Winter Workout

Before I get to the part of the post pertaining to the title, let me announce the winners of Alan Cumyn’s novel, All Night. In case you’re new to this blog (if you are, welcome and help yourself to cheese sticks), Alan’s interview is here.

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Caught up? Good. Thanks to the magic of the Random Number Generator, the winners are . . .

Are . . .

Are . . .

Are . . .

Ellen Reagan
Lyn Miller-Lachmann
Aussa Lorens

Congrats, guys! Please email me at lmarie7b(at)gmail(dot)com to let me know the email address attached to your device (Kindle; smartphone; iPad). I’ll have Alan’s book sent to you.

003Now that I have your attention, I have a workout you fitness buffs can try. It’s called the Winter Workout.
• First, don over your pajamas a sturdy pair of warm-up pants like the ones a good friend bought for me to prevent more blog posts like this or this.
• Second, add to your ensemble a polar fleece pullover, a fleece hat, fleece coat, fleece-lined boots, and fleece-lined mittens, which combined undoubtedly weigh as much as the average fourth grader. Consider yourself a weightlifter just for wearing these clothes.
• Third, trudge toward your vehicle through drifts almost knee deep in places.
004• Fourth, firmly grasp your snow brush by the handle. Place against the snow piled high on your vehicle. Brush in an even manner back and forth from the hood to the trunk of the car. Repeat 70,000 times or until your arm tires, whichever comes first.
• Fifth, stop to wipe your runny nose with the back of your glove, because you did not bring tissue. Dare anyone to say anything.
• Sixth, firmly grasp your snow shovel by the handle. Insert the blade of the shovel into the snow and shovel any area in which you need to drive or walk. For example, your driveway or around your parking space. Repeat 70,000 times or until your back gives out, whichever comes first.
• Seventh, go inside and proceed to drink eight cups of warm coffee. Visit the bathroom when needed. Then check the weather on your phone or computer. Slam phone to the desk when you learn that more snow is predicted.

And there you have it! I discovered this workout, because my parking space is by a field. Talk about a wind pocket! The other day, so much snow had fallen, a section of it dormered out of my back passenger window. I could have rented out that space if I hadn’t brushed it off.

The repetition of snow followed by dropping temperatures has gotten old this winter. It almost makes me long for a volcano to erupt. Almost.

Something else has gotten old—the repetition of words in my manuscript. Though I’m in draft mode and don’t usually stop to read what I’ve written, I can’t help noticing that I’m repeating some of the same words and phrases—maybe not quite 70,000 times, but enough. (If you’re wondering why I should care, take a look at some of the reviews on Amazon. Some readers notice when an author did not vary in his or her word choices.) So after writing a paragraph in which I’d used the word suddenly twice, I decided to do a quick check back through my manuscript. Sometimes as I wrote a scene, I highlighted a word I used more than once in a paragraph so that I can change it later. I came up with the following list and the number of times I used that word or phrase.

Felt—125
Judging by—21
Just—119
Looked—70
Nodded—53
Realize/Realized—33
Suddenly—45
Surprised—20
Turned—138
Watched—21
Wondered—50

If you’re wondering (hee hee) how I found out how many times I used a word, in Microsoft Word I used Find and Replace. First, I saved the manuscript. Second, I hit CTRL + H and typed the word. But instead of suggesting a word to replace it, I left that section blank, then hit Replace All. The computer would then tell me how many times the word was replaced. I then hit CTRL + Z to go back to my original version each time, since I’m not yet ready to revise.

As you can see, I have pet words. They’re quick to use in a draft when I’m just trying to get the story down. See? I used the word just again. But when I revise, I need to do the harder work of cutting down on the repetition and strengthening my prose by culling filter words—words that distance a reader from the action. Talk about a workout! Just thinking about it makes me want to drink eight cups of coffee. Think I’ll go grab a cup now. And while I’m at it, this picture expresses my feelings very well about any upcoming snow:

grumpy-cat-8141_preview_zps9177ab07

Sometimes repetition is good, as Victoria Grefer of Creative Writing with the Crimson League describes in this post: http://crimsonleague.com/2014/02/02/5033/

Wondering about filter words? Check out Susan Dennard’s post here: http://www.publishingcrawl.com/2012/05/21/filter-words/

Alan Cumyn photo from his website. Grumpy Cat from somewhere on the Internet. Book cover from Goodreads.

Check This Out: All Night

Welcome to the blog. imagecumyn2Today, it is my privilege to talk with the awesome Alan Cumyn, one of the faculty members at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and an award-winning novelist. Alan has written eleven novels for a variety of ages. He’s won awards like the Ottawa Book Award and Mr. Christie’s Book Award for children’s literature, and has been short listed for awards like the Giller Prize, the Trillium Award, and many others. Cool, huh?

He’s here to talk about his latest novel, All Night. I’ll be giving away three copies of it. But before I get to that, let’s talk to Alan, shall we?

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El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
14273Alan: (1) I have studied and practiced tai chi, a slow-motion Chinese martial art and moving meditation, for nearly 30 years. It starts my day, helps me keep my focus when a lot is going on. (2) I live four blocks from my old high school in Ottawa, Canada, but have also lived in many other places, including China and Indonesia. (3) When I was 24, I did a Master of Creative Writing under Alistair MacLeod, who would go on to win one of the world’s richest literary prizes for his novel No Great Mischief. (4) I am surrounded by writers, actors, and artists. My wife, Suzanne Evans, is a nonfiction writer particularly interested in women and war. My older brother, Richard, writes mainly short stories; my younger brother Steve is a professional actor, as is my daughter, Gwen; and both my mother, Suzanne, and my other daughter, Anna, are talented painters.

El Space: Your latest book, All Night, was written as a literacy project. How did that come about?
944171Alan: My eldest daughter, Gwen Cumyn, graduated from theater school a few years ago into an uncertain life as an actor. Her partner, Colin Munch, is an improv comedian. As a graduation gift I decided to write a one-act play about a similar couple struggling through a difficult night after a dear friend has suddenly died. The play is a romantic comedy showing the couple coming to grips with economic realities, the limitations of dreams, and the power of their own love. I got to spend a week in Toronto workshopping the play with Gwen and Colin in the lead roles, directed by Kat Sandler, a talented young director. We are still figuring out the best way to present this material to audiences. In the meantime, I was contacted by Laurel Boone, who edited my first novel in 1993, Waiting for Li Ming, which I wrote after spending a year teaching in China. Laurel was editing a series of novellas called Good Reads in which prominent authors were asked to write short, plain-language novels for adults who are learning to read. I decided to adapt the play, and that’s how the book was born.

El Space: You’ve written books for children, teens, and adults. What are the challenges in toggling between the age levels?
image002Alan: I started my career as very much an adult writer, and only turned to writing for younger audiences after having my own kids and being reintroduced to the wonders of children’s literature. Some of my novels for adults are dark and intense, and I literally needed a break—I needed to work on something light and funny. That’s how The Secret Life of Owen Skye came about—as a series of stories written for my own daughters as Christmas or birthday presents, and later adapted into linked stories for publication. I’m interested in a lot of different issues and material—there’s so much in life to write about! So I try not to repeat myself in books, and I really like the feeling of switching gears, of moving from one type of book to something quite different. So in choosing which project to work on next, I think of my own energy level and the next sort of challenge I want to take on.

1190526El Space: I read this article on Guy Gavriel Kay, who talked about the theme of exile in his books. What theme, if any, can you see running through your novels?
Alan: In many ways my novels are all over the map. I have some about human rights (Man of Bone and Burridge Unbound), about war (The Sojourn, The Famished Lover), one on madness (Losing It), some coming-of-age novels (Tilt, Between Families and the Sky). But I am most interested in how people form bonds, in what love does to us and how we find it and try to keep it. So my Owen Skye trilogy (including also After Sylvia and Dear Sylvia) traces an epic love story between Owen and Sylvia Tull, the little girl who sits across the classroom from him. She is so beautiful he can hardly look at her, but she breaks his heart when she moves away. Often, when I read an Owen story in a classroom, I talk about how we all have to deal with love in our lives, no matter what age and stage. As Paul Simon sings [in “Oh, Marion“], “The only time that love is an easy game is when two other people are playing it.”

El Space: In two lectures at VCFA, you quoted some advice from one of your writing professors about remembering the “cheese sandwich” in regard to story—how a reader might walk away from a story if she’s not captivated. In both lectures you talked about connection. How can a writer aid a reader’s connection to his/her story?
grilledcheeseAlan: My writing professor, Alistair MacLeod, an irrepressible storyteller, often used to round out his advice to writers by saying, “If you don’t do it right, if you don’t nail the reader to the page, then she will put down your book, wander into the kitchen and make herself a cheese sandwich . . . and never come back!” The idea is that readers are so easily distracted that even processed cheese food will be too much competition for writing that doesn’t quite work. I like fiction that works in all the major ways—that is about interesting people who find themselves in odd and trying situations, and are honestly seeking a way through. We do need to connect to those characters, to care about them, and readers do need to feel like they really are in partnership with the author—it is “their” book, too. And that often means not explaining everything, leaving lots of room for the reader’s imagination.

El Space: You’re off to be a writer-in-residence at Mount Royal University in Calgary and elsewhere. For me, writer-in-residence always conjures up the image of a writer sitting in an office with a window and everyone staring at him or her and murmuring, “He’s/She’s writing” in an awed voice. But what are the responsibilities of being a writer-in-residence?
Alan: The responsibilities of a writer-in-residence can vary greatly depending on the setup. At Mount Royal University in Calgary I will be spending a fair amount of time in classrooms speaking with creative writing students and in office time meeting students and other writers from the university one-on-one. I will only be there for a week, and I’m not expecting to get much of my own writing done! But I will be at Berton House in Dawson City, Yukon, for three months—from April through June 2014. As writer-in-residence my only official duties will be to give a public reading in Dawson, and another in Whitehorse. I expect I will have lots of other public interactions, both official and unofficial, but mainly the idea is that I have time, money, and a space to do my own writing away from my regular life. How heavenly!

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El Space: What are you working on now?
Alan: I am working on a new young adult novel that I don’t talk about publicly yet, but hopefully soon.

Thanks, Alan! I can truly say you’re a gentleman and a scholar. 😀

Thanks to all who stopped by. You can find All Night at the following places:

Amazon
Barnes and Noble

Looking for Alan? You can find him at his website, Facebook, and Twitter. But three of you will win a Kindle version of All Night. Just comment below! Winners to be announced on Friday, February 7.

Cheese sandwich image from simplerecipes.net. Book covers from Alan’s website and Goodreads. Photo of Alan is from his website.

A Writer’s Process (11b)

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERAHello! Please join me in welcoming to the blog once more the luminous and enlightening Laurie Morrison! I really, really, really wish I had a brownie like the ones Laurie wrote about in Rebound, her young adult novel. I could also go for a slice of pie! (Mmm. Pie.) Let’s move on, since I can’t get either one just now.

Apple_pie

If you’re reading this blog for the first time ever, welcome to you too. But I have to tell you that this is the second part of the interview with Laurie. The first part is here.

El Space: Yesterday we talked about your antagonist. How did you go about crafting a “nuanced, realistic antagonist”? “A nuanced, realistic heroine”?
round characterLaurie: Hmm, that’s a good question. Once I decided to make Lissy’s dad an antagonist, I thought about her insecurities and considered how I could turn him into someone who would especially push her buttons. That involved turning him from a not-very-successful lawyer into an entrepreneur who takes risks, thinks people should look out for their own interests, and has never valued Lissy’s interest in baking. I did a lot of free-writing about Lissy and her dad’s back story, to figure out precisely when and how he had made her feel not good enough, but then I also figured out what her dad has going for him and why Lissy’s stepmother, Kim, fell in love with him. When I turned him into an antagonist, that actually opened up possibilities for Kim to become a rounder and more important character.

As for creating a nuanced and realistic heroine, one thing that really helped me was to free-write scenes between Lissy and each of the other key characters, both from the past and from the summer when the book takes place. Some of these scenes made it into the story and many did not, but I got a fuller picture of Lissy as I saw how she interacted with others and came to understand the relationships that have shaped her.

El Space: You’re writing a series of blog posts on first-person narration. (If you want to read them, start here.) What excites you most about this perspective?
11925514Laurie: I love the intimacy of a first-person narrative and the experience of trying to capture a character’s experience through her own eyes and ears, skin, etc. and in her own distinctive voice. I’m also excited about what I think of as the reliability spectrum for first-person narration.

I find it fascinating to read books with narrators who turn out to be quite unreliable, such as Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein and Inexcusable by Chris Lynch. But then I’m also interested in narrators who aren’t unreliable on purpose, but who aren’t unequivocally reliable, either, because any person’s perspective is subjective and in some ways limited. No narrator can attend to everything that is going on all at once or truly know where others are coming from.

307652Some narrators are closer to the wholly reliable end of the spectrum than others, but it’s still important to think about when those largely reliable narrators might not be seeing a character or situation accurately and what their blind spots or defense mechanisms might be. I love to write and read about characters who are relatable and engaging but also clearly fallible. I think it’s a powerful experience to love and identify with a first-person narrator while also understanding her limitations and rooting for her to grow.

El Space: Cool! I wish I could quote directly from the podcast interview I heard with Ally Carter some months ago. But she mentioned having a niche in the marketplace. She’s known for a certain type of book. I happen to love her books. What do you see as your niche? Why?
Laurie: If I continue to write the kind of stories I’ve been writing—and if, you know, people actually want to read those stories—my niche would probably be writing books for the younger end of YA readers.

Most of my 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students read young adult novels instead of, or in addition to, middle grade books. The term middle grade is actually kind of confusing, because it doesn’t really correspond to middle school years. I gravitate toward writing stories that would be good for middle school students who are ready to read about teenage experiences, but might not be quite ready for all of the content in “older” YA books.

5819551That doesn’t mean that I censor myself when I’m writing or exclude certain things on purpose because I am trying to send a certain positive message. It just means that if I really think about my intended reader, I imagine myself at age 13 or 14 or one of the students I’ve gotten to know especially well, and my sense of that intended audience influences which stories I choose to tell.

El Space: What authors inspire you?
Laurie: Lots of authors inspire me, but here are a few. E. Lockhart and Jaclyn Moriarty inspire me because of their humor and their distinctive first-person narrators. Sarah Dessen inspires me because of the emotional depth of her novels and her multifaceted characters. Katherine Paterson inspires me because of the affection she clearly has for her characters and her readers.

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2839El Space: They’re all awesome. What writing advice, if any, have you received that electrified your writing?
Laurie: [VCFA’s own] Alan Cumyn taught me that it’s very compelling to watch a character who won’t let herself have something we know she really wants. Franny Billingsley taught me to identify a character’s vacuum—the longing or hole that the character is struggling to fill. Mary Quattlebaum taught me that if you give a character a driving passion, that passion can help shape your character’s voice and make it sound distinct. And Shelley Tanaka taught me that subplots need to enrich or mirror the central story, and too many subplots can make a story less powerful.

Thanks, Laurie, for being my guest! You’ve been awesome. But next time, please bring brownies.

Those of you who stopped by can find Laurie at her blog or on Twitter. If you have questions for Laurie, please comment below. You can also answer this question: Which antagonists have you read reacently which seemed “nuanced and realistic”?

Book covers by Goodreads. Pie photo from Wikipedia. Round character poster from mhaywood.blogspot.com.