Category Archives: Opinion

Ten alternative New Year’s resolutions

I’ve never been big on New Year’s resolutions. To my mind, the best time to fix something that isn’t working in your life is when you realize it isn’t working. If you decide you’re overweight in April, why not work on it then? Why wait to the randomly determined January 1st (when gyms will be packed in any case). But then I saw a stat.  that said more people who make resolutions in January carry through with them. So this year I’ve decided to break with old habits and attitudes, take a look at myself, and determine what needs to change. This, then, is my top ten list of things I will work on in the new year, in no particular order.

  1. Dare to fail
    I read the following quote from Michael Jordan back in October: “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occassions I have been trusted to take the game winning shot and I missed. I have failed over and over again in my life… that is how I have succeeded.”
    Fear of failure is paralyzing. It will prevent us from participating at all. Yes, rejection hurts. Yes, it dents our fragile egos. And it’s a lot easier to remain within our cozy den, away from all that hurt and rejection. But I won’t get better until I participate. That’s what Jordan was saying: you can’t make the shot until you miss it a couple of times (or a hundred, or a thousand) first. Every rejection contributes to success.
  2. Give up
    Yes, I know this seems at odds with the previous resolution. But I don’t mean stop trying. I mean stop pressing forward in the face of inevitable failure. Sometimes a story just isn’t working, and no amount of tinkering is going to make it work. Sometimes it’s better just to abandon it and move on. I learned this lesson in business twenty some years ago. I was running the newsletter division of a magazine publisher in London. My boss, an accountant by profession, taught me that it’s OK to give up on a title that just isn’t working. Shut it down and move on to something that’s easier and more successful. There are always new opportunities somewhere. Why waste your efforts pushing against a closed and locked door?
    Also (on this same general theme) sometimes the book you’re reading is just awful, and won’t get any better. I’ve wasted too many hours with books I hated just because of my obsessive compulsive need to finish every book I start. It’s time for that to stop. Enough. From now on I’ll give a book fifty pages to capture my attention. If I’m not engaged at that point, I’m putting it aside and picking up another one.
  3. Embrace my inner slob
    There’s one in all of us. The person who would rather hang around in the house all day in our PJs, playing solitaire on the computer, and reading trashy novels. Anything, rather than write. Wikipedia is a tremendous resource for procrastinating writers. You can waste hours on it, and chalk it down to research. The Internet in general, and email in particular are tremendous time sinks. Whole days just disappear down their gullets. Why would I embrace such behaviour? Arent’ we supposed to fight it? Confront it, and stare it down, until it turns and stalks away, its tail between its legs? Well, that’s what we’re told. But not all procrastination is bad. If you’re hesitating to get back to the writing, there’s probably a reason for it. You might be stuck, not knowing where the story goes next. You might be scared to ruin the great start you’ve made. We’ve all had stories unravel on us: fall apart under our fingertips. You might actually (imagine this) be tapped out and tired, your imagination exhausted by a crazy schedule. So I’m giving myself the permission to slack off every now and again, if that’s what my brain tells me it needs. Sometimes all it needs is the time and space to work out its next move, and bothering it with your need for the next sentence is not going to help. So get out of the way and let it think.
  4. Stop working so hard
    This is one my mother-in-law is convinced I’ve already embraced. Largely because she doesn’t see writing as work (especially as Imagenobody pays me to do it). The fact is, writing IS work. It’s hard, challenging work, that drains you, both emotionally and (surprisingly) physically. That’s the way I generally write. But it doesn’t have to be. Not always. Sometimes it can be pure fun. Human beings, I’m told, learn best through play. So I’m going to devote a bit more of my time this year to playful writing. Writing that I do for the fun of it.
  5. Abandon my goals
    This is related to resolution four. One of the things that makes writing work and not play is those pernicious goals: there’s a contest we’re entering, a journal we want to get our work into. Nothing wrong with that, of course. If we don’t have goals in life we’ll never achieve anything. But if I’m to write playfully, I’ve got to stop focusing on these goals — something somebody else determines is a measure of success, and focus instead on the rewards of the writing itself. The fun that can be had in exploring different styles, voices, genres.
  6. Break the rules
    I’ve spent the last several years working hard on my craft. I’m now at the point of diminishing returns: each book on I read on the craft of writing teaches me less and less, and reinforces old lessons more and more. Nothing wrong with that. It’s good to remind ourselves of what we already think we know, because it’s pretty easy to get slack and lazy, let’s face it. But the more literary journals I read, the more obvious it becomes that there are herds of writers out there, accomplished craftspeople, who work entirely within ‘the rules’. They colour within the lines. Their work is consistently good, but rarely really interesting. So I think I’m ready (now that I know them) to break the rules now and again. Not badly (at least not at first). Just for the hell of it, and to see what emerges.
  7. Savour rejection
    This is somewhat related to resolution one, but it’s subtly different. Someone (I forget who) once said that the writers who are truly blessed are those who haven’t been published yet. Because they’re free. Free of expectations, critical shackles, the need to match their former achievements. They can write what they want. They can enjoy total and unshackled liberty. True, that’s because nobody’s heard of them, or still less, cares about what they write. But it’s still liberating to think that, with every rejection, that freedom is extended a little while longer. Just as long as it doesn’t last forever.
  8. Stop deferring pleasures
    This year I’m actually going to do  with the things I’ve long wanted to, but haven’t because “I’ve got to get the book finished/the story collection done/a few pieces in journals” first. Forget that. If I want to walk the length of Yonge Street (1178 miles) to raise money for Toronto Rehab (who got me back on my feet after my heart attack) and blog about it, I’m going ahead and doing it.
  9. Laugh more
    This is self-explanatory, and health-promoting. Particularly, I want to laugh more at what I write: I’m hoping I’ll be laughing because it’s genuinely funny, but I’m prepared to poke fun at it too, if it’s that bad.
  10. Relax
    It’s better for my blood pressure. So much is out of our control in this world. It’s pointless contorting ourselves about outcomes we can have no influence or control over. I’m going to focus on the things I can change, and let the rest go.

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So that’s it. My list for 2013. What are you going to change this year, and why?

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Traffic Is Vanity

I was looking at this site’s stats the other day, and I re-learnt something I’d known a long time ago, from my days in magazine publishing: numbers are sheer vanity.

Like most bloggers I get regular spam promising me that if I just buy some little doohickey for the site I will explode on the Internet. My site traffic will soar. It will feature more prominently in Google searches. Etc. etc. Here’s why I ignore these messages (and probably always will): I don’t care about traffic — by itself, traffic means nothing.
Of course, it depends what you’re setting out to achieve. If you want to build a huge audience for advertisers, you need eyeballs: an audience. But if you think advertisers don’t care who that audience is, as long as you can show them big enough numbers, think again. Advertisers want to be able to qualify their audiences. That way, they can tailor their messages to their audience, and spend less cash getting their messages to the right consumers.

But I don’t really care about that, because I don’t write this blog to attract advertising (just as well really). So traffic — by which I mean sheer numbers — doesn’t concern me. Of course, I want readers. But not any readers at any cost.

So when I look at my traffic numbers and note that a large number of readers are driven to my site by (for example) searching for ‘ugly Afro’, I shake my head. These are not my peeps. They will take one look at the site and leave for ever, in all probability. And I don’t even care. I’m not interested in traffic for traffic’s sake. If that seems arrogant, it’s not. Far from it.

My major goals for this blog are a) to build a platform for my writing, and b) to achieve some visibility in the publishing world. Now, I realize those are mighty ambitious goals for a humble little blog, but I didn’t (and don’t) expect to achieve them overnight. If I achieve them at all, I will achieve them by slowly building an audience. A loyal readership. It’s a steady-as-she-goes, tortoise-not-hare approach. But it’s the only one that makes any sense, given my goals. To me, a reader who is also a literary agent, or an editor of a magazine is worth a million random page views.

I suspect, if you write a blog, the same is probably true for you too. So focus less on numbers (Seth Godin says he doesn’t even look at his) and more on your goals. If you’re looking to attract a certain type of reader, seek out their blogs and comment on their posts. Engage with them. Swap links. Quote them in your own blog and on your Twitter feed. Not willy-nilly, but in a disciplined way which will gain you a sustainable following.

Now, my other blog, that’s another matter. I started that for a bit of fun. I didn’t really have an aim in mind, I was just riffing for the hell of it. And (while I haven’t posted to it in a while) I’ll continue to add to it because it doesn’t actually take very long, and I have fun doing it. And that’s OK too.

July Book(s) Of The Month: Malarky & Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace

I’ll be honest, I chose this book almost entirely because of the author’s interview in the June issue of Quill & Quire. There were a couple of things in that piece that intrigued me: that the published book is more or less the same text that author Schofield delivered to Dan Wells at Biblioasis, her publisher; and the quote from John Metcalf, fiction editor of Biblioasis: “I read the first two pages and I thought, ‘This is a book we have to do.’ It was very well written, wildly funny, and strange.” I’m pleased to report that I agree with him. The voice of the narrator/hero of the book is delicious and quirky. It’s a delight. It took Schofield ten years to write, but who am I to carp about a glacial pace of productivity in the book-writing department?

I’ve paired Malarky (a novel) with Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace (a biography, of sorts), this month because 1) I’m reading both at the same time at the moment and 2) they are both about women of a certain age who are dabbling with extra-marital affairs. I didn’t arrange it that way, it just happened. I’d seen Mrs. Robinson reviewed on the Publishers Weekly site, and when I was picking up Malarky it just happened to be sitting on the display next to the cash till. I’d like to say I’m enjoying it as much, but I can’t. I’m finding it, truth be told, a little dull. It’s not the lack of prurient detail, it’s that really the only way into Mrs. Robinson’s mind and character is through her diary, and it’s an extremely flawed mediator.

Malarky published by: Biblioasis

Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace published by: Bloomsbury

 

Both books bought at: Nicholas Hoare.

A note on Book of The Month. New Year resolution: Buy one book a month at full price, from a local independent bookstore (for me, local means I can walk there). Let it be fiction, and by an author whose work I’ve never read before. Thanks to Red Sofa Literary for the idea.

The Price Of The Independent Bookstore

The price of the independent bookstore is about $18 a month, or just over $100 for the first six months of this year. At least in my case. Curiosity, which is alleged to have killed a cat or two, overcame my greater good sense this morning, and cajoled me. It wanted to know how much actual cash my New Year’s Resolution is costing me. For those of you that don’t know, the NYR in question is to buy at least one book a month at full price from a local independent bookseller (idea courtesy of Red Sofa Literary). So far this year, I’ve paid about $100 more for my books by buying them from independents than I would have if I bought them at Indigo’s online store (for those of you not in Canada, Indigo is Canada’s major bookstore chain, including the brands Chapters, Indigo, Coles and The World’s Biggest Bookstore). That’s about a 21% premium. It’s a lot of money, especially if you’re a struggling writer with little or no income.

Just for the record, I don’t buy ALL my books at Independents. This year, so far, I’ve spent over 80% of my book buying money at Independents. Most of the rest has gone to Indigo.

So what do I get for my $20 a month? Is it worth it, really, paying the extra?

Here’s my perspective. While it may not actually be any more convenient to use my local bookstore (Indigo will deliver them to my door, just as, if not more quickly), Nicholas Hoare will order them for me, for free, and call me when they arrive. They’ll track down hard-to-find books that Indigo doesn’t stock (only one of the 22 books I’ve bought so far this year falls into that category, but one is enough). They’ll recognize me when I walk into the store and the little old lady who orders most of my books for me will always recommend something she’s reading that she loves. LOVES. She’s rarely steered me wrong, and I’ve been introduced to a number of authors I would probably never have read if it hadn’t been for her.

Local bookstore owners champion writers and writing. Their passion for books can ripple out into the community around them, especially when they are regularly putting on readings and events (as, say, Ben McNally Books, another local store, does). With the likes of Indigo increasingly turning to other products (gifts and geegaws) it may well be (in Canada at least) that, sometime in the not too distant future, the independents will provide the only viable places for writers to connect with the public.

Is that worth $20 a month to me? You betcha. Is it to you?

The Mystery of the Short Story

So here’s what I find a little mysterious about the short story. Why don’t more people read them? If it’s true that people no longer have time to read full-length novels (and I hear that a lot), why isn’t the short story taking over?

Fiction seems to be shrinking all around us. The Canadian literary journal The Malahat Review is currently running a competition based on Twitter length pieces. Flash fiction competitions abound. Postcard pieces, micro-fiction, the list goes on and on. And even the traditional short story is being squeezed. Here in Canada our national broadcaster, CBC, runs an annual fiction competition called Canada Writes. In previous years the word count for this competition was 2,500. This year it was just 1,500. The received wisdom is that all this shrinking down is necessary, because in this frenetic, media-rich environment, people don’t have the time (or the attention span) they used to have. The novel is dying, the wisdom says (it’s not the first time the novel has died. It has died pretty regularly since it first appeared) and we have to experiment with these new forms, because that is the only way we’ll persuade people to read in the future.

I think conventional wisdom is off its rocker. If people wanted shorter fiction they would be turning to the short story. They are not. In Canada this form of fiction is celebrated and still widely practiced, but (outside of the creative writing programs) elsewhere it is largely ignored. People don’t seem all that interested in short fiction.

Why? I have a theory about that. Short fiction takes a big investment for a small payoff. You have to enter an entirely new world with every story you pick up, immerse yourself in a new set of characters, and fall for them a little bit (at least, that’s what the writer is aiming for). That’s a lot of effort. I’ve just read the first story from Karen Russell’s short story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.

Now I love Russell’s writing style. It’s quirky, funny, and at times beautiful. It crackles on the page. But (you spotted this coming, right?), whereas her book, Swamplandia! immerses you in the worlds of the weird, alligator wrestling Bigtree family, the short story which mothered that novel left me feeling a little dissatisfied. Not that the story had the wrong, or a botched, ending. It didn’t. But I was just getting warmed up when it all ended. Which is why, I guess, she wrote Swamplandia!

We love to enter new worlds. And when we fall in love with characters we want to spend time with them. Want to experience their triumphs and disasters. Having fallen in love, we don’t want them to wave us away dismissively after 25 pages. So I think the idea that we don’t have time or attention for full-length works is just hogwash. Probably planted by a marketing exec at a big publishing house.

That’s not all I have to say on this subject, but it will do for now. What do you think? Is short fiction over-due a revival? Or do you want the full-on experience of the novel to possess you for hours at a time?

“I don’t have time to read fiction…”

It was an unlikely locker room conversation to begin with… two guys talking about what books they were reading while they stripped their sweaty gear off after a workout. Any book discussion gets my attention, so I tuned in. The reading habits of guy number 1, let’s call him Mr. Hirsute, seemed pedestrian and mainstream: he said he’d just finished The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and was now reading The Help. I think he may have also mentioned The Hunger Games. The response of guy number 2, let’s call him Mr. Baldaz a’Coot, drove a cold hard sword through my heart. “I don’t,” he said, “have time to read fiction.”

I felt like grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him. I felt like taking a large novel, Don Quixote for instance, and whacking some sense into his hair-free cranium. What does that even mean, he doesn’t have TIME to read fiction?

He told Mr. Hirsute that he was currently reading Walter Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs (called, in a fit of naming appropriateness, Steve Jobs). Now, I haven’t read Mr. Isaacson’s book, and what follows should by no means be taken as a critique of that work. It may be one of the best biographies of this or any century. The point isn’t that Mr. Coot should not be reading biographies. The point (implied, at least, by his snarky remark) is that he believes reading fiction is a waste of time. He sees it as mere entertainment. Frippery. Pointless time wasting. He doesn’t have time to waste. Other people may. Let them read fiction. He will focus his mind and sharpen its faculties on non-fiction. Non-fiction will make him a better, wiser man. A more knowledgeable man. A man equipped to take on the 21st century, and all its weird ways.

Now, I’ve got nothing against non-fiction. I read it myself. I’m reading two non-fiction books at the moment. (I’m also reading at least two novels and a couple of short story collections). In the past few months I’ve also read The Swerve and In The Garden of Beasts. I enjoyed them both. Learnt a lot. Time well spent. And I will continue to read non-fiction, because although I’d rather be reading fiction, I think minds work best when they are exposed to a wide landscape of thought.

However, as a writer, I take exception to Mr. Coot’s implied criticism of fiction. Writing is a daily struggle to get to grips with the human condition and unearth some sliver of truth about it from the everyday pile-ups of our lives. Story, as my friend Sue Reynolds reminded me recently, is what makes us human. To be human is to craft a narrative for ourselves and the seemingly meaningless stream of sense impressions that barrage us in what we call life. If you don’t have time to get to grips with the human condition Mr. Coot, you’ve lost the plot of your own life.

Is this the special pleading of the specialist? The tortured bleating of the increasingly irrelevant? Or do you agree that in crafting (and immersing ourselves in) narrative, we capture something essential and integral to our nature as homo sapiens?

December Book Of The Month: Long Drive Home

Right. So, with this book I’m officially all caught up. Up to date on 2011 and up to date so far this year (I’ve already got two books up my sleeve, and others I’ve recently bought which may not make the cut).

This one, Long Drive Home by Will Allison, will (I promise) be the last Julie Barer book I choose. I bought it for the same reason I bought the others: same emotional territory as my own book; interested by the literary style that hooks this particular agent (not so I can write like him, just so I can see if my writing will mesh with her tastes). However, it turns out to have been a very successful choice. An Oprah pick for June 2011, and a NYT bestseller (hmm… maybe there’s a connection there?).

So here’s the thing that hooked me (from the dust jacket blurb on the front flap): “Chronicles a father’s attempt to explain himself to his daughter, even though he knows that in doing so, he risks losing her.” I’m a father. I have a daughter. And something like two years ago I wrestled with the same thing – telling her some ugly truths about myself and my past that she needed to know to make sense of her present. So this is territory I know. I’m not sure I’m ready to explore it in my own fiction, but I’m interested to see what Mr. Allison makes of the landscape. I haven’t read this one yet though, so I’m afraid I can’t report on results.

Published By: Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster

Bought at: Nicholas Hoare (ordered by my nice little old lady bookseller – I must get her name next time I go in the store. I hope she’s called something cute and old-school like Enid).

A note on Book of The Month. New Year resolution: Buy one book a month at full price, from a local independent bookstore (for me, local means I can walk there). Let it be fiction, and by an author whose work I’ve never read before. Thanks to Red Sofa Literary for the idea.