Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

Rivals in the City: the transatlantic edition

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

Hello, friends. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Rivals in the City will be published in the UK/World in June 2014. The gorgeous cover, designed by Walker Books, is here. And now I have a pub date for the US/Canadian (Candlewick Press) edition of Rivals in the City: February 2015. I am so thrilled to have a concrete date. I know it’s twelve months away, but I hope you’ll find it worth the wait. I hope to have some cover news to share with you soon, as well.

As for today’s main content, Nafiza of the Book Wars interviewed me recently. She wasted no time in asking the big questions: race, geographical identity, masculinity, Canadian identity, and how much of me goes into the character of Mary Quinn. It was a lovely interview for me, and I hope you enjoy it, too.

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What is a novel?

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

Hello, friends. I recently had a long and utterly engaging conversation with three fellow writers: two of them critically acclaimed poets, all of us writers of novels. We were talking about the act of writing. One of us, who is working on her first novel, said that for her, writing it was like posing the question, “What is a novel?” That is, what are the novelistic conventions I value? Is it true that a novel must feature x? Or that it must not do y? For this friend, the novel she writes will be the answer – or perhaps one set of answers – to that question.

I was completely taken with this philosophical approach to writing because I have gone about things so very differently (thus far). When I sat down to write my first novel, the one thing of which I was certain was how very little I knew about writing a novel. I thought that I wanted a Victorian setting, and that I wanted to write about an outsider: a girl who, in strictly realist terms, would have led a life that was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.* I had my two starting points, and then I panicked. I had no idea how to structure a novel. Fortunately, I am a lifelong devotee of mystery novels, so it felt right to use the genre as a kind of coat-hanger, to give the book a conventional and useful shape. I knew what was expected, and I could tinker with the genre in small but meaningful ways.

That first book became A Spy in the House and its siblings: The Body at the Tower, The Traitor in the Tunnel, and Rivals in the City (which I’m revising right now!). And then, a couple of months ago (before the editorial revisions for Rivals boomeranged back to me), I sat down to write something completely different. Once again I leaned back and craned my neck, trying to picture the shape of this new book. Over the course of four novels I had learned a bit about plot and structure, but little that I found immediately useful.

What I did, instead, was start playing with voice. I was inspired by two things: a person I know fairly well, and a photograph from a book. And quite soon, the voice became two voices, and I began thinking of the new book as a point of departure. I was trying to provoke. I was refuting some of my previous experience of storytelling. Essentially, I was trying to write against.

With these as my two existing models of writing a novel (writing for; writing against), it’s no wonder that I was struck by my friend’s quiet, personal, solitary question: What is a novel? It’s a brave question, and a difficult one. It’s one that doesn’t allow you to lean on tradition for comfort, and which reminds you to stop being such a reactive brat. It’s one that draws your focus, again and again, into the work itself. What is a novel? I won’t know until I’ve written the next book. And I hope I’ll be able to answer that question in very different forms, over the course of my career. What do you think? What is a novel, to you?

To answer the question in a different form: a reader from Toronto, Shann, recently sent me a link to Litograph, which offers a playfully literal definition of a novel: posters, t-shirts, and tote bags printed with the entire text of a classic book. The best ones, in my opinion, aren’t necessarily of my personal favourite books; instead, they’re titles for which the artist really captured the spirit of the book: Anne of Green Gables, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Persuasion, Gulliver’s Travels. Thank you, Shann, for making my holiday shopping that much easier!

*Aside: I read a novel this past summer that offers a fiery but ultimately realist history for a girl like Mary Quinn: Slammerkin, by Emma Donoghue. It’s terrific and vivid and utterly oppressive because you know from the first page that its protagonist, Mary Saunders, cannot possibly have a happy ending.

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Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

Hello, friends. I’ve been thinking this week about life’s important, meaningful, and really unglamorous lessons. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about that Thomas Edison quotation: “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Or, as John Ruskin put it nearly fifty years earlier, “I know of no genius but the genius of hard work.”

This all came to mind because at Kingston’s WritersFest this coming Sunday, I’ll be hosting a writing workshop given by Tim Wynne-Jones. Part of the hosting gig involves writing an introduction, and so I began reading a little more about Wynne-Jones. I don’t normally research authors; I’m more interested in their work. But maybe I should change my ways!

What struck me most forcefully is Wynne-Jones’s sheer output: by my count, he’s written 3 novels for adults, 17 picture books, 3 collections of short stories, and 9 novels for young people. (And that’s just the fiction. Wynne-Jones engages in critical writing, too!) If you think about how much practice he’s had in shaping a compelling story, it’s no wonder that he’s such an accomplished storyteller. He didn’t just have a gift for words or a particularly inventive mind: he took those talents and never stopped using them.

His is the kind of energy and dedication that might seem daunting, some days. Today, I find it deeply inspiring. I’m early in my career, a relative novice. So: persistence and practice. Those are my by-words this week.

How about you? What are you learning this week? What other unglamorous lessons should we think twice about?

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Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

Hello there, friends. I’m sorry for my lapse last week. I had an outrageously slow internet connection (now partly fixed – it’s only somewhat slow) that made even a simple email check a struggle. Today, I thought I’d show you what I’ve been up to.

We went a bit crazy with the tomatoes, this year. It was our first year starting them from seeds and we planted a lot, thinking that only about one in three would make it. Ahem. We have about 30 tomato plants producing right now. I’m not sure what we’ll do with them all: we’ll either learn to can, or take to leaving them on neighbours’ doorsteps in the dead of night, I guess. Anyway, the tomato bed was a million-tentacled green monster, and it took me most of a day’s work to prune and stake them. I hope that doesn’t sound like a complaint: it’s a strangely addictive job, and it pains me to admit that there are two sad, drooping, crawling plants I haven’t yet found the time to attend to.

Here’s another gratuitous tomato shot:

Isn’t it exciting? We’ve had a few cherry tomatoes already and they’re lovely: sweet and complex, and all the more delicious for being the (literal) fruit of our labours.

And then there’s the garlic: 50-odd cloves planted last autumn, which we harvested last week. They’re currently drying out and I think the effect is like oddball musical notation.

Apart from frantically trying to reclaim the garden, I’ve also begun work on The Next Book. Here are the 3 novels I’ve ordered from the public library to read next:

Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain

Tan’s sequel to The Gift of Rain, The Garden of Evening Mists (2012)

Madeleine Thien’s Certainty (2006)

If you didn’t already know (or perhaps if you did), can you guess what I’m working on next?

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Writing Rivals in the City

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

Hello, friends. This is the week in which I come clean and try to explain why it took me so very long to write The Agency: Rivals in the City. This is going to be a difficult post to write. I hate thinking about how many times I missed my deadline, and the (literally) hundreds of hours I spent tearing my hair out in front of the computer. But I think it’s useful to analyze failures, and figure out what worked in the end. And with any luck, someone else might find my experience instructive. Perhaps we can think of it as a how-not-to guide to writing a novel!

January 2011

My original plan for writing Rivals coalesced in January 2011. I expected to give birth to my second child in May 2011 and knew that I wanted a six-month maternity leave after her birth. (This sounds like an exquisite luxury to you American readers, right? In Canada, most women are entitled to 12 months of paid maternity leave.) So I negotiated a deadline of May 2012. My plan was to write a significant portion of the book while pregnant, take 6 months completely off, and still have six months to finish the book in early 2012.

Optimistic outlook: I knew Mary Quinn’s world so well. I would be starting at an advantage because I didn’t have as much research to do at the outset. This was the fourth and last book in the series, and hopefully that momentum would carry me through.

Problems: I am a slow writer under the best of conditions, and I did not have the best of conditions: I was exhausted throughout the pregnancy and unable to work effectively. The new baby and I had an ongoing (not immediately life-threatening but distressing) medical problem during her first few months of life. By spring 2012, I was only just beginning to get my head together.

Solution: I requested a deadline extension, to October 2012.

August 2012

My new deadline was rapidly approaching. I had committed to a particular setting and given my editor a detailed description (so the designer could start work on the cover). I thought I had made a grave error in my choice. I also felt entirely remote from the early research and plotting I had done on the book, over a year ago. It was stale.

Every time I sat down to work on the book, I felt completely paralyzed. I had lost my grip on Mary Quinn (how would she react, in a given situation? What was her emotional state, when confronted by another character?). I didn’t know what to do with the newly humbled James Easton. This was classic writer’s block: I wasn’t frittering away my life on Pinterest and Facebook, but each time I sat down to write, I came away more panicked and lost than the last time. Every time I thought about the book, I felt sick and cold and fraudulent.

Optimistic outlook: I couldn’t think of one. But I’m a very private person, so I talked about this only with my husband and a dear friend. I didn’t say anything to my editor or my agent, and simply hoped desperately that I could work through this.

Solution: I admitted that I was never going to write even a hideously rough draft of Rivals in the City in just two months. I begged for a further deadline extension, to March 2013. I hoped that by then, I would know whether I could write the blasted book or whether I would have to return my publisher’s advance.

February 2013

For the past six months, I had been working, steadily and grimly, with various degrees of despair and faint optimism, on the book. I tried writing Mary in different scenes, from different angles. I re-wrote scenes at several different emotional pitches, trying to figure out which one rang true. I wrote one scene in which Mary doubted her vocation as a detective, and soon after realized that I was writing about my own fears as a stalled novelist. I despised my own weakness and equivocation. I found no pleasure or satisfaction in the act of writing. Worst of all, I still had only the beginning of a book – nothing that remotely resembled an ending – and the book was due the following month.

Optimistic outlook: One day, as I contemplated the mess I’d made of this book, and possibly my writing career, I had two painful and extremely useful realizations.

1. I failed to put writing first. As a person, I was busier than ever, and I wasn’t enjoying writing. So I spent too much time on other stuff: volunteer work, domestic labour, things I call “life admin”. I was spending the best hours of my day doing things other than writing, and in doing so, I was cheating myself.

2. My Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) had returned. For the past four years, I’d simply been too frantically busy to notice the winter darkness; I was sprinting just to stay in place. But now that things were calmer – I had enough childcare, and time in which to write – I was, quite simply, low.

Solutions: I negotiated the very last deadline extension – June 2013. I started using a SAD lamp, religiously. And I began putting the book first. I ignored the dozens of other things pulling at me, and wrote using the best hours of my day and the best part of my brain.

June 2013

I wrote over 100,000 words in four months. I re-established my grip on Mary’s voice and character. I figured out what to do about that pesky James Easton. I remembered why I love writing. And on June 30, after eighteen months of fear, frustration, gritted teeth, and plain, unglamorous slogging, I sent the full manuscript of Rivals in the City to my editor, Mara Bergman at Walker Books.

I am so relieved. And I know myself to be extremely well loved and supported. My husband, Nick, was an uncomplaining single parent for each weekend of the spring, and he stayed up long and late critiquing my drafts. (He also said, pointedly, “Have you used the SAD lamp? I really think you should try the SAD lamp again.”) My parents came to stay for the last two weeks of June, taking over the housework and playing with the children so I could focus fully on the book. And my editor, the extraordinarily patient and generous Mara Bergman, said yes and yes and yes again to my wild requests for more time.

I am far luckier than I deserve. And I can only hope the book I wrote is worthwhile.


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Café Cliché

Wednesday, May 29th, 2013

Hello, friends. For the past 2 weeks, I have resumed working in a coffee shop. I do the morning routine, shedding kids along the way, and turn up at my favourite old-new café (it moved). I order a drink, admire the pastries, say hello to the regulars, and sit down with my battered, cracked old laptop and time-travel to Victorian London. It’s excellent. In fact, it’s my favourite way to work. While I spent quite a long time trying to persuade myself that I could work just as effectively from home, I think it’s time to concede the truth: CoffeEco, you are the answer.

I love coffee shops because they create a focused window in which to work. I don’t idle all day, holding meetings and checking Facebook. I’m there for about 90 minutes, max, and in that time I give all my attention to my work-in-progress. I don’t worry about laundry piling up, what to make for dinner, or all the unread email clogging my inbox. When my time is up, I pack up and move on. I’ll write again after lunch, but that first 90 minutes sets the tone for the rest of my day. If I’m disciplined and productive in that first writing session, my whole day goes better. Conversely, if I use that time to run errands and do admin, I never seem to catch up in a satisfactory way.

So far, I sound like a smug little model of efficiency, don’t I? Ha. Confession time.

I also adore working in coffee shops because of all the conversations buzzing around me. I don’t participate (I’m busy staring at my screen, right?) but rest assured, I am most certainly “earwigging”, as my mother-in-law calls it. (Isn’t that a great word?) It’s a great way to check in with the rest of the world. It’s also interesting to observe how consistent certain types of conversations can be. For example, in the last five interactions I’ve heard between youngish men and youngish women, the men have spent most of the conversation talking about themselves. At length. While the women nod along enthusiastically and says things like, “That’s amazing!” Now, I have nothing against talking about oneself as part of a balanced conversation; after all, it’s what I do in this space, every Wednesday. But this is something I’m going to keep an eye on

I’ve also noticed that when people ask mothers of young children how they’re doing, they always say something like, “Oh, we’re great. Zoe’s in soccer camp and Carson’s just cut his first tooth!” Did you catch that? The mother IS her children; the spouse is missing. I am 100% guilty of this, by the way, and from now on I’m going to make a point of including every member of the family in my response.

And that’s where I’m at today. Are you an earwigger, too? What patterns have you noticed, in recent conversations around you?

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On nosiness

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

Hello, friends. I’m very sorry I forgot to blog last week! There was definitely something missing from my week and I couldn’t figure out what it was, but when I logged in to WordPress this morning, it hit me. I’m a dolt. A dolt without an excuse. But I’m here now, and I want to talk to you about being nosy.

My name is Y. S. Lee and I am a Nosy Parker. This pure, unadulterated nosiness was one of the many things my mother used to scold me for, as a kid (I wonder what she word she was substituting when she said “Parker”? Probably something quite different.) And I haven’t really changed.

I want to know everything. I want to know how much money supply teachers at my son’s school are paid, what an acquaintance’s surgery (discussed by 2 people as I passed by) was for, how many people are involved in digging up the main intersections downtown, why the man in front of me at the grocery store bought 60 chocolate bars (I counted: KitKats, Mars Bars, and Coffee Crisps. Twenty each), what that couple in the car parked outside my house is arguing about (it’s intense), how much it actually costs the City of Kingston to issue a parking ticket (which costs something like $16, so what do they actually make after all the admin?), and a couple of dozen other things. And that’s in the time it took me to drop off my kids at school/daycare, buy some vegetables, and come home.

It’s exhausting, being this nosy. Socially inhibiting, too: I live in fear of the day that my internal sensor/censor starts to fail on a regular basis and I begin asking entirely inappropriate questions of better-mannered strangers. I’m going to be That Crazy Lady, the one who makes everyone cringe when she walks into a room.

Put another way, I’m going to turn into a four-year-old. My son entered his “why?” phase on the day he turned two, pretty much, and it’s never actually let up. Every day, he barrages us with hundreds of questions about people, animals, the natural world, social conventions, and anything else that skips through his brain. A friend of ours came over one day, I left the room for a few minutes, and when I came back, this friend’s eyes were bulging out of his head. And really, the only difference between my son and me is that I’ve learned to repress my instincts.

The main side effect of unbridled nosiness? I think it’s why I’m a writer. I’d love to hammer out this theory with you, please: if you’re a writer, are you impossibly nosy? And if you’re a fellow Nosy Parker and not a writer, how does your nosiness work itself out?

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From A to B

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

Hello, friends! The lake is frozen, it’s snowing like crazy, and I’m dreaming of this Galangal and Coconut Milk Soup. (Don’t heed the blogger’s advice to substitute ginger for galangal. Go galangal, or go home!) I’m also thinking about my chaotic, haphazard, impulsive version of the writing process.

Digression: I am moderately interested in cars. I am married to someone with an obsessive interest in cars. Together, we have made children who are deeply, excessively, hypernormally interested in cars (also trucks, fire engines, buses, construction vehicles, etc). We have a small collection of bashed-up English car magazines dating back to 2005 that, appropriately deployed, can hypnotize both of the children for at least 15 minutes. They are a precious commodity in a house without a tv. Anyway, what I’m saying is that cars are high in the Top 5 subjects discussed in our house. I can confidently state that none of us has ever used the phrase, “So long as it gets me from A to B…” with even a fleck of sincerity.

But “getting from A to B” is one of the things I enjoy most about writing. I love to sit down, create a starting point, and then wonder, “Now, how will I get this character to where I need her? What should happen next? Does that ring true? What if something else happened? What if…” And I’m off. It’s almost always surprising, startling, satisfying. The vehicle matters.

What are your favourite parts about the writing process?

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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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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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