . . the list is endless. Yep. Amy Sherman-Palladino for sure.

Wow, over so soon. Thank you, Writescape, for inviting me to participate, I had a blast. Annnnnd . . . are you arranging my dinner with Amy? I’m really looking forward to that now.

In Conversation with…literary agent Hilary McMahon

In Conversation with…literary agent Hilary McMahon

Hilary McMahonToday, we chat with Hilary McMahon, Executive Vice President of Westwood Creative Artists (WCA), one of Canada’s oldest and most respected literary agencies. Hilary maintains an extensive and diverse list of adult and children’s writers. She also represents WCA authors on trips to American and British publishers and the Frankfurt and London Book Fairs. 

Why did you become a literary agent?

I earned a degree in journalism and English, but soon realized that I wanted to read other people’s stories far more than I wanted to write or teach. I’m an obsessive book reader, an extrovert interested in people and relationships, and a tough negotiator with a head for details and numbers. This job allows me to combine all those different skills.                                                                                                    

books-20167_640 (1)Being an agent is a tough job. So what is it that has kept you in the field for more than 20 years?

Nothing compares to the magic of being engrossed in a great book. I love being part of the process that begins with an idea or rough manuscript, and ends with a finished product that can be shared, enjoyed, discussed around the world. And working with writers can certainly be challenging at times, but it’s never dull…

If we were to spend some time in a typical day with Hilary McMahon, what would it look like?letters-286541_640

That’s one of the many wonderful things about this job, there is no typical day! It’s an illusion that I read all day. Today for example, I have reviewed a section of an author’s revised novel and then shared it with an interested publisher, worked on some blurbs for our Frankfurt catalogue, checked a film contract and sent it off to the author, given a non-fiction author feedback on her proposal, spent time crafting a tactful rejection letter, done the deal memo for a middle-grade series I’ve just sold, addressed a picture book writer’s concerns about the illustrations for her new book, and followed up on some projects out on submission. I had hoped to make a dent into my towering pile of submissions but I don’t know if I’ll get to it…

What do you like to see in a query from a writer? And is it different for a fiction versus a non-fiction query?

You’d think it’s obvious, but I need to see excellent writing! A skillful, original, compelling pitch.

For fiction, you need to hook me with a brief description of the work and draw me in with a short sample. It certainly doesn’t hurt if you include some details about places you’ve been published and any relevant awards or education.

For non-fiction, your expertise in the field is going to be important, to me and to publishers – I need to know that you have some authority about your subject. Most simply, I need to be compelled to move from the query to a writing sample.

hand-861275_640What is the one piece of advice you want writers to know once they land that elusive agent?

That just because you have an agent it doesn’t guarantee your work will sell! There’s still a lot of hard work ahead, but at least you aren’t doing it alone.

What are you reading now and how do you feel about it?

I’m reading a really intriguing submission, clever and sparely written and definitely original in story and in the telling.  But I’m still trying to decide if it’s something that I could sell…

If time, place and money are no object, who is the one person or character you’d like to have dinner with…and why?Jane Austen

I’d love to have dinner with Jane Austen, after she’d spent a bit of time in 2016 – I would love to hear her take on this modern world!

Want to get up close and personal with one of Canada’s top literary agents? Come to our fall retreat, Turning Leaves 2016.

Hilary is our special retreat guest, joining us for meals, evening chats and sharing insights and expertise in a Saturday morning workshop on catching and holding an agent’s attention. She’ll also review Turning Leaves 2016 participants’ query letters in advance and hold private one-on-one feedback sessions.