Sunday, January 29, 2012

Reality Check

I don't know about you but as much as I try for it to be otherwise, winter always makes me feel less productive. It seems like everything you do in winter is a hassle. Just the act of getting the kids out the door takes twice as long with ski pants, boots, jackets, mitts that are often missing or left in the car, hats, neck warmers. This winter thus far has been atypically warm but the hassles still exist.

I lead a complicated life, as most of us do, but a few changes in scheduling this year seemed to have increased the complications. I have my children more days a week. It being swim meet season, this means I also have them irregular weekends while their father is away at meets or coaching in town meets. My kids also are attending two different schools this year because middle school starts at grade 5 in the French Immersion program so that means my daughter is at a different school this year.

On top of it all, at work we are in a transition year. It is the last year for two of the programs I've been working with for the last 9 years and our new Baccalaureate program is in it's second year. This means I teach one of my courses 5 times over the academic year because my course runs this year in all three programs.  Because one of the programs runs on a different term schedule, I am never teaching the same material at the same time to any group. Half the time I don't know what I'm teaching, what stories I've told what group and what worksheets I've completed and what I haven't. I rely on my students to tell me. Presently I am in the classroom with 4 classes this term and am working with approximately, 300 students. I operate week by week on good weeks. Usually it is day by day.

It means I'm finding I have to let go of my Type A need to be everything to everyone, be perfect and show up to everything I want to do. It simply isn't realistic or fair to the kids and my sanity to try any more.

I rely on my parents a lot when it comes to the kids and getting me to work on time and allowing me to full fill my obligations there, and I am thankful they are willing and helpful. But I suffer a lot of guilt over what I feel are my constant requests for assistance. One and a half years to go and I have a 12 year old. I'm already prepping her psychologically to be prepared to be taking the city bus to and from school when the time comes.

And I miss my two hour workouts. A lot. That is one thing that has had to be sacrificed in favour of simplifying my life. I'm exercising like a "normal" person right now. I can rarely get to the gym during work hours these days. I would love to be bike commuting all winter. I've slowly been prepping myself to start doing that for the last 3 years. Two years ago I bought goggles and outdoor pants. Last year I bought the bike mitts. This year I bought the balaclava and a night light. Little by little I get ready. Now if only I could buy the time. Right now I have one day a week I can reasonably commute and this is on Tuesday when I have no classes and the kids are with their father so I don't have to get them to school. 

My winter commute time is about 40 minutes on average -- compared to spring and fall when it is 30 minutes. And that is just the ride time.  That doesn't included the bike storage and the shower and change time pre and post rides which is also significantly longer when all the gear is considered. When I teach class at 10:00 and drop my kids at school at 8:30, there just isn't enough time for a winter commute. 

So I have to be satisfied with half hour workouts, an hour at most, and skating with my kid down the river path has to count as a workout even though I barely break a sweat. And I'm despising the bike trainer beyond measure this winter. I'm ready to throw it in a snowbank -- if there were any snowbanks this winter that is. I have to accept my current state of non-competitiveness. That is what is realistic.

This all means that Actif Epica is not going to happen, as much as I might like it to. I can afford a few hours on the day to volunteer because that is what is realistic. It's not the fitness required for it, even with scaled back workout time, I'm still pretty fit. It is the detail required to organize myself to be prepared. The gear. The packing. The food planning. And the four hour training rides that I just can't do right now because the kids are here a lot on weekends and can't be left alone.

And the Barn race, which is today, couldn't happen either. And it looks very very cool. 

And then there is everything else: President of Tribalistic Triathlon, blog writing as infrequently as it occurs (which is an act of relaxation), the course I am taking has homework, my kids have homework, and getting my novel ready to publish on Kindle which has it's own frustrations. But this stuff is important to me and who I am. And you have no idea how much I would like to be writing something new. 

The latest book publishing frustration being readying the manuscript for upload. Microsoft Word formatting makes me want to punch the computer screen sometimes. It is worse with Microsoft Word for Mac. I can't seem to change the font size of a couple of individually selected words without it changing the entire document. Frustrating. And the Kindlegen program for Mac is a command line tool program. I have so much to learn and don't know who to ask. 

So thus is the state of things right now. Gosh there were two days this week when I couldn't even get to the store to restock the milk. We just did without.  My daughter just walked in and told me the white milk is out again. Such is my life. 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Making it a Visual Experience

When in the midst of writing my novel,  I had all kinds of delusions of grandeur about my book being turned into a movie. Those were in the good moments of writing. Writing, and maybe this can be said of any big project where your life and soul is consumed, can be a little bipolar at times; sometimes you feel you are worthy of fame and fortune, and sometimes you flat out suck.

And I'll admit, the moments you think you suck, far outweigh the moments of grandeur.

Even in the last few weeks since I set myself down the path to committing to self ePublishing this book, I've had a few bipolar moments. I love this book and I hate it too. It was the catalyst for a lot of change in my life. It is full of subliminal messages. I can see stuff about myself in it that I didn't recognize while I was writing. These things are hard to face now, six years later.

I had to re-read the book a few months ago so I could fix a few issues of temporality. I had a cell phone issue to deal with. While I tried to write the book to be somewhat timeless and something today's teenage girls could relate to, there is no denying that I was a teenager in a different era. So there was a scene where my heroine comes home to a phone message but later in the book we know she has a cell phone. If she has a cell phone why wouldn't the caller have used it?  I had to fix that. But it meant I had to read the book and that made me a little self conscious.

I'm very fussy about consistency in a book. I'm also frustrated when I'm reading a book and an author takes care of a problem with a "cheat."  In fact I finished reading a book last night that used a huge cheat. A character died from a brain tumour and I guess later in in the writing process, like 10 or 12 chapters later, the author created a plot twist that required that the family be in financial crisis. So low and behold, in a one-sentence write-off, the family was suddenly in serious debt because of the medical bills from the character with the brain tumour.  That's a cheat because it came out of nowhere. No foreshadowing, no warning. I think cheats are an insult to intelligent readers. And while, it was a small issue I had to fix in my book and perhaps would have gone by unnoticed by most readers, it would have bugged me for life so it had to be fixed.

Speaking of readers, my book has been out of the closet now for a little under six years. In that time I've pretty much indiscriminately allowed whoever asked to read it. I never offered it to anyone but I never said no if I was asked. Allowing people to read your novel can be scary sometimes but I was never afraid of letting people read this one. The vast majority of my readers have fallen outside my target audience however, meaning they've been older than 29 and some of them have been male. Only two of my readers have been in the right zone; one was the cousin of one of my best friends and one was the step-daughter of a co-worker.

When I was asked by my favourite designer ,who I put in charge of my book cover design, to help her by identifying key moments in the book, I sent an email out to some of the people I knew had read my book and asked what they remembered. I figured the best way to find out what was most memorable in the book would be to identify those scenes that stick in people's heads for a long time. You know how when you watch a movie or read a novel there is always one part that sticks with you even years after you last saw the movie? That's what I was looking for -- the moments that suck for my friends.

It didn't occur to me until after I hit "send" that maybe there was nothing memorable about my book and nobody would remember anything, and no one would reply (while sending the email was a moment of grandeur, the fear of lack of a reply was an I suck moment, to say the least). And I sent this email over Christmas holidays so it did take 2 or 3 days for people to start replying but, at last, the New Year came and the responses started to roll in.

Most remembered the "teenager" bits -- the making out and the parties and the drinking. A couple remembered the bonfire party scene. Some remembered baseball. Someone actually, five years later, remembered my heroine's name -- extra amazing because it is also a first person book and the only time you read her name is when another character uses it in dialogue.

Her name is Janey, by the way.

And one person remembered the long walk/run through St. Boniface in the dark. That person happened to be my longtime mentor Laurie and I'm sure he remembered that portion because it was agonizing for him to get me to write visual imagery. Not my strength as a writer -- describing shit, I mean. In fact, I'll confess, the way I remember it is that there was a section during that run scene that Laurie, for all intents and purposes, wrote for me.

What my readers didn't remember was the car accident (not a spoiler, by the way, you find out about that in the first chapter), the grieving theme, the love triangle (sorta), and the emotional bits of "coming of age." It isn't a visual book. I'm not a visual writer. It is an emotions book. That's who I am.

I shot my designer an email with a few mentions of specific scenes, an attachment with the book she wanted for reminders as it had been a while since she read it herself -- not to mention the narcotic factor as she read it initially while recovering from a nasty bike crash. I only had two no-no's for the image: No car crashes and no pink. But I knew I really didn't have to tell her that second one.

And I told her I thought she had the hardest job in the world. I couldn't imagine having to take someone's written word and put a visual on it. We write our books picturing everything in our own heads. We picture the locations, we may even be imagining a real place. We may picture our friends in place of our characters. I didn't write any character to be just one person in my life. Often my characters were an amalgamation of 2, 3 or 4 people I knew mixed in with the invented bits, so for me, a character might have 2, 3 or 4 different appearances.

She said she'd get back to me in two weeks. I freaked out because that was fast. And once the cover came in, it would be real, you know. I would have to go through with this.

She only took a week and a half..........

.........and dammit, she sent me two options. And they are both AMAZING and I have to decide. I think I have decided actually. I'm just taking a few days to keep it unreal a little longer.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Life Cycle of a Novel

One day about 6.5 years ago I decided I was going to write a novel. It was easy. It was a spontaneous decision and I just went for it. I sat down at my computer and just began to type and the damn thing wrote itself. Then I made a couple phone calls, got an agent, and because the novel was really good and I was really talented, the agent found me a publisher overnight. That publisher offered me a half million dollar advance which I then used to pay off my house, all my debt, and buy the most expensive bikes possible and we all lived happily ever after travelling to California every spring to climb hills and wander along the ocean.

Yeah, I'm totally shitting you.

I was thinking the other day about the concept of talent. If you are talented at sports, everyone wants you on their team. If you are talented at a really popular sport like hockey or football or golf, scouts seek you out, everyone recognizes your talent, and you are invited to a team training camp or you are drafted (which has nothing to do with sitting behind the fastest guy in the peloton) or if it's golf you go to qualifying school. If you've worked hard and you are driven you are rewarded for your talents with a big contract and a lot of money.

But if your talent is something artistic, it isn't that simple. With artistic talent, you get classified within some genre or style that might be an acquired taste, and you have to meet a popular need. And with writing, a publisher has to think you meet enough of a popular need to make them money. They aren't interested in breaking even off you, they are interested in you making them rich. There are a lot of really popular authors out there who are shitty writers. No, shitty is too harsh. They can write, they just have some horrible lazy habits or formalistic plot generator writing mentality. Please don't make me name any of these authors. If you read, you can name your own.

There were a handful of truths in the lie of my first paragraph. Six years ago, I did write a novel. It wasn't easy and it didn't write itself but I am sorta talented. Everyone has one talent, and I'm grateful to be able to have identified mine, because I am sure that there are some people that never stumble upon what their talent is and most, spend too much time floundering around putting too much energy into a talent they don't actually have hoping talent will magically materialize. Like bike racing, perhaps. Or, like singing. I can't sing.

My novel I wrote didn't get shoved in a drawer. I finished writing the first draft sometime in November of 2005. I had a four year old and an almost-two year old who went to bed early (lucky me) and that's when I wrote. I ignored my marriage and that would be my contribution to it's demise (or part of it).  It was writing my book that was the gigantic turning point in my life, there was no doubt about it.

I applied for and gained admittance to the Manitoba Writer's Guild Mentorship program and started that in January of 2006. I worked for 4 months with Brandon writer Laurie Block who at the time was a 50-something poet. I went through great angst trying to figure out why the hell, out of the 60-plus applicants that submitted a proposal, he would be interested in me, 30-somthing writer of a girly teen novel.

But I do credit Laurie with saving my life and my lost soul in many ways but I've talked about that elsewhere. Many elsewheres, actually.

When the mentorship program was over, Laurie encouraged me to submit a proposal for a writer's grant from the Manitoba Art's Council. I got the grant.  I used the grant money, not only to live a little, but also to make a big push to get my novel published. I don't remember how many publishers and agents I queried and sent samples to but it was several dozen.

And they were interested. I had two agents request the entire manuscript and two or three that asked for chapter samples. I had two publishers also request the entire manuscript. They all eventually turned me down, (except for the second publisher -- 4 years later and I've never officially received a rejection). Why was it rejected? I was lucky enough to receive more than form letter replies in many cases and the message was always the same: While the writing is really good, we just aren't sure how to market this. It is too old for young adult and too young for adult.

When I sat down to write this book, I wrote the book I would have wanted to read at about 14 or 15 years old when I wanted to transition out of reading teen specific books but wasn't quite ready to read about the lives of 30 and 40 year olds in the traditional adult novels. So I wrote about an 18 year old girl graduating from high school and the the changes and thoughts that come along with that.

But I targeted Canadian publishers and Canada being the small market that it is, young adult means 12 year olds and up.  Twelve year olds shouldn't read my novel. The sexual content is too mature.  I didn't target American publishers because my book is very Canadian -- Winnipeg Canadian. There is a huge St. Boniface cultural effect in the novel and that atmosphere was very important to me. If you grew up in or hung around St. Boniface, Windsor Park, or Southdale in the late 80's or early 90's this book will feel very much like home to you. Large portions of the book take place in very familiar and in some cases, now defunct locations like Le Rendezvous, Le Canot, College du St. Boniface baseball fields and the characters work at the Safeway and Canadian Tire on Vermillion Road.

I gave the book a chance to be published mainstream for about 2 years. In the time I waited for the pile of rejections, I wrote a second novel. I haven't said much about novel number 2 but maybe I will in a future post. But that doesn't explain why I've let 4 more years go by since I gave up on ever holding this book in my hands in printed form or being able to wander into McNally Robinson and stare at it's cover on the store shelves. I always joked that it was going to be my goal to see my author picture up on the wall one day. Now that picture would have to be me on a bike.

In the meantime I've enjoyed spending the last four years beating the crap out of myself on a bike and I will continue to do that. And a lot of things have changed in publishing since I wrote my novel and tried to publish it the old fashioned way. Book stores are struggling due to big box mentalities. And Kindle and iBooks are beginning to take over.

And my first novel deserves better than it's place in the metaphorical bottom of the Tickle Trunk. So as an act of doing something lofty, I'm prepping it to be ePublished.  It's time and I hope I'm ready and I've procrastinated long enough. So for the next little while I'll use this blog to tell you my progress in doing that. I can tell you I am now a Registered Publisher, I can obtain ISBN numbers, I've researched how to upload to Kindle (the information on how a Canadian does that with iBooks has been a bit more difficult to find all in one neat and tidy place), and I've got my favourite designer on the job of bringing the emotional mood of my book to life on a cover image.

I even have some promotional ideas, hence my sudden interest in Twitter which I still don't get. And I hate tooting my own horn and selling myself. It feels like prostitution. Worse, actually, I'm standing on stage naked under the lights. I can't see the audience but it's all people I know, and they could start throwing tomatoes at any moment. But I'll see what I can do. There might be a reason why the time didn't become right, till now, for me to take action on ePublishing.

Most authors will tell you that their first book should never see the light of day. I don't think that's true in this case. I also don't think it was really my first novel.

Stay tuned in future posts. I have more to tell you about how I've been prepping this book.