February 2, 2015
Today, I welcome Robin Stevenson to my blog for an interview about her compelling new YA novel The World Without Us – available from Orca Book Publishers in February 2015.
What do you do when someone you care about wants you to follow him to a really dark place? Do you pull away? Do you help plan the trip? Or do you put your own life on the line in the hope that love will coax your friend away from the precipice? When Mel meets Jeremy, she thinks she has finally found someone who understands her, someone who will listen to her, someone who cares. But Jeremy has secrets that torment him, and Mel isn’t sure she can save him from his demons. All she knows is that she has to save herself.
Set in Florida, against a backdrop of anti-death-penalty activism, The World Without Us examines one girl’s choices in a world where the stakes are very high and one misstep can hurt – or even kill – you.
I was lucky enough to read a preview copy of Robin’s novel, and I found myself devouring it in a few days but pondering it for weeks afterward. I’m glad to have this chance to probe a little deeper in the novel and its intriguing premise and characters.
Karen: At the dramatic start of The World Without Us, Jeremy and Mel have made a suicide pact. In fact, they’re on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Florida, ready to jump. Where did the idea for this come from?
Robin: I wrote that opening scene without having any plan beyond that point – I didn’t even know who Mel and Jeremy were, how they came to be on the bridge together, or why Jeremy jumped and Mel didn’t. Writing the first draft was all about answering those questions and making sense of that opening scene.
As I wrote it, I remembered conversations I was part of in high school where people would kid around about suicide, and I started wondering: What if one of my friends hadn’t been joking? What if an undercurrent of truth lay beneath the humour?
Also, I used to be a counsellor, and I worked with many people who were suicidal. So it’s a subject I’ve thought a lot about over the years. I thought it might be good to write about it in a way that hopefully would lead to discussions and increased awareness.
Karen: I think the book will achieve that goal. I certainly hope so.
The failed suicide attempt is set against a backdrop of protests against the death penalty in Florida. What sparked you to link suicide with the death penalty?
Robin: I tend to get somewhat obsessed with certain topics. When I was writing this book, I was reading a lot about the death penalty, life on death row, black holes, and lucid dreaming. Sometimes my current topics glue themselves to other ideas and become part of the story I’m writing, which is what happened here. It wasn’t a very conscious process, but I enjoyed writing about these themes together in this novel because it allowed me to explore Mel’s and Jeremy’s ideas about death in more depth. Suicide and the death penalty both raise questions about whether someone should live or not – and who should make that choice. And, of course, sometimes people who seem to have every reason to live choose to kill themselves, while others who have had appallingly hard lives desperately want to avoid death.
Karen: Both Jeremy and Mel are unique, richly developed and intelligent teens. Can you tell me a bit about the process of creating them?
Robin: Mel, who narrates the story, is bright, capable, and very much loved. She’s an only child who is close to her parents. She seemingly has everything in the world to look forward to, and yet she ends up on the bridge with Jeremy. In contrast, Jeremy has experienced a terrible loss, but he’s not suffering in ways that are obvious to the people who care about him. Suicide and depression are so complex – Mel and Jeremy themselves have to struggle to make sense of how they ended up where they did. I wanted to challenge preconceived ideas about who is at risk for suicide. I didn’t want there to be any easy answers in this story.
In terms of process, I think the characters started to take shape as I wrote about their interactions and conversations with each other, and with Mel’s parents and Suzy (the girl Mel babysits). I wrote a lot of conversations that didn’t make it into the final book because that’s one of the ways I get to know my characters. Mel was easier for me to understand than Jeremy. Her family is, in many ways, quite a lot like my own family, and Mel’s difficulties in accepting Jeremy’s ways of coping mirror my own struggle to comprehend and appreciate the different journey he is on.
Karen: On your blog, you’ve said that your books are about “figuring out who you are and what you believe and where you fit in the world.” What do you think your protagonist Mel figures out about herself and her world in this book?
Robin: Both Mel and Jeremy are reading Camus, who wrote that suicide was the only truly serious philosophical problem, and both of them are, in different ways, struggling with the absurdity of life. Mel is a kid who has been raised on both skepticism and activism. She believes that the meaning in life is the meaning you give it, that your life is the sum of your actions, and that what matters are the choices you make. Jeremy is searching for a higher power of some kind and looking for a meaning that Mel doesn’t believe exists. She feels Jeremy is running away from reality, ignoring both his freedom and his responsibility. But Jeremy is terrified by that freedom because it means nothing is holding him back, nothing is preventing him from letting go, and nothing is anchoring him in this world.
Mel doesn’t have a lot of friends, and her deep, intense connection with Jeremy is terribly important to her. She feels abandoned when Jeremy chooses a different path, and her anger comes from this sense of loss. I don’t think Mel ever fully understands Jeremy’s fear and despair, but she does accept that she and Jeremy are two different people, and that he has to find his own ways of coping and creating meaning in his life. She realizes that she needs to stop trying to control what he believes and instead make her own conscious choice to continue to be a friend to him.
Karen: What’s next for you? Can you share a little about your works-in-progress?
Robin: I’m currently working on the edits for my latest middle-grade novel. It’s called The Summer We Saved the Bees, and it’ll be published by Orca in the Fall of 2015. I’m also working on my first non-fiction project – a book about Pride Day that’s aimed at readers aged 11 to 14. It’s been an interesting process – a lot of research, reading, talking with people, sourcing photographs, etc. As a queer mom to a ten-year-old, I feel strongly that LGBTQ families need to be represented in the books our kids read – and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to contribute to the growing body of diverse books.
Karen: You’re busy, Robin, which makes readers like me happy. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your insights. It’s been a pleasure, and I look forward to reading your upcoming books.
December 4, 2014
Writing for Publication
In my workshops for kids and teens, they always have questions about where they can publish and how they should go about it. So I tell them what I can, and I offer my ongoing list of Where Young Authors Can Submit.
I understand how exciting and validating it can be when a story or poem is accepted for publication, and I’m particularly thrilled when marginalized voices get a chance to be heard. But publication isn’t THE goal of my writing workshops.
Writing to Understand Your World
Personally, I write to understand the world around me in all its complex, painful, fascinating glory. It maims us and then celebrates us. It gives us riches and takes them away. I find endless subject matter to write about by lifting my head and really observing what’s happening around me.
So I hope that, in my workshops, kids and teens can get a taste of that goal and its pleasures.
Writing to Move People
I also hope to share my awe of words – how they have the power to make me laugh, cry, or feel inspired. I’m continually delighted by the power of words to move me, particularly the brilliant writing that’s composed in only a few minutes during a workshop.
Writing to Make Your Soul Grow
In a letter to high school students in 2006, Kurt Vonnegut wrote:
Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.
Wonderful advice! Is there are loftier purpose for writing? In his letter, Vonnegut goes on to suggest the students write a poem and then tear it up. Then he writes:
You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.
Thanks, Vonnegut, for the reminder.
November 10, 2014
This month, the media is rich with new reports of women coming forward to report alleged assaults:
- In Toronto, nine women reported non-consensual violence at the hands of former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi.
- In Ottawa, two New Democrat MPs reported harassment by ethics critic Scott Andrews and Quebec MP Massimo Pacetti.
- In New York City, aspiring actress Shoshana Roberts released a video of her 10-hour walk through the Big Apple during which she experienced 108 catcalls — all this in an effort to end street harassment.
Although it saddens me to hear about this alleged violence and harassment, I’m inspired by the women who chose to speak out against it. I also feel the need to publicly thank them for their acts of courage. They have renewed a global cultural conversation that is topical, relevant and much needed.
We now have mainstream news articles about rape myths, and calls to examine our relationship with violence against women. I find myself nodding as I read, and I feel emboldened by the supportive statements I hear from other women as well as the many caring men I know and love. The topic of violence against women is an important one to me, one I chose to tackle in my upcoming novel for teens — Punch Like a Girl (Orca Book Publishers, Spring 2015).
In the novel, I wanted to write about a girl with a hero complex who tries to save those around her rather than admitting she feels vulnerable. It’s an exploration of what it means to be a hero and a victim in today’s society.
Most of us know someone who has been bullied or abused. I wrote this novel in reaction to witnessing girls and women I care about who have had to face violence in both dating and domestic relationships.
Dating violence among teens is a big problem, affecting youth in every community across North America. According to the Toronto Star, “forty-six per cent of female high school students in Ontario say they have been subjected to unwanted touching, verbal abuse, pressure to have sex, bullying, or coercion.” In the United States:
- One in three adolescents is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional, or verbal abuse from a dating partner, a figure that far exceeds rates of other types of youth violence.
- Girls and young women between the ages of 16 and 24 experience the highest rate of intimate partner violence — almost triple the national average.
- Violent behaviour typically begins between the ages of 12 and 18.
Punch Like a Girl is partly based on observation of girls and women I know and partly based on research. Several times in my life, I have helped people I cared about decide whether they want to report an assault, and I have respected their choices. Like my character does in the book, I’ve taken Wen-Do self-defence classes and volunteered at Toronto’s Red Door Family Shelter, which offers help for women and children who are escaping domestic violence.
In Punch Like a Girl, I chose to explore the stages of trauma and recovery. The novel asks questions such as: How do today’s girls deal with violence directed against them? How can we as a society overcome such violence? Punch Like a Girl is a taut, emotional look at one teen girl’s attempt to overcome bullying and violence wherever she finds it.
In 2013, when I was first connecting with my agent, Harry Endrulat of The Rights Factory, I asked him why he wanted to represent this book. Harry’s response? He talked about his daughter and the kind of world he wants her to be able to live in.
I admire Harry’s reaction, and it mirrors why I wrote this book. I need to do what I can to help make this world a better and safer place for the girls and teens who will become tomorrow’s women. I admit that my goal may be lofty and even impossible, but I truly hope they’ll never have to report the violence and harassment we’ve witnessed through the media this month.
October 8, 2014
In a recent CM Magazine review of my fantasy novel Bog, the reviewer suggested that “including a visual map of the journey might not have been amiss.” Since I’m a map-lover, I can understand the desire to map Bog’s world as well as his journey. In fact, I use maps to help form both the fantasy and realistic worlds I create. I also teach writing workshops about “How to Create a Believable OtherWorld,” which involve mapping a world in order to fully imagine it. I’ve witnessed how mapping can help writers enter their worlds, walk around within them, and bring back wonderful stories to write about. So after reading this review from CM Magazine, I decided to share my map of Bog’s world on my blog.
When I visit schools and libraries, I usually show the map I first sketched when planning Bog’s story. I tell them it’s a good example of why I’m a writer, not an illustrator! Still, it’s enough for me to begin imagining my character’s journey, which is what matters. (You can click on the map for a larger view.)
My map is rough and unpolished, so I asked my artist daughter – Paige Krossing – if she would draw a better map of Bog’s journey. To my delight, she created this wonderfully illustrated map. (Again, click on it for a larger view.)
October 2, 2014
Thanks to Jocelyn Shipley for tagging me in the Writing Process Blog Tour. It’s a fun way to connect with other writers and learn about how they write.
I first got to know Jocelyn when she was co-editor of the collection Cleavage: Breakaway Fiction for Real Girls (Sumach Press, 2008). My short story “Profanity” appeared in the collection, and it’s been a delight to get to know Jocelyn better since then.
Jocelyn writes compelling contemporary YA and adult fiction. A particular favourite of mine is her recent YA novel How to Tend a Grave (Great Plains, 2012), which was Winner of the 2012 Gold Medal Moonbeam Award for YA Fiction in the Mature Issues category. Her other acclaimed YA books include Getting a Life, Cross My Heart and Seraphina’s Circle. Please check out Jocelyn’s Writing Process Blog Tour post for a peek into how she writes. I promise it’s an interesting read! And don’t forget to watch the trailer for How to Tend a Grave below.
Now, to answer the questions about my writing process:
1. What are you working on?
I have several YA novels on the go. I’ve just finished final edits of Punch Like a Girl, which will be published by Orca Book Publishers in Spring 2015. This contemporary novel is a taut, emotional look at one teen girl’s attempt to overcome bullying and violence wherever she finds it. I wanted to write about a girl with a hero complex who tries to save those around her rather than admit she feels vulnerable. The tagline for this book is: “It’s not the girl in the fight, it’s the fight in the girl.”
In between edits, I’ve been writing a draft of a contemporary YA fantasy that also features a female protagonist. Since this novel is still in flux, I’d rather not talk about the premise. I’m afraid that fledgling ideas can get pulled off track when exposed to the full light of day.
Finally, I’m beginning to research a new YA novel idea when I have a lull in writing or revising. This novel will be partly set in 1967, so it’s involving research in order to discover the premise and plot. I’m nervous about this idea, since I’m not yet sure if I can find my way into the story. I also want it to be funny, which will be a challenge for me because I take life way too seriously.
2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?
During school visits, I tell kids and teens that I write to understand the world around me. So I think each of my works explores some knotty questions that get untangled through the story arc. In my most recent novel, Bog, the questions are: Why do different cultural groups end up hating one another? How does it feel to be “other”? How can we overcome prejudices based on differences? I try to encase such questions in an entertaining story, so the premise of this story involves a cave troll on a revenge-filled quest into human territory after his father is turned into stone by some pesky humans. When I’m writing, I want to entertain myself as well as gain insight. I hope my books provide both for my readers, as well.
3. Why do you write what you do?
I write middle-grade and young-adult stories because I’m fairly certain that my mental age is about sixteen. I like kids and teens. I respect them. The years from age nine to nineteen are fascinating, thorny and full of promise and possibility. There’s so much opportunity for a writer.
I write both realistic and fantastic stories because that’s what I like to read. I’ve always had an active imagination, so I have no problem envisioning trolls who inhabit Canada’s wilderness. Fantasy co-exists with today’s world for me. When I’m exploring a writing idea, I’ll ponder whether it’s best told as realistic or fantastic, based on what the story idea requires.
4. How does your writing process work?
My writing process has evolved over time, so I’ll outline what I do now rather than what I used to do.
I begin by honing the premise. I believe that, if I’m going to spend years on an idea and ask publishers and readers to invest in it, it must be based on the best premise I can invent. So I go through a process of writing notes about the idea, and I brainstorm as many premises as I can until I find the one that best suits my purposes. This also gives me a one-liner to sell and promote the book.
Then I draft a two- to three-page synopsis. Both these stages will involve concrete research as well as plenty of daydreaming. I write notes about setting, characters, motivations, possible plot twists, and so on. My synopsis is written in acts, not chapters. I break it apart into chapters during the writing phase.
Next, I write a first draft. During this stage, I try to write at least six days a week with a daily word count. I keep the minimum word count low (maybe only 200 words) because I find that regular daily writing is more important that quantity. My goal is to keep my head in the story in order to keep the writing flowing steadily. For me, writing a quick first draft results in schleck that can get me bogged down during revisions.
Once a few chapters are done, I ponder and revise them in preparation to share with my trusted writing group. After I get their feedback, I may revise again, if a chapter is way off track. But I also make revision notes for later. When I complete a whole draft, I get more feedback from fellow writers on the entire manuscript. Then I begin the revision stage. It’s always hard to re-envision a story that I’ve spent years or months writing. I also find it hard to know when a story is “done.”
I first met Lena at an ongoing writing workshop at Mable’s Fables Children’s Bookstore in Toronto, where she proved to be an astute critiquer of manuscripts-in-progress. I also worked with Lena in her former role as Administrative Director of the Canadian Association of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers (CANSCAIP), where she ably managed the organization and teams of volunteers.
Lena is the author of two successful picture books as well as the recent YA fantasy Witchlanders (Atheneum/S&S, 2011), which earned three Starred Reviews and nominations for the 2013 White Pine Award and Manitoba Young Readers Choice Award. (You can check out the trailer for Witchlanders below.) I’m particularly excited about Lena’s upcoming YA fantasy novel called Worlds of Ink and Shadow (Abrams/HarperCollins), which was inspired by her love of the Brontes and trips to Yorkshire. I hope we get a sneak peek into that novel in her upcoming post.
Thanks so much for reading, and feel free to leave a comment about your process.
August 14, 2014
At the request of a writing workshop participant, I’ve created this list of style and grammar tips for fiction writers.
When writing fiction, traditional style and grammar rules may not apply. For example, a character’s background or personality will influence the way he or she talks, even requiring grammar that is incorrect yet appropriate for that character. Still, there are some basic rules to improve your prose.
Use active voice rather than passive voice. In active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action of the verb on an object. In passive voice, the object appears as the subject of the sentence.
Passive: The wall was hit by my car.
Active: My car hit the wall.
The passive voice is unavoidable when you don’t know who did the action.
Passive: My bike was stolen.
Avoid overusing “there is…,” “it is…,” etc.
Example: There was a man sneaking through the bushes.
Revision: A man sneaked through the bushes.
Use words like “said” or “asked” for speaker tags. Speaker tags are the words used to describe speech. Remember that characters can’t “sigh” or “smile” their dialogue.
Example: “I can’t come with you,” she sighed.
Revision: “I can’t come with you,” she said. OR “I can’t come with you,” she said with a sigh. OR “I can’t come with you.” She sighed.
Use adverbs sparingly. Instead, rely on strong verbs to carry the action.
Example: “Stop that,” he said angrily.
Revision: “Stop that.” He glared at her.
Use specific language rather than vague language.
Example: The man was somewhat taller than any other she had seen.
Revision: At seven feet, Frankie towered over her.
Clarify consecutive and simultaneous actions. Consecutive actions occur one after another, while simultaneous events occur at the same time.
Example: Unlocking the car door, she started the engine. (She cannot unlock the car door at the same time as she starts the engine.)
Revision: She unlocked the car door and then started the engine.
Avoid dangling modifiers. When a clause introduces a sentence, it needs to have the same subject as the sentence itself.
Example: Walking down the street, the houses were all run down. (This implies that the houses were walking down the street.)
Revision: Walking down the street, I noticed that the houses were all run down.
Some Grammar Websites
- Grammar Girl: A friendly guide to grammar.
- Purdue Online Writing Lab: A site to learn rules of grammar and usage.
- Grammarist: Tips to correct your grammar.
July 4, 2014
Today, I’m pleased to be interviewed by author Susan Hughes on Open Book Toronto – a hub for all things local and literary in Toronto – along with authors Karen Autio, Frieda Wishinsky, and Allan Stratton.
You can read about how we first came to be published and our advice for aspiring writers. Thanks, Susan, for the great questions. Read the full interview here.
May 14, 2014
You can read about how my new novel Bog was a labour of love as well as what made me decide to write about trolls, how I imagined my trolls, what I was like as a young teen, and more. Thanks, Lena, for the great questions. Read the full interview here.
April 16, 2014
In a first draft, it can be hard to visualize my characters. They’re fledgling beings who morph as my story develops, becoming more solid and definable as I revise.
In my writing workshops, I suggest people draw their characters, if they can, in order to better connect with them. I’m not capable of sketching much more than stick figures, so it’s not a technique that works for me. I also suggest that writers pick up physical details from people they know or people they meet. Surfing Google Images can help to define what a character looks like. I also develop a character’s physical traits from people I see on the subway or in coffee shops. Maybe I’ll incorporate the dye job I see on a teen girl or her outfit that day. Concrete description is one way to ground your reader in your story and help them experience sensory details.
With my troll characters in my upcoming fantasy novel Bog, it was particularly hard to see them – strangely I didn’t come upon any trolls in the subway or my usual haunts. I needed to imagine my characters to make them come to life in words. That’s why I was eager and nervous when I was first about to see these troll characters illustrated on the cover of Bog. Would Quebec artist Félix Girard “get” my characters? Would his image of them match mine?
I had no need to worry. I fell in love with Felix’s cover art as soon as I saw it. In fact, I loved it so much that I purchased it, and it now hangs in my home. People tell me that it’s inviting, that they want to join the characters on their journey. Felix perfectly captured the Northern Canada setting of the novel, and truly made the characters come to life in art.
In case you’re curious about Felix’s technique, he tells me that he uses acrylic paint on watercolor paper. “I start with a detailed drawing over which I put several layers of paint, using a lot of water,” he says. “It’s quite similar to watercolour painting actually.”
March 10, 2014
I’m pleased to announce that my latest YA novel, Punch Like a Girl, will be published by Orca Book Publishers in Spring 2015. I’m thrilled to be working once again with editorial director Sarah Harvey, who is terrifically insightful and collaborative. In fact, I adore the whole Orca team.
What is Punch Like a Girl about?
Tori seems to have it all. She’s smart, athletic, attractive – and she used to date a great guy. Then one day, she shaves her head, alienates her friends, and starts acting out – violently. To try and turn things around, Tori’s parents force her to volunteer at a shelter for abused women and children. While she connects with the young kids, she continues to spiral downwards.
Punch Like a Girl is a taut, emotional look at one girl’s attempt to overcome bullying and violence in dating and domestic relationships.
Where did the idea come from?
I wanted to write about a girl with a hero complex who tries to save those around her rather than admitting she feels vulnerable. It’s an exploration of what it means to be a hero and a victim.
Most of us know someone who has been bullied or abused. This novel explores the themes of helplessness and heroism in confronting violence in dating and domestic relationships.
February 21, 2014
Do you know teen writers and artists who are looking for inspiration? Please spread the word about the Toronto Public Library’s Young Voices March Break Writing & Arts Festival. From March 8 to 14, teens aged 12 to 19 can attend any or all of these hands-on workshops, from “Colours You Could Eat: Toronto Mixed Media” with professional artist Michael Brown to “Make Your Own Short Comic Book Story” with author and illustrator Evan Munday. Check out all the workshops on this flyer.
Toronto teens can also submit their writing and visual art to the TPL’s annual Young Voices Magazine. Deadline is April 5. For more info and to submit, click here.
October 16, 2013
The Dear Teen Me website is known for it’s letters by authors to their teen selves – a terrific endeavour put together by E. Kristin Anderson, Priya Chand, and Miranda Kenneally. Some letters are humorous and others more serious, yet they all honour “teens who have good days and bad days and sometimes really really really bad days.” In fact, the Dear Teen Me anthology, based on the website, was published by Zest Books in 2012 and named Best Teen Nonfiction by the YABC Choice Awards.
I’m glad to be a part of the Dear Teen Me website, and as of today, you can read my letter here. Although I’m not going to get into specifics about my letter, I will say that it was a challenge to write. One of the reasons why I write for teens is that it’s a time of flux and personal growth – rich with possibilities and ripe with dangers that some teens experience first-hand. I hope that teens as well as people of all ages will find their way to the Dear Teen Me website to check it out. It’s a fascinating showcase of authentic teen experiences.
August 23, 2013
As I wrote in Part 1 of this post, I’ve been taking a writing break to “fill the creative well” and ponder my current work-in-progress, which was somewhat stuck at chapter six at the start of the summer. In fact, I didn’t know if I had a viable story idea that I could plot through to the end. So I wrote the first few chapters, took a break, and hoped for the best.
In the meantime, I re-finished our kitchen chairs into works of art with my artist daughter, Paige. (Statement of Truth: She’s the artist. I’m just the base-coat painter.) You can see our first three chairs in Part 1, including the themes cosmos, Aztec, and steampunk. As promised, here are the final three chairs: Doctor Who, floral, and collage.
For all you Doctor Who fans out there, we planned a spinning Tardis (the Doctor’s time machine) within billowing clouds coupled with our favourite quotes written in Gallifreyan (the language used by the Time Lords, displayed using a complex system of interlocking circles, hexagons and lines).
Here’s the front of our Doctor Who chair, including a close up:
Can’t read Gallifreyan? Curious what we wrote? Okay, here it is:
- Front of backrest: “Do what I do. Hold tight and pretend it’s a plan!”
(The Doctor, Season 7, Christmas Special)
- Lower-left seat: “Always take a banana to a party, Rose. Bananas are good!”
(The Doctor, Season 2, Episode 4)
- Upper-right seat: “Biting’s excellent. It’s like kissing. Only there is a winner.”
(Idris, Season 6, Episode 4)
Here’s the rear of the same chair:
This Gallifreyan quote says: “You want weapons? We’re in a library! Books! The best weapons in the world!” (The Doctor, Season 2, Episode 2).
Next, we created our floral chair, which is the only one that uses the natural wood grain:
And finally, here’s our collage chair, which includes images of the aftermath of Great Fire in Toronto, some of our favourite pastimes (books, dance, etc.), my family nickname (Karnage), excerpts from “What to Do in Case of an Air Raid” (a funny historical piece I found in a collectibles shop), several dragons (because who doesn’t like dragons), and a lot more.
Here’s a peek at our collage chair:
Now, we are resting on our chairs, irreverently sitting on works of art, and enjoying the fruits of our labours. And maybe, just maybe, that novel is ready to be written.
The writing process is a quirky thing. It’s somewhat like calming a screaming toddler in the middle of a department store while juggling twelve oranges. You’ve got to keep all the oranges in the air without further upsetting the toddler or getting kicked out by the security guards. Okay, I know. Bad comparison.
What I did discover one day in August was that I suddenly knew how to solve that niggling problem in my work-in-progress. One clear sunny morning while reading an information book for pleasure, an brilliant idea found me, told me how to finish the novel, and created a few exciting new characters in the process.
So I’m feeling that stepping away from my desk and letting my subconscious do the work was a terrific plan. Even though I wasn’t sure it would work. I guess those hours of painting chairs paid off in more ways than one.
August 19, 2013
The new Limelights performing arts series by Orca Book Publishers launches on October 1 with three titles: Attitude by Robin Stevenson, Cut the Lights by me, and Totally Unrelated by Tom Ryan. Can’t wait to read these novels? To tide you over, here’s an interview with author Tom Ryan about his book in the series.
What is the synopsis of Totally Unrelated?
Neil plays guitar with his family’s band, the Family McClintock, even though he can’t stand the Celtic music they play, he doesn’t dance, he hates the outfits, and every single performance reminds him that he isn’t as talented as the rest of the family.
When his buddy Bert convinces him to form a rock band and enter a local talent show, Neil’s playing improves and everyone notices, including a girl who shares his musical interests. He starts to think that all those years of practice might come in handy after all. But it all comes to a head when Neil has to choose between an important gig with the family band and the talent show. He’s only sure of one thing: whatever he decides to do, he’s going to be letting someone down.
Have you drawn on your own experience at all in writing this book?
I grew up in a small town on Cape Breton Island, where music is a way of life and many talented families perform at community events and outdoor concerts all summer long. I thought it would be fun to write about one of these musical families from the perspective of one of its younger members. I also did a lot of performing when I was younger, as a singer in small three-piece bands like the one Neil and his friends form for the talent show, so I had a lot of fun revisiting those days.
How did you come up with your title? What other titles did you consider?
I don’t want to give too much away, but the title fits perfectly with the story! I will say that Neil’s relationship with his well-known family and his desire to break away and do his own thing are the central themes of the book, and by the time things wrap up, the title makes perfect sense!
Did you find it challenging to describe the thought process behind the creative process?
Yes! I spend a lot of time listening to music, but when I started writing the book I quickly learned that it is incredibly difficult to describe music and dance in words. By its very nature, music is meant to be listened to, not described, so turning the musical scenes that fill the book into part of a compelling narrative was a real challenge. Eventually I got into a groove and began to enjoy the process, but as hard as I tried, a written description of a musical performance will never match the real thing!
Have you done any performing arts as a teen or adult?
I’ve done loads of performing. As a teen I sang in a few bands, and I was also into theatre, both acting and building and painting sets. Later on, after university, I worked in the film industry for several years and had the opportunity to meet and work with lots of really interesting and talented people. I still play guitar a little bit and I’ve always enjoyed singing, but it’s been quite a while since I performed in front of an audience.
If you could be proficient at any one “performance skill” what would it be?
I would love to be able to play piano. I took lessons for a couple of years in junior high, but I didn’t stick with it and I’ve always regretted that. I haven’t ruled out picking it up again, someday when I have a bit more time!
Thanks for the insights, Tom. Totally Unrelated sounds like a book that performance-loving teens won’t want to miss!
For an interview with Limelights author Robin Stevenson, visit Tom’s blog. For an interview with me, visit Robin’s blog. You can also read sample first chapters and enjoy the Limelights video trailer (made by Tom) at the Orca Limelights site. Enjoy!
July 30, 2013
After a year of solidly writing every day, I need to take a writing break this summer. The problem is that I’m terrible at sitting still. For me, resting is torture. My mind continues to spin out scenes that beg to be written down.
But as Julia Cameron says in The Artist’s Way, we all need to fill our creative well every so often. She writes, “In order to create, we draw from our inner well. This inner well, an artistic reservoir, is ideally like a well-stocked trout pond. We’ve got big fish, little fish, fat fish, skinny fish – an abundance of artistic fish to fry. As artists, we must realize that we have to maintain this artistic ecosystem….Any extended period of piece of work draws heavily on our artistic well.”
Ideally, Cameron recommends that we fill the well with sensory experiences, fun pursuits, intriguing explorations.
So how does this writer take a creative break, other than getting away from my writing desk? By finding a different creative project. One that uses a new set of creative muscles. And I had the perfect idea.
First, I enlisted my daughter, Paige, to help. She’s a fabulous visual artist – a skill she didn’t inherit from me. I shared my plan to revive our boring kitchen chairs, re-making them into painted, themed works-of-art. I would act as creative consultant and base coat painter; Paige would supply the art.
Here’s the set of chairs we started with. Dull, I know.
We brainstormed ideas for how to paint each of the six chairs, which was a lot of fun. We settled on these ideas: cosmos, Aztec, steampunk, Doctor Who (yes, we’re geeks), floral/nature, and collage. Now I’m doing the grunt work: stripping and sanding each chair, painting the undercoat and colour coats, and painting the polyurethane after the artwork is complete. Paige does the glory work, and her art is anything but boring!
What I’m finding is that painting gives my mind time to process what I’ve written and what I plan to write next. It gives me a way to relax my mind without sitting still. Like a long walk, painting is a terrific way to unwind and contemplate.
The best part is that, in the end, I’m left with gorgeous and unique chairs. Don’t hang your art on walls – sit on it!
Here’s our cosmos chair:
And our Aztec chair (front and back):
And finally our steampunk chair (front and back):
The last three chairs – Doctor Who, floral/nature, and collage – are in progress. I’ll post later with pictures of them. In the meantime, I’m off to paint a Tardis-blue chair, contemplate life and fill the well!