How it all started

Maid’s Hall: University of Guelph

So there I was, away at university for the second year, and still no idea what I wanted to do.

I’d started September of 1987 as a fine arts major, but after being dismissed as “an illustrator,” I flirted briefly with psychology before changing to music in January 1988.  In the fall of 1988, I had a rather disastrous classical guitar audition for the practical music program involving performance anxiety and was seriously considering English as my major.

I wrote music and book reviews for The Ontarian, the University of Guelph student newspaper, and helped them with layout.  This was the old fashioned layout with waxed prints of the columns that had to be precisely trimmed and placed on the board.  It was work that suited my wall-flower personality.

My roommate, Sandra Reynolds, though floundering similarly, always had more direction than I did and was a steadying influence on me.  Her sister is Susan Lynn Reynolds, who published Strandia in 1992.  She had drawn maps for Guy Gavriel Kay’s first novels.  He continues to be one of my favourite authors.  Sue’s ex, Michael Hale, had just published The Other Child.  Sandy was working on her own story ideas and with all of this creativity bouncing off the walls of our little dorm room I caught the bug to do more than record my dreams.

I’d started keeping a journal the year before, not only to capture my dreams, but also to capture insights I had in my classes.  It was a wonderful time for me intellectually.  Everything seemed to interrelate in the most interesting ways: my English literature survey course, Introduction to Psychology, Anthropology, Biology, the History of the Language and Old English courses.  Chinese Philosophy kind of blew my mind.  Sadly, little of it translated to academic success.  I was rather mediocre.

With all of these thoughts ping-ponging off one another in my head though, ideas started to occur to me, including the idea that would eventually become Ascension: Initiate of Stone.  I started writing notes.

Sandy invited me out to Mike’s place.  It was winter, snowy, and I ditched the car on the way.  A tree was mere inches away from the passenger side of the car and Sandy (!)  We were able to get a tow out of the ditch and made it to Mike’s, though late.  We still managed a lovely evening of creative chat, I got a tour of Mike’s graphics studio, and we made pie.  We all decided that since the crust was the best part, we’d make a crust pie.  It was fantastic.  Through Sandy and Mike, I learned some great techniques for character development.

I’ll share one:

Early in the character development stage, while you’re still getting to know them yourself, get together with some friends/fellow writers and have them ask you random questions about your characters.  Rapid fire.  You’re not to think about the answers, just come up with them and make notes as you go.  The idea is to access the inner writer who already has a handle on your characters and let that voice answer the questions.  The questions could be anything: what colour are his eyes?  What’s her middle name?  What happened when he was three?  What was her grandmother like?  Did he ever experiment sexually?  No question is forbidden.  It’s organic and very effective.  Nothing is written in stone, either.

If, in the course of your writing, some of those answers no longer hold true, or other answers that seem more appropriate present themselves, then the character changes.  Even to be thinking of these questions and answers through the writing process is helpful for your character development and therefore for the work.

Try it.  You may be amazed.

Sandy was taking Children’s Literature with the incredible Jean Little and Jean was bringing a friend into class to talk about her work.  That friend was Welwyn Wilton Katz.  Though she waggled a finger at me for my lack of research, I did get a chance to talk to her and was inspired by the lecture.  Subsequently, I started reading her novels, and became a fan.

By this time, I had one spiral notebook full and another started.  I had an old portable typewriter that I typed my essays on and started to type bits and pieces out in between essays.  I had no confidence however, and declined to show my stories to anyone.

My lack of direction in school eventually reached a crisis point and I decided to take some time off.

How did you get started on your magnum opus?  What or who inspired you?

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My Process

Educational Resource:  "Writing process"

Educational Resource: “Writing process” (Photo credit: Ken Whytock)

First, some thoughts about process from other writers:

The thing about process, is that it is, a process.  It changes over time and is as individual as the artist.  For what it’s worth though, this is what I’ve learned about mine …

daydream believer

When I was a kid, I dreamed, and those dreams became the bases of stories.  I didn’t keep a dream journal until much later in my life, but that’s how it started.  In my waking life, I was influenced by the things and people I liked: Siobhan Riddell’s wonderful artwork, Star Wars, G-Force, C.S. Lewis, and Lloyd Alexander.

first thoughts/morning pages/whatever you want to call it

When I was in university, I started to keep a journal, and I have ever since.  I recorded not just my dreams, but also the wonderful insights I gained in my classes.  An interesting thing my roommate taught me about my dream life: I talked in my sleep.  Sometimes I even got up, opened my eyes, and seemed to interact as though I was awake.  I’ve since learned that I am also subject to night terrors and sleep walking.  I once opened all the windows in my apartment in the middle of January and didn’t remember a thing about it …  That’s settled down now that I’m older, but so has my dream life.  I still dream in story, but now the stories my mind tells are all adult ones, about work or other stresses.

clip-rat

When I worked in libraries, I became a clip-rat.  It’s kind of like being a pack rat, but with article clippings.  I’d see something interesting in the New Yorker, or the Saturday Night Post and photocopy it.  I have some articles on economics that I have a story idea about, and a series that the Toronto Star did back in the 90’s about welfare and homelessness that’s fed into another.  When I travel, the daily newspapers left at my room door still yield clippings for the idea file.

my very own science guy

Discussions feed my creativity too.  My husband, Phil, is Mr. Science.  Professionally, he is a network administrator, but in a past career, he was a medical lab technologist.  His hobbies include cosmology, astronomy, and geology.  We have amazing conversations and I have several ideas that have had their genesis from his interesting insights.

forms/genres

Poetry comes alive in the moment: what I see, how I feel.

Short stories come from life events, or arise out of the need to explain them.

So that’s how the process starts, where the ideas come from.

Then they incubate.  It could be minutes, days, months, or years.  It depends on the idea, its purpose, and the genre it decides to be embodied in.

Poetry has the shortest incubation and usually writes itself.  If I revise, that may not happen for a considerably longer period of time.

Short stories are usually written in one sitting, and are usually revised two or three times before submission.  Every returns story is revised again before the next submission.

I’m still discovering what my process is with regard to writing a novel and I suspect it will change significantly before I have it pinned down.  I’ll cover this in a bit more detail in my work in progress category.

ming-ti is everything

(say ming-ti over and over again, very fast … thanks to the Battle Chant grrls for that one!)

I work a day job, and so must write in the evenings and on the weekends.  One of my biggest challenges right now is how to balance my job with my personal and creative lives.

Tools are important.  I have a particular preoccupation with …

ways and means

Though I journal, I don’t have a practice with respect to this aspect of writing.  I’ve tried writing daily, but didn’t find it productive for me.  Now I write in my journal when I have something I want to record.  Sometimes it’s just blather, but I do make a point of writing.  I may not write for a few days, a week, or longer, but then I’ll write several days in a row, or even several times in one day.

I prefer spiral or perfect bound journals that can lay flat, with hard covers in case I’m writing in a place where I there’s no table or other surface to write on.  I have a purple pen to write with.

Poems are sometimes drafted in pen, but most of my fiction writing is conducted on my computer.  I have a desktop and a lap top so I can write in different places in the house, outside, or while traveling.  I have heard that it can be useful to change surroundings occasionally and have done this frequently myself for the following reasons:

  • My day job requires me to travel and I have to write (I can’t do without), so I take my lap top and write wherever I happen to be.
  • When we were renovating my office, and then the bedroom, it wasn’t really possible for me write in my accustomed surroundings.  The lap top became very useful, allowing me to write in the living room, the back yard, or at my Mom’s.
  • Sometimes I just need a change.

be the target

I set goals: a number of pages, or words, a short story revised, or poetry submission prepared.  I try to stick to them, but don’t beat myself up if I can’t meet them.

I write every day.  The rare time that I am too ill, or exhausted, to write, I miss it terribly, so I try at least to do something writing-related: journaling, administrative tasks, research, going over timelines or character sketches, even email counts.  Social media and blogging count too.

alt.creativity

I try to do something else creative that’s not writing.

There was a time that I thought I’d be a visual artist.  I still sketch occasionally: characters, maps, and the like.

I used to sing in the church choir and school choirs when I was a kid.  Later, I joined the Bel Canto Chorus for a season and surprised myself with a successful audition for Theatre Cambrian’s production of Hair in 2000.  Though I haven’t sung publically in years, I still sing, even if it’s just in the car.

I take photos, and some of them have merit beyond the simple recording of events.

I try to get out to the odd concert, or other event, just for fun.

body/mind

I stay minimally active.  If all I do is walk the dog, or walk home from work, I try to do something every day.  I tried jogging for a few years, but I never liked it.

Sudoku, solitaire, and jigsaw puzzles help me relax and help keep my mind engaged.  I used to play Massively Multi-player On-line Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) like Champions, World of Warcraft, City of Heroes, and EverQuest, but I don’t have time for those anymore, even as a reward.  They are very time-consuming, though immensely fun.  A lot of my creativity ended up going into the game as opposed to my writing, so I had to make a choice.  In the end, it wasn’t difficult.

I like to listen to music while I write, but don’t always do so.  I find music relaxing.  It inspires me, though I know some writers can’t have any distraction while they write at all.  I’m fairly eclectic in my musical tastes.  Random selection from my I-Pod: Tori Amos, David Bowie, Sarah Brightman, Kate Bush, Great Big Sea (still a groupie), Sarah Slean, The Fixx, Imogen Heap, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Dala, and Loreena McKennitt.  Though I don’t listen to them often, I also have CDs of Berlioz, the Eddas, Beethoven, Japanese flute, and gamelan music.

Did I mention my tastes were eclectic?

a room of one’s own

I don’t close the door to my office, though I can.  Phil knows to leave me alone while I’m working, but steals in now and then for a kiss.  Even the dog stays away when I’m at my computer.

Plants are a must, as are shelves filled with reference works and fiction yet to be read.  My office is also full of items of personal interest, gifts from friends, masks, and my altar.  With respect to this last, all I’ll state here is that writing has become my spiritual practice as well as my vocation.

don’t feed the muse

I read all the time.  I’m not as fast as I used to be because I don’t have so much time to devote to it, but I still read, and fairly widely.  I try to read something contemporary, perhaps in my chosen genre, then a classic, or another work of fiction outside sf.  Then I read a work of non-fiction, alternating between something for research related, overtly or not, to what I’m writing, and something on the writer’s craft.  My current favourites: Sheri S. Tepper, Guy Gavriel Kay, Diana Gabaldon, Charles de Lint, Ursula K. LeGuin, Heather Sellers, and Donald Maass.

I’m a CBC junkie, particularly “Writers and Company,” “DNTO,” and “Spark.”  I get ideas, inspiration, and insight from them too.

I like shows that have a plot line that carries over seasons: Doctor Who, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5.  I also indulge in Castle and Grey’s Anatomy.  I try to think critically about the plot lines and story.  I watch repeats of the shows I like so I can get deeper into their structure.

the bottom line

Ultimately, everything I do has a purpose, or I can relate it somehow to my creativity.  Everything feeds into process in the end.

Donald Maass writes in The Breakout Novelist: Craft and Strategies for Career Fiction Writers, that most writers, even those who teach creative writing, have no idea what their process is, and I would agree with that.  What I’ve shared here is what I’ve learned in my lifetime of writing to date.  My process is a part of my life and lifestyle.  It changes as I change and it’s difficult to articulate what is process and process alone, distinct from the rest of my life.

Perhaps the point is that there is no distinction.  A writer’s life is her process.  What do you think?

Rosemary Aubert

October 29-30, 2005.

I was just beginning to find my feet as a practicing author.  I’d been writing agnostic for years 🙂  You know how that goes, don’t you?  Your bum just won’t believe in the existence of the chair enough to stay in it?

A member of the Sudbury Writers’ Guild came through and brought Rosemary Aubert to Sudbury for a two-day workshop.

Rosemary had some very valuable insights not only about the writer’s craft, but also about the publishing industry.

Something apropos of nothing :)

Last fall, not too long after my birthday, my mother in law offered me this ring.

TheRing1

That’s a real onyx.

I love silver and I like interesting rings, so of course I said ‘yes!’

The thing is, that this ring is what’s called a pillbox ring, or a poison ring, a piece of jewellery notoriously featured in period mystery stories.

TheRing2

I wondered whether she was trying to tell me something … ?

Life before training

I’m talking about my work life here, and before I became a trainer, I can honestly say that work was hell.

Before I go any further, I just want to establish one fact:  I disagree with the whole concept of work as something that we have to do to earn money, pay bills, and be a ‘productive member of society.’  I have no problem with work itself.  I garden; I help my spouse renovate the house; I’m writing a novel.  That’s all hard work and I don’t shy away from it.  I just don’t like the necessity of selling the better part of my life so I can live the rest of it the way I want.  It’s a devil’s bargain.

When I was young, it was retail, after school and on weekends.  In university, it was seasonal, contract jobs.  Now I can’t say that I hated all the jobs that I had.  I enjoyed working in the library, working as a student counsellor, helping students write resumes and find job placements, I enjoyed the pet stores I worked in, and the veterinary clinic.  Retail and food service, not so much.  Being a security guard was the worst, despite the canine companion.

I enjoyed some of the things I got to do, like designing Web pages (in the old type-it-out-in-Wordpad days) and desktop publishing.  I liked filming and editing horse shows.  I was good at teaching, but aside from the subject matter, I wouldn’t say I enjoyed the rest of it.

The problem was that until I started working for my current employer in 2001, all of my jobs were short-term, with no future.  I was always worried where my next pay cheque would come from.  Plans were out of the question.  I ended up on Employment Insurance. Twice.

So I got my first real job … in a call centre.  Six and a half years and varied, frantic applications for internal job postings later, I became an adjudicator.  While a vast improvement over my previous position, it was still a job, something I did to pay the bills.  A year and a half later, I was successful in another competition and obtained my current job.

I started off monitoring new trainees but soon had my first experience as a corporate trainer.  I liked it!  I immersed myself in my job and tried to do my very best.  Soon, I was rewarded with further opportunities for certification, new toys with which to deliver training (SMART Board) and the means of developing a collaborative work platform for my virtual team (SharePoint).

From there, I dove into the world of free Webinars on various aspects of learning, course design, and training delivery; I started writing courses, creating videos, and designing in SharePoint.  I became a social learner, a mutant learner, and, as I’ve dubbed myself, a learning mutt.  It was my day-job that brought me to the world of social media, platform-building, and this blog.

I’m now well on my way to becoming a certified trainer through my employer’s program, I’ve taken courses on curriculum design and project management.  I’m about to become one of a group of trainers who will be delivering a newly developed business writing course.

I’m having as much fun now as I did in university and everything that I’m learning feeds my creative soul.

I still don’t like working, but if I didn’t have to work, I might still choose to be a trainer and course designer.

Go figure …

Have you found, or lucked into, a job you like?  Are you still searching?  Share your journey!

Three Blind Mice

When I was a wee thing, my parents enrolled me in ballet classes.  I think it was because I was such a spirited and energetic girl 🙂

All went well until the first recital.  We were performing “Three Blind Mice.”

I kind of looked like this:

Young Ballerinas, Casa de Cultura, Havana

Young Ballerinas, Casa de Cultura, Havana (Photo credit: travfotos)

I tried to find my old photo in the big box of them I have.  I searched Mom’s collection too, but no luck.  It’ll do …

I was so excited I think I went ballistic, though I honestly don’t remember the specifics.  The instructor had to discipline me, and unfortunately had to do so in front of everyone.  I went from whirling like a dervish to hugging my knees in the corner crying in about two seconds flat.

We were about to go on stage and this wouldn’t do.  Her pep talk wasn’t inspiring, but it straightened me out enough to perform.  After the big night, I told my parents that I didn’t want to dance anymore.

I did do a little bit more later on.  One of the local gymnastics clubs was offering after school classes and I did one or two dance classes that way and about four or five gymnastics classes.  I always liked gymnastics better anyway.

The thing was, I learned a couple of negative things from that first creative challenge:

  1. Teachers are the enemy.
  2. Quitting is easy.

Avoidance of conflict and embarrassment crop up quite a bit in my creative life.  Heck though, I was three at the time.  How in the world was I supposed to know how to handle it?

So why court embarrassment again now, all these years later?  Because when you’re creative (and I think everyone is), you’re usually creative in a whole whack of different ways.  This was just the first way that I manifested my creativity.  I also liked to draw, build things, sing, and I was a fantastic pretender …

So a tip for people who might think they’re “blocked” in whatever creative endeavor they’re currently engaged in: exercise your creativity differently for a while.  It doesn’t have to be anything spectacular; singing in the shower will do.  Or maybe you could dance like a maniac when no one’s around, go see a play or a concert, start a journal, if you’ve never tried, check out an open mic night at a local cafe, or karaoke if you dare, buy a sketch pad from your local grocery or pharmacy and get with the cartoons.

You may find that refocusing your creative mind (or your creative body) will make you wonder why you thought you were blocked in the first place.

What alternate modes of creativity do you engage in?  What do you want to try that you’ve never tried before?  Was there a time in your life when you felt shut down?  What lessons did you learn from that and how did that experience shape you?

Eight metaphors for persistence, and why you’ll want to read this anyway

God help you if you are a phoenix / and you dare to rise up from the ash …

~~Ani Difranco, 32 Flavors

Rise Of The Phoenix

Rise Of The Phoenix (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On Sunday, February 26, 2012, my dear blog labbydog.ca was hacked, necessitating, in the opinion of the hosting service on which she lived, a complete deletion of all materials.  Even if I’d have been savvy enough to back up, those files would also have been suspect and deleted.  It was a dark day.

The light at the end of the tunnel

It was a dark week, truthfully.  Labbydog.ca was also the mail server for me, my husband Phil, and my mom.  It took a couple of days just to get everything re-established after the wipe.  Phil is a computer genius though, or as a friend of ours once said, an ass in jeans (a fine one, admittedly), and email was restored in short order.

I had some of my materials saved as Word .docx files, but by no means all of them.  How to rebuild?  More importantly, where to rebuild?  I wasn’t about to trust my next effort to the same hosting service, who essentially blamed me and my importation of add-ons and plug-ins (A.K.A. “scripts”), intended to protect my blog, for its very destruction.  I investigated each one and only downloaded them after the recommendation of an online guru. So what was I going to do?

I considered my options.  Both blogger and WordPress allow the importation of domains, and thanks to Robert Lee Brewer’s excellent advice, I had purchased melaniemarttila.ca in January.  It was my intent to move my blog to the new domain in February or March in any event, which is why I (oh-so-foolishly) hadn’t backed labbydog.ca up.

Robert, you saved my virtual ass, and my online sanity.  Thank you.  There are no words.

Getting back on the horse

I mucked around with blogger for a day or two, but I really didn’t want to start entirely from scratch.  I liked WordPress, was comfortable with the admin portal and the intuitive interface.  So I started a new blog on WordPress, transferred my domain, mapped it, and prepared to wade back into the blogging fray.

No use crying over spilled milk

I was seriously depressed, but the disease is an old frenemy, and I know how to deal with him.  The bottom line is that I can’t worry about things I have no control over.  I have to focus on the things I can affect in a positive way.

Depression and writing:

People have asked me since the dreadful day, “Why?”  Why indeed would anyone want to hack my innocuous wee blog?  I wasn’t particularly controversial.  I didn’t have a lot of followers.  It’s not like they were taking down some corporate mogul, or politician, or even a celebrity.  So yeah, I’d like an answer to that one too.  Why?

Wishing won’t make it so

You’ll have to track down the hacker and ask his or her maliciousness yourselves.  Quite likely, the culprit is not even a person, but some hack-bot, a lackey bit of code sent out to do its vile master’s bidding.  So why?

The short answer is: because she or he could.

Hacking, trolling, griefing, phishing, propagating malware, and other acts of online evil are all about bullying and the abuse of power.  You deal with it the same way you deal with any other kind of abuse, you speak up, share your story, and hope to hell you save someone else by your sad example.

I will share Wil Wheaton’s online motto here: Don’t be a dick!

[Wom]an with a plan

Labbydog.ca 2.0 = Writerly Goodness on melaniemarttila.ca.

From here on out, I’m saving everything I post in Word.  Once I have Writerly Goodness up and running, I will institute a back up routine.

When was the last time you backed up your blog, novel, training course design, or insert anything you’ve spent a lot of hours doing here?  Don’t procrastinate any further: save your work.  Now.  Go ahead, I’ll wait …

[W]e can rebuild [her]. We have the technology …  Better than [s]he was before.  Better, stronger, faster.

~~The Six Million Dollar Man, 1974

So yeah, I’m going to go back to the drawing board.  I’m going to repost as much as I can remember of what I used to have on labbydog.ca, but I’m going to do it better (I hope).  For example, ‘My history as a so-called writer’ isn’t just going to be self-serving or shamefully confessional.  I’m going to try to put in some meat for the writerly.  I’m going to try to answer the questions: why should I care, and what’s in it for me?  I’m hoping for some serious takeaway action.

A weekly schedule should give the project some structure: different categories on different days.

I’m trying to learn/do/create/be better.  And I’d appreciate it if you’d let me know how I’m doing.

Never say ‘die’

The takeaway here: in writing, as in everything, if you love what you’re doing, you can’t give up. You won’t be able to.  Sometimes, though, you might need a little help.

Some curation, and maybe inspiration:

What have you had to overcome to do what you’re passionate about?  Ever felt like a phoenix rising from the ash?

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