Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Another First - Doing a Guest Blog Post

Well, it's released! I had a lovely Twitter book birthday party and it was a beautiful sunny day to boot. It feels very much like the start of a new chapter for me (sorry for the cringe-inducing writing metaphor!). And to start it off I was even asked to guest blog on Drunk Writer Talk. The lovely Maureen McGowan (one of the Drunk Writer's)invited me to talk about ILLEGALLY BLONDE on their blog and I was honoured. It's a great place to hear about the struggle and triumph that writing can be and to commiserate with fellow writers who understand the highs and lows. So go check it out and thank you everyone, again, for your warm wishes and happy congratulations. Like I said yesterday, I'm a very lucky girl.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Day Before the Book Release: Excitement, uncertainty and reflection

Sometimes horoscopes are just too freaky for words. Check out my horoscope for this week, especially for tomorrow, the release date for Illegally Blonde:

Tuesday produces one of the more influential full moons of the year. At this time you could find yourself reflecting on the success of your labours and considering laying down new foundations for the future. Saturn's imprint is on events so, on the one hand, you may be adding to your responsibilities and taking on a more significant role yet, on the other, you could feel somewhat disappointed. In the case of the latter, do not discard a project in the heat of the moment. April's stars are gentler on the Capricorn Goat and you could discover that contrary to your first impressions there is plenty of life left in one of your plans.

Okay, I know that people can read whatever they want to in their horoscopes but in my current circumstances and headspace this seems pretty dead on accurate to me. I will indeed be reflecting on the last few years as IB releases and trying to figure out the future and what might be in store for me. What writer doesn't when their first book is about to head out into the world? And that whole 'feeling somewhat disappointed' business? It's not that I won't be excited about the official release of IB but I know this is a long hard road and I'm realistic about what might - or might not - happen. Like someone I know who's seen many, many book releases told me it's a bit like post-partum depression. You've been looking forward to this date for years and now that the baby's arrived you might feel inexplicably let down. I don't think I'll feel that but it does and will feel very much like any other day except when I remember: Oh! The book is out. It's really out!

I've also been really struggling with my current WIP and thinking seriously about putting it aside for now -especially with all the distractions my first book release is offering. I really do hope that there is still "plenty of life" left in this project like my horoscope suggests but with all the distractions IB has been throwing in front of me lately it has been sadly neglected. I hope to get back my writing mojo and concentrate on those things rather than book launch prep, bookmarks, and gazing at shiny new book covers!

I think the reason I'm looking more towards horoscopes right now and trying to get a feel for the future is because I'm slightly anxious about the whole thing and I'd like someone (even an online astrology site) to tell me what's going to happen. I know there will be many new and exciting things to look forward to but uncertainty and the whole 'it's out of my hands' feeling leaves me at a bit of a loss right now. So I'm retreating a bit - becoming a little more reflective - probably when I should be shouting out to the world "Hey! Whoo HOO! Let's party!"

But not right now. Not quite yet.

I know I'll get to that point of ecstatic celebration and it'll be a heck of a ride with many friends and family there to share it with me (Book launch on April 25th! YAY! More details later). But for now I am taking a deep breath, being a bit more reflective of what this not insignificant event means and what it might - or might not - change in my life. It may not change anything in my future at all, really. But even if it doesn't I know what has led up to it has already changed me. Writing and publishing a book has opened my life up in so many different ways. I've met so many new and interesting people I'd never have had the opportunity to meet otherwise. I'm already changed, I hope, for the better. And because of that, I think I owe it to myself to reflect a little this week. To dream a little bit about the future but mostly, to appreciate my incredible good fortune on having gotten this far and understanding how special this moment really is. The past informs our future and while we can't live in it we must surely appreciate what has happened to us to get us here and to keep us going in the futue.

So tomorrow, when the book is officially 'out' I may just be sitting quietly at home, not doing anything much beyond spending time with my kids and husband and thinking to myself: Nelsa, you're a very, very lucky girl.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

And a book is born...

Probably the best part of the publishing journey. Seeing and holding the book in person. My author copies arrived yesterday. I held ILLEGALLY BLONDE. It is real. My book is here. And it is beautiful.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Mastering the Art of Waiting - Not.

The journey to become published is paved with the carcasses of writers who have suffered through many tortures - the worst of which is waiting. Learning how to wait patiently should be a first year credit course for anyone taking a writer's program or be taught at whatever writer's retreat you might be lucky enough to attend. I've been writing for over seven years. I've waited through my share of writer milestones: waiting to hear back from agents (agony I tell you!), waiting to hear back from editors once your book is on submission (torture - sheer torture!), waiting to find out if your book made it through the acquisition meeting (tear your hair out torture!), waiting for the first revision letter, waiting for final pass pages, waiting to see your cover, waiting for your agent to get back to you with revisions for your next book, waiting, waiting, waiting...

I thought I'd passed through all the seven circles of waiting hell by this point but there was one more I had to face: waiting for my author's copies to arrive.

Sheer. Brutal. Agony.

I got the email from the publisher earlier this week saying the books were on their way. My agent emailed me yesterday saying she'd got her copies and they looked great. Now waiting was compounded by its ugly cousin jealousy - dang it everybody else had their copies - when could I hold my book in my hands? I was home pretty much all day yesterday and thought the mailman would end my suffering (it had been a while since I'd stalked the mailman!) But, nope, my waiting would not be over with the sound of bills and magazines thunking onto the front hall carpet. I would have to wait some more.

But I was pro at waiting. I'd learned over the years what I needed to do. I would work on my wip! I'd clean the house! I'd rake the yard! Laundry! Of course. Hockey games to attend, errands to run. All of these things would take my mind off of the waiting.

But I'd failed to realize one small difference in this waiting game that made it different from all the other waiting games I'd played in the last seven years. This time I was waiting for my first book to arrive. It was out there. In the world. About to be launched. Held by people. Read by people. It was here.

Two more days until the mailman comes again. The seventh circle of hell has morphed into number eight and counting...

Monday, March 15, 2010

What Being the Daughter of Immigrants Taught Me About Writing

I spent the first half of my life basically trying to ignore the fact that my parents were immigrants. I don't think I was alone in feeling that my cultural 'differentness' was not something I waved about with the pride that maybe I should have. Different language, different food, different family - these things, while I didn't denigrate to my english speaking, Protestant faith, Capital C Canadian friends I also didn't celebrate. I tried to ignore those aspects of my life by not really talking about them. I could never really forget them entirely, mind you. After all my name was a big red flag that shouted 'different'. Every time a friend came over and met my limited english speaking parents and knew a pig had just been slaughtered in the barn shouted 'different'. Every time I had to take part in the Portuguese club dances or functions or whatever the community had going said 'different'. To me, the fact that my parents were immigrants was always more of a liability in my younger days never a plus. I never thought about what their being immigrants could actually teach me. What a gift it was to me in becoming who I am today. A writer.

Next week I'll be sitting on my very first writers panel. It's being held at York University and the symposium's title is "Narratives of the Portuguese Diaspora: Emmigration and Identity." The writers panel is supposed to discuss how emmigration has affected our writing. I can certainly talk about my novel, the plot and themes and connect it all to the issues of emmigration specific to the Portuguese experience. But what this topic has really started me thinking about is how being the child of immigrants influenced me in taking the first step toward becoming a writer. The life lessons my parents immigant experience taught me - even if I didn't realize them at the time - they were invaluable and sustained me as I struggled through the last seven years.

So, what are those life lessons? First, and most importantly, ...

Have a Dream
My father and mother were raised during the depression and WWII years in abject poverty under an oppressive dictatorship. They truly had nothing but their family and their dreams to sustain them. My father dreamed of owning his own land one day - being his own boss. That dream sustained him when he was a young married man with a child to raise and no job to be found anywhere. That dream sustained him when faced with the most adverse conditions and experiences when he emmigrated. Experiences I never expect to be faced with but it taught me the importance of holding on to your dreams. I had a dream to write one day. That dream lived inside me until I was ready to ...

Take a Risk
Dreams are a wonderful thing to have but without following through on them - without taking a risk - that's all they are and they will remain just as insubstantial. My father took the biggest risk - leaving his young family and travelling to an unknown world, with an unknown language, to an unknown and harsh geography, with no definite job and no guarantees. My mother left her family - unwillingly. She took the greatest risk of all becaue she was terrified to leave the only home and place she'd ever known.

I took a risk and decided to stop dreaming and start writing. It was exhilerating and terrifying at the same time. But I was only able to continue because my parents taught me to …

Persevere When Faced with Adversity/Rejection
When my father first came here he traveled for the first year from city to city, town to town, from south to north and east to west - literally looking everywhere for a job. He was constantly told "No. I don't need you." "Try again next month." "Can't pay you what I said. Here's half of what I owe you." "Sorry. Thought I needed you but we're cutting back."
He never gave up looking. He persevered.

Reading a letter or email that says "Sorry. Not for me" about the novel you sweated bullets over is peanuts when I remember what my father and mother went through. Which leads directly to the next life lesson my immigrant parents taught me …

Always Work Hard
My dad took any job he could get. Mostly as an itinerant farm labourer for years until he finally got a job as a lumberjack in a remote logging community in Northern Ontario. A dangerous, risky job in horrendous conditions for years (one day I'm going to write about those stories he told me about). Then, finally, after achieving his dream of owning his own farm he still had to put in hours and hours of backbreaking labour while he also worked in an auto factory assembly line and then as a janitor. Four hours of sleep a night for years. Crushing debt for years. But what got him through those years was his never-ending, never-failing work ethic.

It taught me that if you work hard, if you take pride in doing jobs you hate but need to get your dream in the end - if you keep writing and do it well - you earn the respect of others, but mostly you earn something even more important: self-respect.

But it wasn't just about perseverance and hard work. My parents couldn't have survived without a critically important factor …

Join a Community
The Portuguese, like many immigrants who have left their families behind, join with others of their culture for support, for understanding, for comfort especially when faced with so many pressures that quitting and going back home seems like the best solution sometimes. But because you have others to commiserate with, others who share your struggles, it keeps you going for another day, another week, another year.

Writers understand the importance of communities and I, for one, knew that I needed the support and understanding of fellow writers if I was going to survive this journey.
But, ultimately, what I learned the most from my parents and their immigrant experience and what I carry over to my writing and through my writing is this …

Family is the Most Important Thing
No matter what you do, never let your dreams and the work that is involved in realizing those dreams, take precedence over your family. Even though I knew my parents worked abnormally hard at what they did - even though I sometimes resented having to help with so many tasks and didn't always have a parent to take me to the park or have vacations like my friends did - I always knew and felt that my parents were working so hard for me and my brother. Yes, it was their dream but we were also their dream and everything they did was for ultimately for us.

So, like a lot of things, you come to realizations much later than you should in life. Today I know I am a writer because my immigrant parents taught me to have a dream, take a risk, peresevere, work hard, join a community and put your family first. They taught me well.

Obrigado, Mae and Pai!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Why I Love Writing About 17 Year Olds

Writing for and about teens is a neverending source of joy for me. I have two of them in my house and while living with them isn't the easiest thing in the world, I can honestly say I am never, EVER, bored by them. There's a long laundry list of why I love writing about teens - but most especially ones on the cusp of adulthood. Most of my books feature 17 or 18 year olds. I don't know why I picked that particular age group but that is the age I gravitate towards. I've thought about it and here are some of my reasons why.

They are on the cusp of adulthood - about to step away from a life ruled by parents or other authority figures and enter the treacherous waters of life navigating - for the most part - on their own. That makes for great character growth potential. So many ways to grow and learn!

They have all the joy and optimism of youth with only some of the cynicism that adulthood brings. I say 'some' because by 17 or 18 they know enough of life to be realistic about the dark side of living. Their optimisim, however, usually triumphs over the cynicism. They haven't been completely beaten down by life's curve balls. With all the difficulties a good story should throw at a main character they better have optimism to survive it!

They are resilient. One week something might happen and it's the end of the world. Next week they barely remember how miserable they were. Again, a character who never lets events beat him/her down is someone you can root for.

They feel deeply and passionately. Everything is still fairly new to them - love, death, failure, success. And because it is new it is more vibrant, more exciting than when an adult experiences something. Depth of emotion means a character is less likely to be flat and boring. In fact, as a writer, you have to make sure your teen characters don't become too over the top and risk alienating a reader by being turned off over how emotional they can be.

They don't have preconceived notions - for the most part. At this age, they haven't been totally jaded by seeing something a hundred times over.

They are mostly independent. They can drive, hold down jobs, care for younger siblings or older relatives. Independence allows for greater flexibility when creating a story where your main character has to solve their own problems. I've heard it's tougher to write younger characters and not have the parent or some other adult caregiver come in and help fix the problem.

They are living through a constantly changing landscape. By 17 or 18, the relationships they've had for most of their lives with their friends or their family are about to or in the midst of changing. They are finishing high school, they are either entering the world of work or college, or maybe not knowing where they're going at all. Life is not yet prescribed by jobs, mortgages, children, elderly parents etc. but they can see it will all change in a few years. So their time now is an endless horizon of possibilities. As writers we are always aware of starting a story when the moment of change occurs. A 17 year old life is an endless possibility of change - what a banquet for a writer!

They challenge everything. Parental authority, societal norms. They see they are close to freedom and it makes them yearn to break free of all expectations. Again, a character trait that can lead to great conflict - exactly what you need in a good story.

And, despite everything I just listed, sometimes, they are still little children. Scared, needing love, needing reassurance and completely unsure of what to do next. Emotional vulnerability is key to making a character sympathetic.

So, that's why I love writing about this age group. They are everything that is fascinating, frustrating, determined, vulnerable, unpredictable, passionate, uncertain and, like I said before, not at all boring. Everything I love in characters. As a writer, who could ask for anything more?

What are some of the things that you love when writing about teens or tweens or younger?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Does Setting Inform Your Story? It Should.

I never thought I was one of those writers who cared especially much about setting. Give me amazing characters and plot all the way, baby. Who needs to wax poetic about the trees, or the concrete slabs of sidewalk your characters are walking around and on or if it's raining or sunny outside? Really, doesn't having to describe your setting just get in the way of telling the story?

Well, like most things in writing, if it's done well setting should be as equally important to characters, plot and story.

After writing a few stories I've learned that when, where and how setting is established can really add an extra layer of depth to the tale you're telling. Take ILLEGALLY BLONDE, for example. Sure it's set in Portugal because the plot demands it but the time of year, the weather (hot, dry rainless conditions)and how my character reacts to the place she's in adds drama and complications to her journey. How she sees the place at the beginning and end of the story - how that vision of the setting changes - mirrors her change and growth. What the weather does becomes part of the climax of the story.

The same thing happened in the next book I wrote. This one is set in Buffalo, New York in the middle of winter - March Break to be exact. A cold, miserable expanse of cold and white. This time the setting needed to happen during winter for a very important plot element - someone getting lost. But I could have had that person be lost in the summer, or spring or fall. But winter - especially unforgiving upper New York winters - are much more dramatic and create an added layer of complication to the events. I was also able to use symbols and wording that reflected the cold (I discovered the theme of 'blanketing' someone with comfort or leaving them without was very much reflected when I described the snow and landscape through which my characters travelled).

But, like everything in writing, there is moderation when detailing the setting. For me, it has to come with a light touch. I don't spend paragraphs describing a lake or a snowfall or a raging fire. That bores the bejeezus out of me. But there must be enough there to ground the reader in the place - to make it feel like it's a small village in Portugal, or a suburban town in the middle of winter. But what's even more important is how you use that setting to explore or expand upon the themes of the story. And if it is done well, the reader won't even realize those reflections at all.

Hmm. Maybe that's why I'm struggling a bit with this WIP right now. I really need to go back and discover why I set the story in this particular place at this particular time. I need to ground myself in the story. And once you're grounded you can take off to so many amazing, unexpected places...

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Knowing vs. Wondering

Knowing is better than wondering, waking is better than sleeping, and even the biggest failure, even the worst, beat the hell out of never trying.
Dr. Merideth Grey, Grey's Anatomy

I love this quote. It encapsulates everything I'm trying to embrace in this crazy publishing journey I'm on. Yeah, half the time I'm wondering what will happen in a week, a month, a year from now. I've gotten so used to trying to anticipate the future that I rarely live in the moment any longer. I want to know what will happen now, please. I hate waiting. I like certainty. I can handle bad news - just tell me the bad news. I hate guessing.

Will the book be read by anybody? Will it be liked? Will I sell another one? Will I ever finish the one I'm working on now? Why do I put myself through this angst? The uncertainty - the not knowing - just about makes me crazy.

But, like a few wise commenters said on my previous post, if I knew all the answers beforehand would I have still taken the journey? Maybe not. And if not, then all I'd be left with was a lifetime of wondering "What if ...?"

Talk about driving yourself crazy.

I also believe that 'waking is better than sleeping'. I know that even with all the dreaded uncertainty that is part of your everyday life, that uncertainty can also be exciting, stimulating, and yes, terrifying, but you are living it. Not watching it from the sidelines. Not sleeping your life away. Not dreaming about it. Living it. Because, like the last line of that quote says so eloquently, the regret you face out of never trying something you really want - really crave - trumps all the angst and fear that living with uncertainty brings.

So, when all is said and done, I'd rather be wide awake living with the only knowledge I can ever have: that, at the very least, I tried.

How about you?

Monday, March 1, 2010

On the Terrifying Cusp of Change

It's March 1st. I can't quite believe it. Spring is around the corner. I can feel the changes coming in the air (cue Phil Collins music here). ILLEGALLY BLONDE releases in T-minus 30 days. On March 25th I'll be making my first appearance on a writer's panel at a local university to discuss how immigration affected my writing. I'm starting to plan my book launch (in April) but I'm also dealing with things like ordering bookmarks, putting together information packages about my book and me, the author. Weirdness times ten. Yes, it will be a month of huge firsts and highly stressful yet exciting changes in my life. I can't quite believe these things are happening. Even my horoscope is hinting at these events. Check this out:

The month ends with big news about your career. The full moon on March 29 will illuminate your standing in your industry, your company, or concerning a job you have interviewed for. You will get answers now, and if you get a new job (very possible), the position you will move into is likely to be one that comes with quite a bit of responsibility. It will bring you lucrative ways to make money, too, and it seems to include a performance-based commission or bonus. Your new job won't be an easy one - you will have to adjust and learn as you go - but this new job will come with power and authority. That's the kind of job that is right up your ally, so snap it up.

Yes. Adjust and learn as you go. That's really the crux of this whole writing journey, isn't it?

There should be a bloody manual that all new writers get before they put pen to paper/fingers to keyboard for the first time that talks about the terrifying emotional journey you take as a writer. Sure, there is a wealth of knowledge, information, support and advice in the writing community. You can research how to write query letters, how to structure novels, how to market, how to network etc. etc. etc. but until you go through it, until you experience the jaw-dropping amount of information you have to accumulate, until you experience the joy and agony of the query and manuscript submission process, until you experience the difficulty in putting yourself out there when you may be introverted or overwhelmed by the daunting impossibility of having your book be noticed in the sea of books being released, until you realize it's not just the writing of the story anymore, you could literally throw that pen or keyboard away and say "Forget it. It's too much. It's just too much."

And yet.

Adjust and learn as you go.

Every new thing learned requires some kind of adjustment. And in order to grow we need to learn. So, yes, this is a terrifying time for me - and probably for a lot of writers proceeding on the next step of the publishing journey, whatever that may be. Submitting to an agent can be terrifying. But once you do it a few times it's not so bad. Revising a manuscript can seem impossibly daunting. And it is. But once you do it you are that much more likely to be better at it the next time. Never marketed yourself before? Never blogged, never tweeted, never walked up to strangers at conferences and introduced yourself, never sat on a writers panel? Do it once and it is scary, do it a few times and it does get easier. At least I hope so! :)

Adjust and learn as you go. Yes. I think that's going to be my mantra for the next month. Maybe the next few years.