Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Book Review: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

I was looking for On Writing by Stephen King to give to my Dad for Christmas. The book store did
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not carry the book, but the bookseller insisted Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott was even better. "Even my friends who don't write loved this book. It's hilarious!" With no time left to shop, I took her word for it and bought the book for my Dad.

A year and a half later, he lent me the book. (I'll admit, I pestered him about it ever since I gave it to him!) While I wouldn't say it is better than On Writing, I would say it is as good as On Writing. They are, of course, writing about different experiences and genres, but they had some striking similarities. Both are recovering alcoholics. Both encourage you to write every day and both are excellent storytellers.

I highly recommend this book to all writers. It gives excellent advice on why it is important to write, even if you never get published. I gives writing dignity far beyond publication.

It reminded me that writing a book as a gift is a wonderful idea. My book Expectations was a birthday gift to my sister. I think my other books were gifts to myself; books I wanted to read. I want to try Lamott's suggestion to write a book as a gift to a writer I really enjoy reading. She also recommended writing letters to friends and family, describing important things in detail to be remembered. Lamott had beautiful, poignant things to say about writing, reading and life throughout her book. While I recommend you read it for yourself, here are a few gems:

"Ever since I was a little kid, I've thought that there was something noble and mysterious about writing, about the people who could do it well, who could create a world as if they were little gods or sorcerers." (xxvii)

(Lamott's answer to why she writes.) "Then I add that other than writing, I am completely unemployable." (xxviii)

"Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave." (15)

"Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts." (25)

"The writer is a person who is standing apart, like the cheese in 'The Farmer in the Dell' standing there alone but deciding to take a few notes." (97)

"I honestly think in order to be a writer, you have to learn to be reverent. If not, why are you writing?" (99)

"Becoming a writer can also profoundly change your life as a reader. One reads with a deeper appreciation and concentration, knowing now how hard writing is, especially how hard it is to make it look effortless." (233)

"Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. they deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul." (237)

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Summer Reading: Audiobook edition

Our family recently returned from a two week family vacation that covered 3 provinces, over 3000 kilometres and at least 40 hours in the car with two 40-somethings, a new teenager and a ten-year-old. We learned several years ago that the best way to do this is with a stack of audiobooks.

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This year, our family listened to several Stuart McLean stories from the Vinyl Cafe, Louis Sachar's Wayside School Series and our favourite The Tiger in the Well (Sally Lockhart #3) by Phillip Pullman. We listened to the first book in this series (The Ruby in the Smoke) the summer before and loved the story, so we picked up what we thought was book 2. Unfortunately we missed the book between, but we were still able to enjoy and follow the story.

Expectations on amazon
I've been hoping to turn one of my books into an audiobook. I looked into Audiobook Creation Exchange acx.com which sells audiobooks on Audible, amazon and iTunes, but at first, they weren't open to Canadian clients. Then, just before our holiday, I received the good news that acx.com now accepts Canadian authors. I signed up as soon as I could and submitted a script for potential actor/producers to read. I began to lose hope when I hadn't received an audition before I left. A few weeks later, I had a message. Someone was willing to narrate my book!

It was a thrill to hear my book Expectations, read by a British woman. I listened several times and shared it with my husband and kids. They confirmed that she was the one. She has currently accepted my offer and I am awaiting her first 15 minutes. I will be sure to post with updates. Can't wait!

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Book Review: Crafty TV Writing

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I've taken a hiatus from my blog lately. After finishing the 2nd draft of my 10th book, I decided it was time to try something different. I enrolled in a Scriptwriting class through Coursera and wrote a TV Pilot. Trying something new and getting feedback from my peers was both exhilarating and overwhelming. Which led me to read Crafty TV Writing by Alex Epstein.

I really enjoyed Epstein's style and voice throughout the book. He is both practical and entertaining and I think anyone who enjoys watching television would find this book interesting. It's even better for someone who wants to write for television.

Prior to my scriptwriting course, everything I knew about writing for TV I learned from watching Seinfeld. Which in hindsight, wasn't such a bad education. Epstein, however, adds to what I learned there. His book is divided into three parts: Thinking Inside the Box, The Writer's Toolkit and Working in TV Land. Part one dissects the technicalities of scriptwriting including the hook, characters, show bible, springboard and more. Epstein frequently refers to TV shows on air to illustrate his points. Part Two focuses on weakness in scripts and how to fix them including how to take and use criticism. Part Three outlines what it's like to work on a TV show and explains some of the different writing jobs.
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The version I read was written in 2006. I don't think Epstein has updated his book since then. His TV references could use some more recent references and I had to wonder if some of the formatting and inner workings of television have changed since then. Still, I think it is well worth reading and feel I have a much better picture of what it would be like to work as a writer in television. Alex also shares a lot on his blog, which I plan to start reading.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Book Review: All The Little Live Things

This novel by Wallace Stegner was first published in 1967. Retired couple, Joe and Ruth
Allston, move to the country in California to rest and try to recover from the death of their son. They are distant with their neighbours until Marian and John Catlin move in next door. Joe is instantly attracted to Marian and her optimistic, firm belief in the goodness and perfection of nature. He loves to argue with her and soon comes to feel that she is the daughter he's always wanted.

In opposition to all Joe values, a young hippie, Jim Peck, asks to squat on Joe's land. Joe wants to say no, but Jim has some sort of power over Joe, in that he reminds Joe of his son, Curtis. Jim is quick to disobey every rule Joe makes. He steals electricity and water, throws his garbage all over the place, has several friends move in, and builds himself a treehouse, when all Joe agreed to was a tent.

I found it difficult to empathize with Joe until he met Marian. His love for her and his devotion to her family when they discover her secret is admirable. Yet, I couldn't help wondering if Marian he would have loved her as much if she wasn't about to die. I never understood Jim Peck. He seems to be there as an annoyance to Joe whom Marian tries and fails to redeem. Most of the characters in this book are difficult to like. Ruth and Marian are the exceptions. I kept wondering what the book would be like if it were told from their points of view. Even Joe had trouble trusting his own perceptions.

Most of the book is within Joe's thoughts, feelings and ideas. It goes against everything I've learned about writing fiction. Yet it won The Commonwealth Club Gold Medal. It makes me wonder if fiction has really changed this much in 50 years. Perhaps it must when we consider how much the world has changed in that time. I learned a lot about the flora and fauna of California. 

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Book Review: Anna of the Five Towns

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This is a very strange story, by modern standards. Of course, it was first published in 1902, so I should not be using modern standards, but I can't help myself. Anna is the daughter of a miser, living in a small town in England. They live extremely frugally while her father signs and accepts bank notes and interest on her behalf. Anna and her little sister Agnes attend a Wesleyan Sunday School where Anna teaches.

There seems to be some hope of escape for Anna. Firstly, in her coming of age. At twenty-one, she inherits a great deal of money. Rather than taking the money to at least buy some new clothes, Anna turns over her cheque book to her father and continues on as if nothing has changed. Except now her father wants her to chase down her creditors. The other form of hope comes in the person of Henry Mynors. Henry is kind and gentle and seems to admire Anna, for unknown reasons. I thought at one point he was just after her money, but this only seemed to be a bonus for him.

Anna is also embraced by the Sutton family after attending a revival meeting and coming away with mixed feelings. They are everything warm and generous, though they tend to spoil their daughter, Beatrice. Mrs. Sutton is especially lovely and the family invite her and Henry to join them on vacation on the Isle of Man. Here, I began to imagine Jane Fairfax on holiday with the Campbell's in Jane Austen's Emma, but it was nothing so light and fun. Instead, Anna is pensive and worried and Beatrice grows seriously ill.

I liked the book, but the ending was a disappointment. If Bennett wrote the book to be a suspenseful mystery, then his ending was a success. I never saw it coming. However, this did not seem to be written as a mystery and so the ending left me unhinged. What in the world was he trying to say? May have to dig into that one!  

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Writing Holiday: A Visit to Storybrooke

As a writer, I find it's easy to get stuck in a pattern. Writing at the same time of day, in the same place, with tea on hand is often a good way to keep the story going. But sometimes, a break in in the pattern is refreshing, life-giving, and inspirational.

On March 21, I had the opportunity to visit Steveston in Richmond, B.C. It was filming day on Moncton street for Once Upon A Time (OUAT) on Moncton St. I've been watching OUAT since its inception and now my kids are hooked as well. Steveston is a picturesque and interesting place to visit whether you're a Oncer or not. Here are a few recommendations, if you're ever in the area.

Take a walk down Moncton Street

Some of the signs from the show stay up year round, while others are are only in place for filming.

Building used at Storybrooke Library.
Photo S.Adkins

Storybrooke Shoestore and Five and Dime
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Mr. Gold's Pawnshop
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Filming Day

If you want to visit Steveston on an OUAT filming day, check out Richmond Tourism's Facebook Page or Twitter Feed. They post filming dates a few days beforehand. If you plan to watch, be prepared to stand quietly where security staff direct. My kids find this tedious, so we take plenty of breaks between takes to shop, eat, and walk.

 Spoiler alert!  We saw a couple of scenes from future episodes.  What can they mean?

Mr. Gold and a mysterious woman standing in front of an ambulance
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Why is Henry in a neck brace?
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Shopping

Steveston and Richmond boast hundreds of unique shops. After three visits, we've only begun to explore. Tourism Richmond (aka Storybrooke Post Office) has excellent officially licenced OUAT merchandise.  Nikaido (aka Standard Clocks) has delightful tea blends, pretty tea sets, exquisite pens, and fine paper products. The kids enjoy the collection of toys offered at Splash Toy Shop (aka Five & Dime Neighbor's). No visit with children is complete without a visit to the Candy Dish where you can get everything from Taffy to Fudge to OUAT-inspired confections. It's Posh is another great shop filled with unique Canadian-made gifts, OUAT necklaces, and antiques.

It's Posh
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Food and Coffee

We loved eating at Cannery Cafe (aka Granny's Diner). The interior is not the same as in the show, but you can order Emma's favourite - Grilled Cheese!
Granny's Diner
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This time, we tried Dim Sum at East on One. They offer live seafood, fast and friendly service, and affordable prices. We highly recommend the deep fried shrimp dumplings!
East on One
Photo S. Adkins
Steveston Coffee Co. (aka Storybrooke Coffee) offers a Dark Swan Latte and cozy atmosphere while Rocanini Coffee Roasters Cafe provides siphon coffee, a full espresso bar, and kid's hot chocolate.


In case you totally want to nerd out with Jane Austen Connections. . .

In conclusion, I couldn't help wondering if Once Upon a Time has any Jane Austen connections. For an interesting read on secret clues within the show, try the Sharp Elves Society blog here: Theory of Jane Austen Once Upon a Time Connection

The show's spinoff, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, featured an episode where Alice is introduced to Mr. Darcy as a potential suitor. (How did I miss this??)

I figured there must be some crossover between actors on Once and any Jane Austen related film, but the closest I could come up with is Maggie Grace who starred in the Jane Austen Book Club as well as on Lost with many of the other Once actors including Regina (Lana Parrilla), Belle (Emilie de Ravin), and Zelena (Rebecca Mader). If anyone can add to this, please leave a comment!

Monday, 20 March 2017

Book Review: Gathering Blue

I first came across this book when I was teaching at a school in Saskatchewan. I was subbing and it
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was time for quiet reading, so I took up the book lying on the teacher's desk and got lost in Lois Lowry's riveting novel. I later learned that Gathering Blue fits into Lowry's Giver series, but while there are overlapping circumstances and characters, each book can be read and enjoyed on its own.

Gathering Blue begins with the death of Kira's mother, Katrina. Kira sits for four days in the Field of Leaving until her mother's spirit departs. Then she must return to her noisy, crowded village where the small cott she and her mother shared has been burned to the ground to fight the spread of illness. Not only that, but Vandara, a cruel and rough neighbour, demands Kira forfeit her land and leave the village.  Kira was born with a twisted leg, which usually leads to abandonment, but Kira's mother fought for her life. Kira uses her wit to survive a near-stoning and demands Vandara bring her petition before the Council of Guardians.

I loved the way this dystopian novel feels like it could be set in the past.  Rather than focusing on amazing technologies that replace humans, Lowry imagines a reversion to a hunting and gathering existence.  Kira and the other characters described in this novel are simple, yet fully developed.  I also adored the detail Lowry used to describe Kira's special gift in sewing, weaving and dying fabric.  Lowry writes a satisfying ending which ties the novel to The Giver, Messenger and Son.

I reread this book with the intent on studying Lowry's use of language and description, but was soon too wrapped up in the story. I think this is an incredible feat, especially when I already knew the ending. Twice this week, reviewers of my writing said I write for in a Young Adult style. At first, this was disheartening.  Then, I remembered Gathering Blue and decided writing for young adults is an honour.  Books I read at this time of life are the ones I remember most and had the most impact on the rest of my life. I highly recommend Gathering Blue to any reader, Young Adult or otherwise.