Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

The cure for perfectionism

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

Hello, friends. Yesterday, my four-year-old was on the brink of tears because the picture he was drawing failed to live up to the picture in his head. I watched him and thought, “Oh, my darling. You too?”

Don’t get me wrong: I am very glad and grateful to live in a world filled with perfectionists. I wouldn’t have the courage to drive a car or heat my house or, generally, live my life, if the world were maintained by the casual and the feckless. Still, I feel for the boy.

We had a chat about how even talented artists can’t always create what they see in their heads, how professional musicians can’t always play what they hear inside. And I mentioned, casually, that I can’t always write what I want, either.

It was oddly liberating, admitting that to a child. It was useful, too, articulating what’s been bogging me down with Rivals in the City. And because I was talking to a child, I had to frame it gently. And that was perhaps most useful of all: the quiet, matter-of-fact acknowledgement that even a finished work will be imperfect, will not quite attain the vision I had for it. And that’s acceptable, too.

I offered my son a parent’s clichés: effort counts; practice equals progress; if you give up, you’ll never find out what you’re capable of. Banal as I sounded to my own ears, I thought the clichés were right, too.

How about you, friends? Are you perfectionists, or happy-go-lucky approximators? How do you deal with perfectionism?

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Are we all laughing at the same thing?

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

Somewhere in the wilds of the internet, I clicked through to the comedy sketch State Home for Manic Pixie Dream Girls. It’s fairly funny, in my opinion, although there’s a clangingly callous throwaway joke at the end that ruins it for me. But I was slightly irked by its underlying assumption that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl character is the main thing to be mocked: stupid MPDGs, who start out so refreshing and redemptive, until men weary of their whimsy. Hang on a second. Shouldn’t the mockery be aimed at the creators of the MPDG? There’s a brief flash of this in the State Home video, but it goes unexplored.

I was going to write a post about this until I realized that Feminist Frequency has already done it! It’s a bit more serious than I’d have been, but it’s all there. Take it away, FF!

If you want a transcript of the video, it’s here. And there’s some interesting conversation to be had in the comments, too. And now I’m off to read more about Feminist Frequency. Oh, the internets.

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Writing a book is not like having a baby

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

That’s stating the obvious, isn’t it? Yet for the last few weeks, I’ve noticed a lot of references to “labour” and “birth”, to “midwives” and “newborns” – and these people aren’t talking about tiny humans.

This complaint may sound grumpy and petty; it’s not intended that way. I’m not disparaging the thousands of hours of hard work that go into either enterprise. Having chosen to engage in both, it’s only reasonable that I also love them both. But when we overuse this analogy, it deflates the delicate, consuming, enormously frustrating, and endlessly rewarding disciplines of both writing and child-rearing.

Writing is both easier and more difficult than having a baby because:

1. It fits into your schedule. If you don’t create time to write, you don’t write! (Try putting your colicky infant on hold that way…)

2. It hones skills you were already good at. I’m a voracious reader and I excelled in English all through school – a thoroughly typical profile for a writer. The things you learn daily as a writer tend to be subtle and they make you a slightly better craftsman in small but satisfying ways. The first diaper I ever changed, though? On my newborn son’s tiny, flailing, slippery bum, while I was stunned by opiates, full of stitches, and tethered to an IV pole. Why hello, learning curve.

3. Babies grow, develop, and become ever-more-interesting individuals. Your published book will always contain that typo you missed on p. 187.

4. A published book never grows less beautiful. Children become adolescents.

5. When writing, you are the boss. When parenting, you are a teacher/social worker/butler/wallet.

6. When writing, I am recognizably and consistently myself. When parenting, I am sometimes my own enemy, but more often I feel inspired to be a better human being.

What do you think of the book/baby analogy? Did I miss anything?

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It was a dark and stormy night.

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

Hello, friends. I was just tinkering with what I think will be the first chapter of Rivals in the City and thinking about Elmore Leonard’s dictum, “Never open a book with weather.” (There’s a ton more writing rules here, if that’s your sort of thing.) And I’m not at all sure weather should be forbidden, let alone the first thing Leonard chooses to condemn.

The infamous “It was a dark and stormy night” is often cited as a bad beginning and an example of purple prose, but really, it’s perfectly all right. It’s a clear and straightforward sentence. It creates mood and promises action in seven words, none of which is extraneous. And its author, Edward Bulwer Lytton, was a successful Victorian novelist whose public apparently enjoyed his having started with the weather, as well as the very ornate sentence that follows it.

And I was recently reminded of the power of starting with the weather in the opening chapter of Dickens’s Bleak House. Here’s the full first paragraph:

LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

I can’t imagine a writer pulling this off now, but it’s a splendid beginning. It begins like a telegram or a bit of news reporting (“London. Michaelmas term lately over…”), then immediately turns the weather into an adversary (“implacable”). From this terse economy, it suddenly springs into science fiction cut with absurd comedy (a Megalosaurus waddling up Holborn Hill), horror (“the death of the sun”), and disease (“a general infection of ill-temper”). After coating the world and its contents with filth and mud, Dickens introduces the theme of money (“accumulating at compound interest”) that circulates through the book. Quite a feat for a paragraph that’s all about the weather, hm?

Now, I’m not even considering comparing myself to Dickens or Elmore Leonard, but my point here is, let’s lighten up with the writing rules, shall we? Because sometimes, it really is a dark and stormy night.

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Scenes from a suburban adolescence

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

Hello, friends. Yesterday, I read Amusingly Horrible Things Moms Have Said at The Hairpin. It’s fairly amusing; certainly not the best thing I’ve read on the internet, but it must have stirred something in my Brain Soup, because early this morning, I remembered two things I’ve not thought of in many, many years:

1. From age 14 to 18, every time I went to the corner store (only a couple of times a year, since I was raised to believe that Buying Things at Convenience Stories is Wrong Because Said Things are Overpriced and Probably Stale. Occasionally, I went to get cigarettes for my uncle – but let’s not mention that to my parents, okay?), the owner stared at me for several seconds too long, then asked if I wanted to meet his son.

Questions to self: Does he ask that of every teenaged girl who comes into the store? Does he realize he’s asked me this before? Many times? And if so, does he think his 5 years of persistence will eventually pay off?

Closure: Never. I went away to university, and then my parents moved house. I really should have just asked him all those questions, shouldn’t I?

2. One summer, I worked at a coffee shop. One day, my boss said to a regular, “Has anyone ever told you that you look just like Karla Homolka [a convicted serial killer]? I mean, you guys could be twins!” When I registered horror, my boss said, “What? What? It’s a compliment! She’s really hot!”

Questions to self: Why didn’t I quit my job? This was a sign of things to come, with that boss. Also, why didn’t I say to the customer, “I don’t think you look like a serial killer”?

Closure: The customer came back a couple of weeks later (I guess she was less appalled than I was? Or was really desperate for this indie coffee shop to thrive?), and I got a chance to tell her that she didn’t look like a serial killer, to me. Then I gave her a free drink. Also, the coffee shop folded a couple of months later. Literal closure!

Why am I bringing up all this now? As Victorian novelist Frances Trollope once said, “Of course I draw from life – but I always pulp my acquaintances before serving them up. You would never recognize a pig in a sausage.” One day, both these incidents will probably make it into my fiction. If you spot them then, you’ll know just where they came from.

What bizarre or uncomfortable teenaged memories are rattling around in your brains? Have you fictionalized them, yet?

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Faster, Higher, Stronger

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

So, the Olympics. As cynical as we’ve become about doping, fiscal and political scandals in host cities, and the sheer pomp of the Games, the athletic performances themselves are truly stirring, skin-prickling stuff. And the Olympics hold a special kind of interest in my family because my uncle, Cheah Tong Kim, represented his country, Malaysia, in swimming at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Over the past few days, watching highlights from the London Games got me thinking back to the birth of the modern Olympics. I knew they were a late-Victorian inspiration that resulted in the 1896 Games in Athens. But, as it turns out, there’s a lot I didn’t know about the inspiration behind the modern Olympic Games.

Before the Victorian era, there was a modern attempt to recreate the Olympic Games: the L’Olympiade de la République, which was held for 3 years in revolutionary France (1789, remember?). It makes sense: egalitarianism, a chance to compete physically, rather than socially or economically – it was a perfect kind of celebratory contest for revolutionary times.

Then came a lapse of about 60 years, which also makes sense: Victorian intellectuals greatly admired classical literature and culture, and it’s logical that they wanted to emulate the famous athletic contests of the ancients. But the French Revolution scared the pants off Western European monarchies, so there had to be a lapse of a few generations between the L’Olympiade de la République and any safe imitation.

So it wasn’t until 1850 that an English surgeon called William Penny Brookes established an Olympic Games in Wenlock, Shropshire. According to wikipedia, his aim was the “moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood of Wenlock and especially of the working classes” (italics mine). That sort of paternalistic do-gooding couldn’t really be more Victorian.

There were other English Olympics: in Liverpool, for a few years in the 1860s. One at the Crystal Palace in London in 1860. But it was the Wenlock Olympics that really became a strong annual tradition. And in 1890, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the creator of the modern Olympic Games, visited Wenlock and was inspired to establish the International Olympic Committee. Extraordinary, isn’t it?

How do you like the sound of Wenlock 2050, on the two-hundredth anniversary of their first Olympic Games?

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Grit and pathos

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

Hello, friends. On Friday, I was over at Nineteenteen, blogging about the history of the London Foundling Hospital – essentially the first charity orphanage in a huge city rife with abandoned babies and homeless children. This is, at first glance, an eighteenth-century story: Thomas Coram, who fought to create the Foundling Hospital, did so in 1739. Its major patrons, composer George Frideric Handel and artist William Hogarth, were eighteenth-century figures. So what does this have to do with the Victorian era?

Dickens, of course. (Whenever in doubt, the answer is Dickens. Fact.) For a time, Dickens lived on Doughty Street in Bloomsbury, just a couple of minutes’ walk from the Foundling Hospital. We know that Dickens was a frenetic walker and a fervent student of London life, in all its grit and intensity. He would definitely have noticed the daily dramas of the Foundling Hospital, and some of this found its way into his novels. For example, in Little Dorrit, the Meagle family adopts their servant Tattycoram from the Hospital. She’s a fierce and frustrated girl, Tattycoram. And have you noticed her name? The “coram” part is borrowed from Captain Thomas Coram, of course, the founder of the Hospital. Tattycoram is right to be impatient, because she’ll always be identified with the Foundling Hospital. Her (lack of) social status is right there in her name.

There’s also the story of Oliver Twist, with Oliver’s childhood in a poorhouse – not the Foundling Hospital, but another kind of holding place for destitute children. (If you haven’t read Oliver Twist, you may still know the famous scene of Oliver asking for more gruel.) Inspired by his own experience of child labour, Dickens attacks his society’s treatment of the poor – especially poor children. The children of the Foundling Hospital would have been a daily reminder and a constant prodding of his own traumatic memories.

I think what’s interesting here is the way history bleeds untidily from period to period. Although we can think, “Foundling Hospital, Thomas Coram, Handel, Hogarth – yep, all eighteenth century”, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that institutions and problems endure. And the tragedies that Coram sought to prevent – the abandoned and homeless and dying children of London in the 1730s – continued through the Victoria era.

What do you think? Are there places or things you associate with one era which, in fact, belong to others as well?

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A women’s detective agency? Why?

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

Hello, friends! I’m guest-blogging this week at Bites, where Donna asked me why I chose to write about a women’s detective agency in Victorian London. The short answer? I love bright and shiny anachronisms. The longer answer is here.

And did you know that this coming week, May 5 – May 12, is Canadian Children’s Book Week? In celebration of children’s books, my friends at Young Kingston have organized a group signing at Novel Idea Books on Sunday, May 6. I’ll be there from 3 to 4 with the award-winning Ann-Maureen Owens. Hope to see you there!

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Writing Redux

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

Hello, friends. I was absent again last week – not because I wasn’t thinking about you, but because I was speechless with frustration. Let me tell you why.

About two years ago, I wrote a little quiz called What Kind of Writer Are You? (It was originally for, but you can also find it here.) It was purely for fun, not the kind of thing I spent long hours doing psycho-anthropological research on. I liked that it was silly. A play on the kind of Personality Type quiz I love and detest. It was written, posted, forgotten. And now it’s come back to haunt me.

Over the past few months, I’ve been struggling with what kind of writer I used to be, and what kind of writer I will be. I used to set out with a rough idea, fiddle around a bit, write a whole lot, scrap much of it, research some more, become inspired, and start the whole process again. That’s how A Spy in the House, The Body at the Tower, and The Traitor in the Tunnel were written. The process had some frustrations and many redundancies, but it worked, fundamentally.

And then I decided that it wasn’t good enough. For my fourth novel, Rivals in the City, I decided to tinker with the process: I was going to be a Planner. Oh yes. I was going to plot out the whole novel, figure out all my turning points, each small crisis, every transition, right up to the denouement. I even saved wee scraps of dialogue (mostly banter, my Achilles heel) I’d surely be able to plug into this orderly opus. And then, when everything was organized, I was going to sit down and crank this thing out. Sure, the writing itself would be less of an adventure. But it would be worth it, because I would be So. Very. Efficient.

You know what’s coming, don’t you? Last week, the whole thing crumbled. I found myself procrastinating, obsessively browsing Etsy for gifts still in the far future, reading blog after blog after blog – all because I didn’t want to write the book I’d so diligently mapped out. In fact, I’d impulsively written Mary into a scene in which she, too, was at an existential dead-end. Worse, I couldn’t figure out how to rescue her. (Here, you may – if you wish – insert a joke about art imitating life and/or vice versa. I would, but then I’d have to look myself in the mirror afterwards.)

I think, however, that I know how to rescue myself. And it involves – *werewolf howl of frustration* – jettisoning the Plan. I’m going back to my messy, inefficient, non-linear ways. And I’m going to write a book I love. Yes I am. I hope you’ll love it, too.

Happy writing and reading to you!

P.S. If you do take the quiz, let me know how you do! Ironically, it doesn’t work for me. Yes, I’m that inconsistent.

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Your life, 150 years ago

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

Hello, friends! I’m guest-blogging this week over at Turn the Page where, to mark International Women’s Day (March 8), Amy asked me to write about women in Victorian times. Here goes:

It’s 1862. You’re a sixteen-year-old girl. What are your choices like in Victorian England? Click here to read the full essay.

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