Thursday, 20 July 2017

Gastro Bugs and Travel Exhaustion

First off, apologies to everyone for missing Monday's post and being late with this one.  For the record, my weekly word count was zero for last week.  I plead exhaustion from taking care of two kids, a husband and a dog while enjoying our time in Alberta.  

Then, when we got back, we got hit with a nasty gastro bug that took out our whole family at once.  (Usually viruses are courteous enough to hit us one at a time so that there's always someone healthy to deal with stuff.)  

It's taken me awhile to get my feet back under me, but I was able to get some writing time yesterday, which makes me feel better.  Soon my kids will be off to their grandparents' cottage and then I can try some real writing binges.  But I probably won't be as productive as last year, since I'm still finding I don't have the endurance that I did before my surgery in March.

I had a wonderful time out in Calgary, particularly with meeting a new family member who also turned out to be a fan of my writing!  We have a lot in common and I could have spent days visiting with her.  Always great to find another sister-in-spirit.

I'm looking forward to Romancing the Capital in a few weeks.  And hopefully, I can get myself back on track.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Heroine Fix: Alice: Out of the LIbrary and Into the Fray

Heroine Fix is a monthly feature looking at the characters who I admire and who influence my own writing.  (Warning: this article contains spoilers.)

For those who haven't found it, The Magicians is an urban fantasy television series where magic is real and practiced in secret by both magical families and the occasional surprised "normal" person.  There is also an alternate dimension world, called Fillory, full of magical creatures and gods.  However, this isn't a cheerful blend of Harry Potter and the Narnia books.  The series is aimed at the adult crowd and tackles some very dark topics.

Alice is one of the main characters in the series.  She comes from a magical family and is the top student in Brakebills, the school for magical studies.  At first, I thought she was essentially a Hermione knock-off and I wasn't paying much attention to her, but I quickly realized there was more to her than being a plot device whenever the characters needed to do something magically difficult.

Alice's appearance is tied in to her backstory, rather than being a shorthand for her personality.  She dresses in a very preppy, covered up way but isn't a strait-laced or prudish person.  Instead, she dresses in that way because her parents are self-absorbed hedonists who have open orgies and multiple partners.  Her clothes are a way of distancing herself from her parents but are somewhat of an ill-fitting mask.  They are armor rather than an expression of herself.  

Alice's magical skills are particularly impressive.  She is easily one of the most skilled magicians in her lifetime.  Unlike many skilled heroines, her abilities aren't used mostly for research and behind the scenes support.  Alice is on the front lines.  One of my favourite moments in the series comes from the end of the first season.  Quentin, who is the ostensible hero of the series, has the opportunity to boost his magic so that he can defeat the Beast.  As he's about to quaff the potion, he pauses and hands it to Alice, telling her that she is the more talented and has a better chance.  He says that he might want to see himself as the hero of this story, but she is the real hero.  I wanted to stand up and applaud.  So often, it doesn't matter how skilled the female characters are, they take second place to the males.  They fight sidekicks, not the Big Bad.  Alice went up against the Big Bad himself and ultimately took him down.

Alice is also a bit of a rebel and very loyal, two qualities that I always like in my characters.  She enters Brakebills with a secret mission.  Her older brother, Charlie, and most of his class, disappeared.  She's determined to find out what happened to him and uses her abilities and magic in direct defiance of the teachers.  When told that it is impossible to help her brother because he's been consumed by the magic and turned into a Niffen, Alice refuses to believe it, putting her impressive mind and skills into finding a way to help him.  She puts herself on the line, ready to sacrifice herself if it means that her brother has a chance.  She does the same thing when fighting the Beast, defying all presumptions of what should happen.

I chose Alice for this month's Heroine Fix because she's a reminder of how characters can defy audience expectations and grow beyond them.  It's easy for an author to get caught up in the short hand of character development: want to show someone is a good person, give them a pet, want to show they're authoritarian, have them wear a suit and be in an office, etc.  Alice appears to fit in the good-girl, smart-girl, follows-the-rules stereotypes, but in the end, those are only disguises, done for a reason which is explored in the story.  It makes her more real than those characters which rely on the stereotypes.

It reminds me that every aspect of a character should have a reason, not just a plot function.  And Alice shows the world that not every brainy girl was meant for the library.

Are you addicted to strong and intriguing heroines?  Sign up here and you'll never miss a Heroine Fix.

Next month, I look at Kitty from Gini Koch's Alien series.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Weekly Update: July 2 to 8

Weekly word count: 2800

I was really hoping to do better this week, and I had these grand plans to bang out some pages while travelling, but once again, the reality of travelling with my family meant I was crazy to believe that.

I love my boys and my husband but I have to remember that they don't travel well.  They are all homebodies at heart and get very unsettled when pulled out of their normal routine and environment.  I'm a more adventurous soul and keep hoping that my love of travel will rub off on them and transform them from reluctant travelers into eager explorers.  

Hasn't happened yet.  Don't get me wrong, they do seem to enjoy some parts of the experience but it takes a lot of work on my part to achieve that.

Still, I keep hoping.

As I type, we're in Alberta, enjoying the sunshine and mountain air of Calgary and Banff.  I'm a firm believer that every Canadian should experience the Calgary Stampede at least once in their lifetime.  I have fond memories of it from when I was a child and we have family in the area, so it's been on my wishlist for quite awhile.

Hopefully I'll still get some good writing time in.  Or maybe I'm still just crazy.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

My Thoughts on the Ottawa Police and Our Pride Parade

Normally, I don't get into politics on this blog but this is something that has been bothering me and so I wanted to share my thoughts.

Ottawa has been preparing for this year's Gay Pride Parade in August.  The organizers had asked any off-duty police who wish to march in the parade to please do so out of uniform, as many younger members of the LGBTQ+ community have negative associations with the uniform.  Particularly members of colour and other minority groups.

This raised a flurry of opinions.  There were many police officers who felt conflicted about being asked to deny a part of themselves, as they are proud to be both supporters and/or members of the LGBTQ+ community and police officers.  A few days after this request, the Chief of Police made a public statement that he intended to wear his uniform and would leave it up to the discretion of individual officers as to whether or not they intended to follow suit.

That raised a blizzard of opinions.  Some people felt the original request was divisive and disrespectful of the police and the work they do.  Some people felt the Chief's response was disrespectful and exemplified why members of the LGBTQ+ community didn't feel safe around police.  There were accusations of being insensitive, of privilege, of fear-mongering, of catering to stereotypes.  It's been a very polarizing issue.

I find myself torn.  On the one hand, I can understand being proud of one's job and particularly with the police, seeing this as an opportunity to show support and change the stereotype of the unfriendly and insensitive cop.  But, in the end, I feel that the community's request should be honoured.  If they say they're not ready for that step, then that should be respected.  I can understand how the request would hurt and make some officers feel as if they have to choose between their identity as a cop and their identity as a member of the LGBTQ+ community and allies.  

But does it have to be an all or nothing proposal?  The police uniform is a symbol and while it is intended as a symbol of protection, in reality it can also be a symbol of oppression.  And, to be clear, this is separate from the actual person inside the uniform, who can have all the good intentions and empathy in the world.  So how can the gap be bridged?  How can police officers send the message that they are part of the solution without having to deny themselves?

This may be simplistic, but what about an official Ottawa Police Department t-shirt for the event?  Officers could wear the usual Ottawa Police Department shirt or if the department really wanted to show support, they could make a special shirt: Police and Proud.  It would allow them to identify themselves and build bridges without having to bring in the symbol of the uniform.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Weekly Update: June 25 to July 1

Weekly word count: 3900

I always seem to get more productive the closer we get to a deadline.  September, October, I have a hard time getting myself in gear.  Last two weeks of June, banging it out.  :)

This weekend was Canada's 150th anniversary and it was an incredible celebration here.  Huge open air concerts all over the city, covering just about every musical genre.  Spectacular fireworks displays blooming in the darkness.  And red and white everywhere that we looked.

I'm proud to be a Canadian.  I like our country's blend of protection (health care, gun laws, social security) and encouragement (social mobility, individualism, the luxury of following our dreams rather than worrying about putting food on the table).  I'm proud of our ability to accept and include new cultures and traditions.  Even if we don't always get it right, the majority of Canadians are supportive of helping others make their own choices.

I've heard Canada described as the ultimate efficient society.  We are big believers in getting things done and nothing raises our ire like accusations of waste.  And that includes wasted potential where someone isn't given an opportunity because of race, gender, religion or any other criteria that wouldn't impact their ability to do the job.  We don't have a lot of patience with people who waste our time by jabbering on about things they don't actually know about.  We don't want to waste our precious time and resources policing things which are chosen freely between consenting individuals.

We're not perfect.  No question of it.  We have those who try to stir the pot of hate and prejudice.  We have people who react out of fear.  We've done some horrible things in our past and need to do some serious work to make it right.  

But I believe that we want to make it right.  We want everyone to have the chance to enjoy life, follow their dreams and be themselves.  

So for that, I stand proud.  I am Canadian.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Ink Tip: Style and Voice

One of the more confusing things for a new writer is trying to understand how to find the line between accepting corrections and staying true to your own voice.  I certainly found it frustrating as I sorted through critiques and suggestions on my first manuscript.

So let's start with the basics.  A writer's voice is hard to define but easy to recognize.  It's a combination of word choice, sentence structure, storytelling technique and description that comes together to create a unique way of telling a story.

Here's a demonstration.  These are the first paragraphs of some of my favourite books:

"Shadow had done three years in prison.  He was big enough and looked don't-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time.  So he kept himself in shape and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife."

"I parked the bike in front of the restaurant, wiping perspiration from my upper lip.  It was unseasonably warm this January, but sweating during a Florida winter was better than freezing in a Northern one.  I twisted my hair into a knot, my neck cooler once the long back swath was off it.  With a final swipe at my forehead, I entered the restaurant, ignoring the tables in favor of the patrons seated at the bar."

"Shoot the moon was considered to be one of the more dangerous yoyo tricks.  Not particularly complicated -- nothing like the crossovers of a Texas Star -- but a moment's inattention and the odds were good that 35.7 grams of hardwood would be impacting painfully off the front curve of the human skull.  There were rumors that, back in '37, Canadian and World Champion, Joe Young, had once bounced a Shoot the Moon and continued to ace the competition with no one the wiser until the next day when the bruise began to develop.  She didn't know about that, and she didn't put much trust in rumors, but she did know that when Joe Young died in the war, the sport lost a master."

All three of these are obviously very different stories.  The first has short sentences and short words, creating a sense of action and movement.  In a few short sentences, we get a clear idea of who the hero is.  The second is very focused on the senses, creating an immediate and intimate connection between the reader and the character.  And the third brings in humour by talking about the danger of yoyos, but is also very specific and precise.  Again the words are shorter but the sentences are longer, creating a flow of language.

For the curious, the first example is from Neil Gaiman's American Gods, the second is from Jeaniene Frost's Once Burned and the third is from Tanya Huff's The Enchantment Emporium.

Neil Gaiman has a dark whimsical twist to his writing and that comes through in the first paragraph.  We start with the hero being in prison and then make it clear that no one messes with him (dropping an f-bomb along the way) and finish with learning coin tricks and loving his wife.

Jeaniene Frost's writing tends to be very sensual and intimate.  She uses the first person and puts in a lot of sensory detail but does so in a way that it doesn't become overwhelming.  We follow the heroine through just a few seconds of her life but already feel as if we're part of it.

Tanya Huff mixes humour and eccentricity but also brings in backstory in a way that sets the stage and tells us about the characters.  The few lines about the adventures of Yoyo Master Joe Young establish the tone as quirky but also reveals the character's admiration of perfection and skill.  

Finding your own voice as a writer is an ongoing process.  Some core elements will always remain the same and become more refined over time, but others may change over a writer's career.

My rule of thumb is: if I took this out of the story, would it also take out the fun?  If I feel removing a detail is going to suck the life out of my story, then I know I'm touching on something inherent to my voice.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Weekly Update: June 18 to 24

Weekly word count: 2400

I had a couple of days where the words just weren't flowing, so I went back to my basic principles: conflict, character and pacing.  (I wish I had another C word to make the whole thing pop, but this is how it actually works.)

Step 1: Review my conflicts: By "conflicts" I mean the challenges to the hero and heroine in the plot.  If a conflict is fuzzy in my mind, then it doesn't translate well onto the page.  Or sometimes I've been focusing too much on one conflict and I've let other conflicts drop out.

Step 2: Review my characters: I have multiple points of view in my novels, usually the hero, heroine, villain and sometimes, a prominent secondary character.  If the words are drying up, sometimes it's because I need to switch to a new point of view and build up tension in their plotline.

Step 3: Check the pacing: As someone who always wonders what happened in the scene break, I have a bad habit of extending scenes and sequences.  So I check myself and ask if the scene I'm writing has fulfilled its purpose, making it possible to skip to the next stage.

Those three steps are usually enough to get me jump started again.  But I always have to resist the temptation to spend my writing time wallowing in self-doubt and procrastination.  Once I settle in and do the work, I can usually move forward but there's always a part of me which thinks this time will be different.

Other than writing, it was a nice week.  I enjoyed the quiet of not having the kids at home... something that will change at the end of this week.  I got to visit with some ORWA ladies at the Author's Lounge, including SM McEachern, who dropped in from Vancouver.  It's going to be interesting to see how this week plays out, being the last week of school and then into the summer, which is usually a time of lower production for me.  But I will prevail!