Review: Negociating with the Dead

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In my first creative writing class, three books on writing were recommended to the students: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (click to read my review of it); Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing by Margaret Atwood; and On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. Having read and loved The Handmaid’s Tale, I figured I absolutely needed to read Margaret Atwood’s non-fiction book on writing.

Review
Negotiating with the Dead is unlike any other books on writing that I have read in the past. I couldn’t describe it better than Atwood herself:

. . . what I had in mind was a grand scheme in which I would examine the various self-images – the job descriptions, if you like – that writers have constructed for themselves over the years.

It reads like a university-level book assigned for a literature course, which isn’t really surprising since it derives from lectures she gave at the University of Cambridge. The tone is rather formal (though sometimes witty), the language is recherché (sometimes even obscure for a speaker of English as a second language), the subjects explored are highly philosophical and of very little concrete use. However, the lack of concrete use does not equate with the lack of value. I enjoyed the autobiographical bits which, though interesting on their own, also explained Margaret Atwood’s style and her choices of subjects and themes as a bonus.

Margaret_Atwood_2015Born in 1939, Atwood has grown up in a Canada that’s very different from the one I know. As a result, some of the matters she explored felt outdated (e.g., I’ve never felt any less likely to succeed or be respected as a writer because I’m a woman – the prospects seemed equally bleak for both sexes). Most matters, however, remain true: I especially resonated with her chapters on the duplicity of the writer (how the writer seems to be a different entity than its human host… hello, persona), the Great God Pen (how easy it is to neglect oneself in favour of one’s art) and temptation (the correlation – or lack thereof – between the artistic value of a work, it’s popular success, and whether its author “did it for the money”).

The author supports her exploration of “being a writer” with a multitude of extracts from classic works, which contributed to that feeling of it being assigned for a literature course; it also resulted in my despairing at the sudden explosion of my want-to-read list.

At first sight, there is no recognizable structure. I kept on waiting for “the point” of the book, but after I finished it I realized the musings were it. Where Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird, felt like a mentor giving her good friend the reader advice on how to deal with “the condition of being a writer” and how not to bang their head against the wall or commit suicide, Margaret Atwood feels like a university professor philosophizing about said condition, observing that it does bring its share of pain:

The suffering will come whether you like it or not. Suffering is a result of writing, rather than a cause. Publishing is like being put on trial.

She asks a lot of questions, most of which remain unanswered like all philosophical matters.

Rating: 8/10

Who would I recommend this to? Writers, especially older, more experienced ones. If you love history and philosophy, that’s a plus. I’d recommend staying away from it if, as a general rule, you dislike the way philosophers talk or if you’re looking for a book that will be useful to you as a writer.

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Liebster Award 2018

This week is special since the charming A.J. Reeves nominated me for the Libster Award! You’ll get to know some odd facts about me as well as discover some blogs I enjoy, yay!liebster-award1a

1. What book had the most impact on you?
There would be three: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien triggered my first attempt to write a novel; Feeling Good by Dr David D. Burns helped me accept my own depression as an illness and not a fault of character, as well as helped me heal from it; and How To Make A Living With Your Writing by Joanna Penn empowered me to reach for my dreams.

2. What movie would be greatly improved if it was made into a musical?
I’m not a fan of musicals so… none.

3. If given the choice, which literary man or woman would you like to have a relationship with? And what relationship? (friend/co-conspirator/love interest/enemy/etc.)
I’d want to co-write a book with James Patterson! Doesn’t everybody?

4. What is the most embarrassing thing you have ever worn?
I don’t get embarrassed that easily. But the weirdest thing I’ve worn was… Zebra stripes. Like… actual, indelible sharpie zebra stripes on my skin. It was for a team challenge with my swimming team in high school. We won. I had to go to school with stripes still showing for a few days, haha.

5. What part of a kid’s movie completely scarred you?
Nothing really “scarred” me, but I was freaked out by the entire world of Wonderland… especially the Cheshire cat.

6. If you were arrested with no explanation, what would your friends and family assume you had done?
Hm… Assault and battery? Legitimate defence? The dude would have totally deserved it though.

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One of my BJDs (Ball-Jointed Dolls)

7. What is your weirdest hobby?
I guess it depends on your definition of “weird”. Collecting BJD, maybe? Or playing with Lego bricks? Though I neglect those these days because I prioritize writing.

8. What secret conspiracy would you like to start?
I don’t have time to start conspiracies, I have books to write!

9. What mythical creature would improve the world most if it existed?
Fire-breathing dragons? Just kidding. I suppose that would be angels. ♥

10. What’s the most imaginative insult you can come up with?
You have as much culture as a sanitized plastic ball.

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The rules of this award are as follows (cause all nice things have to have rules):

  • Create a new post thanking the person who nominated you, linking to their blog. Include the award graphic.
  • Answer the questions provided.
  • Make a new set of 10 questions for your nominees to answer.
  • Nominate 5-10 recently followed bloggers and share your post with them so they see it.

My questions for you are:

  1. If you had to name one song summing up your life over the last few years, what song would that be?
  2. If you had to describe yourself in a single word, what would it be?
  3. If you could magically acquire one talent or personality trait, what would it be?
  4. If you had no obligations (family, money, etc.), what would you spend your life doing?
  5. If you had to use a piece of fiction (book, movie, video game, etc.) to describe your goals, what would it be?
  6. If you could have anybody, real or fictional, help you reach your goals who would you choose and why?
  7. If you could have any superpower, what would it be and why?
  8. If you could live anywhere, real or fictional, where would it be?
  9. If you could change one piece of fiction’s ending, what would it be and how would you change it?
  10. If you could have a device to do any one thing in your place, what would it do?

My nominees for the Liebster Award are (in no particular order):

My Stories With Music
Floatinggold
Matthew Taggart
Brenda
Charlotte Annelise
Lauren
The Ink Owl
Unsaid Words
Keith MacArthur
Crowded Mind

Argh! So many great bloggers, it was hard to choose! Eliminating those who had much over 1k followers and those I’d already nominated last year for the Blogger Recognition Award helped a little but… uuuurgh! If you don’t feel like participating, it’s alright. Just sharing your blogs make me happy.

Overview of 2017 and resolutions for 2018

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Happy New Year everyone!

I hope you were able to relax a little during the holidays. I have, and now I’m ready to start the new year head on.

However, before I make any resolutions I’d like to reflect on the past year: where 2016 was a year of breakthrough and dreams, 2017 was one of “reality check”. The first quarter of the year was marked by anxiety and frustration due to my lack of income. I also a hard time trying to edit my first novel, which led to the dispersion of my efforts.

Early April, I started working again with a revenge, some 50 and 60 hours a week, which I sustained surprisingly long before I burnt out in September. However, that didn’t prevent me from getting a sense of direction and starting the rewriting process on my first novel. In fall, I also took a creative writing course, which I think helped me improve my skills considerably, and got the amazing opportunity to beta-read Marnie Shaw and the Mystery of Yapton Farm by Deborah Wallace.

In November, I participated to NaNoWriMo, though I also took care not to exhaust myself again. In December, I slept a lot, did a lot of house cleaning and spent a lot of time with my family in order to start the new year in the best conditions.

I checked 5 of my 13 resolutions (#4, 7, 11, 12 and 13) which isn’t so bad considering everything that happened. Also: more important than those goals was “finding a source of income”, which I did.
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For 2018, my theme will be: the warrior’s training. Being a writer, I see my own life as a story (or a series of stories). If I gave up writing early 2016 and then went back at it with a revenge by mid-year, but was slapped in the face in 2017 by reality… I must be at that point in the story where the hero, after having been defeated, needs to train much harder than ever before to vanquish his enemy. That could also be the moment where the hero gets a mentor using unconventional methods.

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In other words, I intend to get out of my comfort zone this year. I’d love to try variants of the exercises I did during my creative writing course (poetry, short stories, creative non-fiction). I have no plan yet, but something like one short piece every 2 weeks a sounds acceptable, though most likely, I’ll only start in April. And if I can gather enough courage, I might even publish some of them online.

Reading-wise, this year I’ll allow myself to indulge: I’ll read whatever I want whenever I want. Last year, I tried to read more modern novels, but though most of them were good and some even excellent, I often found myself wishing I was reading something else. That might explain why even just reading 13 books took some effort. I’m starting the year with Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. ♥

Besides my theme, I’ve also set a few goals for the year:

1 – Rewrite my first novel

2 – Continue blogging weekly (or almost weekly) and being active in the blogging community

3 – Read at least 13 books

4 – Take another creative writing course

5 – Experiment with poetry, short stories, creative non-fiction… maybe even comics!

6 – Take care of my physical and mental health

7 – Furnish my house (at least one room)

Quite a bit fewer resolutions than in 2018, but I’m aiming for 100% success this year (or at least 85%)! I’ll print this list them and paste it on my wall to keep it in sight all year.

Do you make New Year’s resolution? Do they help you reach your goals?

Creative non-fiction: Happy Endings

Foreword: As part of my creative writing course, I had to write creative non-fiction with narrative elements: characters, setting, plot, etc. It was extremely challenging, even scary. I made a list of events I thought could be of some interest and started several drafts. In the end, I chose a fairly cheesy event, but I think it was worth writing. It could be extended, made more tangible, but I’m fairly satisfied with the current version. This happened 5 years ago, around this time of the year. It’s also an ode to happy endings in literature. They’re the best.

~*~

Happy Endings

            I graduated in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008. All through my bachelor’s degree, teachers kept repeating that there was a huge need for translators and we’d never lack work. It turns out language professionals aren’t always up-to-date on the matters of economics.

I spent two years doing odd jobs before I finally got one in my field… in Ottawa – 5 hours from everyone and everything I know.  I went. I’d stay a year, get some experience, then find a new job back in Québec City.

By the end of my ninth month of exile, I was restless. I had gone to several job interviews in my hometown, but none of them had paid off. I was almost 25 and nowhere near “having my life together” as I thought I should. An existential crisis ensued.

I used several tricks to feel better. I started writing a middle-grade novel for NaNoWriMo to get my mind off things. My fiancé tried to help me, to find a way to bring me back home that wouldn’t put us in a financially unsustainable situation… But without him by my side to make me laugh every day, my mood only got worse.

Then, on my birthday, my roommate, who was also my landlady, told me I had to leave within two months because she was going to sell the house to move with her new boyfriend.

I broke.

I hate moving, and I hated the idea of having to move somewhere else in Ottawa. In my mind, the next time I’d move would be to go back to Québec City.

A few days later, I sent my fiancé an email that was more or less a break-up letter. I woke up the next morning more depressed than ever, dragged my feet downstairs and… saw my white Elantra through the window. The car I’d bought with him. The car he’d kept when I moved to the national capital. What was it doing there at 6 freaking a.m.?

No doubt he saw the light turn on, because he got out of the car and came to the door. I didn’t understand. How was he there? He lived 5 hours away from me, how was he there a Thursday morning at 6 a.m.? I opened the door for him.

“What’re doing here?” I asked. I am a fairly intelligent person, but, confronted with an improbable event two minutes after waking up, my mind was trapped in a loop of confusion.

“I’m taking you home,” he said.

“We went over this.”

“We’ll be alright, kay? It’s not healthy for you to stay here anymore.”

It was the climax of my own fairy tale. Prince charming had come to get me. This prince wasn’t rich, and a sedan is less romantic than a horse, and I was still in my pyjamas, but that moment seemed perfect nonetheless.

I quit my job the following Monday, became pregnant two weeks later. We had our struggles, but we made it. Besides, my Ottawa employer called me a year later to hire me as a long-distance employee.

There might be no real “happy ever after” in life, but there can be happy endings on paper. Of course, I skipped over the part between then and now where I wanted my life to end. But “happy” and “ending” are all a matter of perspective.

~*~

I hope you’ve enjoyed this and happy holidays!

NaNoWriMo 2017: Week 2&3

Week 2 of NaNoWriMo went a very little bit better than week 1: I wrote a total of 5,488 words, bringing my total to 9,704 words. Whoops, that’s less than I should have written in the first week. But I held on. Part of those words was my final creative writing assignment, which I am rather proud of it even if I can’t get rid of my writer insecurities.girl-3-copie

What I’m particularly proud of is that I managed to write a whole story in under 1,000 words. I don’t write short stories because whenever I try, I end up wanting to expand and expand on them until they’re novel-length. Even for this one, one of my teacher’s comments was:

It […] feels like it could keep going, as the world of the story feels fleshed out and inhabitable. It reads a bit like an opening chapter or a television pilot, where you could keep the story going significantly after this.

Yeah. Absolutely. I know at least 3 different possible directions in which to extend this into a novel. Buuut it can also be read as a short story, and that’s an achievement for me.

As for my NaNoWriMo project, it became… weirder. The hero developed a taste for BDSM – though he’s a teenager – and the heroin sort of digs it. Ahem. That might not make it into the final draft.

NaNoWriMo Week 2-3a

Week 3 was uh… a warp zone. Poof! Before I knew it, it was week 4 already and I almost hadn’t written anything. See the sad, flat line in the graph, like a dead person’s ECG?

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I went to a Lego convention on Nov. 17, 18 and 19 and came back with a bad cold. If I wanted to be able to work 8 hours in a row, I had to go to bed right after supper. I know all too well that trying to “push through” at that point would have been harmful to my physical and mental health.

Now week 4 is well underway and I’m still sick, but I feel a bit better. My total word count is 12,177 words. It is clear that reaching 50,000 words won’t be possible for me this month. I know people who can write 10,000 words per day, but I’m not one of them. It’s disappointing. However, I’ll write as much as I can until November 30 (and beyond) because the ultimate goal is to write the story without compromising my health or my enjoyment in the process.

Don’t give up, people. NaNoWriMo is hard and it’s not for everybody, but the good news is there are 12 months in a year. November is just one of them, so keep writing.

Blocked? Get to know your characters

It can happen any time: during the outlining, the drafting, the rewriting or the editing process. You feel blocked. No worries, there are a number of ways to get you going again. One of them is getting to know your characters. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

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Character sheets

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I used to love creating character sheets, then abandoned it because “hey, I know my characters, they’re mine”. But I’m starting to do it again, except I don’t write the same things I used to. For example, I used to skip the part about inner conflict. “Why, it’s all over the pages!” I’d think. Except summarizing it is an excellent way to see whether it “holds up”. A story is a bit like a labyrinth: the characters and the reader don’t know its exact configuration, but the writer must know it to make sure it is sound. It wouldn’t do to have holes or too many ways leading to the center (or climax) or none at all.

There are a plethora of templates online, from basic to elaborate. I find the basic ones useful while I’m outlining, but while editing I use one that’s much more elaborate. For instance, in the past couple of weeks I wrote several pages of background story, inner conflict, motivation, and ghosts (aka those things that haunt people). Doing this helped me realize that I didn’t understand my main character quite as well as I used to think.

Character interviews

carouselleriecreative_pinkishblooms_elements_berries-11You get to mimic your own favourite interviewer and ask your characters all kinds of questions. I don’t actually watch interviews, so I use Marcel Proust’s questionnaire to get me started. My characters don’t always tell me the truth… but I know when they’re lying and what they’re lying about tells me a bit more about what they’re ashamed of or how they’d like people to see them. Then I go deep, CIA agent-like, and discover the truth. This might sound weird, but I think reading Get the Truth made me a better writer.

Another way of “interviewing” your characters would be to make them complete a personality test. I have already stated my love for the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (or MBTI), but I know a lot of people like The Enneagram too. If you’re more esoterically oriented, name meanings and astrology can help, too… even tarot cards or runes, if you’re into that. You can even sort them in one of the houses at Hogwarts!

Simulations

I’m not sure whether a lot of writers do this, but sometimes I like to momentarily take a character out of their normal context and see how they react. Write a scene or two of them meeting people they’ll never actually meet in the story, or make them do crazy things that they’d never actually do. Sometimes, those can end up in the actual story as a “fantasy” of theirs. Most of the time it only serves as fuel, but it’s an exercise that I find so fun and entertaining it also provides powerful motivation.

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Finally, we tend to want to focus on main characters, but do not forget to do it for your secondary characters, too. They have their own agenda and can sometimes impact the main plot in unexpected ways (as they should).  In fact, in my current project, it’s a secondary character that helped me get unstuck. I also like to imagine what a story centered on their lives would be like… though that’s dangerous. It can make you want to make them more important in your main character’s story than they should be, or give you more story ideas than you could possibly write in a lifetime. But it’s a good problem to have, I guess.

I hope you enjoyed this post! Feel free to share your own techniques to get to know your characters.

Spotlight on K.M. Weiland

For the past two weeks, I’ve been working on story structure. Like I said in my previous post, I found a few structural issues in my first draft that needed fixing.Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000035_00015]

Last year, I’ve read Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering, which contains close to a hundred pages on story structure. It was interesting, but I was still a bit confused about a few things, so I figured I’d get a second opinion. That’s when a writer friend from my NaNoWriMo community shared K.M. Weiland’s 5 Secrets of Story Structure (5SoSS), a free e-book. I felt like the book had been written for me, by a friend (unlike Story Engineering, which felt like it had been written by a grumpy and sour creative writing teacher). It explained everything I needed to know.

It can be read in an afternoon, which is great when you’re eager to start getting to work. And it is so packed with information that I’d think it’s easily one of the best free e-books on writing you can get out there.

Because most of the terms in there are linked to the “hero’s quest”, you’ll find terms like “confrontation” that might not be very eloquent for, say, a romance novel. However, the writer happens to have a story structure database, so you can go and see how other novels in your genre have handled this or that particular point.
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Curious, I proceeded to read her other freely accessible work, including Crafting Unforgettable Characters. You have to subscribe to her mailing list to get that one, but if you ask me, you should subscribe anyway. I can’t say that it was as eye-opening as 5SoSS for me because I already knew most of what’s in there, but it definitely is worth the read. This one too is short enough to be read in an afternoon. It also includes a list of pointers to perform a “character interview”.

For podcasts aficionados, she’s also posting one episode a week dealing with varied subjects like “How to Calculate Your Book’s Length Before Writing” or “How to Ace the First Act in Your Sequel”. I’ll certainly listen to those while knitting.

I love how the website is organized: there is a Start Here! page where the author gives you a quick tour of her website and most popular resources, which I find so clever that I might shamelessly steal the idea and implement it on my blog. Then, in the left menu, she has six big categories of resources for outlines, story structure, character arcs, scenes, common writing mistakes and “storytelling according to Marvel”. Each page leads you to a list of the articles in that category, in a recommended reading order.

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If writing isn’t your thing, but you enjoy reading, she also has a free e-book titled Dreamlander. I haven’t read it, but it has great reviews on Goodreads. I might review it myself later…

Last but not least, the website has been awarded 3 years in a row the Writer’s Digest 101 Best Website for Writers. I didn’t know that such an award existed before I saw it on her page, but then I started noticing it on others pages I sometimes visit.

I don’t know if her resources are going to “help me become an author”, but they’ll certainly help me edit my novel!