Monday, January 31, 2011

A New Look

So have you noticed I changed my blog template? I'd had the old blue/grey background with the picture of a range of blue mountain vistas up for a while and this weekend I felt the need to change it up. I went through tons of template designs. Tried black backgrounds with bursting stars, abstract neon colours and shapes but finally I settled on this picture of a green, summer time field of grass and flowers. I immediately felt soothed by it. Even my daughter said, "Yeah, Mom. That one is more you."

Why do some things seem more "you" I wonder? I do love the color green but what about this particular background seemed to fit me better than a rainbow of colours and swirling shapes? Part of it is my love of spring, summer and sunshine and being sick of winter right now. But I think I'm drawn to images that invoke a peaceful, calming, centred view of the world. Partly because my life is more than usually chaotic but also because I strive for that peacefulness. I may not achieve it but I do strive! Why not just choose a white background then? Keep it plain and simple - how much more peaceful can you get than that? I guess I just need a little bit of colour in my life too. And right now, with a big winter storm coming on Wednesday I need to see some green somewhere in my life!

How about you? What made you choose the backgrounds you have on your blogs?

Friday, January 28, 2011

7 Words I've always wanted to say...

"I am having lunch with my editor!"

How cool is that? Anita Daher from Great Plains Publications is in Toronto today and I'm finally (Finally!) going to meet her face to face. You see, Anita lives and works in Winnipeg and I'm here in Toronto. That's a distance of ... uh, well, a really long ways away. So we've only had the chance to talk on the phone and email since we first connected back in February 2009. I feel like I know Anita very well already because she's such an open person but there's just something about meeting someone face to face that's SO important. I'm looking forward to talking with her about writing, editing, how on earth she's not terrified of jumping over fences on her horse Wager - just soaking up her knowledge and experience as a writer and teacher of writing in general.

I'm also going to meet with a new member of the Great Plains author team who lives in the T.O. area - Sarah Raymond. Sarah's debuting her YA book SIGNS OF MARTHA this spring with Great Plains. It's about a girl growing up on a cucumber/pickle farm yearning to be an artist. Since I still remember the trauma of picking prickly cucumbers at 7 am on a hot, humid, flat patch of southwestern Ontario farm country I have a feeling I'm going to identify with Martha - and her creator Sarah! It'll be so nice to have another author close by who is part of the Great Plains team.

So, yup, I'm all excited except for one thing ... what am I going to wear??

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Message for Old Man Winter

Okay, I've had it Winter. You win. I admit defeat. Day after day of cold, wind, snow and slush has ground me down. Thing is, I'd leave if I could. Fly off to some sunny, warm clime for a week and bask on a beach with a book and a gin and tonic. But between hockey, work and a renovation that is about to begin any day now (please God)I am trapped. And still weeks left of you, old man. Weeks!

So when my dearest and oldest friend sent me an email the other day suggesting she's had enough of you too, old dude, that we need a quick girl's getaway in February - nothing extravagant, just a couple of days in a hotel, shopping, maybe watching a movie, having a nice dinner, massages/facials/whatever makes us feel good - I was ready to say "YES! Get me away from this cold, hard tyrant now!"

But then I started thinking of all my responsibilities here with the kids and their schedules, how busy my husband is already between work and the reno, the cost, the guilt of leaving them ... oi. I always end up thinking of all the cons instead of just concentrating on the pros. And you, old man, don't make it any easier. Things always seem ten times harder when it's winter than summer.

But, you know what? I haven't completely given up hope, you old bugger. You haven't beaten me yet. I know I have to put up with you but you've only beaten me if my attitude lets you beat me. So when a lifeline is thrown out in a choppy sea and I'm about to drown do I let it float away from me? No sir. Even if I'm only pulled into a lifeboat for a couple of days, it will be enough to make me last the rest of your regime out. Because I know, eventually, like all tyrants you will be defeated! Spring is around the corner. I just need a reprieve for a short time.

Now, if I can just ignore the guilt like I can a snow-covered driveway...

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Usual

I admit freely that I'm a creature of habit. I like starting my mornings off in a certain way, I like to plan vacations with the detail a five-star general gives to an invasion of a country, I like to have two definite routes to get to work (one usual, one an alternate in case of snafus), I go to certain restaurants and order the same thing every time because, hey, I know what it tastes like and if I don't go that often then why not get a sure thing? In fact, I'm such a regular at a particular bagel place near work that all I have to do is walk in, they see my face and say "The usual?" Yup. The usual. Everything bagel, double toasted with chives light cream cheese and coffee. My daughter is envious I have a usual. To her it means I'm in a familiar, friendly place. Sort of like the Cheers theme song where 'everybody knows your name'. Good thing it's a bagel and not a scotch and water.

So what's this got to do with writing? (Cuz you know, most everything has something to do with writing for me.) Well, I got to thinking: is it a good thing to have a 'usual' in your writing? Some people call it branding, other people call it writing in your own genre, still others call it being stuck in a rut.

Now me, personally, I LIKE knowing what a particular author is going to give me in a story. For example, if I need a good Regency romance fix I know I will satisfy that fix with a Julia Quinn romance. I have loved at least 95 per cent of what she's written. I know what I'm getting with that author and she usually doesn't disappoint. Same with Sarah Dessen. If I want a good, character driven YA that has themes of family, love, relationships and believable characters she delivers. Now neither one has written (to my knowledge)a sci-fi thriller or a horror novel but if they were, would I buy that book just because it's written by Ms. Quinn or Ms. Dessen? Hmm, maybe out of curiosity, I guess, but I think I'd be kind of disappointed because what I expect and what I would get would be so totally different.

Now many authors have switched genres after finding success in one. Nora Roberts being the most famous. And I'm sure legions of her loyal romance fans followed her to the J.D. Robb franchise. But she started writing J.D. Robb mystery/thrillers under that name because she was so well known as Nora Roberts and she -or the publisher- were worried that the romance label might hurt her sales. It was only later (I think) when she started getting a Robb fan base that it became more widely known that it was Roberts penning those. But I also know several authors in my Toronto Romance Writers group who write YA, romantic-comedy, and pure romance (as well as hot romance) and seem to be thriving.

So, what's the gist of all this? Is having a 'usual' a good thing or not? Well, for me - and my writing for now - the usual is YA. There are a few sub-categories of YA that I can go down but I know I'd like to have a reader come to me as a 'usual' for contemporary, realistic YA with some humour and a bit of heartbreak thrown in there too (Dessen light?). Maybe, eventually, some paranormal YA too. We shall see.

How about you? Do you have a usual or do you like to sample?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Why Can't I Love Cooking Like I Do Writing?

I have a confession to make. I don't just hate cooking, I LOATHE it. Seriously, I can't understand why I resent cooking meals so much. I mean, I'm Portuguese. I grew up with mouth-watering food in front of my face and nose every day. But did I stand by my mom and absorb all the tricks and nuances of a great cook? Did I ask questions, test recipes, watch cooking shows with all the avidness of a cooking groupie? No, I did not. Did I appreciate the meals my mother put in front of me? Probably not at the time since I did not appreciate the skill that went into making them.

Now that I'm responsible for cooking for my own household (only because we have children otherwise the hubby and I would be ordering in every night if I had any say over it. Or eating popcorn for dinner) I'm feeling distinctly guilty for not learning this skill. Oh, I can do a few meals well (I make a mean lasagna and a pretty good pork loin roast) but I can't do those two meals every night of the week! I need quick, easy feed the hungry masses before they eat me meals. Tonight, for example, was Kraft Pizza and broccoli. Not exactly high culinary art there. But I just have to come to terms with the fact that I don't have the interest! There is no passion to my cooking and, if writing has taught me anything, it's this: in order to become truly good at something you need to have passion.

Unlike my lack of interest in learning how to make chicken soup at my mother's side, I'm more than willing to take courses and read books about plot, structure and narrative. Unlike my immediate stress at having to fiddle with a recipe, doing it over and over again, trying different spices until it comes out tasting the way it should, I love revising, playing with the words of a sentence until they shine and sound exactly as I hear them in my head.

So, that's it. I will never be an amazing cook and my children will have to live with the fact that while I can't bake them a mouth-watering loaf of homemade bread, I can hand them a book that their mommy wrote with her own two hands. It may not fill their stomachs but at least it was made with love. Plus it would probably taste better than the bread anyway.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Importance of the Back-Cover Blurb

This post may be a pretty obvious one but this week I was reminded again about how important it is to get that paragraph or two that describes your book nailed down. The 'Back-cover Blurb' is your story in a nutshell. It's a selling feature, for sure. I know it's one of the first things I look for when I'm deciding on whether to buy a book or not. If all I see are one line reviews or raves about a book but nothing about what the story is about I put it down. But that's when a book is already for sale. Why is writing a blurb so important before you even finish writing the book? We-ell, let me tell you...

I'v been working on this WIP for a while now and I'm in my favourite (sarcasm font here please)section - the middle. I was really struggling trying to figure out where I was going with this story. So, after forcing myself to write a thousand words (that were okay but sure as heck didn't come easy) the other night I decided I wasn't going to wait until the first draft was done to write the blurb as I mostly do. Sometimes I do write it before I even start the book to see if the idea is strong enough to work on but usually I wait until the story is pretty much finished. I noodled out a few lines, then a few more. Pretty soon I was into the flow and I had 380 words that hopefully described what the core of the book was about in language that made the story sound interesting, even mysterious, and would entice someone to read it. These words are probably the most important you'll write because they are the ones that sell your story - to yourself, to an agent, to an editor and maybe, eventually, to a book buyer. In fact, the blurb I wrote for Illegally Blonde ended up almost exactly on the back cover as it appeared in my query letter. Writing those few words also helps to focus what you're writing about - to understand the core of your story so well that when you're struggling through it you can go back to it and say "Oh! Yes. I have to get back to that. Why did I wander off in this direction?"

When I finished those couple of paragraphs this week, I was sold on my story again. My CP was sold on it, too, which helped validate me - and the story. I'm struggling to write this story now but I know, because I wrote that blurb, that this is a story worth telling and, hopefully reading. And that's why a blurb is so important. If you can't sell it to yourself how are you going to sell it to a complete stranger?

So what about you guys? When do you write your blurb? And does it help you or drive you crazy?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Advice from a Business Entrepreneur

I'm not someone who devours business and financial news like I would a juicy piece of entertainment gossip (hello? Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds are SO together dudes)but there is the occasional time when I've read through everything in the paper - or it's just a particularly slow news day - and I, for want of other reading material, happen to glance through the business section. Usually, it's the human interest pieces that catch my eye - the rags to riches stories or the personal profiles behind the CEO's of big companies. And so it was today when I came across one article about the CEO of WIND Mobile, Anthony Lacavera, who aims to 'change the wireless industry in Canada' and 'change and challenge the way Bell, Rogers and Telus do business'. As the article put it, "if you want to run with the big boys you have to create your own turning point".

Well, Mr. Lacavera is definitely running after the big boys and he has big dreams but what I found most interesting about the article was the advice he gave to people who have their own dreams and vision. I'm sure he thought he was speaking to potential business entrepreneurs but I found something really inspiring for my own writerly dreams and ambitions. And, hey, really, aren't all writers entrepreneurs? We may not be building a massive business empire (yet ;) but we want to build good books and, like any decent entrepreneur, we want to reach an audience. So, then, what was his advice?

1. Building a business has up and down moments. In down moments always try to focus on the things you've done that have led to the up moments.

(In the book publishing biz, it's always so easy to focus on what hasn't happened yet. Focus on what has developed - your skills, the people you've met, better responses from agents/editors, every little positive thing that has helped you be where you are and become a better writer than you were when you started)

2. Whenever you meet an extraordinary person, try to think of a way to make it exciting for them to join your team.

(I read this to mean when you meet an extraordinary writer (published or not), share and learn from each other. Become part of a writing community is essential.)

3.Learn not to go after every great idea that you come across. It's so important to stay focused on what you do well and build from there.

(Don't be too scattered as a writer. Be focussed on what stories you want to tell. Find your voice and the genre you love. Take the time to develop both well and both will reward you)

4. Always make time for yourself to do whatever you enjoy no matter how much work you have to do.

(This piece of advice is self-evident. Don't focus on the writing to the exclusion of all else in your life. Even if you don't consider writing work, take a break from it and explore other things. Your writing - and you as a person - will benefit.)

5.Follow both your heart and mind on any important decision.

(The go with your gut or your head dilemma. Mr. Lacavera has addressed this conundrum for me - go with both. No decision should be made so intellectually that your feelings/instincts are ignored. Both sides are equally important and have equal merit)

And there you have it. Sound advice from an entrepreneur with passion, commitment and drive to succeed - three things all writers should strive for. I should read the business sections more often...

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Keeping Things in Perspective

Even though I didn't make any New Year's resolutions, I had high hopes that 2011 would start off with a fresh, positive outlook. Instead I've had a few days where a disappointment or two has dampened my enthusiasm and challenged me to keep my chin up and say, "hey, tomorrow is another day. Life is not as bad as you think. In fact it's pretty darned good." I hear heart wrenching stories about families who've lost loved ones and others who have so little and think, "There but for the grace of God go I..." So when these small - and I do mean small - disappointments (in people, in events) take place why is it sometimes so hard to shrug them off?

For me, keeping things in perspective is a constant battle. I am, truly, a very practical person and understand that sometimes people make mistakes, sometimes the world works a certain way and we have to accept that a certain journey is not always going to go smoothly. It may, for me, be a control issue. Many times, the disappointments that happen are out of my control, or belong to other people who I don't want to see hurt, and my heart breaks for them, and for my inability to 'fix it', to make it better for them. This is when I have to remind myself that I can only control my reaction to events - not the events themselves. For a control freak like me that is a really hard lesson to learn. It is a constant struggle to turn a negative into a positive and to not dwell on things and I'm in awe of those people who can remain upbeat in the most dire of circumstances.

Perhaps, this is just one of those things I will always need to work on and some days I may be able to do it. Other days it may slip from my grasp. But whatever day I happen to be living in, I need to remind myself that I have been blessed with a good life - not a perfect life - but a good life. And sometimes, I should just simply be thankful for it.

Monday, January 3, 2011

And 2011 Begins...

...with a slight case of exhaustion. Happy New Year everyone! I hope you had a restful and joyous holiday with friends and family. In our clan this year it was a holiday of driving. Driving to see my family in Windsor, driving back to Toronto before driving to Ottawa for a hockey tournament and driving back to Toronto to drive my daughter to London to university. I have to say welcoming in 2011 was a low key affair for us because The Boy had a 7 a.m. hockey game (they got to the Finals) on New Year's Day. Yup. That meant up at 4:30 to check out of the hotel and get to the arena by 6. Unfortunately, the boys lost but came in second overall in 20 teams. And they got to play on NHL ice (Ottawa Senators arena) and see themselves on the jumbo-tron. Very cool.

I hope the rest of 2011 isn't so frantic, to tell you the truth. I am so happy I have today as a holiday because I seriously need to recover. Who knew I'd ever look forward to a day of laundry and vacuuming?? But I am in one place and not the van. I am heartily sick of that van and hockey arenas, let me tell you. And as for writing? I am feeling distinctly guilty for not doing one word on the wip. I'm not one for New Year's resolutions but I am determined to finish that wip. It's a good story. I can feel it. I think I'm just scared of messing it up - funny because one of the themes in the story is our fears and having to face them. Beyond that one goal, the only other thing I want to accomplish in 2011 is trying to get a little less stress in my life. Not sure how I'll accomplish that with a house renovation the big ticket item this year. However, that's what the start of a New Year is for, right? The fresh, idealism of hope!

Do you make any New Year's resolutions? Or are they more like guidelines, really?