Friday, July 24, 2009

On Writing by Stephen King

On Writing: A memoir of the Craft
By Stephen King 297pp.

Two-thirds of the way through writing my first novel, I felt the need for a little moral support, so ordered a shelf of books on writing from This one happened to be on top of the stack when I went on holidays and needed something for the plane.

The book quite surprised me: the first 94 and last 19 pages are in fact autobiography, which is certainly not what I expected from a book on writing. It's largely a pleasant surprise because this is Stephen King after all, so as autobiographies go, it's pretty slick. And it does rather support his contention that one must write what you are. A central theme of the book, once King gets around to the actual "how to write" section, is that one must "write the truth", by which he means, in part, "write what you know." Thus, the "CV" portion of the book serves as back-story to demonstrate where Stephen King the writer came from; and, perhaps, even to go some distance towards answering that perennial question, "where do you get your ideas?"

There are some quite compelling insights here, including the revelation that "The Shinning" was likely a call for help during his own losing struggles with alcohol and drugs (p. 89). (King subsequently (p.92) directly addresses the Hemingway stereotype of the creative genius as necessarily a drunkard, and makes a compelling case that this is a literary creation without basis in reality: the two conditions are unrelated.)

The actual section on writing is also quite engaging, its only failing King's abhorrence of adverbs, against which he strongly warns the reader. This is of course nonsense, but a fallacy shared by the majority of Americans, so one for which a prolific writer of American fiction may be forgiven. King sets up the strawman of the evil adverb by providing numerous examples of appalling misuse, with which he then attempts to tar an entire part of speech. British authors (and by extension, Canadian writers) being native speakers of English are better equipped to use the adverb correctly. Far worse, in my view, is the inexcusable American habit of dropping the 'ly' from an adverb and pretending it is an adjective.

But that one aberration aside, just about everything else King has to say resonated strongly with me, not only as a writer, but also as an instructor. For example, he devotes quite a few pages to the need to finish a first draft before showing it to anyone else. I have experienced, and frequently observed in colleagues and students, the death of stories or articles critiqued too soon.

Rough drafts are often that, and not everyone can look at one's initial attempts and see the potential it could have once properly revised and polished. It's all too easy for a casual observer to dismiss a rough draft as "not very strong" or complain that the "ideas just doesn't make sense". And often the author will look at what they have so far, see the holes that have just been pointed out to them, and give up. But this misses the point that first drafts are always weak.

This is particularly a problem with my grad students, who constantly compare their own tentative first efforts against the finished product of others' published articles/stories. They don't realize that that published story/article they are using as the standard went through eleven drafts, four colleagues, and an editor to end up like that. The initial draft of those now successfully published pieces might well have been much, much worse than what they currently have on their own screen. But never having seen anyone else writing (writing being largely a solitary act), they often assume that writing comes easily to everyone but them, and that if their first draft is this weak, then they might as well just give up on this story/article.

For King, the secret is putting the completed manuscript away for six months and to work on something else entirely, so that one can return to it with fresh eyes, completing the rewrite from a more detached perspective. I completely agree. But that's not always possible for grad students working against the deadline for thesis completion. Nevertheless, I encourage students to keep moving forward to finish the full first draft all the way through before revising anything, because (a) by the time they get to the end, they will have gained at least a little distance on the earlier chapters, which aids in spotting needed revisions; (b) there is no point revising something to a high polish early on, only to discover that that section has to be fundamentally changed, deleted or replaced when one gets to the end and realizes that's not where they needed to get to in the end; (c) after one has a complete draft and sees how it all kind of hangs together, our egos are better positioned to hear constructive feedback – the project is less fragile than in the early stages when one's ideas are still quite tentative and one's ego vulnerable; (d) pragmatically, one has a better chance of passing with a weak but completed thesis than with the first three brilliantly refined chapters of an incomplete thesis.

Another point on which I largely agree with King is his reservations about writers' workshops. I think these can be invaluable if handled correctly, but too many are as he describes them: too vague feedback on too early drafts:

How valuable are [these daily critiques]? Not very, in my experience, sorry. A lot of them are maddeningly vague. I love the feeling of Peter's story someone might say. It had something...a sense of I don’t know...there's a loving kind of you know...I can't exactly describe it.

Other writing-seminar gemmies include I felt like the tone thing was just kind of you know; The character of Polly seemed pretty much stereotypical; I loved the imagery because I could see what he was talking about more or less perfectly.

And instead of pelting these babbling idiots with their own freshly toasted marshmallows, everyone else sitting around the fire is often nodding and smiling and looking solemnly thoughtful. In too many cases the teachers and writers in residence are nodding, smiling, and looking solemnly thoughtful right along with them. It seems to occur to few of the attendees that if you have a feeling you just can't describe, you might just be, I don't know, kind of like, my sense of it is, maybe in the wrong fucking class.

Ouch! But all too often, uncomfortably close to the mark. I've been in some excellent writer's workshops where the attendees are more articulate and helpful than those depicted by King, or where the facilitator has intervened with probing questions to draw out more specific and therefore more constructive feedback from attendees. But I have grown increasingly skeptical about weekend or week-long retreats that consist of a random selection of aspiring writers, most of whom may not 'get' one's particular genre or style or intention; and where the timeframe between first draft and first reading is too close to be useful.

I think one requires a longer timeframe: Where one has a chance to draft, rewrite a couple of times, put the story away for a month or two, then revise again, and only take the story to the 'focus group' once it's ready to be published, just as a final check. For that, one requires an ongoing writer's circle, a small group of reliable reviewers (writers, editors, trusted readers) who can provide clear, concise, specific advice. A few writers who live in large urban centers may be able to develop a circle of such colleagues that physically meets in someone's home on a regular schedule; but more likely it’s a group of correspondents in other locales to whom one can send the manuscript when it is ready. (And it's a lot easier to dump a correspondent who doesn't work out – you just stop sending them your stuff as often – than it is to fire someone from a circle that meets physically.)

But back to King. I found On Writing an invigorating read because the personal anecdotes provide a context that successfully changes the tone of the book from the didactic of the typical "How to" manual, to a much more involving 'discussion' of the writing life. Although the book cannot directly critique my manuscript, I often find the most useful aspect of writers' workshops is just the validation of the writing life that comes from hanging with others who take writing seriously. Of course, reading On Writing is not really the same as hanging with Stephen King, but then, getting King to accompany me on the plane would have been a lot more expensive, and a lot less convenient, than just ordering the book from Amazon. So a recommended read.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Freelancing Video

Writer Simon Rose pointed out this hilarious and painfully accurate video on what it's like to be a freelance writer/editor/professional. Should be viewed by anyone thinking of 'going consultant' or of hiring one.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Hawaii in the Summer

Our balcony at the Waikiki Sheraton -- Mary was able to get the room for $100 a night on Priceline, which has to be the deal of the year

We had only previously been to Hawaii in the winter. When I was growing up, Hawaii is where Edmontonians who could afford it went to escape Winter over Christmas. I never got to go as a kid, but I had always therefore assumed that Hawaii would be more crowded over Christmas holidays than at other times of year, and that Hawaii would be nearly deserted in the summer, because why would you pay all that money to leave Alberta for the two months Canada has decent weather? But of course, that understanding of Hawaii tourism turned out to be completely wrong-headed. Hawaii is way MORE crowded in the summer, filled to capacity with Americans from Texas and Arizona etc escaping the heat. So the experience of Hawaii is a little different in the summer, because the place is filled with American tourists (and a few Australians escaping their winter) rather than Canadians.

Having done Honolulu previously, we were focused primarily on the beach and fine dining this time through. One of Lethbridge's deficits is that there are no really fine restaurants, just chains (though that is slowly improving). So Mary and I in particular were really looking forward to Roy's, one of our favorite restaurants anywhere. We ate there twice, Hulla Grill twice, Duke's once, Keo's (a Thai restaurant -- order the 'Evil Jungle Prince'!), and Eggs and Things once (all highly recommended). We made up the rest of our meals at Planet Hollywood, the Cheeseburger Waikiki and Maui Taccos (which spoils you for any Canadian tacco chain ever again) because sometimes you just have to, you know, eat. Planet Hollywood is only okay chain restaurant food, but really good value for the money if you order the half price appetizers during happy hour or the breakfast. (We didn't get to eat at Le Mar, but we would have needed babysitting and a bigger budget to go there.) Roy's is especially wonderful, and to our amazement, a favorite of the kids' too. They have a great kid's menu, and give the kids the same three course dinning experience as adults, just with more kid-friendly food and prices. Almost worth the trip to Hawaii for Roy's alone.

Mary took the kids to the beach twice without me, giving me two mornings to write. That was great! Sitting on a balcony in Hawaii overlooking the beach and the ocean, is the way to write! An unexpected bonus was that, since I was essentially sitting still for hours keyboarding, a wonderful variety of birds came and sat on the edge of the balcony with me. I've never seen so many different types in a single day. And I made quite a bit of progress on my book. Other days I went with them to the beach, but since I can't swim, and burn at the mere sight of sunlight, Mary was still mostly stuck with supervising kids while I just found some shade and read. (Stephen King's On Writing, about which more in another post.)

The four day trips we planned were the trip to Sea Life Park, where we had the dolphin encounters (see earlier blog entry); the Hawaii Fire Surf Lessons for Tigana and Kasia; a trip to the Dole Plantation: a pleasant afternoon touring the historic plantation and doing the maze; and an afternoon in the Honolulu Zoo.

Tigana surfing well

Tigana surfing well -- but right into Kasia and her instructor! (The instructor had to pull Kasia under the water to keep Tigana's board from hitting her)

both kids going out to the waves

close up of Kasia with her instructor going out

We would highly recommend Hawaii Fire over other surfing lessons, especially when as in our case, kids are involved. Much cheaper lessons are available all along the beach at Waikiki, but the Hawaii Fire folk have two key advantages: one, they take you to a more sheltered, shallower beach which is ideal for learning on (lots of waves but manageable waves); and all the instructors are firemen --so, if you're going to have problems, these are the guys you want to respond.

The Zoo is considered a small one, but we found it highly enjoyable. As Mary pointed out, the entrance fee would have been worth it just to walk through the trees, bushes and flowers between the animal exhibits -- a great botanical garden. And the Zoo is cleverly laid out so that although its footprint in Waikiki is small, it seems quite big and takes a full afternoon to walk through. I was fascinated that even though we were only a few yards from apartment blocks on one side, the beach on the other, we felt completely isolated from the rest of the city; one really did feel as if one were out on the African savannah.

One of my favorites were the hippos, who were not only hugely huge magnificent beasties, but were enjoying themselves hugely playing ball -- no question about it, they were tossing that enormous green sphere around between them.

Kasia's favorites were the Zebras. Kasia is hypnotized by all things pony, and Zebras are apparently close enough to count. Here a zebra rolls in the dust to cool off. (I was tempted to point my hand like a gun and shout bang as it started to go over for a roll, but that probably would have meant years of therapy for Kasia, so I let it go.)

I'd recommend the zoo for anyone looking for a couple of hours away from the beach.

So, overall, a nice quiet vacation -- quiet days at the beach alternated with low key day trips. A great chance to detox from email and the stresses of our day jobs.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Dolphins Again

Strictly speaking, that's a Walphin that Tigana is dancing with: a dolphin -killer whale cross. But Kasia had so much fun kissing a dolphin on our first trip to Hawaii, we decided that the rest of us should try it.

Back to Hawaii

Following my teaching in Summer Session this June, we took off for vacation in Hawaii. Well, I went to Edmonton to check on my Mom for a couple of days first, and I took the dog with me to confuse the kids. Because we hadn't told the kids they were going to Hawaii, only that they would 'be joining Dad', whom they knew had gone to Edmonton. They understand the need to be in Edmonton to visit family and to attend to all the Estate matters I am still plowing through (even after all this time). Not fun for them, but borne with stoic understanding that the family needed to do this. So Mary picked them up from school on their last day, drove them to the airport in Lethbridge, where they boarded a plane for Calgary, the usual transfer point to Edmonton. Mary had set them up perfectly by telling Tigana that they would drive up, but then giving in to Tigana's asking to fly up instead. (Tigana had used the argument that since I had already driven up earlier in the week, we already had a car in Edmonton, so there was no need for them to endure the six hour car trip. Mary had graciously acceeded to this request, never letting on that it was all a con.) So I flew down to Calgary from Edmonton, and was sitting in the airport Tim Horton's as they got off the plane. Kasia sees me, runs over and hugs me, as Tigana goes, "I thought we would be meeting you in Edmonton?"

Robert: "Ready to start the Grand Adventure of Summer in Edmonton."

Tigana: "Yeah, right."

Robert:" What, you don't want to spend summer in Edmonton?"

Mary: "Kasia, where do you want to go?"

Kasia: "Hawaii!" (This was a safe bet: Kasia always answers 'Hawaii' to questions like 'where would you like to have dinner tonight?' Besides a standing joke, Kasia asks us at least once a week why don't we live in Hawaii. We're having an increasingly difficult time thinking up an answer.)

Mary and I look at each other and shrug. "Okay, why didn't you say so. Let's go to Hawaii."

Tigana: "Whaatt? Youmeanaghghghghghghghghghgyeaahhhwhoooo!"

And so on. So an hour later, three hours after school ends, we're enroute to Hawaii via Vancouver.

Of course, we will be paying for this for the rest of our lives because now every time we take them to Edmonton they're going to be spending the entire trip saying, "Yeah, where are we going really?"

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Last Cup of Tea

Now that Mom is over 100, she had become increasingly frail.

She has become so thin, that her skin is essentially transparent, like those "living skeletons" used in biology classes: her bones and blood vessels, and what little muscle mass remains, are all clearly visible. The cell phone photo below doesn't really capture the effect, since it's hard to tell that you're looking through the layer of skin here; but you can maybe get a sense of the skin if you look at the wrinkles, which are like ripples on the surface of a pond; you only see the medium you're looking through when something disrupts the surface. Or look across the top of the fingers, you can sort of see the gleam of a reflection floating just above the bone; that's her skin. I can actually watch the blood flowing through her arteries/veins.

My mother's hands

What makes this particularly disconcerting is that I also had the experience of watching the blood stop flowing. I was, as is my custom when visiting her, holding and stroking mom's hand. This seems to provide her with some comfort. But on one occasion I happened to glance down as my thumb crossed various veins and arteries, and realized that I was cutting off the blood flow in each one in turn. I could actually see the blood stop moving, back up, and the color draining away 'downstream' as the supply was momentarily cut off. And I wasn't pressing hard; the lightest touch imaginable. That left me in a bit of a quandary, pitting psychological support against blood supply.

Then today, I happened to be watching one blood vessel as she crooked her fingers to take the cup handle to drink her soup, and I watched the blood in one of the vessels struggle to climb the 'hill' created by the bend, and not making it: little droplets of blood would climb half way up, like cars on a train, but roll back at the last moment.... It was unnerving. I also noticed dozens of little bruises all over, which I deduce are caused by blood vessel failure. (Quite aside from the fact that I have complete faith in the staff at her nursing home, the location of these bruises are completely wrong as 'grab points' or bed sores, but adjacent to what appears to be the end of a blood vessel.)

Similarly, whereas I used to rub her neck for her whenever I visited, there simply isn't any detectable muscle mass back there for me to message any longer. Looking at her arms and legs, the increasingly number of bruises, and her general frailness, I worry that her time is running out; but listening to her chatting away and laughing at my jokes, I think she she's good for another four years.

Much of what she has to say doesn't really make sense, at least not as part of our consensual reality. It is perfectly consistent and reasonable if one is prepared to accept that my mother, like the hero of Slaughterhouse Five has come loose in time and is moving back and forth through her life; or that there is an afterlife, and it consists largely of visiting with friends and relatives. Whenever I ask what she was doing today, she answers, "Not much of anything today. I was up late visiting with _____ (fill in the blank -- today it was our wonderful neighbours of 30 years ago, the Whitbreads) so decided to just take it easy today." Sometimes this comes across as her remembering some event from years before; more often, these seem to be current visits with those from beyond the veil. It's hard to explain exactly, but the visits sound to me as accurate projections of how people would have interacted had they been all gathered together in the same room, though most of them had never met in this world, at least not as adult contemporaries, being from different generations. Mom is now constantly with her mother, her sister, my brother, and sometimes one or more of her brothers. These are the people she talks with while I'm with her, and to whom she often attempts to pass the cup I have just put into her hands. "Tea Evie?" she'll ask. Significantly, she never sees anyone in this group or as visitors come to call on this group, who are still alive. When she talks about my visits or those of Ron, my other surviving sibling, it is quite clear that she is referring to our visits to her in the nursing home, and not to the group in the Garden (behind her mother's house in 1948), the usual setting for those visiting in the beyond. If mom were just "confused", wouldn't one expect her to mix up the quick and the dead?

One purpose of my visits serve is to get my mom a cup of tea. She likes a cup of tea of an evening, but it is not included in her official nursing home diet, so she only gets it when I'm there. She is supposed to be drinking an 'Ensure' type drink, which they thoughtfully warm for her, and which she seems to quite enjoy; but ultimately, it's not her beloved cup of tea. I realize that the tea fills her up without providing nutrition, but one has to balance nutrition against the psychological value of a really good cup of tea. And I do use one of her protein drinks as the 'cream' substitute, so I do get something into her. This trip, however, I was forced to acknowledge that the logistical issues had become untenable, and it was with great sadness that I realized that this might well be her very last cup.

I'd noticed on my last few trips that Mom was having increasing difficulty with sitting up straight: she now perpetually leans 35 degrees to the left. No amount of pushing her upright seems to help; she immediately re-adjusts to what must seem level to her, and actively resists attempts to help her hold her cup straight, complaining that I'm going to spill the contents to the right, when I manage to hold the cup level for a second. I've heard about people who've had strokes being skewed from the vertical like this, and given that mom is totally blind, she can't even use visual cues to keep herself aligned. This isn't a huge problem for the staff or I spooning in her pureed dinner, and she can usually manage her cup of (usually quite thick) soup by herself, though some days as much lands on her apron-sized bib as in her mouth, dribbling off the left edge of the tilted cup. But tea is a different matter entirely. Mom likes it hot, and being significantly thinner than the soup, her trembling hand and bad angle inevitably send near scalding tea splashing onto, and soaking through, her bib. Doubling the layers of the bibs helps a bit in terms of keeping her from getting burned, but ultimately, the experience is no longer a calming one. She is aware of the tea dribbling off her lips, and her hand feels around for the lake of tea on her lap, and of course it upsets her that she has spilled. Cold drinks present no such problem, being drunk through a straw, but even if I could keep the tea cool enough to drink with a straw, it is not really the full 'tea' experience anymore.

One minor compensation is that I will no longer have to deal with the problem of Aunt Evie. Whenever I would offer Mom a cup of tea, she would inevitably pause half way to her first sip and say, "but you haven't gotten any tea for Evie!" There would follow several minutes of frantic cup chasing as Mom would say, "Here Evie, take my cup!" and reach out to place the cup in Evie's hands, which did not, as it happen, extend into this world. I was generally able to intercept the cup before it crashed to the floor/spilled over Mom's legs, but this would often engender some conflict as Mom would demand to know "what are you playing at?" trying to grab away the cup of tea she was offering her sister. And it became quite clear over the months that while there is a good supply of buns and scones on the other side, it is apparently impossible to get a really good cup of tea. (In this context, the Red Rose ad campaign, "only in Canada, eh?" takes on an entirely new dimension.) I have the strong impression that Evie, although quite happy with 'life' over there, would dearly like a cup of tea and a cigarette. Asking my Mom or I for a cigarette is a lost cause, but she does seem to feel the prospects for a cup of tea worth pursing. I have not yet worked out the theological implications of all this.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Sunburst Short List Announced

The shortlist for the Sunburst Award has been announced, and I was a bit surprised by how few of the finalists I had actually heard of, let alone read. It just goes to show how many Canadian authors are writing SF these days, and how diversified the field has become. Really, very impressive!

Bit disappointed that more of my personal favorites were not short listed, like Lorina Stephen's Shadow Song, which is certainly literary enough for this juried award -- but then, I notice Kenneth Oppel only manages an honorable mention, so if a Governor General's award winner doesn't meet the standard....

I really appreciate how the shortlist was announced. The webpage shows the cover (good way to get a sense of tone for a book, at least sometimes) the cover blurb (let the book speak for itself), a comment from the jury (quick review explaining why it qualified for award), and brief bio identifying the author. All very informative. Certainly get a good overview of which titles would be of interest as readers of the genre; and a good overview of what's out there in Canadian SF these days.

Will have to add all these titles to my wish list....

My heartfelt thanks to the Jury and all those that made the award possible -- obviously a lot of work being done here to highlight Canadian SF, and obviously being very successful!