A Book Cover for “Sistering”

The cover for my upcoming novel, "Sistering," Aug 2015 from Linda Leith Publishing

The cover for my upcoming novel, “Sistering,” Aug 2015 from Linda Leith Publishing

I’m not usually fussy about design. There is photographic proof of it. When my in-laws-to-be generously organized decorations for my wedding reception while I was consumed with final exams at a university hundreds of kilometers away, they went for the crepe paper aesthetic—streamers and accordion bells. My in-laws are lovely but the crepe paper could only be horrible. I managed not ruin the day or our relationship over it (don’t worry, the person who did the shopping is dead and won’t be reading this). On my wedding day, I stood in crepe paper carnage, held onto the beautiful husband these nice people had made for me, and smiled for the pictures.

Those easygoing design sensibilities of mine become brittle when it comes to my own book covers. Stakes are high with book covers—not as high as at a wedding ceremony but definitely higher than at the crepe-paper reception afterwards. Book covers can tip the scales for readers choosing from a market full of good books. Covers usually convey something about plot—especially in genre fiction—but more importantly, they communicate tone and theme. They hint at the state of mind and heart readers can expect to inhabit. They make vague but real promises. They’re meant to elicit emotional connections. We’re supposed to have feelings about book covers—especially when we’ve authored the stories between them. For a second outing in an author’s career, getting a new cover is a little like getting a new face. And I loved my old face.

Like my first novel, the tone of the second novel is (wait for it) unusual. The structure and storyline are quite different from my first book but I hope my signature oddness (whatever it is, I’m too close to sense much of it) has endured. However, strangeness makes the book hard to characterize with a single illustration. My new book is grave but funny enough that a spooky cover wouldn’t be appropriate. The main characters are women but it’s got nothing like a chick-lit vibe so a cover full of flowers or lipsticks or purses doesn’t make any sense. It’s got elements of a warm, family story but images of sunlit kitchen windowsills would be bad fits too.

I set up my first ever Pinterest board and asked my sisters (blood sister and sisters-in-law, after twenty years with my in-laws, unless I’m looking for a kidney donor, it’s all the same) for cover suggestions and for their opinions on my ideas. But I asked them to do it blindfolded, knowing little more about the book than its title. I’m unreasonable that way.

A few days before the latest Linda Leith Publishing catalogue was finalized, Linda was kind enough to send me two designs being considered for my book cover. Nothing in our official agreement obligates my publisher to ask me anything about design. As is typical in the industry, the publisher buys the rights to produce the book however they see fit. This cover preview was a courtesy and one not every publisher extends. I am grateful for it. And that gratitude made me feel like a terrible person when I admitted I didn’t feel right about either of the designs. The kinds of images we were using—stairways—were the right kind. The concept was good and it was one I hadn’t been able to come up with myself. But I was being fussy about colour schemes and other fiddly details.

IMG_8009

Quit trying to cute it up, Cat

With the deadline for the catalogue looming, we all kept working. In desperation, I even recruited my sister Sara, a photographer, to take photos of the stairwell in her house in case we couldn’t find anything that worked. Her kitten didn’t make it easy, frolicking into the shot over and over again. “Hey, it’s not that kind of book,” I kept telling it. On my way home, I stopped at my sister Amy’s house to take photos of her stairs, as a backup plan for the backup plan.

In further desperation, I reached further into my wealth of sisters. While Sara and I were trying to light her stairwell, my sister-in-law, Stephanie, was picking through the Internet for me. Steph is a writer too—urban fantasy and romance with commercial appeal. She does most of her publishing independently and her best book covers are the ones she designs herself. She has a few favourite resources and on one of those, she unearthed the image of stairs our designer transformed into the book cover.

I love it. The blue-green tones are moody and a bit haunted without being gloomy or melodramatic. The architecture is pretty and visually interesting but not too fanciful or domestic. The title’s font—one of the LLP standbys that give the company’s books their unified look—blends well with the image. And best of all for my poor sophomore nerves, this cover has a comforting sisterly resemblance to my first novel’s cover—the novel that was well-received and not just a fluke, right?

When I posted the finished cover on social media, someone cool and smart said, “I’m picturing the Brady Bunch sisters lined up on those stairs. Except they’re all goth.” I didn’t know until I read it that this was exactly what I wanted to hear.

Arriving at the “Twilight” Party Years Too Late

The words have been said so often by so many millions of lads to so many millions of lasses, that they must be worn to tatters. But when you hear them for the first time, in some magic hour of your teens, they are as new and fresh and wondrous as if they had just drifted over the hedges of Eden. Madam, whoever you are, and however old you are, be honest, and admit that the first time you heard those words on the lips of some shy sweetheart, was the great moment of your life…    L.M. Montgomery, 1924

While my husband was away from home this winter, fighting crime, I fought to keep my happiness from capsizing. Little sorties became important, like roaming alone through Wal-Mart during Valentines week. It was there, in a seasonal hearts-and-flowers display, that I found a three-in-one DVD collection, the trinity of twenty-first century young adult romances, the first three movies of the Twilight series, for $9.99.

I have a secret weakness for young adult romance (secret up until a moment ago, anyways). I spent my teen years reading Greek drama and the Victorians. My idea of escapist reading was L.M. Montgomery. My idea of desperation reading was my mother’s Stephen King collection. The Sweet Valley High novels on my sister’s side of the room neither interested nor tempted me.

My appreciation for YA romance is an adult-onset phenomenon but it’s genuine. When I paid $3.33 per flick to catch up on Twilight five years too late, I expected to be indulging in a guilty pleasure. Ironically or not, I wanted to like the series. I understood a lot of people didn’t like it. But haters’ gonna hate, right? And Stephenie Meyer and I have more in common than just our professions. Rock on, Sister Meyer. Thanks for the good time. That’s what I hoped to be saying.

But instead of cheering, I was groaning my way through Twilight.

“Nooo.”

“Whyyy?”

“Dooon’t.”

Carol and Mike from the Brady Bunch

There wasn’t a lot of dialogue in the movie version of the story. The film was mostly heavily filtered frames of pretty scenery, clunky CGI action shots, quiet staring, and slick soundtrack. When there was talking, the lines were often awkward and incongruous. For instance, big daddy vampire and his bride—the Cullen “parents”—were written and played like Mike and Carol Brady.

Sometimes, when I wondered why a character says something in a certain odd way, I’d find out it was because he was repeating a stand-out line from the original novels. What was more puzzling than these strange lines were the ones that weren’t nearly strange enough—the obvious lines a writer might jot down in a first draft but then refine into something more nuanced and artful as the story matured.

“Never go for the obvious kill,” a Twilight vampire warns a werewolf, “They’ll be expecting that.”

Never a truer word…

Forty minutes into the fourth movie (yes, I keep buying them) Twilight’s appeal started to *ahem* dawn on me. By that point in the movie, nothing has happened except exactly what we knew would happen. In all that time, the couple gets married. That’s it. The plot doesn’t advance a single step. It just delivers in hair-shoes-makeup detail what it’s been promising all along. It’s “fan-service.” Twilight gives its target audience, mostly teenaged girls, precisely what they want—the pretty boys, the comfy wardrobe, the smooching, the cool parents, the social one-up-manship— everything, right down to each word of dialogue. That’s the genius behind the series. The entire endeavor is fan-service.

As a jaded old lady and a writer in my own right of fiction approaching a Gothic love story, my first reaction to Twilight—the groaning—was about weariness with cliché, disappointment with the people behind the story and the audience in front of it for going for “the obvious kill.” As a demographic of writers and readers, we can do better.

Romantic piggy-back: looks like it can be pretty boring

But L.M. Montgomery’s advice (the quote at the beginning of this piece taken from Emily Climbs, her folksy, nineteenth century flavoured, Maritime-y take on the gothic teen romance) is worth considering. So sit down, Madam—or Sir—and remember high school dating. I remember it as a cringe-worthy mess marked by a few perfect moments—iconic moments that are a lot like everyone else’s perfect moments. Epic piggy-back rides, private musical recitals, handmade jewellery, working on a car together, catching someone staring from across the parking lot, secret knocking at the window, dancing in public with everyone gawking because it’s obviously a huge deal (or so we imagined) —those aren’t just personal moments. They’re ones we share with each other and with stories like Twilight.  That’s what makes them clichés: their truth.

Twilight is criticized for the expectations it fosters in young girls about romantic love. I don’t know if there’s much anyone could do to prevent those expectations. The romantic words, the gestures within the story are fairly universal in contemporary Western adolescent relationship scripts—or, at least, in my old diaries. Maybe those expectations are just as inevitably widespread. Twilight didn’t strike a nerve with young women because it unearthed the vampire fad at just the right point in history. It resounded because it told our own stories back to us, without trying to dress up or disguise the worn out “tatters.” It didn’t so much create young women’s culture as it reflected and codified what was already there.

Here is where I could plough into the fact that movies like The Avengers and Transformers perform the same fanciful but clichéd reflective function for young men only they get away with it without the searing social commentary leveled at Twilight for no reason other than sexism. I could, but instead I’ll stick to girl-talk. I’ll continue with L.M. Montgomery and her description of what our sweet, tattered words look like to onlookers:

Everything had suddenly become ridiculous. Could anything be more ridiculous than to be caught here…That’s how other people would look at it. How could a thing be so beautiful one moment and so absurd the next?

This is what impresses me most about Twilight: its refusal to balk at its own ridiculousness, its headlong dive into the absurdity of everybody’s love story. I don’t know why she did it. I don’t know whether it was calculated or not. But I’m going to choose to believe Stephenie Meyer is a brave writer. She wrote what we all know, what so many people apparently wanted to hear repeated. And she did it with that “unflinching” spirit critics usually praise. It’s like a teenaged girl stood up and used her own fingers to flip off the entire literary world. There’s something fierce and kind of admirable in it—but nothing that can keep me from flinching my face off.

We Have a Release Date…

Novel release date, 15 Aug. 2015

We’ve got a release date for Sistering, my upcoming novel.

Yes, “release date” can mean many things, especially in a family like mine where one of us works in the criminal justice system.

What I mean by it is the book will be available in print and ebook formats from Linda Leith Publishing, online bookstores, and on the shelves of fine bookstores beginning August 15, 2015.

That is, as long as I get off the Internet and get the latest revisions resubmitted on time. Fighting!

The Linda Leith Publishing Story in the Montreal Gazette

I’m always grateful for anything that extends the lifespan of my first novel. I wrote it in blood and it’s part of my heart. So fittingly, this Valentines Day morning, I woke up to find the book mentioned in the Montreal Gazette newspaper in a feature on my publisher, Linda Leith.

Read the piece here: Linda Leith in the Montreal Gazette

But wait, there’s more. A portion of the interview was video taped and posted on Youtube. It’s worth a listen just to hear Linda’s lovely, one-of-a-kind accent. In this clip she talks about surprising people, overcoming obstacles, and taking chances. To illustrate, she tells the part of her story that includes my story. Lucky me, to have fallen into the hands of someone with an iron stomach and a golden touch for my first, and soon, my second novels.

Watch the clip here: Linda Leith on Youtube

Imagine All the People

Breakdown of a Facebook Breakup

Someone emailed to tell me she had quit following my personal Facebook account in order to save our real life friendship. Her letter was carefully, thoughtfully written. I could tell she was being as gentle and sincere as she could be.

The news took me by surprise – awful surprise. I replied, saying I was very sorry to hear it. I told her what I liked and would miss about her Facebook presence. Her feelings are what they are and I didn’t argue their validity with her. We stayed friends and signed off and I rose up with great strength of character and immediately let it go.

I tried to, anyways. The exchange was warm and civilized but troubling. I didn’t sleep well, and decided I’d better take a hard look at what I post if it’s having a negative effect on people I care about. I logged into my Facebook account and scrolled through the last four months.

My friend was already gone from my online world (it’s safe to say she won’t read this blog post) but as a consolation I had a chance to learn what’s distasteful about myself on social media. It’s important to know professionally and as a human being. I settled in for a lesson in the mysterious, sometimes counter-intuitive art of not being horrible.

The Results

Thank my sociology training for this table of all my Facebook posts between September 2014 and January 2015:

Number of Posts Subject of Post Details
18 Family 9 posts about my kids

5 posts about my husband

4 links to articles by the press (not me) about family members’ achievements and activities

15 Professional 7 links to press coverage and publishing announcements about my novels

4 links to blog posts and an article written by me

4 posts about my activities at school

11 Personal 7 horrendous old photos posted by my very bad little sister

4 attempts at self-deprecating humour

What Wasn’t in the Results

Dirty Laundry As I’ve discussed elsewhere, I don’t post bad news very often, particularly when it comes to my career. For me, Facebook is mostly a good news ticker.

Dirty Dishes Facebook isn’t part of my domestic routine, meaning there are very few posts about housework, recipes, decorating, or similar topics often found on the Facebook pages of people managing busy households. I don’t fault anyone else for using the website this way. I actually find it charming in my friends. But my domestic life is not the focus of my account.

S*%t Kickin’ I purposely avoid controversial links and statements that might read as attacks on anyone else’s way of life. Polemics on politics, parenting, nutrition, public health, social justice, religion – they don’t appear in what I post. I sometimes participate in that kind of discourse on other people’s pages, but I never start it on my own.

The Lesson

Despite the table, I couldn’t tell what exactly was bothering my friend. Self-awareness is hard but nothing in my news feed stood out to me as particularly inflammatory. It was probably nothing and everything all at once. The effect was likely a gestalt (thanks again, sociology).

Or maybe I just missed something — careless comments made on mutual friends’ posts, repeated miscommunications of tone, a hundred little somethings here and there over years and years.

I remember an article from the Huffington Post about what makes a bad Facebook post. The author says posts used for “image crafting” are not good. He argues Facebook shouldn’t be a tool for sculpting our lives into the form that’s most pleasing to us. In his perfect Facebook, good news is out. Bad news is out. Overly specific is out. Vague is out. Sensational is out. Boring is out. Complaining is out. Gratitude is out. Love is out. Hate is out. Vapid is out. Clever is only okay if there’s no way someone might feel like we’re showing off. Essentially, any Facebook post that elicits an emotional reaction outside a narrow, neutral sense of benign, unremarkable amusement is out. Does that leave anything? Maybe really solid knock-knock jokes…

I’m not sure the Huffington writer was aware of it, but his denouncement of actual social interaction within a social network is awfully ironic. That doesn’t mean it’s not inevitable. I approach Facebook like a cocktail party where everyone is toasting each other. I suppose there must be people out there who hate that kind of party. No one tells us when we register with Facebook that all 500,000,000 users may be assuming we’re at 500,000,000 different, somewhat incompatible parties.

Here’s more irony: if I consciously craft an image middling enough for every single one my friends to like it, I’m still crafting an image — only I’m crafting an even less authentic image than the one arising naturally from my character and values. I’m not talking about whether I should behave respectfully, use good manners, and not attack people on Facebook. I’m talking about whether I’m obligated to pursue things that don’t interest me or that make me feel bad in hopes of walking a neutral, narrow, benign line that goes nowhere.

Here comes sociology again, patting me on the head, telling me not to fret. All selves are crafted, negotiated within social contexts. That’s what humans do. Everything we see of everyone we know can never be more than a complex image in our minds. Literally, that’s how the visual cortices in our brains work. Figuratively, that’s how social life works, even on the Internet. We can try to quit it, but when we turn away to look at something else, what we see there will be just an image too.

On the One Hundredth Anniversary of my Grandmother’s Birth

Thelma Mae Bruce, circa 1920

Thelma Mae Bruce, circa 1920

I was three months pregnant with my third son when our  washing machine broke. The tub would fill, spin, and drain but the agitator wouldn’t turn. We had no money and a lot of laundry. Something needed to be done. I rolled my pants over my kneecaps, climbed onto the edge of the washing machine and stomped the clothes clean with my feet and legs. From half inside the machine, I realized that, just for a moment, I had become my grandmother – and I was grateful and astounded such a thing could happen.

If my grandmother was still alive, she would have celebrated her one hundredth birthday yesterday. And by “celebrated” I mean stood up beside the dinner table while everyone else ate. I called her Gram but her name was Thelma, a word now used in our family as a verb describing a hostess who won’t stop working to sit down with the rest of the party. “Nah, I’m fine. You guys go ahead. I’m just gonna Thelma.”

If I lived 600km closer, I would have joined my dad and my aunties yesterday at a big Thelma Day dinner. It looks, from the picture, like they went to one of Gram’s favourite prairie Chinese food smorgasbords.

Gram was loving but not always easy to feel close to. We were close anyway. At size 5, she was one of the few adults I could trade shoes with – not that we ever did swap her hospital inspired Naturalizers for my chunky-heeled boots. We were both oldest daughters of large families who had to take on work as teenagers to help our parents. My load was lighter and I was able to stay in school but when Gram quit in the eighth grade, she quit for good. I never heard her complain but when I graduated from high school at the top of my class she bought me a card and instead of just signing her name, as she usually did, she wrote “very proud of you” and my heart spilt in two. We’re both daddy’s girls, cleaning ladies, fast food super stars — doctor snarking, sibling scolding, hard coughing, cat ignoring, short ladies.

She’s a figure recurring throughout my creative work. The first piece I ever did for CBC Radio was a personal essay for Tapestry about the work Gram and I did together tracing our roots from New Brunswick to Scotland. In my novel, I shamelessly lifted the character of the grandmother who sleeps on a saw bench the night before her husband’s funeral from a scene out of my own childhood, with my own grandmother.

When she was nearly dead and losing her hearing, many voices slipped out of the pitch where she could still hear. But I knew where to find the right range and she could always hear me, right to the end. I stood up to speak at a funeral for the first time when she died.

So I felt like an idiot going to bed after midnight on Thelma Day, the one hundredth anniversary of my grandmother’s birth, without doing anything to observe it. While my family members were eating commemorative dinners, I had done nothing and said nothing about it as I fed my kids a rushed meal before darting off to take the 9-year-old to judo lessons. I had eaten standing up while packing his gym bag. I had dropped him off and driven to the senior’s home where my mother-in-law lives and collected her laundry. I had tried to phone my favourite schizophrenic loved one, found out his line was disconnected, and arranged to pay the bill to hook him back up. There are lots of good ways to observe Thelma Day, even if we happen upon them unknowingly while doing what she would do if she was here.

More than any inspiration she’s given me creatively, Gram inspires me spiritually. For our family, she was a Miriam without a Moses. Her Promised Land is a hard brilliant place without anywhere to sit.  Someday, I hope to stand with her there.

Happy Thelma Day, everyone.

Matters of Discretion, or, One Way Writing is Like Dating

Along with my IRL friends, my kids’ friends, and my enormous family, I’m accumulating a growing number of writers on my social network feeds. I like it a lot. One of the newest additions to my Facebook friends list is American novelist Sarah Dunster. I’ve met her only once, but through her online voice I’ve grown to admire the heck out of her as a human being.

She’s currently pitching manuscripts to major literary agencies. I learned about it through her fascinating practice of reporting the responses she’s been getting to her queries. It only takes one positive response – one agent willing to take on a book project – to end the pitching process. Sarah hasn’t received that one response yet so the replies she’s been reporting have been what dour folks like me would call rejection letters.

That’s not what Sarah calls them — at least, not all of them. She seems to prefer the term “polite letters.” She announces them and will sometimes share excerpts of them – anything positive or personalized. Perhaps it’s a way of celebrating warmth, encouragement, and humanity in a process that usually ends in dismissive dead silence. It’s one of the loveliest, most surprising acts of making lemonade out of lemons I’ve seen in a working writer.

When a “polite letter” arrives at my house, I log it, shred or delete it, don’t mention it to anyone but my husband, and only after I refuse to cook and insist he go out to dinner with me.

Maybe I lack the sweetness to make lemonade. I, the girl who, thanks to my parents, went to eleven different schools before I graduated, learned to cope with disappointment by moving on, starting over. When it comes to something like a book proposal, there’s nothing wrong with that strategy. The sooner a rejection is obliterated, the better for me and everyone around me. Get on with it!

I’m convinced both Sarah’s way and my way are fine approaches to rejection. As long as we go on writing and improving our writing, it doesn’t matter how we handle setbacks. Into the shredder or onto Facebook – either one is fine. Looking for the bright side or the blank slate — there’s no wrong choice.

Sarah’s sharing of her rejections on a social network is, by definition, social. My choice to not share mine isn’t meant to be social – but it is.

When an acceptance letter, an award nomination, a good review, or any helpful press coverage comes my way, I tell everyone. I hit Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and this blog to let everybody know my good news. And then I refuse to cook and insist we go out for dinner.

Sarah shares her good news too. It’s on her Facebook feed right along with her “polite” letters. Every writer does this. It’s 2015. The world is chock-full of books and if writers won’t talk about our own work, no one else will.

It’s especially true for writers working with small presses with constrained marketing resources. There are publishing companies (not mine, thank goodness) that require authors to prepare “marketing plans” and submit them along with manuscripts when there’s still no publishing agreement in sight.

My small publisher makes a little go a long way. Thanks to their efforts, I had good publicity for my novel’s debut. Still, my personal contributions of time and online platform-space were indispensable in promoting the book. That’s how this industry works. We may cloak it in humblebrags and earnestly sheepish modesty but writers cannot opt out of our own buzz and expect it to continue.

Buzzing really bugs some people. And not everyone caught in my social network puts up with me by choice. Many are connected to me by birth or other kinds of social superglue. They’d have a hard time tuning out my book promotion racket if they found it annoying. I know it. I’m sorry. And if I want to keep working in this field, I have to subject them to it anyway.

This is where not sharing my rejection becomes social after all. If I was more like Sarah — reporting setbacks with frank optimism, not fishing for compliments — maybe my good news would be easier for onlookers to stomach when it finally comes along. Talking about it would seem more balanced, less like a double standard. I wouldn’t be a humblebragger. I’d be simply humbled. Maybe it’s selfish — even dishonest — of me to advance only good news.

Here’s some honesty. I’m not yet emotionally equipped to post my rejections. I probably never will be. While doing so may be useful for writers like Sarah, and satisfying for a few fed-up readers, it has no value for me. It hurts. I won’t do it.

It’d be like publicly posting something about asking someone to love me and having them turn me down. Marketing writing is actually a lot like dating. Some people want to chronicle every detail of the chase, every high and low; some don’t. In my dating days I was never one to announce I liked a guy until he’d already made a very clear first move. It’s not that I never pined for anyone. It’s just that I didn’t talk about it. That’s how I write too – never announcing my submissions until a successful deal is struck. Neither approach to dating or to writing makes anyone selfish or bad. It’s a matter of discretion, not a character flaw.

I’ll always have more to lose, more to suffer, in flaunting my failures than anyone will have to gain in inspecting them. I still just need to move on. This is a tough business. Trust me: I do get bad news, plenty of it. In lieu of public rejection letters, let’s let this post stand as the official, general acknowledgement of all my bad news, past, present, and in perpetuity. It will remain here for easy reference any time my good news feed gets insufferable.