Sandra Gulland

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Notes on (surviving) the writing life

Welcome to my blog on writing and the writing life. I also blog on research subjects at Baroque Explorations.

For either one, if you subscribe (see lower left), you will be notified whenever there is a new post. I promise that you won’t be swamped with emails. And, of course, you will be able to unsubscribe at any time.

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Please feel free to leave a comment or ask a question: I love to read them.

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“Zeroes on the loose”: a Sunday morning listening to a beautiful poem beautifully read

This is a beautiful poem by Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska to begin a Sunday morning, read by Amanda Palmer:

POSSIBILITIES

I prefer movies.

I prefer cats.

I prefer the oaks along the Warta.

I prefer Dickens to Dostoyevsky.

I prefer myself liking people

to myself loving mankind.

I prefer keeping a needle and thread on hand, just in case.

I prefer the color green.

I prefer not to maintain

that reason is to blame for everything.

I prefer exceptions.

I prefer to leave early.

I prefer talking to doctors about something else.

I prefer the old fine-lined illustrations.

I prefer the absurdity of writing poems

to the absurdity of not writing poems.

I prefer, where love’s concerned, nonspecific anniversaries

that can be celebrated every day.

I prefer moralists

who promise me nothing.

I prefer cunning kindness to the over-trustful kind.

I prefer the earth in civvies.

I prefer conquered to conquering countries.

I prefer having some reservations.

I prefer the hell of chaos to the hell of order.

I prefer Grimms’ fairy tales to the newspapers’ front pages.

I prefer leaves without flowers to flowers without leaves.

I prefer dogs with uncropped tails.

I prefer light eyes, since mine are dark.

I prefer desk drawers.

I prefer many things that I haven’t mentioned here

to many things I’ve also left unsaid.

I prefer zeroes on the loose

to those lined up behind a cipher.

I prefer the time of insects to the time of stars.

I prefer to knock on wood.

I prefer not to ask how much longer and when.

I prefer keeping in mind even the possibility

that existence has its own reason for being.


Bravos to both Maria Popova of Brain Pickings, and singer and creative force Amanda Palmer for making this possible, not to mention the poet herself, Wislawa Szymborska.

“I prefer zeroes on the loose.”

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“Possibilities” is in Poems New and Collected by Wislawa Szymborska.

I just bought a copy, and I bet you will too. ;-)

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March 22, 2015 @ 10:34 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment





Hola, hello, bonjour: my newsletter, a winner, and a shout-out to Leah Marie Brown, a long-time fan

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I sent a newsletter out this morning—read it here, if you haven’t yet—and I just had the pleasure of sending an email to the lucky winner of an autographed hardcover copy of The Shadow Queen. (If you get an email with the subject line You won a book (no, this is not spam!), don’t throw it out.)


Catching up on GoodReads, and saw a note from Leah Marie Brown announcing the trailer for her book Faking It (the first in an It-Girl series), which will be out May 12. I know that readers of this blog don’t expect to see a trailer for contemporary romantic comedy here, but 1) this trailer is funny, clever and smart (as I’m sure the novel is), and 2) Leah and I go back a long way.

A journalist with an addiction to travel (specifically France) and history (specifically French), Leah has been one of my most enthusiastic readers. She interviewed me on her blog On Life, Love & Accidental Adventures, writing:

 Ten years ago, I read the first book in Sandra Gulland’s trilogy about Josephine Bonaparte and knew I wanted to write historical fiction.  Her sumptuous novel about one of the more fascinating women in history was so richly woven with setting details and evocative prose, it lit a fire inside my writer’s belly.

She interviewed me and other authors for an article in Writer’s Digest on travel research: “Have Plot, Will Travel.” Her book club read—and enjoyed—Mistress of the Sun. She bid on and won an autographed set of the Trilogy. She has followed this blog and is a friend on Facebook and GoodReads.

Over these many years, she has been writing, and publishing. I predict that her It-Girl series is going to be a hit.

Bravo, Leah!

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March 10, 2015 @ 7:55 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment





On process and research—an interview with Beth Powning, author of A Measure of Light

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I had the honour to be asked to read a pre-publication copy of A Measure of Light by Canadian author Beth Powning. She’s already an award-winning author, and—frankly—I won’t be surprised if this novel doesn’t garner more. It certainly held me captive and in awe.

Here’s the testimonial I offered:

A Measure of Light by Beth Powning is a spellbinding work of biographical historical fiction, gorgeously written in spare, crystalline prose I found reminiscent of the finest writers of literary historical fiction today. (Geraldine Brooks, Tracy Chevalier and Hilary Mantel come to mind.) A brilliant evocation of 17th century England and America, it’s the story of one woman’s search for faith and the horrific sacrifices she makes once she finds it. Grim yet luminous—as well as illuminating. In a word: enchanting.

Believe me, I am rarely so effusive.

Beth Powning portrait

As I was reading the novel, I had questions about the author’s research and writing process, so I was extremely pleased when Beth accepted my invitation to answer a few questions here.


What were the unique challenges in writing about Mary Dyer?

When I first “met” Mary Dyer, I found her actions disturbing, even repellent. How could a mother leave six children for a five year period? Why would she return to them and then dedicate herself to a cause, thus once again removing herself from them? And how on earth could Mary walk into the jaws of death?

Often, what outrages me is like a shiny lure. I could not turn away from Mary’s story, and I realized that I had to find common cause with her: to put myself in her place, try to understand. I learned that it was common for 17th century parents to “farm out” their children with other families. I learned that the Puritans taught parents not to love their children “too much,” else they offend the Lord. And it occurred to me that it was very possible that Mary suffered post-partum depression. I began to understand the depth of Mary’s inner darkness and the consequent power of George Fox’s “measure of light.”

Telling her story became a kind of psychological mystery, a who-dun-it, where I knew the ending, but had to trace the steps leading up to it.

Reading A MEASURE OF LIGHT, I was in awe of the wonderful details of daily life.

Anne lifted bread on a peel from a beehive oven at the side of a hearth. The tiny girl turned a crisp-skinned goose, hanging on a string before the fire. Bloody gut-smell stung Mary’s nose—white hen feathers stippled the floor. (Page 39.)

I’d love to know specifics about your research process, specifically with respect to daily life. What did you find most useful? How did you keep track of it all?

Writing the first draft of a historical novel is a slow process. When I write, I visualize a scene in its entirety. I imagine myself, in a visceral way, to be there; I see, smell, hear. I find it hard to proceed with the writing until I have all these elements in place. Therefore, I must maintain a complex mental balance. I am thinking about the undercurrent of the scene, its meaning and contribution to the novel’s whole; I am working on character, who is there and what they are saying and feeling; I’m conscious of the pacing of both the scene itself and its placement within the text—yet I also need to know whether there’s a fire on the hearth; if the room is lit, and by what; whether there are shadows; what is cooking in what kind of a pot over the flames; if I can hear the rumble of wheels or the neighing of horses.

I had two invaluable books for the details of daily life in the colonies. “Home Life in Colonial Days,” by Alice Morse Earle, was written in 1898. Amazingly, Alice Earle could tap into the living memory of the elders of her time, who still recalled how things used to be. Another book was “Every Day Life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony,” by George Francis Dow. For England, I used a marvelous book first published in 1615, “The English Housewife,” by Gervase Markham, filled with recipes and home-making instructions.

I had a few other excellent books about 17th century England. If they could not provide what I needed about details of daily life, I would search the internet.

I have an old-fashioned filing cabinet. In its pull-out drawers, I made major sections like England, New England, London, Puritans, 17th Century General. Within each of the sections, I placed paper files labelled gloves, writing implements, tools, money, jails. I also kept a virtual file on my computer’s bookmarks page, with links to websites. I used both systems, paper and computer, all the time.

I have a large cabinet in my study. In it is a shelf earmarked for books about Puritans, another for the Quakers, one for English history, etc. These shelves gradually filled with books that I either bought on-line or in 2nd hand bookstores. Library books, too, were parked there.

Spiral-bound notebooks fill with “notes on plot,” “notes on character.” As I write, every draft gets its own notebook— “Notes Chp. 1, draft 2;” “Notes Chp. 2, draft 3.” There are notebooks for editorial conversations.

It might sound chaotic, but in fact I keep my office highly organized. I have to be able to find all this stuff, without wasting time rummaging around for it!

Do you plot? How many drafts? When do you research?

In my last two novels (The Hatbox Letters, The Sea Captain’s Wife) I dove in without knowing where the novel would go. A Measure of Light is a true story, but since only the ending and some of the middle of Mary’s life are known, I had to work backwards. I made up Mary’s early story. Even so, I didn’t know exactly how it was all going to unfold. That happens as I write. I didn’t know about Sinny, for example, until I began to write. Then I had to pause and make up Sinny’s back-story. I love not knowing what is going to happen.

I show the first draft of every novel to my extraordinary agent, Jackie Kaiser. Jackie always provides superb feedback at this point, and my second draft is quite different from the first. There is invariably a third draft, which is perhaps the most difficult, because I think that I “got” it in the second. (But no!) Jackie doesn’t show my novel to my publishers until the 3rd draft is complete. The 4th draft is the one I make based on the comments from my editor. (Craig Pyette for A Measure of Light.) I had already done a lot of work before Craig saw this manuscript, but even so he had a great deal of brilliant advice. So substantive changes were made. Together with Craig, I worked through the novel about six more times. The changes, of course, get smaller and smaller. I suppose you can call those drafts, because a slightly changed novel emerges each time; but really, after the 5th draft, the novel is basically “there.”

I start with the research. I read and read and read. I underline in books that I own, take notes from library books; it’s just as if I were back in university, taking a history course. As I study, ideas come to me about how I will transform these facts into fiction. I keep track of my thoughts in a notebook. There is always a moment when the longing to transform the information into a rich, living story becomes acute, and I simply begin to write. Too MUCH research can kill the novel. I become intimidated by the sheer volume of information that exists about the period, and strangely depressed by the historian’s objective voice.

A MEASURE OF LIGHT traverses many places, and over a considerable stretch of time: London (1634-1635), Boston (from 1635 to 1638), Aquidneck (from 1638 to 1651), England (from 1651 to 1655), New England (from 1657 to 1660). 

Even so, it is a fairly spare novel, under 300 pages. How did you grapple with all the shifts in time and place?

Although I don’t plot, I did in fact block out the time periods before beginning. I begin at the beginning, and remain in each time and place until that section’s story is told, writing as much or as little of it as I think is needed. The first section, “London,” was, of course, enormous (SO much information, such a rich period!) and was heavily cut. The next, “Boston,”was the most difficult, since so many crucial things happened in that period, most of them necessary to understanding the rest of Mary’s story. The other periods grew or shrank during the editing process. A section which took place in Barbados was completely cut.

During the early drafts, when I realize that some parts of the story will take place over a long period of time without a lot happening, I simply write a few paragaphs indicating the passage of time and go on. Then I return later and fill it in. As a novel progresses, what comes later effects what came before, and vice versa. It’s like kneading dough. You fold and turn and fold again, working all the elements into one loaf, so to speak!

I always make a time chart, too. It’s a long roll of paper. Along the top are the characters, with their dates of birth. Along the left are the years. So in 1637, say, you can see at a glance what everyone in the novel is doing, how old they are, where they’re situated. I include a column down the left-hand side for historical events, so you can also remember what’s going on in the world. This is done with pencil and paper, not on the computer.

Your prose is wonderfully rich in similes.

Her heart had been smoothed like sand with the waters of other women’s assurances … (page 21)

They did not speak to one another, as if the leaf-scented air was itself a flux binding peace and could be broken by the merest whisper. (Page 76.)

She put fresh wood on the fire and sat reading her Bible in its light, looking up from the pages occasionally, as if listening for a voice she might trust. (Page 116.)

Clearly, you have a poet’s heart. I hesitate to ask about technique, yet I am curious.

I make them up myself. It’s how my brain works, so in fact I am constantly “shutting down” similes. The book could easily have far, far too many. They rise like bubbles slanting through…oops, there I go. In fact, I do work very hard to get them right. I sit with my face in my hands and search my memory bank. One of the things I say to myself is: how is it really. And then: think sideways. What does the bark of an ancient spruce tree REALLY look like? How does it feel to the tips of the fingers? Is there something I can compare it to that will bring this alive for the reader? This, again, is why writing is a balancing act. I’m dwelling on this problem, aware that it is only a beat or two in a large symphony.

“Think sideways”—I like that. Thank you so much, Beth! 


I was delighted that Beth mentioned the work of Gervase Markham. When I was researching Mistress of the Sun, I became so absorbed in The Compleat Horseman—his work on horsemanship—that I began “translating” it into modern English.

Here is the publisher’s description of Beth’s wonderful novel:

Set in 1600s New England, A Measure of Light tells the story of Mary Dyer, a Puritan who flees persecution in Elizabethan England only to find the Puritan establishment in Massachusetts every bit as vicious as the one she has left behind. One of America’s first Quakers, and among the last to face the gallows for her convictions, Mary Dyer receives here in fiction the full-blooded treatment too long denied a figure of her stature: a woman caught between faith, family and the driving sense that she alone will put right a deep and cruel wrong in the world. This is gripping historical fiction about a courageous woman who chafed at the power of theocracies and the boundaries of her era, struggling against a backdrop of imminent apocalypse for women’s rights, liberty of conscience, intellectual freedom and justice.

I highly recommend it!

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March 9, 2015 @ 1:00 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment





Eyes like a comb-box: in search of 18th century similes

When I get stuck for a simile or metaphor, I sometimes rummage around on Books Google.

Eyes like … ?

What would someone in the 17th or 18th century have said?

Eyes like fish pools.

Not exactly what I was looking for!

Eyes like a comb-box.

I admit: this one intrigued me. What is a comb-box? A quick Google search for “18th century comb-box” revealed a wealth of them.

comb boxes

But nothing whatsoever like “eyes,” however.

Intrigued, I followed the link and discovered The Works of Francis Rabelais, published in 1738. Chapter XXX is a long list of nonsensical (at least to me) similes:

The nape of the neck like a paper lantern.

Spittle like a shuttle. 

The bridge of his nose like a wheel-barrow. 

The windpipe like an oyster-knife. 

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This one is perfect, however:

Hair like a scrubbing-brush.

Of course all this led to an exploration of what Rabelais was getting at (an anti-Catholic spoof of sorts), which only goes to prove how diverting procrastination can be.

Now, as for those eyes


For those of you who would like specific steps in using Books Google for this type of search:

Go to https://books.google.com

Type in a word or phrase. Click “Search books.”

On the page that comes up, click “Search tools.”

Then click “Any time” and a menu will drop down.

Click “Custom range.” Enter your range and click “GO.”

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February 21, 2015 @ 1:43 pm2 comments already! | Leave a Comment





A love letter to old Finn

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{Finnegan in 2004}

My dear and very old horse Finnegan was mercifully put out of his pain in the wee hours of this morning, Valentine’s day.

Dawn Townshend, who has lovingly looked after him for decades at her stable in Petawawa, sent me a message around 6:00 last night to let me know that Finn was in trouble.

I wept. Finn had had a very rough spell the winter before and had nearly died. Under Dawn’s care, he revived, and looked amazingly hale and hearty last summer.

Me & Finn, rain, summer 2014

In October, as my husband and I prepared to head south, I said my good-byes, knowing that old Finn might not survive a harsh winter. After all, it was a miracle he’d lived as long as he had. He’d been “30-something” for quite some time.

Finn had loving care and that was always a comfort: Dawn put apple juice in his water to entice him to drink, special supplements in his feed to keep him healthy, blanketed him to keep him warm. He had the roomiest stall in the stable, right at the front, from where he could keep track of all the comings and goings.

I believe Finn was eight when I bought him, perhaps ten, so I’ve had the honour of his company for over two decades. He was a Thoroughbred, a gentleman, docile and somewhat pokey—a perfect match for me. He was a wonderful horse to ride: his gaits were smooth and he rarely startled. When I wasn’t riding him, he served as a trustworthy school horse. When both Finn and I were much younger, we won modest ribbons for hunter jumping, but my sweetest memories are setting out on trail with him, alone for hours in the beautiful woods.

Close to midnight, Dawn messaged me that Finn was not responding to the pain medications and that the vet was on her way. “Love the old guy too much to let him suffer.”

And so it began, the leave-taking, the tears. Just after 1:00, Dawn wrote that Finn had died peacefully, “surrounded by people who loved him.”

“The last thing he knew were kind words and a soft hand stroking his face.”

“Finn left like the kind old soul he always was.”

I’ve heard it said that it takes eight horses to find the horse that is meant for you. That horse was my Finnegan, and I will have no other. He was dearly, dearly loved by many.

R.I.P. dear old Finn.

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February 14, 2015 @ 1:07 pm5 comments already! | Leave a Comment





Writing with writerly diversions

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It’s a busy week in San Miguel de Allende: the Writers’ Conference is on and there are many writers in town.

Yesterday I heard Tracy Chevalier‘s keynote address on the importance of history (wonderful), and tonight my husband and I are going to hear Scott Turow. Tomorrow, Gloria Steinem, and Saturday, Jane Urquhart.

I likely would not have written the Josephine B. Trilogy had it not been for the advice of Jane Urquhart, who was writer-in-residence at the Univ. of Ottawa when I was trying to figure out what to do with my very messy draft of a contemporary-mystery-comedy. I’m especially excited to see her.


As busy as all this sounds, I’m taking it relatively easy this year, because I’m working on draft 5 of The Game of Hope.

Something I wish I had the patience to do:

“I have done the second draft of all of my novels in longhand so that I slow down and think about what I’m doing more. That has been extremely helpful.” — Russell Rowland in a 5 on interview. He also has some very interesting things to say about self-publishing.

Interestingly, Tracy Chevalier writes in longhand, and then types the day’s work into the computer at the end of the day.


An excellent overview: The 8 Habits of Highly Successful Young-Adult Fiction Authors


Toews

What I’m reading now: All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews. Wonderful!


The photo of San Miguel de Allende at the top is by photographer and friend Leah Feldon.

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February 12, 2015 @ 1:04 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment





Perspectives on infinity

Earth

Remember the first photos of Earth from space? It created a sea-change in our perspective.

As a child, my father found it amusing how disturbed I was by the idea of infinity. I am challenged anew, and in a rather marvellous way, seeing this amazing NASA video.

The word “perspective” has many meanings. It is an old word, dating from 1300s.

1387: Aristotle..made..problemys of perspective [L. perspectiva problemata] and of methaphesik.

a1661    W. Brereton Trav. (1844) 60   Wm. Daviseon offered to furnish me with a couple of these perspectives, which shew the new-found motion of the stars about Jupiter.

1692   tr. C. de Saint-Évremond Misc. Ess. 280   By the means of great Perspectives, which Invention becomes more perfect every Day, they discover new Planets.

1605    Bacon Of Aduancem. Learning  ii. sig. Hh3,   We haue endeauoured in these our Partitions to observe a kind of perspectiue, that one part may cast light vpon another.

It’s this last, the sense of “putting things in perspective,” that this NASA video vividly evokes for me. What do our own small lives matter, after all?

I am consoled by William Blake’s lines from Auguries of Innocence:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.

I begin each day working to create a world on the page. Every age has its moment of wonder, of awe, of expanded perspective. I’m wondering what that moment was for Hortense at the end of the 18th century.


Worth reading …

The Incident of the Fly Swatter, a blog post on Wonders & Marvels, on some historical perspective on the relationship between France and the Muslim world.

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January 30, 2015 @ 6:22 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment





Unpacking, packing, unpacking … how not to deal with “stuff”

We’re back in San Miguel de Allende, back from the beach. It’s always wonderful to come home, but I miss the heat and the sound of the surf. I miss the enchantment of sunsets.

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I’m sitting now in my office with my favourite coffee mug on the table beside me and my computer on my lap. I soon must get back to working on Draft 5 of The Game of Hope.

But first: it’s time to go through our photos, is it not? Here’s a panorama stitched together with DoubleTake software:

Panoramic with DoubleTake (smaller)

As I slowly get my office back in order—unpacking, finding the cords, the stacks of Things To Do—I tell myself that now is the time to be selective: throw things out. And so I try: one, maybe two truly-useless things get pitched, but only after great deliberation. Hopeless!

Have you watched this Seinfeld video on “Too Much Stuff“? He’s “congratulating” everyone in the audience for having won a flat-screen TV:



Talk about stuff! Will Self’s writing room: hard to imagine.

Will Self's writing room

Coincidently, I use his book Psycho Geography as a mouse pad.

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January 26, 2015 @ 3:52 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment





On reading, writing & taking an on-line course: getting things done to the sound of the surf

Casita

My husband and I have been staying in one of our favourite spots, a Solecito casita on beautiful Playa Blanca on the Mexican Pacific coast. (Our casita: the one shown above.)

It’s a totally relaxing time for us, and—surprisingly—one of the pleasures, for me, is that I get quite a bit done:

• I edited the 4th draft of The Game of Hope and began draft 5.

Sat Night

• I read a lot, likely because I’m reading on my little Kindle, and not on the Kindle app on my Net-connected iPad.

• I finished THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS by Michel Faber (my first Sci-Fi), and am close to finishing THE GIRL WHO WAS SATURDAY NIGHT by Heather O’Neill. (Delightful! I have previously read and very much enjoyed LULLABIES FOR LITTLE CRIMINALS.) I’m still reading and highly recommend Publishing 101 by Jane Friedman as well as various research books.

• I read a pdf of wonderful novel that I gave a rave quote for … I’ll have more to say on this book when it is published in March.

Light

• I listened to a wonderful audible recording of ALL THE LIGHT YOU CANNOT SEE, a novel by Anthony Doerr that was on virtually every “best of 2014″ book list.

Coursera.org: How to Learn

I caught up on the video lectures of a Coursera course I’m taking on how to learn. (You can watch them here.)

Why am I following this course? Because I am determined to become more conversant in both French and Spanish. (In fact, as I go for my daily walk on the beach, I listen to French tapes.)

My research method

This course has got me reconsidering my writing research method. I used to write notes out by hand. Now I prefer highlighting passages on Kindle and sending these to Evernote—knowing that I can always find the information should I need it.

Effortless! Right?

Not exactly. Evernote is great, but the trouble is: when I look for something on Evernote, I find the mass of notes overwhelming. It’s not that functional system for me, in truth, and I’ve long had a hunch that writing down notes by hand was more effective. This Coursera course has confirmed the importance of approaching information through different media.

Another problem I have is resistance to organizing my research. I’m content to cruse the Net, buy new books, read and highlight them, but I’m somewhat scattered and slapdash about it, in truth.

220px-Il_pomodoro

This course has reminded me of the value of the Pomodoro approach: setting a timer for 25 minutes of focussed distraction-free (i.e. Net-free) period of time.

It has also reminded me of the key importance of review: and this is where note-taking comes in.

The course also emphasises how important relaxation is to learning. And so … to the hammock.

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January 23, 2015 @ 5:20 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment





Pleasantly Lost in Austen

“Selkie,” a reader of this blog, left a comment on my “best of 2014” blog post about my love of the 2005 film Pride and Prejudice (staring Kiera Knightly). She said she watches an Austen movie once a week. (I can understand!) Very kindly, she gave me a list to share here. As comprehensive as it is, she notes that is only of the films she owns.

emma 1972

Emma (1972), starring Doran Godwin and John Carson.

Emma (1996), starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam.

Emma (1996), starring Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong.

Mansfield Park (1983), starring Sylvestra Le Touzel and Nicholas Farrell.

Northanger Abby (1986), starring Katherine Svhlesinger and Peter Firth.

Persuasion (1971), starring Firbank and Bryan Marshall.

Pride and Prejudice (1940), starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier.

Pride and Prejudice (1980), starring Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul.

Pride and Prejudice (2003—an extremely modern version), starring Kim Heskin and Orlando Seale.

Pride and Prejudice (2005), starring Kiera Knightly and Matthew Macfadyen.

Sense and Sensibility (1981), starring Irene Richard and Tracey Childs.

Sense and Sensibility (2004), starring Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, and Hugh Grant.

Related movies: 

Becoming Jane

Becoming Jane (2007), starring Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy.

Lost in Austen (2008), starring Jemima Rooper and Elliot Cowan.

About this last one,  Selkie notes, “I absolutely love this movie!” That’s high praise indeed; I’m going to try to find it!

Thank you so much, Selkie!


I discovered that I had a 6-book credit on Audible.com that had to be used before the end of this month. Needless-to-say, I went on a book-buying spree. Here’s what I bought:

landline

Landline by Rainbow Rowell, because I enjoy YA and I especially enjoy Rowell’s work.

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead. On many “best of 2014″ lists.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. Ditto.

Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill. This unusual novel was on the very interesting New York Times 10 Best Books of 2014 list and I really liked what the NY Times team had to say about it on their Podcast. (It’s a poetic novel, and I’m not sure how well it will work on audible, however.)

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. This one is on virtually every “best of” list.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron. Because laughing is wonderful, but most of all, because it is narrated by the amazing Meryl Streep.

I listen to “books on tape” (not that they are on tape anymore) when I’m exercising, so this collection should get me in excellent form.

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January 16, 2015 @ 12:24 pm2 comments already! | Leave a Comment





A crazy publication day

News

Yesterday was a crazy day: I sent out a newsletter, the U.S. paperback edition of The Shadow Queen came out, andquite by coincidence — my INK e-book edition of The Shadow Queen launched in the UK and beyond.

TSQfinalcover2Shadow Queen Anchor (US) ppbk cover

Any one of these requires quite a bit of on-line attention, but to have all three in one morning?

Too much!

By 11:00, I decided I needed a walk, so I went out to buy watercolour supplies for the class I’m taking this afternoon. Very therapeutic!

And soon … to the beach, where I will be reading the 4th draft of The Game of Hope with an editorial eye. I put the novel aside December 1. It will be interesting to read it afresh.


I’m reading:

Publishing 101 by Jane Friedman. Excellent. Highly recommended.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber. I’m only a few chapters in and I love it already. Will it last? I very rarely read speculative fiction. I suspect this one will hold me.

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January 7, 2015 @ 9:30 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment





The essential first step on the path to publication

New Yorkers

Memory snap-shot: my father at the kitchen table, leafing through an issue of the New Yorker. He turns the last page and pushes the magazine away. “I didn’t get a single one.”

Anatomy of a New Yorker cartoon,” a Ted talk by Bob Mankoff, the magazine’s cartoon editor, is (of course!) quite funny. It is also insightful into how humour works, the creative process, and what it takes to succeed in getting something published.

The New Yorker receives around 1,000 cartoons each week, and only publishes about 17 of them. Mankoff himself had the first 1000 cartoons he submitted rejected. One thousand!

Step one for all creatives: collect 1000 rejections. 

After years of making the New Year resolution to “get something published” — and failing every year — I decided that my resolution was the problem. The following New Year, I instead made the resolution to begin a collection of rejection letters, a collection that I intended to ultimately include a rejection from every literary magazine in North America.

I didn’t get very far, for — ironically — that was the year my Josephine B. Trilogy was accepted for publication. My many rejections had finally paid off.

An essential truth of the writing life is that the path to publication is paved with rejections. Perseverance is the key.

On that sobering note, enjoy a little New Yorker humour:

Happy New Year! May your 2015 be creative and fruitful.


corsets

In Mexico, Italy and elsewhere, one wears red underwear on New Year’s Eve, promising passion in the year ahead. Yellow signifies prosperity, so some wear both yellow and red.

What colour should a writer wear?

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December 31, 2014 @ 6:30 pm2 comments already! | Leave a Comment





My year in Dot Com

Site summary

The annual report on my website from WordPress is kind of fun:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 36,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 13 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

“selkie” was my most active blog commentator: thank you so much, selkie! (The posts inspired by your astonishing lists of period films will be coming in the New Year.)

I do love WordPress.

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December 30, 2014 @ 9:18 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment





Getting ready for 2015: resolutions on book-keeping & book-making, the post-it To Do and the Seinfeld “Don’t break the chain” methods … or how to write that damned book!

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Last year, I posted a blog with almost this same name—Getting ready for 2014: resolutions on book-keeping and book-making.

I wrote:

We’ve made our resolutions, and one of mine is get to the bottom of the mail in-box three times in the year ahead. Wish me luck.

I’ve gotten fairly good about in-box zero; what I’m not that good at is actually dealing with the emails that I hide away in files with names like “URGENT” “FOLLOW-UP!”

Another resolution is to deliver The Game of Hope ahead of schedule (it’s due December 1). That will take more than luck: that will take constant perseverance!

Bravo! I did manage to do this, sending The Game of Hope to my publisher two days ahead of the due date.

I had other resolutions, of course: keeping my weight down, exercising, etc., which I kept fairly in-line. (I could have done better.)

What I did evolve this year—eventually—were two motivational systems for actually getting things done.

1: The Post-It method

  • My To Do List for the day must fit on a post-it note (and not a big one).
  • Each item should be measurable: i.e. “30 minutes, bookkeeping.”
  • Tasks that are irksome should be introduced in 15-min. chunks. (I.e., said bookkeeping.)

2: The Jerry Seinfeld “Don’t Break the Chain” method

In conjunction with the daily post-it (as well as a more extensive compost-heap of long-term things to do), I’ve started using the Seinfeld method for the one daily task I resist most strongly: exercising. That I’ve finally found a way to actually overcome my resistance is a strong testimonial to the effectiveness of this method.

Here is a snap from my “Don’t Break the Chain” calendar earlier this year:

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Every day I do what I’ve promised (30 minutes on the treadmill, in this instance), I colour in the date. The idea is not to have any gaps—and the visual reminder, for me, is strong.

Seinfeld originally suggested this system for writing. (I wrote about using the Seinfeld “Don’t Break the Chain” method in another blog post: A writer’s routine: how many … hours, days, word?) I highly recommend this system if you want to write very day: just make sure that the daily goal you set isn’t overly ambitious. It’s better to write for 30 minutes a day every day, than to attempt 2 hours a day and fail.

“Don’t Break the Chain” calendars

If you’re going to use the Seinfeld method, you need to print out a continuous calendar. Click to download a printable version of this one I created using PDFCalendar.com:

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Another continuous calendar created by David Seah allows you to make notes:

CompactCalendar2015-ms-US

The Writer’s Store also offers a calendar to print out: here.


I have a system when it comes to writing a draft: I set a goal of about about 1000 words a day and record my progress in a small Moleskine diary. If you are casting about for a way to keep track, consider this Word Tracking Calendar, also by David Seah.


I was amused to find these very old To Do Lists of mine:

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The colours were random—they did not signify anything. Note the To Do: “figure out the fax machine.” I never did manage that!

My resolutions this year? To finish The Game of Hope and write a solid first draft of The Princess Problem (the working title of the second Young Adult about Hortense). Also: keep up with daily exercise.

And, of course: in-box zero—but without simply filing away the emails to be answered.

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December 29, 2014 @ 11:15 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment





Happy (mid-) holidays to one and all

Click to play this Smilebox greeting

Dear Readers,

I hope this day finds you aglow. For somewhat mysterious reasons (there are many theories), the day after Christmas is called “Boxing Day” in Canada and the UK and likely other countries as well.

It’s the day for feasting on the leftovers of the wonderful dinner the night before, a day of putting away all the toys the children have scattered in their glee from one end of the house to the other, a day of wearing new socks and exploring a new book. For some it’s a day to go shopping, for Boxing Day, at least in Canada, is a day of amazing sales.

For my husband and me, it’s going to be a day of packing and preparing to leave, for we fly out tomorrow, from Toronto—where we are now—back to our winter home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

But first, with our two (very!) grown children , we will sit down with mimosas and review the New Year’s resolutions we made last year (oh oh!), and make new ones. The process is always fun and full of laughs, but we take our resolutions seriously nonetheless.

For those of you for whom this festive season is a sad one, my heartfelt sympathies. May the New Year brighten for you, and may you find solace and joy and wisdom and sustenance in books (that is, in stories).

With love,

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December 26, 2014 @ 9:21 am2 comments already! | Leave a Comment