My Writing Has Gone to the Dogs

I consider myself primarily an editor, but every once in a while, I cross over to the other side of the great divide and write. It’s seemingly for pleasure, if you can call fussing over your own words instead of someone else’s pleasurable. Mostly, I write blog posts, but I also write fiction. Part of the reason you haven’t seen a blog post from me over the last couple of weeks is that I have been absorbed in writing a short story for a contest. It has been a sort of exquisite agony for me.

Writing fiction when I’m much more accustomed to editing it is good for me because it deepens my appreciation of what my clients go through when they’re developing their plots, characters, and settings. I’ve always been in awe of those who seriously undertake the daunting process of creating fictional worlds, and when I struggle to create my own, it reinforces my respect for the process and reminds me to tread lightly and tactfully upon the manuscripts that writers submit to me for editing.

But of course, I don’t just write fiction because it’s good for me. Certain themes spark my imagination. When I discovered that there was a short story competition dedicated to dog-themed fiction, I knew I had to enter it. I puzzled over the challenge of creating my canine protagonist, who could express his thoughts and emotions only through body language, behaviour, and vocalizations (but as stated in the contest rules, he was not allowed to speak). I struggled over how to make the dog the engine that drives the plot and how to make him upstage his human companions and take the spotlight. I agonized over how to make my furry main character show the same depth of character and emotion that any human protagonist should have.

My inspiration for the character came, not surprisingly, from my own dog. I began observing Trinka’s body language and behaviours and thinking about them in relation to what she was trying to communicate. She’s an amazingly vocal dog who apparently wants to have conversations with me–if only she could figure out how to speak English. After this period of careful observation, my plot seemed to come effortlessly to me one night, a genuine bolt from the blue. But getting everything down on the page was, of course, another story.

I fussed and I fiddled for days; you know how it goes. I had the whole thing packaged up and ready to mail today when it occurred to me that I’d forgotten a small but crucial detail. So I opened the envelope, only to find that I was also missing an important word, right there in the first paragraph. Even though I had probably read the story fifteen times before, I sat down and read it out loud, determined to catch any other niggling little errors that remained.

The tweaking could have gone on forever, but it was time to put a stop to it. I was well and truly done and, I admit, rather pleased with my work. When I finally sealed the envelope for good, I experienced a rush–or rather, a fantastic big whoosh–of elation that made the thought of all that fussing and fiddling fade away into nothing.

Trinka, the inspiration for my recent foray into fiction

Usage Misdemeanours: Palate and Palette

Homophone duos and trios are notorious for creating confusion–witness there, their, and they’re, for example. People sometimes aren’t sure when to use which word, and unfortunate usage misdemeanours ensue, such as “Their going to have to learn to use there homophones properly.” Lately, I have noticed problems with using the duo palate and palette correctly.

Misuse of this pair is rampant in restaurant reviews, advertising, and websites. Palette is typically used when palate is meant. I found the most compellingly awful example of this misuse on a restaurant website that declared that they offered an “ecclectic [sic] menu to suit any pallette [sic].” What made this example particularly bad was that palette was misspelled and should have been palate anyway. (And the extra c in eclectic was a nice touch.) The error pile-up in this example takes it from the level of a misdemeanour to that of a crime.

In an effort to rid food writing of palate versus palette errors, I’ll do my best to eradicate the confusion. First, let’s consider palate. Anatomically speaking, your palate is the roof of your mouth, that structure, both hard and soft, that separates your oral cavity from your nasal cavity. Your palate is also your sense of taste, and the idea of taste extends from your taste buds to notions of aesthetic taste and appreciation in general. So it would be quite correct to say that “the exquisite wine satisfied Cynthia’s discriminating palate,” but you could also say that “the raucous sounds offended Ariel’s palate.” However, the word seems most often used in connection to the gustatory sense.

Then there’s palette. It is used to refer to an oval or oblong board with a thumb hole upon which an artist mixes paint, but it also refers to the colours that are arrayed on such a board. So an artist could be said to use “a rainbow palette of colours covering the entire spectrum.” Famous artists are said to have particular palettes, or characteristic ranges of colour, in their work. Palette needn’t be restricted to paint, of course, as fashion designers, interior decorators, and graphic designers using computers also have their colour palettes.

The definition of palette can also extend beyond visual art to describe a whole range of materials or techniques in other realms. For example, you could say that “the symphony consisted of a rich palette of evocative tones” or “the chef used a dazzling palette of exotic spices to season the stew.” The latter type of example could explain the current palate versus palette confusion, as the sense of taste is involved here.

I should note that there’s a third homophone, pallet, which most often refers to either a straw bed (from the old French word for straw, paille) or a wooden frame or skid upon which you’d stack goods in a warehouse. I found at least six other definitions for pallet as well, including a potter’s tool. And at least one source I consulted stated that you could use pallet when referring to a painter’s palette. But because pallet seems rarely confused with either palate or palette, I haven’t made it my focus here.

Sometimes when I read about usage, my head starts to swim when I uncover all the assorted meanings and subtle nuances of words. As I don’t want to leave you feeling similarly dazed, here’s a good rule of thumb for using palate versus palette: remember that palate contains the word ate and is most often used in connection to the taste buds. So unless you’re describing a palette of flavours, aromas, or colours, you’re most often going to be using palate if you’re writing about food. I hope you’ll find this rule of thumb more than–ahem–palatable.

Writers and Editors Network (WEN) Seminars

A group I joined recently, the Writers and Editors Network (WEN) offers informative seminars that they call Writers’ Circle Special Sessions. This Saturday morning, they’re starting off the new year with a bang by presenting two dynamic speakers, Dave Cook and Hans von Maltzahn, both of whom I had the good fortune to meet at the WEN Christmas breakfast networking meeting.

Dave’s session is called Marketing Your Book. He is the author of several books, including the Fading History: Stories of Historical Interest series, and he attends some seventy-five events per year successfully selling his books. He’ll be discussing targeting your market, and he also plans to bring along his complete booth set-up for the shows he attends so you can see exactly how he promotes his work. Dave is a former Mississauga councillor who later ran for mayor in 2010, so I expect that he knows more than a thing or two about promotion!

Hans will be presenting a session called How to Create an E-book. This topic is something that he and I discussed at length during the Christmas meeting. It’s clear to me that he knows how to take the mystery out of this subject for the many writers who are just getting their feet wet in the self-publishing world and want basic information, such as how to obtain an ISBN. Hans is the author of The Black Sun Ascendant: An Assassin’s Tale. The book is the first in a trilogy of Black Sun books, and I understand that he’s hard at work on the second instalment.

I confess that I’m eagerly awaiting what these two speakers have to say. You can hear them this Saturday, January 7th, from 10 a.m. to noon at the Fairview Mall Library, 4th floor. The library is located at 35 Fairview Mall Drive in the Don Mills Road and Sheppard Avenue East area of Toronto. The cost is just $10 and includes coffee and cookies. If you plan to attend, please RSVP to Maurus Cappa at mcappa@rogers.com.

Resolving to Enjoy Satisfying Purposelessness

I don’t know about you, but I was relieved when 2012 swept in the other day. For one thing, I was overjoyed to finally be able to put up my new calendar, which features beautifully photographed antique teapots in lush settings. And if I happen to get tired of looking at teapots, I can always swap this calender for the tastefully arty Maxfield Parrish one that hangs in the hallway. I’m even enjoying my very businesslike Letts of London 2012 desk diary, with oodles of space for scribbling notes.

Fun and frivolous reasons for welcoming 2012 aside, I was happy to put 2011 behind me since it was not the best year I’ve ever had. But I’ll be quick to point out that it was not the worst year, either. Unlike some of my friends, I was lucky–no true disasters occurred, and I count my blessings for this. Nonetheless, 2011 seemed to weigh heavily on me, challenging me at every turn, to the point where by the end of the year, I was finding that the simplest things–even activities I usually enjoy, like baking cookies–required almost Herculean efforts on my behalf. Although I seemed to achieve a fair bit this past year, I’ve frankly been worried about the toll those accomplishments have taken on my body and my spirit recently.

I’ve always considered myself an introspective person, but despite this, I often haven’t stopped to analyze what role I play in my own well-being and simply push myself through low-energy periods, misguidedly assuming that determination alone will see me through. In years past, at the beginning of a new year, I would often throw in a few resolutions to theoretically strengthen my will, resolutions that inevitably fell by the wayside within a few short weeks (or sometimes even days). No amount of determination and resolve has ever made me feel any better when I feel physically and mentally deflated.

What has made me feel better lately is reflecting on the uselessness of most resolutions. I came to the conclusion that they are the last thing I need to be heaping on myself–now or at any other time of the year. Most resolutions just underscore a feeling of personal inadequacy; I make resolutions to do this, that, or the other thing when I don’t feel good enough. Yes, there’s always room for improvement–I could probably waste less time and be more productive if I really set my mind to it, and I’m sure that many of us fall into this category. But the pressure of trying to live up to an ideal of non-stop accomplishment exacts a cost. Do any of us really need to put that much more pressure on ourselves? Is life not already challenging enough for most people? Must we always be so focused on accomplishing things?

In 2011, my focus on accomplishment went far beyond what was healthy. In an effort to push my business to the next level, I developed a kind of tunnel vision: all my thoughts and activities seemed to be directed by the need to accomplish, and I felt utterly tyrannized by the word should. Where was fun, play, and relaxation? Like those poor souls who are incapable of taking a vacation, had I simply forgotten how to relax? The thought was horrifying. With such an imbalance in my life, no wonder I’ve felt so out of whack.

My last afternoon of the year was spent puttering–reading for pleasure instead of for work (a book about the history of handwriting, which was more entertaining than you might imagine), clipping mouth-watering recipes from magazines, watching the woodpeckers gorging themselves at the suet feeder, drinking my favourite Indian spice tea, and eating those orange double chocolate cookies I hadn’t much enjoyed making (since they were needed for Christmas Day). I wondered aloud when I had last had an afternoon of such satisfying purposelessness. This year, my only resolution is to allow myself to spend more time drifting in this way, free from the need for constant accomplishment. Happy new year.

Editors and the Perfectionist Syndrome

James Scott Bell is a novelist and the author of several wonderful books on the craft of writing including Revision & Self-Editing.This book is a model of clarity and succinctness when it comes to delineating the essential elements of great fiction, and I’m convinced that it should be in the reference library of every fiction writer. The book is also wildly entertaining, peppered as it is with references to classic movies such as Casablanca and interesting little anecdotes.

One of my favourite anecdotes from the book concerns the writer Marcel Proust, who was once found writhing on the floor of his study by his housekeeper. No, Proust was not in the throes of a violent seizure. Instead, his contortions reflected his angst over what word he was going to write next. According to Bell, Proust was probably suffering from what he calls the perfectionist syndrome: the compulsion to make each sentence perfect before moving on to the next one.

Editors are well acquainted with perfectionism. Attention to fine, nitpicky detail seems to be in our blood, and we have sought out the editing profession because words are something we can control and strive to make perfect and beautiful. And our editorial training reinforces the idea that nothing less than perfection will do. Mistakes can be costly, we are told, and they are embarrassing as well, undermining our professional credibility. The perfect sentence is not just important, but crucial to our livelihood.

So what happens when people who spend an awful lot of time editing switch gears and write for a change? Not surprisingly, we often experience the sort of brain freeze that poor Mr. Proust was afflicted with. Our critic, which prides itself on its editorial prowess, dukes it out with our artist, which just wants to write. The critic, rather than going into hiding while we’re writing, is as opinionated and yappy as ever. It strikes fiercely at our creativity like someone pruning a sapling before it’s had half a chance to grow. In that quest for perfection, in which we paintakingly polish up each sentence before we dare write another, we stifle the artist, which just needs to get everything that’s inside us out there on the page, regardless of what condition it tumbles out in. It often seems that our creative impulses don’t have a hope.

Where’s the mute button? How do we go about shutting up the critic and letting the artist take centre stage? Bell has some good suggestions. Among them is a warm-up writing exercise involving just letting our prose flow for a few minutes without stopping to evaluate it. I’ve had some success with this technique, though I can’t deny that it’s difficult to lose myself in the process, as I’m often tempted to stop and fix mistakes as I make them. Which brings me to another one of Bell’s suggestions. “Any problem can be fixed,” he writes. Of course we know this–after all, our critic is an expert in fixing. But it needs to learn when to do the fixing, which is not while we’re struggling to get our words on the page in the first place. Otherwise, we end up like Proust–writhing, not writing.

Fear Not the Drear

Here in Toronto, it’s the time of year I like to call the drear–that period in late autumn when the leaves are off the trees but the snow has not yet begun to fly. The drear feels like a limbo state between autumn and winter and is characterized by days and days of unrelenting overcast skies, rain, and mud. Last year’s drear was mercifully short because the snow arrived early, but this year, we’ve been subjected to what seems like an extraordinarily long drear–long enough to test the fortitude of even the most diehard optimist.

One thing I should say before I continue is that drear is actually a literary adjective that dates to 1629. It’s the sort of word that makes me think of a 19th-century poet wandering lonely o’er a dank and drear moor pining for his lady love, who has either spurned the poor poet or succumbed to consumption. Drear has Gothic literary connotations for me. Editors could legitimately take issue with my use of it as a noun, since the Canadian Oxford Dictionary regards it as an adjective only.

Noun or adjective, drear captures both the prevailing weather and how it affects me perfectly. As a freelancer who works at home, I find the drear particularly difficult to cope with. As far as I know, I don’t suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), yet if I allow it to, the drear will sneak into my home office, robbing me of energy and taking energy’s close relatives, motivation and inspiration, with it as it flies out the door (I imagine it uttering a diabolical laugh as it flees). Perhaps if you work at home and spend many hours alone writing, editing, or doing whatever else you do, you’re finding that the drear is affecting you too. What to do?

I’m not normally the sort of person who needs to give myself rewards to motivate myself to get a job done unless that job is so challenging that it’s threatening my sanity. However, I do find that rewarding myself helps me combat the drear. My accomplishments needn’t be immense and the corresponding rewards needn’t be elaborate–something modest like “When I finish editing this chapter, I’ll get up and have a cup of tea (something fruity and caffeinated like blackcurrant) and some dark chocolate (70 percent)” works just fine for me. Of course, finishing an entire project is cause for celebration, meaning a much splashier reward awaits. Keeping that reward on the front burner of my mind as I’m working certainly keeps my momentum going. If I intend to splurge on a sweater, I keep looking at it online to remind me that it will be my present to myself for both achieving my goal and surviving the drear.

Exercise and fresh air are also essential to coping with the drear. Fortunately, I have the 50-pound mutt to take me out for walks every day, usually just when I desperately need to stretch my limbs and get the oxygen flowing to my brain so the synapses will start doing what they’re supposed to again. The daily dog walk has many benefits, both physical and psychological. Watching my dog wrestle with her best friend (an Airedale) and fly around the park–outrunning most of the other dogs with superlative ease and grace, I might add–lifts my spirits and makes me smile. And there are inevitably other dog owners to talk to. When you spend much of your day in front of a computer screen, the joy of talking to human beings face to face should never be underestimated. After an outing to the dog park, the score is once again in my favour: Caroline 1, Drear 0.

Dangling rewards before myself and doing the mutt promenade are two things I do when the drear threatens to turn me into an unproductive, useless lump. But I have to ask: What do you do to fight the drear?

 

Opportunities Lost and Found

The idea of attending networking events used to seem about as appealing to me as the thought of having all my teeth extracted. I always envisioned standing around morosely eating chips and dip and listening to the chattier people do most of the talking.

Then I actually started going to networking meetings. My decision to network formally happened when I joined the Writers and Editors Network (WEN) an organization that, inexplicably and sadly, has no apostrophes in its name. It turns out that WEN has   breakfast networking meetings. Indeed, it could be said that for many members these meetings are the focus of membership. Once a month, at an ungodly hour on a Saturday morning, I haul myself over to the subway station and travel to the extreme west end of the city, where I eat a buffet breakfast at 9 a.m. with a table full of strangers while I am still only semi-conscious.

Before I went to the first meeting, I assumed the experience would be utterly nerve-wracking. Wouldn’t I be required to impress the hell out of my fellow writers and editors and get work to boot? Oh, the pressure! But it turned out that my semi-conscious state worked to my advantage. Honestly, I wasn’t that worked up about impressing anyone. I was too tired and undercaffeinated to care, which meant that I didn’t try to be the extroverted person I thought I should be for such occasions; I was just my normal self. And because of that, I met lots of nice people with whom I exchanged business cards and with whom I’ve chatted at subsequent meetings. Isn’t that exactly what’s supposed to happen?

Not trying too hard is definitely a plus when you’re attending networking meetings, but not trying when opportunity is handed to you on a silver platter is really not recommended. At one meeting I attended, I was sitting with a woman who got up from the table to surreptitiously place copies of her book on a table at the front of the room that was reserved for member books and flyers. When she came back, I said that I’d noticed her book and asked her what it was about.

“It’s creative non-fiction,” she said, without even a glimmer of enthusiasm. And she clearly thought that identifying the genre of the book was sufficient. Suffering from a bad back, she went on to describe her pain with considerably more energy than she’d had for her book, and a gloomy silence swept over our table of strangers.

It was an example of what’s not supposed to happen at these meetings, and furthermore, it was an opportunity lost for the author. Where was her elevator speech, the one that would make me feel that her book had something unique to offer me and was worthy of my attention? And her lack of curiosity about what I do for a living didn’t win her any points, either.

I contrast her approach (or rather, her non-approach) with that of another woman I met at the meeting, who as soon as she heard I was an editor, excitedly asked me about my work. When I asked her about her writing, she gave me the gist of her young adult novel. We exchanged cards, and she also handed me a glossy flyer featuring her book. It was an equal exchange and a satisfying one. Guess who I’ll want to speak with at future meetings? It won’t be the woman who was complaining about her back.

I Have a Website!

Technophobe that I tend to be, I never would have believed it possible–I have a website, and I did it all myself through the magic of WordPress. Although I’ve known of the existence of WordPress for quite some time, it wasn’t until I took an Editors’ Association of Canada seminar a couple of weeks ago about building your own website that I realized how simple it is to use. I admit that what I’ve done so far sure isn’t splashy–but as an introvert, how splashy do I really want to be? And I know that I have a lot more to learn about themes, widgets, plugins, and the like, but a few weeks ago, I didn’t even really know what any of those things were. It’s true that I don’t know all the capabilities of WordPress yet, but I’ll eventually get there. In the meantime, I’m just glad to say “Hello, world” and have a little corner of cyberspace that I can call my own.