Crybaby Reads Her Book

Me and my advance reading copy, taken from my good side.

Me and my advance reading copy, taken from my good side.

The sight of a thick, yellow envelope postmarked from Montreal usually means a happy day for me.  It’s mail from my publisher, Linda Leith.  The most recent envelope was closed around an advance reading copy of my unreleased novel,  Love Letters of the Angels of Death.  I was as happy to see it as I can get without crying.

The same week, my brand new writers’ group had its first meeting.  Each of the members was invited to bring “one or two pages” of work to read aloud.  The timing was perfect.  Here was a small, low stakes environment where I could make an early attempt at reading my novel in public.

It sounded easy.  As long as it’s all talk — no singing or yodeling involved — I’m comfortable with my own vocal performance skills.  I already had the chops I needed to do a reading from my novel.  All that was left for me to do was pick a short section out of the book, read through it once, jam the pretty new book into my purse, and show up at the meeting as if I do this kind of thing every day.

The first step — choosing a selection — was harder than I thought it would be.  I’m ginger with other people’s time so I wanted to be sure I read something I could end neatly when I reached the equivalent of the roughly two 8.5×11” sized pages I’d been invited to share.  It meant simply reading the first chapter of the book wasn’t an option.  I also wanted to avoid spoilers, which meant the last third of the book was off limits and I had to be careful about what I chose from the middle.

And then there was one more consideration.  I wanted to read something gripping.  But it also had to be something that would not make me cry.  If you know me, you know that’s asking a lot of myself.

I may have held it together the day I found the ARC of my book in the mail, but I can still call myself an easy crier.  It’s awful.  I hate it.  Everyone hates it (especially my teenaged sons).  I am such an easy crier that my own novel – a story I wrote myself – still makes me sniffle two years after I’ve finished writing it.  The last sentence in it is only two words long and it makes me choke into tears almost every time I look at it.

Don’t misunderstand.  I am not emotionally delicate.  I react with appropriate sorrow when something terrible happens but I’ve never struggled with enduring feelings of depression or anything crippling or frightening.  Alarming as it may be, I simply relieve tension best by crying.  And it’s not just negative tension.  It’s the positive too.  When a stranger stopped on the Alberta Autobahn and helped me change my flat tire last month, I was so touched by his kindness I could hardly speak to him.  I knew if I loosened up, I’d start crying.  Stupid crying – or even just the dread of ending up crying — it taints most of my best moments.

I guess I should be grateful my emotional depressurization system isn’t any more complicated than simply opening the valves of my tear ducts.  It’s a fine mechanism in private but in public it’s an embarrassing mess.

Back to the book: chapter nine was where I found what I was looking for.  I chose a main character’s quick flashback to a bad teenaged romance.  That was my selection – the very first part of my novel I would ever read aloud in public.  I’ve always thought the passage was strong.  It has everything except something to cry about.

Still, when the time came to read it to a room full of friendly, un-threatening writers, I felt shaky and unnecessarily emotional anyway.  And when I was finished, I was a little mad at myself for being too high strung to read it exactly the way I had wanted to.  I’m experienced in speaking about many things.  But my novel isn’t one of them – not yet.  I’m still cagey and protective when it comes to my book and the secret well inside me that it sprang from in the beginning.

Here is yet another aspect of this career as a novelist that I hadn’t anticipated.  Once again, writing the book wasn’t enough.  I guess I need to become slick, smooth, and professional at reading my novel out loud.  Even though its opening chapter is a little long and a lot emotional, I need be able to chew up it until I can recite it with a fluent, steady voice.  I need to hone my reading until those two tight passages where it’s easy for me to get overwhelmed don’t squeeze me anymore.  I will transform myself into a flesh and blood book-on-tape.  There – I’ve decided.

“No,” one of the nice Nancies (there are two of them) from the writing group gently protested, “the fact that your book means so much to you made it mean more to me.”

And with that, I’m weeping all the way back to where I started.  Dang it, Nancy.

How I (Almost) Botched My Writing Career


Writing in bed on a tea tray — like a boss

Last night I attended my very first writers’ group meeting – a “writers’ salon” at the home of a local wire-tap-transcriptionist turned edgy poet.  And I’m realizing now that my late entry into a writing group is yet more evidence that I have gone about my writing career the wrong way – the hard way, the backwards way.

Let me explain exactly how I’ve botched it – so far.

1)      I should have joined a writers’ group years and years and years ago.  All you kids at home, don’t wait until the advance reading copy of your first novel arrives in the mail before joining a writers’ group.

I’m in the habit of not showing my serious writing to anyone – not my husband, not my sisters, no one.  My utter lack of writing colleagues meant I mistook my work-in-progress manuscript for a finished book, started submitting it too early, and inadvertently ended up work-shopping it with the few gatekeepers at literary agencies and publishing houses who were thoughtful enough to jot a line or two (never any more) about why they were rejecting it.  It was a traumatic, slow, costly, and stupid way to get feedback.

Don’t be like me.  Before anyone in the business reads your work, make friends with writers with similar interests and better abilities than your own.  Read each other’s work and offer feedback.  Share contacts and news.  Learn to be gracious.

2)      I’ve never taken a creative writing course.  When my publisher and I were looking for a “blurb” for my book, Linda suggested I consider my former creative writing teachers.  It would have been a good suggestion if I’d had any.  It’s not that I didn’t take university-level literature classes.  I took them and I did well.  But I never took any courses dedicated to creative writing.  I’ve never had my work assessed and graded in an academic setting.

It’s not a fatal mistake.  Many writers spring up outside post-secondary creative writing programs — but not as many as I used to think.  So far, most of the people I’ve met in the working writing community have some past or present connection to writing as an academic field.  They don’t talk about writing as a vocation merely in a romantic, figurative sense.  They mean it the same way plumbers talk about their vocations – as papered credentials and regular, paying gigs.  There is middle ground between an institution-centred career in writing and never enrolling in a class.  And I should have spent some time there.

3)      I haven’t read much of the current literature in my field.  Instead of keeping up with the industry, I’ve used my precious reading time to polish off classics and to survey the YA books my kids are reading.  By now, I’m pretty well-versed in Dostoevsky and Dickens.  And I know my way around J.K. Rowling and Daniel Handler.  But I don’t know much about – whoever the heck has been important in literary fiction since the 1990s.

This was a bad move.  Stay tuned to the tone and the content of the industry.  Don’t raise your head only to when the mainstream media starts clamouring about yet another wave of erotica.  And don’t worry about being unduly influenced by other artists.  It’s the post-modern age – a time when humans have been reading and writing long enough for all of us to be a little derivative.  There’s no way to avoid it and the best we can hope for is to be able to admit it when our work looks like a freaky chimera of Carol Shields, Emily Brontё, and Napoleon Dynamite.

4)      I don’t have a physical space set aside especially for writing.  I write on my lap, sitting on my pillow, leaning against the head-board of the bed where I sleep at night.  It started as a desperate play for peace and quiet in a large, busy household.  I guess that’s still what it is.  It’s bad for my mattress, my spine, my wrists, and my temper.  Get a desk – or at least a chair.

That’s a short list of a few of my most obvious missteps.  I won’t repeat them during my next project — except for the bed-desk.

But there’s something like irony at work here.  I failed in all these ways yet I continued to publish anyway.  All my stumbling around with an unsuitable manuscript served to match my timing up with Linda’s and we found each other at just the right moment.  There’s no fail-safe formula for good fortune.

And on top of all these errors, I did do something right – something vital.  I finished the dang book.  I took good advice when I was finally given it.  I kept revising and submitting.  I kept fighting.  Of all the things I’ve heard people name as the undoing of their literary ambitions, not finishing their projects has got to be the most common.

Maybe that’s the biggest, most valuable lesson of all the ones I’ve learned so far — the one I’d leave with everyone, the one I kept repeating like a holy mantra at the writers’ group last night.  Finish it.  Keep going.