Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Endo Out Tomorrow!

It has been a long road but my mystery/suspense novel, Endo, is out tomorrow. I wrote part of this novel as participation in the 2007 National Novel Writing Month. When the month was over I was half way through and that was a great feeling. It didn't take me long to finish the manuscript and I set it aside for a few weeks before starting the next step - the edit. 

Having come through the entire process I have to admit that the real work of writing a novel is rewriting the novel. Flushing out the idea behind your story, creating your characters, developing the plots then sitting down and writing the story are all fantastically enjoyable in comparison to the long, brutal process of editing. And, it turned out to be a very eye-opening experience for me since after my editor got through with it, I learned that my self-editing skills need a lot of work. 

Sitting on the other side of what I know was a heavy workload, you'd think I could take some time to enjoy the feeling of accomplishment. Not a chance. Now I have to let people know that the book is available.

There are a few things you can do to help. First, and most importantly, please buy a copy of Endo. It's a great book and I know you'll enjoy it. Second, and equally as important, please tell everyone you know to buy a copy of Endo, because it's a great book and you know they'll enjoy it. 

If you do buy a copy and give it a read (which I highly recommend), please drop by and let me know what you thought of it. Thanks in advance for giving me your time. 

Monday, August 11, 2008

The One Hour Plan

I’m a slow reader, always have been and that makes reading, at times, a chore. So, to combat that feeling of ‘mucking through’ I devised a plan – a one hour plan.

I’m going to read one hour a day for pleasure. No pressure. No page count goals. Just read what I can in an hour and no more. I can lump it all together or spread it out. Either way, I’ll be getting back to doing something I love – reading.

I’m going to do my best to stick to this plan and post the names of the books I’ve completed. I read Kelley Armstrong’s Broken and just finished her seventh book in the Women of the Otherworld series, No Humans Involved using the one hour plan. Great reads if you haven’t heard.

Well, I’m off to choose my next book. So many…

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Write What You Know

It’s no secret that when a writer is bitten by the fiction bug they experience a jolt of excitement in finding their passion. There is, however, for some of those writers, a nasty toxin that lingers in their systems, sometimes for life. What effects does this toxin have on unsuspecting writers? One particularly nasty effect gets them to lock into writing guidelines and consider them hard, carved-in-stone rules from which they must never deviate.

Most of these so-called rules are easy to dismiss, bend, break or ignore. Though, there is one that puts up a tougher fight. On many occasions I’ve heard and read that writers should write what they know. I’ve fielded that question a few times at conventions or in writing groups and every time I get stuck in the same sparring match – how can I write about murder or flying an airplane or driving a racecar when I’ve never murdered anyone, flown a plane or even gotten a speeding ticket?

The fiction writing bug does a great job because its venom gets the writer to take this suggestion literally. One has to look at the broader meaning.

Consider this, a scene has many elements and one of them is emotion (or lack of it). When we talk about writing what we know, we talk about making a connection with something emotionally, something close enough to the action you’re writing about to give it realism.

I’ve never flown a plane, but I can ask a pilot about the mechanics of flying a plane or I can try a flight simulator to get a handle on the procedures of piloting an aircraft. What I lose is the emotional connection to flying a plane. By all means ask a pilot what it feels like to fly a plane and use that but go one step further and write what you know.

Here’s what I know about flying a plane. I’ve been in the cockpit of one in flight, I’ve also been at the open door of a plane several thousand feet in the air, while the plane was banking. I’ve flown on commercial airlines and felt severe turbulence. I’ve flown through fog so thick that I spotted the runway just as the wheels touched down. I’ve been on a plane that lost altitude and quickly recovered. I’ve flown at night and day, above, below and through the clouds. I’ve been on a plane during a heavy storm. I’m sure I could come up with more.

I must consider what the scene entails. Let’s say the pilot has a killer flying after him in another plane and he’s trying to lose him. I can not only use what I know of being on and around planes and the interview with a real pilot but also anything that will bring me the emotions that go with…flying fast, erratically, banking and rolling. I can draw from my experience of being on a rollercoaster that flipped upside-down. I can use my experiences watching movies at the Ontario Place Theatre. There was a film that showed a bird’s eye perspective of flying over all kinds of terrain and you felt just like you were the bird (my stomach flipped a few times as I recall).

What you might find is that your scene is likely to change when you apply write what you know. It will get better and feel far more real to you which translates to a much more fulfilling read for your audience.

There are going to be scenes where you’ll have to stretch your imagination to apply write what you know. Let’s take murder for example. No, I’ve never murdered anyone and I’ve never even wanted to. I’ve been angry and upset at people, but murder never crossed my mind. So, what then? How do you apply writing what you know in this situation?

Since you’re writing in the realm of fiction then I know you’re a creative person and that is what you’ll have to tap to make the emotional connection work. You’ll have to be very specific to your character’s needs and wants and their reasons for committing such a heinous crime. Once you’re clear on all that, ask yourself what that experience may be like for your character? What are they feeling? If it’s anger that drives them to kill, think of the most angry you’ve ever been and connect your character to those emotions.

This is where you’ll be happy that writing is a solitary affair; you wouldn’t want to openly share these emotional moments with people since they are so personal – I know I’d never share them. You’re not writing about the event that made you feel a certain way, you’re focusing on the feelings that were a result of the event. Did your body shake? What did it feel like? Were you sweating, breathing hard, or outwardly completely in control and your mind reeling? Fists clenched or hands wrung together? Think about that time and write what you know.

Now go write something – that you know.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Do we ever disconnect from people?

I heard some sad news a few days ago and I got to thinking of a guy who was a big part of my life in my younger days. I laughed a lot with this friend of mine and I truly enjoyed being around him. He had a way of pushing you to do things that you might not, at first thought, want to even try. I still can’t believe that he got me to go parachuting. I was fine until I got in the damn plane.

Kenny practically stormed the plane and I laughed at him thinking that if he wanted to go first, that was just fine with me. I hung back and made sure I was one of the last to get on the plane – I was in no hurry to leave a perfectly good aircraft. My logic was pretty sound until I took my seat on the floor, legs out for the person in front of me to sit between, and they were the only thing between me and the open door.

I took a quick look out the window and learned a very valuable lesson in perspective. Ever stand under a bridge and think, that’s not so high. Then, on the bridge looking down you’re amazed at how high it is. That was exactly what I experienced on that little plane. I’d seen small aircraft flying around Toronto all the time and they didn’t look so high. They were a lot higher than I ever imagined. I mentally tried to blow up Kenney’s head but I wouldn’t even know if I’d succeeded since he was at the very back of the plane, ten people away from me. I was sure I heard him laugh though.

The plane dipped sideways and me and my fifty pound chute slid against the side, my face an inch from the window. The instructor motioned for jumper one, the guy sitting in front of me, to get set. He scrambled to the door and the plane turned again, the guy leaned out the door then the instructor yelled, “Go.” Static line or not, this guy fell away from that plane like he was Superman – faster than a speeding bullet. He was there, then he was gone.

Jumper number two did the same, then the instructor motioned to me. I hated and loved Kenny at that exact moment. He’d gotten me to do something that wasn’t remotely on my list of things to do. My heart was trying to burst through my chest, the straps holding the chute on me and my emergency parachute. I tasted bile or maybe blood since I was gnawing on my lip like it was chewing tobacco.

I waddled into position at the door and as the plane arced left to get back to the jump zone, my mind went over every detail I’d learned that day and it stopped dead on one thing - my only real fear was getting my chute caught on the tail of the plane. I even said so during the slide presentation that morning – the one that was to help us understand what might go wrong and how to handle it.

“Nothing to worry about,” the instructor said. “I’ve never seen it happen.”

Four slides later the voice on the tape said that if your chute gets caught on the tail of the plane, not to worry. Skilled pilots will still be able to land the plane and you’ll only have a few bumps and bruises to show for it. I turned to Kenny and apparently I’d still not mastered shooting lasers from my eyes. My expression only made him laugh louder and stall the presentation.

I was hanging out of the door, my fingers gripping its lip to the point where I was sure they’d find metal under my fingernails when I splatted against the ground. I saw a light turn green and the instructor yelled at me. Using the lip on the door, I pulled myself back so I could get more momentum reducing the risk of getting snagged on the tail.

The instructor must have thought I was freezing, because he put his hands on the bottom of my vintage parachute and hoisted me through the door.

I flipped and screamed and yelled and then opened my eyes (as you can tell, my training really sank in) to see the plane disappear. Sounds came out of my throat that I didn’t think I could make. The chute whipped by my left hip and as a drowning man will clutch at anything, I grabbed for it. I quickly realized my mistake and let it go.

I felt a massive jolt and I swung back and forth a few times. I looked up and saw the ground. I looked down and saw the chute. My mind couldn’t process this information fast enough and sent my hand to my emergency chute. But, before I pulled it, I realized that I wasn’t falling – it felt like I was floating. I looked down again and saw that my feet were tangled in my risers (those straps that go from all the chute cords to your shoulders). I slowly untangled my feet and my body snapped upright.

It was, and still is, one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. The soft orange glow of the setting sun shrouded by slight strips of black cloud bathed the earth in the sweetest colour of light I’ve ever seen. I forgot every bad thing that had happened and floated for what felt like an hour.

When I was safely on the ground I found Kenny and we hugged, laughing and smiling. It was a journey that I will never forget and it will forever be linked to my friend Kenny. There are other memories, too, that help keep Kenny in my thoughts every so often.

So, do we really disconnect from people? No. Once in our lives, always in our lives.

Safe journey Ken Montgomery, and thanks for being my friend.

Friday, July 11, 2008

A few questions with…Eve Silver A.K.A. Eve Kenin

Eve Silver is an instructor of human anatomy and microbiology, and a bestselling author. Her first book was published in November of 2005 and not surprisingly to anyone who’s read her work, since then she's earned starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, Reviewers Choice Awards from RT BOOKreviews, and was chosen by Library Journal as one of their Best Genre Fiction 2007 picks.

Her latest release, Hidden, written as Eve Kenin, is in stores now with His Wicked Sins, penned under Eve Silver, hitting stores in August. Demon's Hunger will be available November.

I’m thrilled that she could take time out of what has to be an incredibly busy schedule to answer a few questions.

Hello…Thanks for the intro.

Q. How does a woman with a busy family life (husband and two sons), teach anatomy and microbiology, and write for three different publishers? I’m tired just asking the question.

A. It’s no secret…butt-in-chair-hands-on-keyboard. I’m business oriented in that sense, even though I’m in a creative profession. I promised my publisher(s) a book by deadline, and I’m determined to meet my obligation. I make every effort to turn in the project, clean and on time. Sometimes, that means sacrifices. On family vacations, I get up early and write while everyone else sleeps, then hang out with them once they roll out of bed. And unfortunately, I have to delegate jobs like cleaning the bathroom or doing the Everest-sized mountain of laundry. Sad, I know. But something’s gotta give, LOL!

Last year was a bit crazy. I completed four projects: HIDDEN by Eve Kenin and three Eve Silver releases, HIS WICKED SINS, NATURE OF THE BEAST (Kiss of the Vampire), and DEMON’S HUNGER.

Q. Though you write for three different lines, there is a common thread between them. They are, at their core, romances. What drew you to the romance genre?

A. I read my first romance when I was in my teens, and what struck me about the genre was the tone of hope, strength and perseverance. I love that. Throughout the rough patches in my life, romance novels offered the happy ending, and that was uplifting and wonderful. When I started writing, there was no question in my mind that romance was the way I would go. That said, I write three different genres: historical gothics (sort of historical suspense stories), contemporary paranormals about demons and sorcerers, and futuristic speculative stories that recently had a reviewer pose the question, “This is a ROMANCE?”, in stunned amazement when he read DRIVEN. Guess he wasn’t expecting a post-apocalyptic, trans-Siberian trucker tale to be a love story.

Q. From what I’ve read of your work, you’re not exactly writing your mom’s romance. How have things changed from the time you started reading romances to writing them?

A. Hey, don’t knock Mom’s romance, LOL!

Interesting question. Some things haven’t changed at all. Many romances are quite brilliant, with amazing character development and emotional depth. I still pull old reads off my keeper shelf, curl up in a comfy chair and lose myself in those stories. And some things have changed a great deal. There is a blurring of lines between romance and other genres, and blends and hybrids are increasingly more common. For example, years ago, when I started reading Kelley Armstrong’s Otherworld books, they were shelved and sold as horror. Today, those same books are among romance fan favorites.

Q. Do you write at home? If so, is your family on board? Do they give you room and quiet to work?

Yes, I write at home. And yes, my family is on board. In fact, they recently helped set up a great office for me…a room all to myself! Up until that point I’d been writing in bed or at the kitchen table or on the couch…sitting in a lawn chair at one kid’s football practice or waiting outside their martial arts lessons…wherever, whenever. Because life doesn’t stop just because I need to finish a scene. I’m used to writing in a tumult of activity, so I don’t usually ask for quiet. But they are amazing in the sense that they pick up the slack for all household chores and such when I’m deep in deadline hell.

Q. How in depth are your outlines, if you outline at all?

A. Urrgh! This is embarrassing. I’m horrible at outlines. In this business, you need to send your editor a synopsis or outline. And mine are pathetic. My books never end up anything like the outlines I create (except for the novella Kiss of the Vampire in the anthology NATURE OF THE BEAST that actually, by some miracle, did follow the outline). But mostly, I’m a pantser: I write by the seat of my pants. I just start to type (actually, I hunt and peck…I never learned to type) and I hope that a story shows up on the pages. Because if it doesn’t, I’m in big trouble, LOL!

Q. What comes first for you when developing a story, plot or character?

A. Neither. I open a blank page. I start to type (er…hunt and peck), and whatever shows up, shows up. I’m not very good at planning or plotting, and my characters don’t even get names for the first few chapter. I just type YYY for the guy (because of the Y chromosome) and XXX for the girl (because of the X chromosome), and then I go back and do find-and-replace when a name hits me.

Q. How heavily do you research your stories?

A. Tons of research. For me, it isn’t enough to say that there’s a laser in the story. I need to find out what type of laser. And it isn’t enough to say the vehicles are hydrogen powered. I actually need to research the physics of it and see exactly what that would entail.

For my historicals, I research the little things in the hopes of getting it right. What year were matches invented? What would have been served for breakfast? Exactly how was tea prepared? The little things bug me because I hate to miss something and get it wrong.

Q. With so many books under your belt you must have quite a fan base. Do you enjoy book signings and meeting your fans?

A. I do enjoy booksignings. I like connecting with readers who enjoy my stories. It’s a lovely thing to know I did it right, to know that the book I wrote spoke to a reader and made them feel the way I hoped they would feel.

Q. Do you have any advice for writers trying to get published?

A. Butt-in-chair-hands-on-keyboard. If you don’t write the book, you can’t sell the book. And don’t become obsessed with the first chapter. I know people who polish that first chapter, rewriting it over and over again, submitting it to contests, but never getting any farther in the story. Push on. Get through the first chapter and the second and the third. Make it to the end. Then go back and change what you want to change. Write the book, not just a chapter. Persevere. It isn’t always an easy road (I had hundreds of rejections before I made my first sale), but if the need to write burns inside of you like a cold blue flame, then write.

Thank you again Eve, for answering a few of my questions and best of luck with Hidden, His Wicked Sins, and Demon's Hunger.

Eve has graciously offered to drop by and answer questions so, please leave a comment or question.

If you’d like to learn more about Eve Silver and all of the books she has available, please drop by her website.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

(More than…) A few questions for Doug M. Cummings

Now a full time writer, Doug M. Cummings once worked both sides of the crime scene tape, first as a deputy sheriff and then as an investigative reporter. Putting all that experience to work, Doug created his series character, TV reporter Reno McCarthy, who made his debut in Deader by the Lake.

In Every Secret Crime, McCarthy returns after a homicide rocks wealthy Chicago suburb, Falcon Ridge. When the 17-year-old son of celebrity attorneys is found shot to death just outside his bedroom door, the police rush to the scene – and while there, conduct a bizarre investigation. McCarthy suspects a cover-up, and endeavors to find the real killer without police help. As he gets closer to discovering the truth, the killer gets closer to him – and aims to make McCarthy’s next TV shot his last.

Hello Doug and thanks so much for taking time to answer my questions.

Hi Ian and thanks for your questions.

Q. I self-published a novel a few years back and learned so much from that experience. I see that your first novel, Deader by the Lake, was self-published with iUniverse. Why did you self-publish and what was that experience like for you?

A. I brought Deader by the Lake out myself because I had tried for years to have it published traditionally without success. Self-publishing was a wonderful experience with the old iUniverse. I have no idea what it's like for new authors, now that Author House has taken over. I was treated with great respect and the folks I worked with, who I think have all moved on, really went to the wall for me. They not only tried doing some things for me that they hadn't done before, the former CEO Susan Driscoll also managed to get me quoted in articles in the New York Times, The Chicago Tribune and a program on satellite radio. iUniverse was a first-class operation.

Q. Any advice for writers considering self-publishing?

A. Anyone who writes books should do three things. Number One: finish the book before even giving a thought to finding an agent or a publisher. Number Two: Go the traditional route before considering self-publishing. Try to find an agent, the whole bit. It gives you an insight into the business you will not have otherwise and you may receive valuable advice along the way...and get offered a contract! Number Three: Always, always, always have your book professionally edited before you attempt to sell or self-publish it. The word "professional" does not include your daughter-in-law the English teacher or your buddy, "the guy who reads a lot of books." It means hire a professional who does not know you and who is free to offer suggestions without constraint. Hiring a professional editor does not guarantee your work will sell, but it gives it a far better chance. For a first-time author, publishing a book without professional editing is like selling a car without a steering wheel: something essential is missing.

While self-publishing was fulfilling for me, the industry's response to it was lukewarm then (in 2003/2004) and has turned frigid since. Talk to bookstores before you decide to self-publish. Ask critics. Go to a writers' conference and ask other authors. You will find that self-published authors are considered pariahs in the publishing world. Few bookstores, if any, will stock self-published work and the mainstream critics will ignore them. Professional associations will generally not accept self-published authors as voting members and those that say they do will have hidden restrictions that only surface after you've paid your dues. A case in point, without naming names: I joined a major mystery authors group because they showed no prejudice to self-published authors. When the time came to sign up for a Hollywood pitch conference (the opportunity to go to Hollywood and meet with producers), I was told I didn't qualify because I was self-published. No matter that their excuse was long and complicated; it boiled down to the fact that some members were more equal than others. Now traditionally published, I would never consider joining that group again.

Having said all that negative stuff, self-publishing is a way to maintain complete control of your work. You retain your rights. One piece of advice: make sure a lawyer reads whatever contract you're offered.

Q. You must be thrilled that Every Secret Crime was picked up by Five Star?

A. I'm pleased, yes. It's always great to be offered a contract for real money. That said, publishing is a business. Getting picked up is like being hired at any job . . . just the first of
many steps. Once you cash that advance check, you're on the clock. You become a salesperson. Very few houses will offer any more than extremely basic promotional support to their first-time authors. As with self-publishing, it's your responsibility to get publicity, get your books into stores, arrange book-signings, and lobby to be sure the publisher has books available for you to sell when you need them. I've heard stories from booksellers and librarians about authors who walk into stores and libraries and say, "This is a place that has books...so why don't you have mine?" It doesn't work that way. In the four years I've been pushing books, every time I've found my book on a shelf it's been because my publicist and I worked to get it into that particular store. It's not an automatic process.

Q. You've held a few jobs from crime reporter to sheriff. How has that work experience benefited you as a writer?

A. I think any life and work experience you have benefits you as a writer, especially jobs that encourage you to ask questions, do research and learn about how other people live. In that way, being a cop and being a reporter has been enormously beneficial. Many of the questions new crime authors have to ask the professionals I already have the answers for and, if I'm confused about something (which is the case about 99 percent of the time), I have great friends to ask. As a reporter, I saw all sorts of weird things and met loads of interesting people. I also learned a bit about working under stress and on deadline. Some people find asking questions difficult; I got over that in my first year in television. It was great training to be assigned the Man on the Street question of the week...and makes it very unlikely I will ever buttonhole people in shopping malls to get them to buy my book. Spend time at enough crime scenes where the last person a cop wants to see is a "freaking reporter" and calling someone on the phone to ask a question will be a breeze.

Q. I'm sure this is a question you've tackled on occasion but I can't help myself - any situations in your books mirror those that happened to you on the job?

A. I don't think there are any scenes that exactly mirror real-life but many that are similar. In Every Secret Crime, there is constant conflict between the police and the reporters covering a couple of murder cases. I dealt with that at virtually every crime and crash scene I ever attended. Most cops don't want anything to do with reporters and the less intelligent folks in law enforcement will go to ridiculous, and sometimes even illegal, lengths to keep reporters from getting a story. The better, more professional, police officers know dealing with the media is just another facet of the job.

As far as action sequences, I know a bit about guns, both from work and because handgunning is a hobby. I've been in high-speed pursuits and crashes. I know how fights usually happen and how painful they can be. What I try to do is, accepting that I write fiction, try to make the action as realistic as possible. Reno, my protagonist, will never take on a room full of thugs, for example. When he shoots someone, he has to deal with real-life feelings about it. Blood gets spilled, but not by the barrel and, I hope, not in a wanton way. Sometimes the bad guys don't go to jail. Sometimes good people die.

Q. How much of you is in your main character, Reno McCarthy and vice-versa?

A. Reno and I are both handsome, debonair and have women falling all over themselves to take us to bed. When I shake off that fantasy, however, I realize we really are alike in a few ways. We're persistent. We deal with the horrible things we see with dark humor and a realistic attitude. We wisecrack. We resist authority. Sometimes we don't play well with others. Occasionally you'll see us running with scissors. Mostly, we both really care about the victims, probably more than anyone else in the stories we cover. They really are the most important part of the work.

Q. How long does it take you to write a novel starting at the idea stage and ending with a final edit? How do you feel about edits?

A. My first book took ten years, my second two and I've been working on the third for about a year and probably have another six months before it's finished and six more until it's edited. I know some authors who can put a book together in a month. Frankly if I did that, I'd spend the following month in the hospital.

Editing is fun. I feel a great deal of freedom when I finish a book and editing is where I get to express that freedom. I have worked with great editors and most often I incorporate the suggestions they make.

Q. A lot of writers believe that marketing their book should be the publisher's responsibility. That, as we both know, is not reality. How and when do you start the marketing process for your books? Was the decision to hire a publicist influenced by your self-publishing experience?

A. For Every Secret Crime, I started six-months before the publication date by hiring a professional publicity team. I had a single publicist for the first book, Deader by the Lake, but we didn't start much more than a month ahead of time. Promoting a book is a full-time job. I probably could do it by myself but it would be to the exclusion of everything else, including working on the next book. I want every single base covered. It can't ever happen that way but if you approach it with that attitude, you'll certainly have some successes. Publicists are expensive. I started budgeting for book promotion when I first began attending writers conferences in the mid-eighties.

Q. How important is the internet as a marketing tool? I noticed you wrote on your blog a piece about how your readers can help market your books. Was it your intent to include your readers directly in the process? Have they responded positively? What is the best marketing tool at an author's disposal and what's worked best for you?

A. I guess I take a certain Zen approach to marketing. Every marketing tool works in its own way. If you try a tactic and it works for you, keep it in your tool box. If it doesn't, don't use it again.

The internet is essential. Word of mouth is what sells books. Someone reading about you in a blog or on a website may have no interest in your work themselves but, by virtue of cut and paste, can send your name along to their friends. I have found a number of new authors from signing up for sites like Crimespace and Goodreads. Blog book tours are fun. If just one person buys a book after reading about me on a blog, that's terrific. If they show up for a book signing, that's great. If I just get practice honing "the message" I want to use, that's a good thing, too.

I want to involve my readers, my friends and even just those nice helpful folks out there in promoting my work because it's so easy. Asking a library or a bookstore to stock Every Secret Crime takes less than ten minutes. Writing a review for one of the book sites is easy, fun and can be a learning experience because it gives you a chance to think critically as well as being another chance to write and be published!

My best marketing tools are my publicist and events coordinator. Their energy is contagious!

Q. What advice would you have for writers trying to get published? What does the future hold for Doug Cummings?

A. I love these questions because they both give me a chance to use my father's favorite expression: "Get workin' and quit shirkin'!"

Thank you again Doug for taking time to answer my questions. This has been incredibly insightful. Best of luck with Every Secret Crime

To learn more about Doug M. Cummings and to find out where you can purchase his books or visit him at a signing, visit his website and blog.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

A Big Step For Writers

Critiques are tough to take at the best of times. Think back to the first time you showed your writing to someone. I’ll bet it was a day that you dropped things, had an upset stomach and spent a fair bit of time saying to people, “I’m fine. Really. Just some bad salmon.”

I’ve had conversations with writers who have held off showing their work to people for years since it was just too daunting. Every writer has a different experience when sharing their work for the first time. Some writers talk of how well their work was received and that the critic barely had anything negative to say, if at all. These are likely writers who have showed their work to a family member or friend. Talk to those same people after they have had a stranger’s eyes on their words and you’re sure to get a different tale.

We all have to start somewhere and why shouldn’t it be somewhere safe? Writing is a solitary activity and we only have our own eyes, heart and mind to use when judging our work. It’s a tremendously difficult step to take outside of that comfort zone; mom, dad, brother, sister or even Uncle Joe, are accessible and let’s face it, a safe bet for positive feedback. Again, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Positive is good, especially at the outset of a person’s writing life. It builds confidence which is much needed fuel on a writer’s journey.

Where a problem begins to surface is when that writer sticks to their safe zone for a long period of time. I’m wondering if all that positive feedback is what convinced them to try their hand at serious writing? If all you hear is how great you are then who wouldn’t take a shot at a novel? Therein lies the problem. It’s not that the writer is bad, it’s that the writer is ill prepared for the honesty to come.

The length of time spent showing work to loved ones directly correlates to how personally and negatively that writer is likely to take feedback from someone outside of their safe harbour.

There are those writers who realize that the ‘all positive’ feedback from loved ones is getting them nowhere. They feel as though they’re not growing or getting better at the craft. Though slightly more prepared for the onslaught of edits, they too, feel a crush of insecurity from the honesty of strangers.

However you get to that place, it is a writing-life changing experience; you are not as good as mom said you were and your stories aren’t as great as Uncle Joe led you to believe. It can be devastating. But, it is so important to cross that threshold. What’s more, carefully choose the direction of that step. Writers, though all in the boat together, can still help sink it with a well placed barb. Who knows why some critics are so mean and harsh. Ultimately, all they accomplish is to hurt and shatter dreams. Keep your eyes peeled for these kinds of people – they are useless and will never help you grow as a writer.

So, where does one turn for critiques? There are several choices. One of the best places to find feedback is in a writing group, either online or a one that meets face-to-face on a regular basis. With everything, there are risks, not to life and limb, but a risk of getting the same kind of feedback one gets from their safe zone critics.

It’s as difficult to give feedback as it is to receive. Add to that delivering the message in person and you get a lot of writing groups that turn into a love fest. You’re bound to hear things like, “It was wonderful,” and, “Your work is great.” It can happen just as easily in an online group. For some reason, it is difficult for people to find fault with another member’s writing. Meanwhile, you still don’t know how to improve your work and get better at your craft.

The opposite is also possible, where a member of the writing group is far too harsh or is trying to push their way of writing on other members. For instance, you’ve written a novel with a blonde, female, well-to-do protagonist and without reason, the critic is telling you to make it a red-headed, poor male. There are critics that are far too harsh and only stand to discourage. There is never a reason to name-call, or run down another writer. It’s online groups that are more likely to have members treating others harshly – easy to do when you’re protected by distance and no chance of meeting the other members. Watch carefully for these types of critics.

A good writing group is made up of people all working toward a common goal - getting better at the craft of writing. Even better, find a well established group with writers performing at different ability levels. Entering a group of all first-time, never-showed-their-work-to-anyone writers, won’t help you improve beyond your current level. Taking criticism from writers at a higher level is an eye-opening experience and will have you progressing in the craft.

Check at local bookstores and libraries, as well as online for writing groups in your area. You’ll want to tap the world wide web for writing groups online. Join the group and take it for a test drive to see how it feels. Don’t be afraid to walk away if it isn’t what you want.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when navigating through a group for the first time.

Be prepared to do your part. If you give a weak, I liked it, you’re great, kind of critique, don’t be surprised when you receive few critiques or none at all. You will get as good as you give, so put some thought and effort into helping your fellow writers and they’ll be far more enthusiastic about helping you.

Be willing to accept criticism. Ask yourself if you are ready to have someone tell you what you are doing wrong. If you think your work is above criticism, then don’t ask for feedback. I’ve given feedback and had people tell me that I just didn’t get it, but their friends did. Well, your friends don’t want to hurt your feelings and are telling you what you want to hear. A writing group is filled with people who will tell you what you need to hear to get better. Are you ready for that?

Accept criticism with grace. It still astounds me when writers argue with someone who has given them a critique. If a critic says a paragraph of description confused them, don’t argue because you can’t tell them what they feel or think. Plus, you cannot be there when someone is reading your work to explain what didn’t work so, don’t even attempt it with every critique. If someone thought the pace was slow, it was slow to them. Accept it and move forward.

There is never a need to be hurtful. Keep critiques clean and respectful. Calling someone names is not only juvenile, it’s unprofessional. Besides, the person you upset today may one day be in a position to offer you help and writers have a great memory. Also, simply say thank you to anyone who has taken the time to critique your work because you’re lucky to have them. Always remember that you are in control of your work and can use their suggestions or not. I take every suggestion seriously and weigh the merits of using them or not, then I do what is best for the work.

Feel free to add any comments regarding writing groups as I’m sure there is far more information to consider than what I’ve provided here.

I belong to the OWG (online writers group) associated with Kelley Armstrong’s Forum. It has been invaluable to me and I hope every writer out there looking for a group will have as much success finding one as I did. Best of luck.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A Freelance Life

A self-employed person working, or available to work, for a number of employers, rather than being committed to one, and usually hired for a limited period.

It sounds so appealing, doesn’t it? Self-employed. Working for a number of employers. Hired for a limited time. As with many facets of business, the job description rarely matches the position. Freelancing is no different. It’s been touted as the work from home, pick your projects, set your own hours, convenient, easy choice for writers in this, the age of technology.

It is nothing of the sort. In fact, freelancing has been the toughest job I’ve ever had.

Depending on the source, I can spend the better part of a day transcribing tape recordings. I can’t decipher my own handwriting so, when I interview by phone or in person, I use a tape recorder. Don’t worry, I’m up front about it with all my interviewees. Not one of them has turned me down, yet. There is one other reason why I tape interviews; so I can quote my sources accurately.

I find a topic I feel hasn’t been covered and I research it. I jot down sources and contacts. I read until my eyes hurt. I make notes until they start losing any semblance of order. I organize the information and pull quotes I can attribute to another source (always footnoting the source in the article). Inevitably I need answers to many questions on the topic and start writing those down. The list can be long. Once I have my complete list of questions I go back through my notes and research to see if I’ve missed the answer somewhere. When I can’t answer those questions, I call on the contacts I’ve uncovered.

Every interview is different because every interviewee is different. There are people who have so much information to give but little time to give it. Then there are people so enthused about what they do that nothing will stop them from giving as much detail as they can for every question. These are the extremes with many kinds of people in between. I love and hate both of these types of interviews since those with little time don’t take up as much of mine but some how miss answering some key points. Those that give so much detail that I have to flip the tape over or put in a second one always answer my questions, invariably burying the answers so deep in the interview that my fingers hurt from the transcribe. You’d think I’d learn to cut out the waste, but I am my own worst enemy; I have to type everything – I rarely skip over parts of the interview.

Which brings me to the worst part, the transcribing. I remember being hit so hard in a hockey game once that I literally saw stars. I would gladly take that punishment again instead of transcribing taped interviews. I get this panic every time I push the play button. What if it didn’t work and none of the interview is on the tape? If it isn’t, I start over, and I probably miss my deadline which means, I don’t get paid. Even though this has never happened to me, I can’t shake that initial feeling.

Once the transcription is complete then comes the easy part. I love writing the articles and enjoy the process of stringing words together. That is, until I’m just about ready to send the piece to my editor (whomever it happens to be that day). There’s this spike of self-doubt that feels like the worst hunger pains I’ve ever had; a nagging, empty feeling that makes me think the work isn’t good enough. As you might expect, I have to give the work one more good going over before sending it off. It never quells the pangs of fear and doubt, but I send it anyway. The days when my edits are so heavy that I can hardly see where my words once were, are long gone. There’s always a few fixes and matters of differing opinions but all are easy enough to handle.

I have to find the work, research, pitch it, more research, interviews (some travel at times and always on my dime), write it, edits, and rewrites. I don’t set my own hours – those are set by the deadline. If the work has to be done in a day, I work whatever hours I need to get it done. Yep, I’ve pulled all-nighters and not for as big a payday as you’d think.

Why do I do it? Simple. Writing is what I do best so, I can’t fight it.

Fiction has its similarities. We research our subjects to death, we write whenever there is a spare moment, and we do it far longer than our eyes and minds can take. All for the same reason – we love it. Are writers destined to poverty? It would seem not; names like Rowling, Brown and King negate that thought. If nothing else, at least for the majority, writing disproves the old adage, do what you love and the money will follow.

Do what you love because you love to do it.

Here’s an article I wrote, ToyOps Excels With Toys That Teach. After transcribing the interview it turned out to be seven pages long, single spaced. One interview, seven pages. I still twitch at the thought.

Monday, June 23, 2008

A Road To Getting Published

Getting published, seeing your words in print, is possible. There are many avenues down which a writer can travel: letters to the editor, poetry, newspaper and magazine articles, e-zines, fan-fiction, as well as the brass ring that is a novel. The big question is, how do you get published?

How Do I Know?

So, what qualifies me to write about getting published? How can I claim to know how to get published. Well, because I’ve been published.

I’m thrilled that my novel, Endo, will be out in November, but it won’t be the first thing I got published. I’ve written for several magazines and newspapers: Equinox (so sorry it’s gone), Canadian Wildlife, Seasons, Canadian Sports Collector, Globe and Mail and Ottawa Sun among others. I was fortunate and honoured to receive a 2002 National Magazine Award for my work with Seasons magazine.

There are a few articles floating around the net with my name on them. Here are two stories you can check out at Forget Magazine: I Get It Now and Train Of Thought.

Does all of this make me some kind of expert? Not in the least. But, it does give me experiences to share with others. Maybe I can make someone’s road to getting published that little bit smoother.

How I Got Started

Telling the story of how I got published might give you some ideas of your own to explore.

I’d spent a dozen or so years in advertising and ended up working client-side for a home improvement retailer. One day I came up with fifteen different names for a toilet. That, and a few other things, was my cue for a change.

I’ve held many jobs but writing was what I knew and did best, so, I decided to try freelancing. I had a portfolio of radio and television, newspaper and magazine ads, point of purchase signage, posters, press releases, articles, and I’d even written a newsletter. This was great if I wanted to continue writing for the home improvement industry, but I didn’t. That was the last thing I wanted. I needed change. So, I looked at my interests, the markets available, and decided nature and wildlife was the way to go.

Part of that decision was based on my love of photography. I’d read that there are few writers shooting and few photographers writing. It would definitely be a positive.

I researched what it would take to get published and learned that a writer would query an editor at a newspaper or magazine with a story idea and the editor would decide if it was right for their publication. That was fine if you have a relationship with editors. I didn’t know any of them, and they didn’t know me.

So, I had no samples to offer editors of either my writing or my photography. My only choice was to write a full article and provide the photos. This would prove that I could write and shoot; it would give me legitimacy.

That decision made, I sat down to look at what had been written over the past five years so as not to regurgitate an old idea. Or, at least to give a topic a new spin or update it. I decided to write a story on the plight of the Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake in Ontario - their last stronghold in Canada. I interviewed members of the Recovery Team. I went to Killbear Provincial Park and spent a few days with Chris Parent - better known in those parts as Snake Man - and his staff. I shot rolls of film and had a friend, Tony, visit another park to take as many photos as he could.

Armed with a ton of information, I sat down and wrote the article (it can be found at Brock University). Then, I wrote a query letter to accompany the article. I sent it to as many magazines as I could find that I felt would be interested (based on my research of their needs) in the story. No one wanted it. And, that was okay. I had even planned for that happening. Remember, the idea was to prove that I could do the job. It worked.

Though my story about rattlesnakes never made it to print, it gave me the opportunity to contact editors, who then knew my name. And, when considering the snake story, they were then comfortable receiving more traditional queries from me - here’s the idea in a few paragraphs, what do you think?

I owe a great big thank you (which I’ve extended personally) to Nancy Clark, former editor of Seasons Magazine. Based on my snake story, she gave me my first opportunity to write a feature article, How Light Pollution Affects Animals, which appeared in the Summer 2000 issue.

This was my path to getting published. It is just one method and you may try something similar. If nothing else, it shows that if you stay focused, do your research, and are open to new ideas, then you, too, can get published. Whatever you do, remember the three Ps when submitting your work and I know you’ll stand a better chance of seeing your words in print: Polite, Professional and Persistent.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Games Have Rules, Writing Has Guidelines

There are far more rules governing writing than there are governing golf. Grammar and spelling are lifelong pursuits for any writer and are made all the more manageable with desktop companions like a good dictionary, The Elements of Style, The Chicago Manual of Style and a host of others. Where rules should be considered guidelines is in the crafting of a story.

So many new writers see the word ‘rules’ and immediately adhere to them without question. This can be a dangerous thing considering that if every writer stayed true to these so-called ‘rules’ then fiction would be unbearably formulaic. I took it upon myself to research the ‘rules’ for writing a mystery. I’ve written a mystery/thriller to be released in November, so, I just wanted to see how close I came to staying inside the lines.

These are in no particular order and I have not listed all of the rules I found, only some of them.

*Plot is everything.

*The hero must be male.

*Introduce the detective and the culprit early on.

*The setting will be Los Angeles.

*Introduce the crime in the first three chapters.

*The crime should be sufficiently violent, preferably a murder. Or, it must be a murder mystery.

*The crime should be believable.

*Some violence is required.

*Certain Violence is prohibited.

*Write in first person.

*The hero cannot be the culprit.

*The culprit must be capable of committing the crime.

*Don't try to fool your reader.

*Use only two-character scenes.

*Authenticity is required.

*Do your research.

*Wait as long as possible to reveal the culprit.

*The reader should have the same opportunity as the Hero to solve the crime.

*No tricks can be played to mislead the reader unless it is also done to the Hero by the criminal.

*The Hero should not have a love interest.

*Neither the Hero nor one of the official investigators can turn out to be the criminal.

*The villain must be found by logical deduction, not luck, accident, or un-motivated confessions. Or, the solution must come by 'naturalistic means'. Or, the detective should solve the case using only rational and scientific methods.

*There can be only one hero, not a team.

*The villain has to be someone who plays a prominent part of the story. After all, he/she is at least as important as the hero, right?

*The culprit can't be a servant.

What an interesting list of rules. Should one take these as gospel then we would never have had great stories from authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (no teams – poor Watson), Ian Rankin (write only in first person – poor Ian and his bestsellers, I’ve lost count), and Sue Grafton (the hero must be male – how dare she write a female protagonist) just to name a few.

I certainly don’t want to walk through each item on this list, but I do want to talk about why we should view any ‘rule’ of writing as a guideline. Consider these ‘rules’ carefully before you decide how stringently you want to follow them. I’ve broken my fair share, thank goodness.

For instance, the first on the list – plot is everything. Let’s be honest, when it comes to mysteries the plot is extremely important. However, a killer plot with flat, lifeless, uninteresting characters would have readers, well, not reading. The plot drives the story but the character is what keeps the reader engaged. They see the mystery by way of the protagonist and not only root for them, they work with them. Give the reader a character to pull for, and you’ve got the reader hooked. As important as plot is, never forget the importance of your protagonist. It’s all about balance.

There are a few items on the list that I suggest you ignore; the hero must be male, the setting must be Los Angeles, write in first person, no teams. I’m sure readers will strike a few off the list right away considering personal taste, attitudes, and the work they’ve read by published authors. But, let’s not be too hasty about killing them all.

Many of these ‘rules’ come down to common sense when writing. Introducing your hero, culprit and crime early in the novel makes sense. If the crime takes place in the middle of the book you’d better have some entertainment planned to keep the reader around. Doing research and keeping it as real as possible make sense as well. If by the culprit can’t be a servant they mean that the butler can’t do it, then yeah, steer clear of that clichĂ©. I’m sure you’ll find more.

There are those items on the list that when handled carefully and respectfully, can be bent or outright broken. I’m referring to the use of violence. Many writers believe that certain areas of violence should never be touched on such as cruelty to animals, rape, and child molestation. I believe that if handled correctly, any of these areas can be used. Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones would not exist if she didn’t venture into this territory. Her protagonist is a young girl who was raped and murdered. It has been called a masterpiece of writing yet, those who would follow these ‘rules’ would staunchly disagree.

J.K. Rowling answered her critics regarding the omission of Dumbledore’s sexual preference by stating that it wasn’t necessary to the story. And, it wasn’t. Nowhere in the series of seven books would the mention of his sexual preference further the story or give the reader more clues to who he was. One should consider the same thing when writing about violence. Ask yourself if it is necessary and if it can happen off the page. Often it is the aftermath to an event that is the necessity showing the personality and mental state of the characters.

Whatever genre you write, be aware of the rules, learn them, try them, then do what is best for your story.

It seems my mystery/thriller, Endo, is colouring outside the lines.

Monday, June 16, 2008

A Great Query Letter

I’ve often been asked, what do you do after you’ve finished your novel? After enjoying that wonderful feeling of accomplishment, I usually put the manuscript away for a few weeks and work on something else. Then I dig it out of whatever file I’ve buried it in and read it with a fresh perspective. The following edit takes weeks or months to complete and even then I’m never truly satisfied that the work is the best it can be. It can always be better. However, I know I must stop the editing cycle at some point and get on with it.

Getting on with it is submitting it. At first it was the hardest thing I’d ever done in regards to my writing. Well, there were a lot of hardests to contend with when I first started writing fiction. Trying to finish my first novel, my first edit, showing my work to others for critique… the list was long. But, I confess that the first time I sent a manuscript out was by far the most unnerving.

A few years ago I stumbled onto a great query letter example and wished I’d been able to lay my eyes on it before sending out my first query. I want to thank Jenny Bent, a literary agent and Vice President with the Trident Media Group, and Karin Gillespie, the letter’s author, for allowing me to reprint it here.

Jenny Bent’s comments are in italics.

Dear Ms. Bent:

Yay! She got my name right. You'd be surprised how many people don't. Although honestly, I don't hold it against them, but I know many agents who do.

My novel Who's My Daddy? took first place in the Sandhills Writers Conference in 2001 and one of the judges, Robert Bausch (author of A Hole in the Earth), called it "brilliant and original." I've read on your Web site that you handle women's fiction.

Good opening. I know Robert Bausch is a respected writer, and so if he liked it, that does mean something. Also, she demonstrates that she has done her research-I do indeed handle women's fiction.

Who's My Daddy? is a farcical Southern novel about Elizabeth Polk, a hairdresser who works at a beauty parlor for elderly ladies called the Cozy Cut. Everything in Elizabeth's life is "cattywampus." Her fiancé Clip Jenkins recently shoved a "Dear Jane" letter under the windshield wiper of her Geo Metro; she's embarrassed by her redneck daddy who blows up ottomans on TV in order to promote his rent-to-own furniture business; and her half-brother Lanier continually gets arrested for stealing lawn ornaments.

This is just plain funny. The only word I would have removed is "farcical," because farces are very tough to sell, but it would be hard for anyone outside of the business to know that.

Given her circumstances, Elizabeth can't understand why one of Augusta, Georgia's wealthiest matriarchs, Gracie Tobias, takes such a keen interest in her. Gracie introduces Elizabeth to her grandson Timothy who's just returned from a Buddhist monastery in California. When a romance between Elizabeth and Timothy develops, Elizabeth is plagued by insecurities regarding her lowly, family background.

Here, she's demonstrating that this novel does have conflict and hence a plot. Plots are good things. Agents and editors like them.

Who's My Daddy? crackles with more secrets than a middle-school slumber party. Elizabeth discovers a diary that raises questions about the identity of her daddy; Timothy refuses to discuss a trauma that made him abandon his life ten years ago; and Gracie Tobias knows a truth about Elizabeth's birthright that will change her life.

Again, she's demonstrating plot, plus, that first sentence is so fabulous and shows me that she's a good, creative writer.

Would you like to see a few sample chapters? I am the editor of The Metro-Augusta Parent a regional parenting publication and have received national awards (Parenting Publications of America) for my nonfiction writing.

Good. A very short bio that sums up her experience. Of course, I would have liked to see more awards, etc. for creative writing, but at this point I've already decided I want to see the book. She was smart to put her most significant writing award at the beginning of the letter and then put the rest, less significant experience here at the end.

Thank you for your consideration and time. An SASE is enclosed for your reply.

Short, sweet, and polite closing, plus a SASE. Who could ask for more?

Karin Gillespie

Siren-BookStrand Yahoo Group

My publisher is having a membership drive on June 28 with a chance to win some great prizes.

Click here to join this group.

Amazon Pushes Publisher's Button

According to The New York Times, Amazon has disabled its ‘buy now with 1 click’ icon on its UK site for hundreds of books published by Hachette Livre’s British arm.

Hachette Chief executive, Tim Hely Hutchinson, fired off a letter to many of his authors explaining the sudden disappearance of the purchasing button. In it, he disclosed that Amazon was out for a bigger slice than their already 50 percent take. Apparently Amazon has used this tactic before when rebellious publishers have balked at Amazon’s requests for steeper discounts.

“Amazon seems each year to go from one publisher to another, making increasing demands in order to achieve richer terms at our expense and sometimes at yours,” Mr. Hutchinson said in the letter. “If this continued, it would not be long before Amazon got virtually all of the revenue that is presently shared between author, publisher, retailer, printer and other parties.”

Read the full article here.

Monday, June 9, 2008

A Book By Any Other Name…

There is, and always will be, opposition to change.

Vaudeville performers walked off the job to protest silent films. They took a stand against change. Silent film actors quivered at the mere mention of the talkie. They feared change and rightly so. It must have been a very uncomfortable feeling, like the rug was slowly being pulled out from under their feet; they saw it, they felt it, but they couldn't stop it.

That is the essence of change, it is not only inevitable but impossible to prevent. Change, on a grand, some might say global, scale, is brought on in many cases by technological advances. Theatre – radio – film – television, a natural progression where the next technological breakthrough certainly had an impact on the last, but it did not destroy it. We have radio despite television. We have theatre despite film. In a way, they complement each other by allowing a ravenous audience more choices.

Technology is once again the culprit in bringing on change in a media that has seen little over hundreds of years.

Where once books had to be stored in huge libraries, thanks to advancements, that same library can fit on a single computer hard-drive. Not everyone is convinced this change is for the good. It’s truly a bibliophile’s nightmare since the tactility and sensory experience of reading is removed. Now one turns pages at the cold push of a button on computer keyboards ranging from one that sits atop a desk, to one that rests in the palm of your hand. The smell of ink and paper gone, the feel and sound of paper turning, sliding through your fingers as your eyes land on something soft on the vision but always a possible sensory overload.

Sheldon Comics

It’s difficult to accept change when really, there is no need for it. The onslaught of electronic media is brought on not by necessity but by the simple fact that we need to use the technology in some way. Is there anything wrong with that? Is it so bad that we can have all the books we love, at our fingertips, in one device that fits into a pocket or a small briefcase? Is it not the voice on the radio that carries the message and not the radio itself? It would stand to reason that the words are more important than the book.

Why do we fight change so vehemently when the change is for the better?

I’m an e-book author and I read e-books. Does that mean I want traditional books to disappear? Of course not. Who among readers doesn’t love to sit in a cozy spot on a cold or wet night, book open on their lap, immersed in the pleasure of reading? No electronic gadget stands a chance of replacing something so dear and precious. Can a child’s book on a computer screen compare to the touch of a book open on the floor, its bright colours mirrored in the wondrous eyes that read it? No. When you want to upgrade a radio, you buy the newest version of a radio – and it’s still a radio. The same goes for televisions. I’ve gone through a dozen in my lifetime, but all were televisions. The same cannot be said for a traditional book.

So, why not fight e-books with all our page-turning, cozy-cornered, wide-eyed reading wonder of energy? Simply because traditional books and e-books complement each other like radio and television, theatre and film. Choices are the byproduct of change. As readers, we now have the ability to choose which format our reading pleasure will take given our circumstances at the time. When would you choose a Kindle or E-reader over a paperback or hardback? During a morning commute on any mode of public transit. While traveling it would be an ideal space saver in any suitcase. These are just a few examples.

Where then would one relax with a book, enjoying it’s simplicity and tradition? At home, the coffee shop, the beach…

When it comes to books, traditional or electronic, there’s room for both.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Life, Mom and A Lucky Son

My mom, Alice O’Neill, turns 73 today.

It’s a wonderful milestone to celebrate, but it’s made all the more special by her incredible strength, unwavering perseverance and the best love-of-life attitude I’ve ever encountered.

No one has to tell our family that ‘life ain’t fair’ or ‘life is cruel’. Not only do we have the senses to soak up the world’s ills going on around us, we’ve had enough ills of our own as proof. Having said that, my mom refuses to succumb to the negative. I truly believe that her positive outlook is one of the reasons she beat breast cancer and is beating down lung cancer.

Her three year fight is well documented – there’s a paper trail of reports, findings, medication lists, CAT scans and x-rays. The files may be thick with medical facts and figures but it is not, nor will I ever let it be, her legacy.

I’ve passed people in the street and thought each has a story to tell. Average, everyday people can dazzle you with facts about their lives, facts they feel are of little importance when held up against the heroics splashed across global headlines. Heroism isn’t just committing an act of remarkable bravery, heroes are also people who show great courage and strength of character. To me, there is no better hero than my mom.

Comedians have joked about the huge football player, blood gushing from a cut on his nose, dirt and mud all over his face, looking into the television camera and saying to a national audience, “Hi mom.” I’m a hundred pounds, a foot and a truckload of talent short of being a pro football player, but I know why these seemingly tougher-than-hell men seize the opportunity to acknowledge their mothers.

Here’s a few examples to illustrate. I got hit in a hockey game in high school and suffered a mild concussion. No, I didn’t go to the hospital. Trust me, one just knows (the slurring is usually a good sign). So, a teammate took me home and told my parents what happened. I was a lifeguard through high school and knew that a deep sleep was not a good idea in the case of a head injury. So, I stayed awake for as long as I could then mom took the first shift, waking me up at about two in the morning.

“Son,” she said after gently rubbing my shoulder. “Can you tell me your name, love?”

She’s Scottish, so, everyone is ‘love’. I don’t remember anything. Other than her gentle massage on my shoulder and her laying her hand lightly on my forehead.

At five a.m., it was dad’s turn. He grabbed my shoulder and shook me roughly awake. “Hey, what’s your name?”

I swore at him.

“You’re fine,” he said.

And I went back to sleep.

Does this mean that mom coddled me, not a chance. She just always knew the right thing to say and she added that special mother’s touch to everything. I was the only soloist in my school’s grade six concert. I’d practiced hard and was in regular fights for the first few weeks leading up to the concert. Apparently, in the estimation of some six graders, singing is not the most manly thing one can do.

The big night arrived and I took my cue, carrying my chair out to centre stage, where a guitar (I’d pretend to play) was handed to me by a girl who then sat at my feet to enjoy my song, Red River Valley. As the song progressed, more girls in their cute cowgirl outfits, would run on stage and plop down at my feet. I got to the last verse but started to sing the third verse over again. I caught my error and switched, rather abruptly to the last verse. The audience laughed. It was like I could pick up each person’s distinctive reaction. I just kept going and finished my song.

I carried my chair off stage where the stage hand, a grade eight student who thought my error was so funny that he just had to laugh at me, got hit in the head with the chair. It was an accident, I swear.

After the show was over my dad punched me in the arm and smiled. He was telling me to get over it, not to worry about it, to move on. Mom hugged me and said, “You were amazing. And, the way you kept going like a professional singer was very impressive.”

She took, what was the worst mistake I’d ever made, and turned it into a positive. I can’t tell you how that made me feel. It was, well, wonderful.

There came a point in my life where a distinct fork appeared. I’m not talking about what university to attend or what job to take. I guess it was tracks that appeared; I could follow the right side or the wrong side. My parents sat me down one day, out the blue, and together, they let me know that if something were to happen to me they would be there for me, but if I were to be arrested, I was on my own. Their exact words, “Get caught, and you’re on your own.”

I’ve never asked mom why they chose that strategy and probably never will. All I know is that there was a time, when things began to escalate, that I heard this voice in my head saying, “You’re on your own.” It was the deciding factor on what side of the tracks I took. Basically, I think they called my bluff. Either that or I knew I’d never make bail on my own.

Regardless, I think I’ve turned out okay. It was not by accident, I assure you. I carry lessons learned from mom’s teachings. There were subtle examples of how one should act and what one should do. Those required no words, she showed me. Anyone in trouble, in need, mom would help. She gave even when giving hurt. Sometimes it was a kind word, a hug, a shoulder to lean on. And sometimes she gave money when there was too little to give. It didn’t matter, it always worked out. “Whatever you give,” she says, “you’ll get that back and more.”

Alice & Andy O'Neill
January 17, 1959

My father once said to my mom, “Alice, I love you so much that I would die for you.”

Mom’s response didn’t exactly thrill my dad. “That’s nice of you.”

“What? You wouldn’t do the same for me?”

“No,” my mom replied. “Life is too precious. It’s all we have. I won’t give it up, not even for you.”

Though some may disagree with that sentiment, it has stuck with me, because truly, when you think about it, your life is all you own. It is not something to take lightly, and thanks to mom, I’ve tried my best to treat it well.

When I’ve needed her, she’s been there, to help, console, celebrate or just kick me in the ass. My life has been better because I was blessed with a great mom. Happy birthday, mom. I love you to bits.

Now, dear readers, go hug your moms.