November 17, 2009

On literary prizes

This morning I went to the announcement of the winners of the Governor General's Literary Awards at the Grande Bibliothèque. It was an interesting format in that it was part press conference, part ceremony: it was mostly attended by members of the media, but the writers and illustrators still crossed the stage and delivered acceptance speeches. The speeches were mostly decorous and deeply thankful. Some of the writers explained the origins of the ideas behind the works in question (one, I can't remember which now, started as a Grade 11 school assignment!). It was a cheery and inspiring way to start off the day, and I learned a little bit about a lot of books I might not otherwise know about.

I wanted to write about prizes today because November 17th will always be a special date for me. Exactly one year ago today, my name was called out at the Writers' Trust of Canada awards gala as it was announced I was the winner of the Journey Prize. A giant picture of my face went on the screen and I went onstage and delivered a giddy and probably mostly incoherent speech, much of which I can thankfully no longer remember. I didn't blog about it here when it happened because it seemed too magical to be real. It still does.

Somebody pinch me! (Photo courtesy of the Writers' Trust of Canada)

It felt particularly meaningful for me because I'd been buying and reading the McClelland & Stewart's Journey Prize Stories anthologies for years, and so many writers I admire have appeared in those volumes.

I know there is a lot of debate about the merits of literary prizes, and certainly the winner is always chosen by a subjective process, influenced by who-knows-what kind of internal processes between the jurors, but I think they're a good and necessary part of the literary culture in Canada. They help the writers, they help the readers make some headway in providing some guidance in what to choose, and they give us all something to talk about. Without prizes, there would be a lot less media coverage of literature in general.

And since it is awards season, after all, I'm going to go get ready to attend the QWF Awards gala (where last year I was not so lucky, but still had a fabulous time). It's not too late to come if you're in Montreal! Tickets are just $15 ($10 for students) at the door. The reception starts at 7 p.m., and the awards start at 8 p.m.

November 10, 2009

Career options for fiction writers

I've been getting a bit restless working from home all day, every day, and I've started to think about day jobs versus career matches for professional fiction writers.

I'm familiar with the concept of a day job: employment, unrelated to writing, that pays the bills. I've worked at a video store, a community centre, for the police, and as a university administrator, all while pursuing writing as a calling --- in my spare time. And I thoroughly enjoyed all of those jobs and the different skill sets they entailed. I wouldn't hesitate to do any of them again, either. Part of me really thinks that it might actually be better in a writing life to have a job that gives you a break from writing.

But part of me is a little bit envious of my peers who are developing careers as professionals in other, non-artistic fields. I've never let myself consider anything (e.g. educational choices that might lead to practical career options) that might derail myself from "becoming a writer." I didn't go to law school, or library school, or even do a Ph.D. because it seemed to me that I could probably only productively pursue one goal, the only one which has ever had real ambition behind it. (What's the point of going to law school if you don't *really* want to be a lawyer? What's the point of doing a Ph.D if you don't *really* want to be a professor?)

But with a certain (admittedly modest) amount of credibility as a writer established, I've been wondering if there's anything else I'm suited for, beyond the solely administrative-type jobs I tend to gravitate towards, given my undying love of a nice spreadsheet. What do other writers do to pay the bills (besides writing gigs of varying kinds)? What should fiction writers naturally be good at? Here's what I've come up with so far:

Teaching (literature, language, writing), library sciences (I've been thinking seriously about this), journalism, publishing, editing, communications. And what about more overtly creative communications jobs? Advertising? Marketing? These seem like they would be good fits, too.

What am I leaving out? I'm remembering now that T.S. Eliot worked for a bank.

November 9, 2009

Naming fictional characters

One of my favourite parts about writing is naming characters. Growing up, my writing consisted of little else. I'd spend ages constructing a name, a description, a family situation, only to finally start a story that would usually fizzle out after a couple dozen pages. (Though, in retrospect, the world is probably better off without the further adventures of Danya Wilkinson or Calliope Dryden --- or even those of the less outlandishly named Tessa Gilmore.)

To name something is to give it life, to make it real, to make it something in the world. A name is the strongest kind of word there is, a kind of magic word, really. Names have always been important in mythology and religion. In initiation rites, you take on a new name to signify the change you've undergone, but part of the magic of the change is worked by the name itself.

Last week I was working on a narrative essay drawing on some elements of my high school experience, and as always, when trying to write about my own life, I found myself getting hung up on the details --- things that had mattered to me, but which wouldn't matter to anyone else. I was getting especially bogged down by the people in the story, some of whom I could barely even remember. The things I did remember I wasn't sure I could trust. I found myself stumbling through half-sentences, stopping, starting again. I was using initials in place of people's real names, thinking I would sub in some pseudonyms once I had a draft. But after a few unfruitful hours, I started thinking I had better rename them sooner rather than later.

And once I'd renamed them, they became other people. Lighter, freer. Characters who were similar in some respects to the real people who inspired them, but still strangers to me in most of the ways that count. In other words, people I could write about.*

For me, a character name usually starts with a first letter, or a feeling for a letter, and an idea of syllables. I don't think I'm alone among writers in not only having strong feelings about words, but for letters, too, and rhythms. So I might have the idea of something starting with a "B," two syllables long, and I start looking from there. The naming process happens at a very early stage in the creation of a character, early enough that the relationship is symbiotic. The name suggests the character to me as much as the character suggests the name.

I've had a copy of Baby Names From Around the World since I was nine, bought for this very purpose at a long-defunct Coles bookstore on Bank Street in Ottawa. (I remember getting a lot of concerned looks and questions about it when I was toting it around as a pre-teen.) As for as choosing an appropriate name by looking up its meaning, I think it's usually overkill in fiction to be that obviously thematic. But if the meaning is secretly relevant to you as a writer, for understanding the character, then that can only be a good thing.

Of course, there's no need for a baby name book now. The internet is full of resources for this sort of thing (these days baby names sites seem to be as ubiquitous, and nearly as spammy, as song lyrics sites). I often do just use names I like, but depending on when I want the character to have been born, I consult the U.S. Social Security Administration website, which gives you a list of names by gender and popularity for every year since 1879, or I Google to find a more specific list, like "Newfoundland surnames" or "Algerian boy names." No matter what, and I'm not sure why this is or what complex circles of influence control this, but I'm always absolutely in line with or slightly ahead of the zeitgeist in terms of my favourite names (four first names from my short-story collection appear in the Top Ten of the Top 100 Baby Names in Canada in 2008). So for that reason, I feel like I have to be careful when creating characters not born within, say, the last five years.

When I'm working on different sorts of projects, something where I just need to get ideas quick for a whole host of characters, I have fun with the Random Name Generator. It uses information from the U.S. Census, and it has an adjustable obscurity factor. It's wonderful for last names in particular, especially as phone books are turning into a thing of the past.

If you have any other good tricks for finding the perfect character name, please share.

*Whether the people in question (should they ever read the essay) would make much of this distinction is less certain, and is a troublesome enough topic for another time.

November 8, 2009

Recent book haul

I know I've already confessed here about the number of unread books I currently own, but I recently acquired a very nice (and huge) new bookcase, which made me feel a little bit freer to pick up a couple of books as needed. Well, the annual McGill Book Sale came and went, and I left with a tidy pile (sadly, I would have left with many more, but their debit machine wasn't working, so I had to leave a few behind and I didn't manage to make it back). Here's most what came home with me (leaving out the all the vinyl from the record section):

Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden
The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud
What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn
Oxygen by Annabel Lyon (I'd already read but didn't previously own this book)
The Petty Details of So-and-So's Life by Camilla Gibb
Rush Home Road by Lori Lansens
The Divine Economy of Salvation by Priscila Uppal

An exciting-looking list, no? It kind of makes me wonder what I'm even doing sitting here writing about it! It might be my best haul yet --- only books I actively want to read, not just books I randomly purchased thinking they might turn out to be interesting. I've also picked up Because I Have Loved and Hidden It by Elise Moser and What Boys Like by Amy Jones at a couple of recent book launches, so let's face it...I'm a little bit spoiled for reading material at the moment.

November 7, 2009

Song of the Day

The other night I tuned into the live-stream of U2's Rose Bowl concert, and I was surprised when I couldn't really tear myself away. I haven't been a hard-core U2 fan for years, and I haven't even listened to their last album. But watching the concert rekindled some of my old affection, and I've been replaying my U2 CDs and checking out some of their music videos online. I've even discovered some videos I've never seen before for some older tunes. And thanks to a number of uploaded concert videos of dubious quality, I've learned that on this tour they've started playing two songs they've never played before in concert: Electrical Storm and Your Blue Room --- both favourites of mine. I'm starting to think I might need to go see them when they come, even though I'm not usually a fan of arena shows.

Anyway, that was a long preamble for just this one old song (no video, since I like the album version so much):

November 5, 2009

Writers on writing -- links

Last night's reading at Arts Cafe was great, with a really strong lineup of readers. My friend Alice Zorn was one of the readers, and I was happy to discover that she was also featured yesterday on Love Ms. Julie. She talks about her writing routine and you can look at a photo of her rather serene-looking desk. A desk that makes a desk look like a good idea.

Friend and poet Linda Besner also recently recorded a piece for The Next Chapter on the trouble with titling her first collection of poetry, which will be coming out with Vehicule. She polled me and writer Rob Weston about whether we supported her title or the one proposed by her editor. It's about 20 minutes into the show if you want to give it a listen --- but you should also listen to the first 20 minutes as it's an interview with Jessica Grant about her novel Come, Thou Tortoise (a novel I loved and have already raved about here).

And writer Jonathan Ball talks to CKUW about his new book of poetry Ex Machina as well as his short films. He has the audio hosted here on his website. Jonathan and I are attempting to post every day this month (what is known in the blogosphere, perhaps somewhat unfortunately, as NaBloPoMo --- not to be confused with NaNoWriMo, which I am decidedly not attempting), so you should check out his blog here and encourage him. Today's post is about the best method for undertaking revisions --- something I am trying not to think about while I'm finishing this first draft....

November 4, 2009

Readings, readings, readings!

We've been wonderfully fortunate in our literary events lately in Montreal. Thanks to the Concordia Writers Read series, George Saunders was in town two weeks ago to give a reading, which I can honestly say was the best reading I've ever attended (a close second being Yann Martel reading from Life of Pi at a free event at the Winnipeg International Writers Festival, the same morning he found it was shortlisted for the Booker). Saunders read from his recent story in The New Yorker, "Victory Lap." It's a classic Saunders story -- I'm not sure anybody does tragicomedy better than he does. He did different voices for the characters, including a Mickey Mouse-type voice for the imaginary baby deer (read the story, you'll understand) that is still cracking me up whenever I think about it. He answered the questions generously and interestingly and humbly. Everyone I went with was equally impressed.

Then this past Monday was the Biblioasis Metcalfe-Rooke reading at Drawn and Quarterly, where Kathleen Winter, Rebecca Rosenblum, and Amy Jones read from their winning short-story collections (actually, in Rebecca's case, she read a new story, which was a treat). They were all excellent and inspiring readers, and there were some yummy snacks there to boot. Kathleen very nicely sent me home with some of the leftover blue cheese. I'm pretty sure that living off of literary reading leavings means that I'm a REAL writer now.

And tonight at Arts Cafe is a poetry and prose reading, with a lineup including Alice Zorn, who will be reading from her wonderful book Ruins & Relics. The collection is deservedly shortlisted for the Quebec Writers' Federation McAuslan First Book Prize, and I'm rooting for it to win. And on the subject of the QWF Awards, why don't you come to the gala? As always, it promises to be a great event, and at just $10 a ticket, I suspect it is the most affordable (yet still glitzy) literary gala in the country.

November 3, 2009

writing comics diversions

A comic apropos to yesterday's post about iPhone e-readers, which I meant to include but forgot:

iPhone ebook camping

I didn't manage to go camping this summer, but I did go to a cabin and I was looking forward to reading books on my iPhone there -- until I lost track of my charger for the whole trip! That's one advantage a book will always have. It never runs out of batteries.

Debbie Ohi at, author of the comic above, does lots of wonderful writing-related comics and posts tons of great writing links and ideas on her site. Always good for a procrastinating click or two (or more...). Here's another recent favourite of mine:

Adverb Discrimination

I've definitely become one of those people who try to excise all their adverbs, so this comic hit close to home!

November 2, 2009

Reading ebooks on the iPhone

So the reason I've been reading Dracula is the wonderful Classics app on my iPhone. The look and feel of the thing is incredible, and I love that I can read it in bed with the lights off. The pages are a lovely cream colour and I can flick them, silently, with a stroke of my finger. There's no difficulty in positioning the thing to see, as there would be with a hardcover, with my head on the pillow. If I stop turning pages, it shuts itself off. And it totally removes the need for a book light, which has already come in handy for me while sharing a hotel room earlier this month.

Thus far I haven't seen the appeal of e-readers (why would I want to start carrying yet another device?), but there is something wonderful about always having something to read right in my phone. For one thing, it makes my purse a lot lighter. It isn't the first e-reader I got for my iPhone, but so far it's the best. And since I downloaded it, there have been a bunch of similar applications released. I'm probably going to get something called the "Charles Dickens collection" next, because that will definitely be easier to lug around than the actual novels.

When it comes to buying e-books rather than paper books, I don't know where I stand. Everything I've been reading so far has been in the public domain. I'm so much of a bibliophile that I can't imagine not wanting the actual object, but possibly I would consider it for trashy reads -- say if I was somehow dying to read the new Dan Brown or something else I wouldn't want to actually ever put on a shelf. But we'll see.

But anyway, hurray for e-readers on the iPhone! From the looks of things, it sounds like Apple is well-positioned to take over the e-reader market. According to a story today on Mashable, book application downloads for the the iPhone have even outstripped game downloads.

November 1, 2009

Dracula: less sexy than your average True Blood vampire

So for reasons related mostly to my iPhone (more on that later), I've recently been rereading Dracula. I read it once for school back in first-year university, probably the night before the exam, and I remember really enjoying it and finding it impressively creepy. But I was shocked at what I didn't remember, which was most of it: Dracula's moustache, the novel's structure (a collection of diary entries, newspaper articles, letters), the terrifying story of the boat crossing as the sailors are done away with one by one, Van Helsing's conceit of laughter as a king after he is convulsed by uncontrollable mirth:

"Ah, you don't comprehend, friend John. Do not think that I am not sad, though I laugh. See, I have cried even when the laugh did choke me. But no more think that I am all sorry when I cry, for the laugh he come just the same. Keep it always with you that laughter who knock at your door and say, `May I come in?' is not true laughter. No! He is a king, and he come when and how he like. He ask no person, he choose no time of suitability. He say, `I am here.'..."

I've been astounded over and over again by how frightening and absolutely gripping Stoker's novel is, not to mention surprisingly modern. I've been reading it slowly over the past week to get into the Halloween spirit. In other literary Halloween news, last night I dressed up as a character from one of my favourite books, Alice in Wonderland:

In case you're wondering, the cake makes her get bigger.