John Ralston Saul in my hat

My wife bought me a fedora as a wedding gift just before we married in 1985 from the Biltmore factory here in Guelph and it has been one of my prized possessions ever since. A loving gift. A stylish and shady gift!

This past Sunday, at the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival, I was volunteering as the ‘AV’ or ‘Sound’ guy. I had helped the sound company set up the microphones and other equipment that morning and so I was the guy who could solve the problems as they occurred. One of the more complicated sites to set up was the Adisokaun or aboriginal venue because it was long and narrow. So it required extra volume and a special delay speaker set up. So I had to be there when John Ralson Saul and Drew Hayden Taylor began the first session: I had to turn up the volume and make sure it was loud enough.

It was well that I did since neither John nor Drew liked the idea of doing their interview on the platform we had set up. So I brought the mike down and set up their chairs. This was in the glaring stare of the full sun so I offered John my hat when I finished the set up. He accepted and so I have a terrific picture of a great Canadian intellectual and writer, and flashy dresser to boot, wearing my hat.

Afterward, impressed by both of them, I purchased A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada and Me Funny at the Bookshelf table afterward and had them both sign their book. John, ever the gentleman, thanked me for saving his life in writing in my copy of his book!

JohnRalstonSaul

Daunting

How relaxed can you be with such an undertaking,
so despotic of my time, and sorely attempting?

When the time to heal will stretch on for months and months?
Can it be surprising that my tries feel in the hundredths?

Excitement flares so briefly in my head
that my trudging hardly falters. Instead
I keep starting. Worrying about quality
and freshness fuel procrastination ability.

So why try?
Because it’s worth it. That’s why.

-2009/09/07-

Post Worldcon 2009 Impressions

OK. So I went. I saw. And I lurked. Worldcon 2009 was an incredibly rich set of awesomenesses.

Here are the sessions I sat in on from Thursday through to Sunday:

  • Open Science – Workable Goal or Idealistic Fantasy?
  • the last part of Bio-Ethics
  • What is Consciousness?
  • Re-reading
  • First Contact: Worldbuilding
  • How to Respond to a Critique of your Writing
  • part of the Opening Ceremonies
  • How to Get to Alpha Centauri
  • Writing Workshop L
  • Private Passions: Writing
  • Friends Without Benefits?
  • The Goldilocks Alien
  • David Clements
  • What Makes A Good Story?
  • Mosquitos and Laser Beams
  • How to Pitch Your Novel… and how not to
  • Driven by Character; Starting with a Character
  • Gaiman reads Doctorow
  • Brewing and Distilling in Extreme Environments
  • English-Canada Small-Press SF Publishers
  • Lots of Planets have a North
  • Private Passions: The Many Interests of Neil Gaiman
  • Economics of the Star Traders
  • The Herschel Space Telescope
  • Hugo Awards Ceremony

There was also the Dealers and Artist Hall which was fascinating to stroll through.  And, in the evenings, there were the parties on the top (28th) and the 5th floors of the Delta.  I bumped into David Clements at one of these and picked his brain about low-metal planets.   During the many sessions I attended I learned a great deal: it will take a while to absorb it all. I would have attended more on Monday but I had to catch the Greyhound bus to return home with my bike on Monday morning at 5:30AM.

During the sessions mention was made, often in passing, of significant stories that influenced session leaders or audience. For example, They’re Made of Meat by Terry Bisson came up twice. Try the link above and you’ll see it’s a short read. Also, the short SF story writer Ted Chiang’s name was mentioned at least three times. I found the novelette Understand online and took the time to read it. Wow!

As a fan I saw many people whose work I’ve admired for years including Julie Czerneda, Cory Doctorow, Neil Gaiman, James Alan Gardner, Nancy Kress, Larry Niven, Robert J. Sawyer, Robert Silverburg and Bill Willingham.

Scientists (also fans and some are writers too) attended Worldcon and participated too. The following impressed me: David Clements, Geoff Hart, Jordin Kane, G. David Nordley and Peter Watts.

I had volunteered to help with the Registration desk and did over 25 hours worth. That was fun, actually, as it gave me a chance to practice my Francaise and gave me a ‘home’ to return to after absorbing all the stuff! And if that was home then Lea was Mom, Dave was Dad, Elayne and Sandy were the live-in relatives who made things work and everyone else were siblings (including John whose family I know well from Guelph – small world!)

On a more personal note, two chapters of my novel “The Relater” were critiqued (along with offerings from two other aspirants) during a workshop lead by writers Laura Anne Gilman and Margaret Ronald. This was enlightening and useful: I intend to do some editing. I also met with the Publisher to whom I originally submitted back in April and discussed my intent to withdraw my submission until I can make changes. Luckily she hadn’t looked at it yet and agreed to wait until I resubmit. I want it to be the best it can be.

How long does it take to become a good writer?

I likely have a different point of view from one many teachers would advise these days.

Before I get into it I should explain my background. Halfway through Grade 13 (required then to go to University) I had all my required credits and so I headed to University early. I did a semester at the University of Guelph trying to figure out what I wanted to do: my courses included an English, Philosophy, Biology, History and Psychology course. I found the English, in particular, extremely disappointing: all analysis and Professor Homer Hogan seemed to rip the heart out of what I liked about the subject. After that I decided to concentrate on Science and Ecology and so I changed to the University of Waterloo (Environmental Science and Biology Joint Honours) and did that. Then I went on to do a Master of Science (Ecology) degree at Dalhousie University. I joined the faculty there as an Instructor for two years until getting an administrative job at Acadia University where I worked until 1995.

But. And this is a very, very big but! But if I had to do it again I’d change most of it in a second. My big mistake was being too silly and immature to understand what it was that I wanted to do. I should have taken a couple years off to work. And not just to save some money: I had many jobs all the way through high school. No. What I should have done is to try working at several different jobs. Things that I wanted to do as a career. It would have been ideal to try jobs involving writing, computers, and ecology. Of course hindsight, as they say, is 20-20.

I wish I had taken Computer Science at Waterloo with a minor in Environmental Science or Creative Writing. The CS would have been given me an enjoyable job in the end and, during my leisure, I could have concentrated on my love of nature or writing. It’s only in the last 5 years that I have been able to find my way to this. It took 10 years before that to make the adjustment to switch careers into computers. I could have found my ‘happy place’ a lot sooner if I’d done the above.

But anyway. English is a tough subject at University for a creative writer. I can see, now, the benefit of all that wretched analysis and grammar and other like-minded crap. It is really useful and I should have been willing to pay closer attention to it. But it doesn’t make you a good creative writer. It only gives you the tools to help you become a good writer. The only thing that makes you a good creative writer, just as with anything worthwhile, is practice.

Malcolm Gladwell (the famous writer and thinker who is, incidentally, from a town just up the road: Elmira) says it takes at least 10,000 hours to become a world class expert on anything and I believe it. And that’s what a good writer is: a world class expert on some topic that they have crafted into a legible set of words. Well, 10,000 hours is not as bad as it sounds. If you could write constantly, it’s only 1.14 years. More realistically, religiously writing for 8 hours a day for a year is 2,922 hours (so 10,000 hours can be achieved in 3.4 years). I took me a little over 5 years to write my first book part-time so there’s some backhanded proof: I could very rarely put in more than 4 hours a day. I was 45 before I was able to manage that.

So if you want to be a good writer an English degree will help, yes, as long as it doesn’t suck all the life and creativity out of your writing (which I think it might have done for me).

As you can imagine, I’ve sought out what successful authors suggest for new writers and this is what it boils down to:

  • write lots
  • read lots
  • get as many honest readers you can to give you criticism

There’s a lot out there on technique and finding a space to write and how to flesh out your characters, etcetera, etcetera but all that will come naturally if you put in the time.

That’s rather long-winded, I know, but it’s how I feel about things. Your story, of course, is your own to come up.

Nino Ricci in Kitchener

Saw Nino Ricci speak last night on ‘A Writer’s Life’. He’s the Writer in Residence at the Kitchener Public Library.
The talk was interesting, funny and encouraging. It really reinforces a suspicion that I’ve had. That writing is not a glamorous path to success. It is lonely. It is a struggle. And, it is worthwhile.

The Plus and Minus of a week-long course in Toronto

I was on course in Toronto this past week (SQL Server Administration) and had a terrible cold. My first in over a year.
There I was in that classroom on the 12th floor at Yonge and King. Each day time was shown to pass with a bigger and bigger pile of used kleenex or napkins beside me. The building had 16 floors with a beautiful marble staircase. It once, I’m told, was the tallest building in the British Empire. Close quarters in certain spaces but very elegant.
The commuting on the bus brought back what I used to do each day several years ago in a deja vu that wasn’t entirely welcome. The plus was that the instructor, Mark Hions, was excellent and I learned a tremendous amount. That was worth the cost of the early mornings and late evenings involved in getting to what a friend calls ‘The Big Smoke’! I have been to places with far more air pollution but, relative to Guelph, I can certainly feel the difference in my beleaguered bronchial passages.
There was another positive, though. It was a personal plus. I was able to spend hours each day on the damn buses writing in my notebook. I bought a large container of sugar-free gum to keep from getting too bus-sick. I probably have 50 pages to type in. I’m up to 42,000 words in my sequel to the Relater. Time alone, perhaps especially when feeling miserable, is the true friend of a wannabe writer!

Inspiration = Resignation

Here’s a quote from a favourite author:

You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.
Jack London

If he was referring to inspiration for writing (and I think I can assume that) then I agree that waiting is a bad thing. But I think the club gives the wrong idea. For me, writing is a long slog which takes an incredible amount (often years) of grunt work. Lots of scribbling, lots of typing, lots of reading and lots and lots of editing.
And the inspiration is found within many small jewels of realization, often accidental, as I slog.