Tag Archives: guest blog post
Here’s a guest post from one of my favourite authors, Seumas Gallacher, published here on the occasion of the release of his new autobiography, STRANGELY I’M STILL HERE! I purchased and read a copy immediately upon its being listed, and I include my review here of the book, as well as an original piece that Seumas has provided to me for this guest blog post. (Links to purchase a copy of this book and all others written and published by him will be found at his own blogsite: Seumas Gallacher – Author
This is my review of Strangely, I’m Still Here: An Autobiography …
What A Life!
I previously read everything Seumas Gallacher had written and published – fiction, non-fiction, poetry. So I was very motivated to purchase and read his autobiography and to find out more about this author whose work I had enjoyed so much. I thought I already knew quite a bit about the man, having followed him for many years on Facebook and through reading his blog. But this new book proved to be so much more, and gave me great insight into the life path and experiences, around the world as it turned out, that led to Gallacher becoming such an accomplished and engaging author.
If you have read anything previously published by Seumas Gallacher then you will definitely be interested in this autobiography. If you are new to his writing though and read Strangely, I’m Still Here first, and enjoy it as I’m sure you will, I’m positive you will want to read all his other books, too!
Seumas Gallacher’s Guest Blog Post:
Just over six weeks ago, I self-published my life story, STRANGELY, I’M STILL HERE, on Amazon Kindle. As with my other writing exploits, the Jack Calder crime thriller series, my book of poetry, and my author’s guide to publishing, an immense sense of pleasure engulfed me when I had finished the manuscript. However, the aftermath has been decidedly different with the memoir.
The ‘pink cloud’ sensation of elation has yielded to a much stronger feeling of having written something truly for myself and it is having a profound effect on me. When I broached the thought of penning my own experiences, I had no inkling of the cascading torrent of ‘after-light’ that has followed.
I find my mind rummaging back though many of the passages in the book, with powerful re-visitations of feelings and memories which had all but disappeared. Some of the people involved have long since passed away, but I have a deeper sense of how much gratitude I owe to their presence in my story.
Even the apparently negative episodes provided marvellous life lessons, which I only now have come to appreciate and respect at this distance in time. I also understand how much impact certain events and interludes with others have had on shaping my thinking and my attitude to living.
Although all of it was, and still remains, highly personal to me, it has been said many times before that nothing in this universe is absolutely brand new. It has all been seen, done and felt before. I am but a tiny speck on the planet, amongst billions of ‘fellow-specks’, whom I regard in a much different way than when I was a young man.
I have grown up. Older? Yes. Wiser? Who knows. Certainly, more experienced. Writing the memoir was the best therapy for life that I could ever have imagined, and I heartily recommend the exercise to anyone, writer or non-writer – I think they will much the richer for it.
I can never resist a man in a kilt!
Felicity Harley has been previously promoted on my other blog, Reading Recommendations, and was also a guest on this blog, writing about book clubs. I recently assisted Felicity by beta-reading and polish-editing this latest novel of hers and was struck by the fact that she told me she was referring to it as “Science AND Fiction” rather than the better-known genre of Science Fiction, so I asked her to explain why.
I’ve always been a fan of science fiction. My favorite writers are Herbert, Asimov, Bradbury and Orwell. I tend to like science fiction writers who explore what happens to human beings within the context of societies like ours which divorce us from our essential humanity. That’s why I like Farenheit 451, 1984 and The End of Eternity.
I think Herbert was quite prescient when he wrote Dune, because he imagined a planet and human beings living there who had to exist without water. In fact, he was one of the first authors to popularize the importance of preserving our planet’s ecology. In my mind as well, all these authors in one way or another, examine the relationships between religion, politics and power, and also between bureaucracy and government.
Because of my own fascination with these themes, and because I’m also a student of social science by training, I set out to write a quartet of novels placing a group of humans in a futuristic society that had failed to stop runaway climate change. I was fascinated by Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, and both she and her book served as inspirations to me.
Before reading Naomi Klein however, I had written what is now the fourth book in the quartet, My Quantum Life. This book was based on Michael Talbot’s book, The Holographic Universe. I have always been fascinated by the spiritual aspects of quantum physics, and Talbot’s book put the science of it all into perspective. It was very readable for a neophyte like myself, and it clicked.
The Burning Years is the first book in my four book series titled Until This Last and has just been published by Double Dragon Press. It explores a lot of hard science around space travel, bionics, and what is causing climate change. Besides Klein, my mentor for this book was Dr. Rachel Armstrong. On my site for the book you’ll find out all about her. She is a remarkable woman and a brilliant scientist. Dr. Rachel Chen, who in my novel is captain of the world ship Persephone, is based on how I imagine Armstrong to be. In my book, Persephone is a human ark; this actually exists, and is being conceived of right now by Rachel Armstrong and a team of scientists. It’s built around the idea of a renewable chemical technology called protocells. In the future, protocells could replace plastics and also animal products and will be essential in the preservation of our planet.
My ark explores Mars and Europa then sets sail for Alpha Centauri. The Australian scientist Wallace Thornhill was very helpful to me as I wrote these sections. He introduced me to an electrical universe and warm nuclear fusion technology, and I learned more from him on this subject than I ever thought I was capable. He would send me wonderful emails that took me several days to decode. His final words to me were, “Don’t worry about the science, leave that to scientists, use your writing as a springboard for your imagination.”
Besides hard science however, The Burning Years explores lots of ways we could live on a burnt out planet in the future, and it has two re-engineered transhuman beings who do just that. Introducing them as characters allowed me to explore the whole field of Artificial Intelligence and how two super humans, a male and female, might think and act. Again the social scientist at play. How would their biology, psychology and past influence them. How would their male and female genetics and gender-biases, play a part?
The arc of the plot is set against a U.S. government of plutocrats that has fled underground, who have saved themselves and a few others, the brightest and the best. Of course there are insurgents, and one of them is a female scientist who is heavily involved in geo-engineering the weather. The book takes place about sixty years in the future, just around the time when we may experience dramatic effects from climate change.
I deliberately did not want to write a dystopian book, but one that was full of hope based on our finer instincts as a species, our desire to return to smaller communities, and our current and future knowledge of technology. I am not good with violence, unlike George R.R. Martin who very skillfully explores all those dark sides of humanity and creates fabulous villains. My villains tend to be more grey and struggle internally with a lot of philosophical and moral dilemmas. My women are very strong, just like Martin’s, and my main female character, Inanna. would definitely be friends with Daeneyrs Targaryen.
Now I just have to figure out how to get people to take climate change seriously. I plan to use the book as a tool to get readers involved. The Burning Years is being published as an eBook by Double Dragon Publishing in April 2017. I chose Deron Douglas as my publisher because he loved the book on first read, and I just couldn’t take a chance waiting for other big-name SF publishers to give me an answer.
Please check out my site to buy the book and I would appreciate it if you review it on Amazon for me. And, while on my site, see how you can become involved with 350.org or any other organizations working to stop elements of man-made climate change, so as to keep our planet safe and livable in the future.
Felicity’s new novel has recently been promoted on Reading Recommendations. She is also a fellow-Bequian!
It’s been one-month-and-a-day since I wrote this Guest Post on Seumas Gallacher’s blog, in which I listed the 10 ways I was dealing with having to wait for my editor, Rachel Small, to finish her edit of my recently completed novel, One Woman’s Island (the second in the Bequia Perspectives series).
I’m happy to tell you now that Rachel did get that manuscript back to me in plenty of time so I could revise and fix it up to meet the deadline for a contest I linked to in this earlier blog post. And I did make it, too – with an entire day-and-a-half to spare!
And so I wait … again. But this time only for another week until the shortlist is announced. Once I know my novel’s fate, I’ll be able to determine when I can go ahead and ePublish.
In the meantime, I’ll be sorting through ways to promote this new book and figure out how I’m going to afford the cost of printing copies, for those who prefer print .. and for The Bequia Bookshop to sell, come tourist season.
And I’m making changes in my head to the third Bequia Perspectives novel, Tropical Paradox. But there’s a great deal of work yet to be done on the manuscript, so don’t expect to hear an announcement about that any time soon!
A PDF of One Woman’s Island is circulating among a few trusted friends/readers (especially those who know Bequia) and I’m hoping for an honest opinion of the book in advance of publishing. I’ll also ask to use any favourable comments in future promotion once the eBook is released. Already I’ve been sent over-the-top comments from one Bequia friend who read a pre-edited version, so I’m hoping other advance readers will be similarly pleased with this new novel. I’m all goose-pimply now, waiting for their comments …
But at least this time I haven’t had to mow the lawn to pass the time, since Dennis has been visiting the trailer. We did decide yesterday to subscribe to the park’s internet service though and, as predicted, I’ve been online pretty much the entire time since we first logged in. So pathetic. One thing is that being online (mostly playing on Facebook) does pass the time. While I wait.
And they do say that good things come to those who wait. Here’s hoping THEY are correct!
Rick Bergh has been featured previously on Reading Recommendations, first in March 2016 and again in April. He’s back now to tell us how it is that his children’s books are now being read by Haitian children!
How Our Children’s Books Ended Up in Haiti
I love how life surprises us when we least expect it.
My wife, Erica, and I had completed two of our children’s books and brought them to our annual Boxing Day gathering – a wonderful family tradition on my mother’s side, which I have not missed in 56 years.
My cousin, Mark, purchased a few copies of these books (after all, you expect your family to buy your books, right?).
Little did I know those children’s books would find their way to an orphanage in Haiti! All the way from Calgary, Alberta!
Maybe you’re thinking, “That’s no big deal …” But it was for me. Let me explain.
Over ten years ago, my daughter, Keeara, went to volunteer at the very same orphanage – she was an 18-year-old girl trying to figure out her next step in life. Her time in Haiti coincided with her mom’s struggle with cancer. So the whole family was in transition and wondering what the future would hold.
Pam, her mom, said “Keeara, go and volunteer at this orphanage.” She did and it changed her life forever. She became an elementary school teacher as a result.
Fast forward 11 years and my cousin’s daughter, Emily, is now volunteering at the same orphanage. We did not make the connection until I asked Emily what orphanage she was going to and it was the exact same one where Keeara had worked.
WOW! So, now Emily is reading these stories to the children – the same stories that I made up and told to my children, including Keeara. Our next book due to be published soon is actually about Keeara (Stretchy Cheese Pizza) and her son, Connor.
And now Emily was reading these same stories I told our children when they lay in bed asking me to tell them a story. Fascinating that it was not long ago when an 18-year-old-Keeara was reading books to these special children in Haiti. And now, they will soon be reading stories about her and her son, Connor.
We are sending copies over for the children in Haiti to read as soon as the new book is published in June. The stories come full circle!
Michael Fay has been guest-posting here about his early days as a writer, attending the Bread Loaf Conference in 1978 and as a participant at the Banff Centre in 1976. Michael is back now to tell us about writing in Calgary during the 70s and his part in the beginnings of the Alexandra Centre as a place that has encouraged and educated writers for decades since.
Remembering Alexandra Centre
by Michael Fay
I first entered Inglewood in the fall of 1978 as a tenant in the Dandelion Co-op, known in history as the Deane House. The Co-op offered office space to writers, painters, potters, artists, fabric artists, as well as a superb exhibition space in the glass-enclosed veranda.
I had just moved to Calgary with my family. My partner had taken a social work position with the Alberta government and I had recently returned from a summer course at the Bread Loaf Conference in Vermont. I was a writer of short fiction and had received grants from the Alberta government to study creative writing, first at the Banff Centre in 1976, then at Antioch College in 1977, and finally at Bread Loaf. I was a newly named instructor in the Correspondence Course offered by the Literary Arts Branch of Alberta Culture and hoped to continue my budding career as a freelance journalist and writer. We had spent the previous three years in Camrose, Alberta, my partner’s home town. Since most of my life had been spent in cities, that time in Camrose felt a bit alien to me. I was happy to be in a big city again and eager to enter the literary life.
The Dandelion was a funky place, to say the least. I was there five days of the week, hammering away on my portable electric typewriter, beginning to do book reviews for the Calgary Herald and articles for Alberta, Calgary, and Edmonton Magazines, as well as honing my short stories for the literary market. The other Co-op members would come in through the day and retreat to their studios to paint or pot or run material through their sewing machines.
I was on the second floor with a tall and wide window looking down on the pleasant run of the Elbow River, with great, bending trees on both shores. And, beyond the river, the open fields surrounding the Fort Calgary exhibition centre, a bunker built into the hill leading down to the Bow River, often inspired me to imagine the first peoples who raised their teepees and speared the abundant fish rushing in the current.
My artistic peers at the Co-op and this magical connection to the ancient landscape made it a great place to write.
I was alone for the most part that first fall and winter in the Dandelion, and began to explore the streetscape along 8th and 9th Avenues, looking for places to eat, pick up necessities, and, of course for a curious writer, to find people who would stir my interest and imagination. I passed the beautiful sandstone of the Alexandra Centre many times that fall and winter, admiring the restoration, with the sleek new windows complementing the historic stone structure, but never curious enough to go inside to find out what was going on. That is, until I heard through the walls of the small gym the sound of a basketball bouncing. I was in my early thirties at the time, relatively fit, and just dying to get a basketball in my hands.
One day I decided to take action. I met Molly Cropper, the manager, down in the basement of the Centre, sitting at a desk and, like so many people, myself included in those days, having an afternoon smoke.
“There’s a gym?”
I was introduced to Molly’s reluctance to waste words in that very first encounter.
“And somebody is shooting a basketball?”
I considered myself a fast thinking and talking kind of guy, but Molly left me speechless for a long moment.
“Is it possible to play?”
Molly looked up from the papers on her desk and not wasting a word, took a significant puff on her cigarette. I wanted to pull a cigarette from my own pocket, but decided to wait.
“I mean, for me to shoot some baskets at lunch? I…ah…I work down at the Dandelion.”
“Oh,” said Molly. “I see.”
What did she see?
“I’m looking for some…exercise.”
“Yes,” said Molly.
“Why, sure. We’ve a young man on a community service and he found the ball and took to shooting at lunch. I’m sure he’d like the company.”
I was overcome with sheer joy. This was the beginning of a four-year relationship with the Alexandra Centre, which went from basketball to helping others create stories, poems, and books, and, by gosh, it’s still happening!
I carried on at the Dandelion Co-op for another few months, helping to launch the Dandelion Magazine with fellow Co-op members Joan Clark, Edna Alford, and Dale Fehr. I was in charge of marketing the magazine and placing it in bookstores across the city. (Note from Susan: Michael’s and my lives have intersected over the decades in many synchronistic ways and places, but I only just realized while preparing this guest post that I was an employee of one of those Calgary bookstores Michael would have approached when selling copies of Dandelion Magazine in 1978-79!) “A Little Green Book” was published in the fifth number, a story based on my time in rural Alberta. I gave my first public reading at the Co-op and was in the audience when my partner’s high school English teacher, subsequent Governor General Award Winner Gloria Sawai, read her famous story about Jesus and the laundry in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. There were exhibits and small shows and I was fortunate enough to be able to write about my fellow Co-op members in an article for Calgary Magazine. I was particularly fond of Cathy Work’s paintings, some of which still hang in our home.
And then suddenly, the City of Calgary decided to withdraw its arrangement with the Co-op members in order to develop the space into a fine restaurant. This whacked me, but got me to thinking quickly about the possibility of relocating to the Alexandra Centre. And in a remarkably short period of time, Molly got authority from the management group to rent an office to me, with access to the small board room just down the hall. This proved to be amazing on three fronts: a wonderfully quiet and contained space to carry on as a writer of both journalism and fiction; a superb place to have creative writing classes of ten or so people, and a remarkable neighborhood from which to begin recruiting students. I mimeographed a small poster, tacked up copies all over Inglewood, and, ta-da, students began to enroll. This was a cozy and creative place to nurture writers and, believe me, they never ceased to astonish me in our evening classes.
But what really tickles me now is forty years later the Alexandra Centre continues to produce writers in that magical place where the Elbow meets the Bow and creativity has flourished from pre-history to the present day.
Michael Fay has published four long-form short stories with IslandShorts, the most recent being Passion. For information on all publications from IslandShorts click here.
A couple of weeks ago, I saw this article online, A 26-Year-Old’s Diary Entries From Mid-August, 1977, and immediately remembered that author, J. Michael Fay, had talked about his time at the Bread Loaf Conference. When I asked, he told me he was there the year following and that he remembered his time fondly. So I asked if he would write about that time …
Bread Loaf 1978
by Michael Fay
I was thrilled to attend the prestigious Bread Loaf Writers’ Program in 1978 with financial support from Alberta Culture. There were 850 applicants that year and only 230 were accepted. The buzz in Vermont that summer was all about two key presenters, John Gardner and John Irving.
Gardner was a key theoretician in the literary community with his classic On Moral Fiction. Irving was on the verge of entering the super-star stratosphere with The World According to Garp. And for two weeks in the mountains of Vermont, those two icons seemed to have permanent circles of supporters surrounding them, day and night.
As presenters, they each soared in his own way: Gardner, the philosopher, and Irving, the raconteur.
It was all magic for me, thousands of miles away from my home in Camrose, Alberta, taking it all in with thirsty relish.
Gardner was all about the head, the structural issues that built strong stories and novels. Irving was all about the heart, the beating centre of a tale that enraptured the reader.
And there were more than these two and others who made formal presentations in the theatre.
Oh my! My fellow students and the carefully selected young writers, working as assistants and fellows, were on their way to successful careers. I only mention two; both had a profound impact on my writing.
Meredith Sue Willis was an amazing novelist who dug deep into the soil of Appalachia to weave tales of intensity and resonance. Richard Ford was a spare and cerebral stylist who examined American life with a probing scalpel.
And thirty-three years later I carry their words as inspiration as I settle in front of a blank white screen and dare to create people and places and events which lurk inside of me and clamor to come to life.
Here’s a photo of Michael taken around this time …
J. Michael Fay has published three long-form short stories under my IslandShorts imprint and I’m pleased to announce that his most recent publication, Passion, will be released very soon!
I first met Carin Makuz when we were enrolled in the online Humber Creative Writing Program in 2006 and we’ve stayed in contact ever since, and have even met in person a few times! I’ve subscribed to Carin’s blog pretty much since the beginning, and when she began batting around the idea for The Litter I See Project … well, I just had to become involved, and I’ve been helping to promote this great idea all along. Here’s Carin to tell us about this very interesting project that was intended to bring attention to the two problems of Litter and Illiteracy.
When not writing short fiction or essays, Carin Makuz can be found wandering the shores of Lake Ontario muttering about darlings that won’t take a hint. She is a workshop facilitator for abused women and youth at risk. Her work has been published in journals in Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. She has won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and been nominated for the Journey Prize. Essays and fiction have been broadcast on CBC and BBC Radio. She combines text with photography, reviews books and chats with writers on her blog, Matilda Magtree, and runs The Litter I See Project.
What’s the background to this idea of yours? When did you first think of the concept behind your blog?
The Litter I See Project grew from my interest in bringing attention to both litter and illiteracy. When I walk I pick up litter; I carry bags for this purpose. I’m doing it to tidy up the schmutz but sometimes I find interesting things, notes, lists, etc., and I wonder at their origins: were they dropped by accident or intentionally? I wonder about the kind of person who can be trotting along, having a fine time in a park, at the beach, on a street, anywhere really, and then just toss a can or water bottle on the ground and keep going. I wonder what they think will happen to it and if they’d even notice or care if someone did the same thing on their lawn. I wonder how people learn this behaviour. You could say I’m a wee bit passionate on the subject. As a society we talk a lot about big problems … The Environment, the oceans of plastic, etc., all of which seems so impossible a thing to tackle. And yet, really, change begins with our attitude towards the small stuff. Like litter. Because how we view that reflects how we see our communities, and our environment, in general. I’m equally passionate about literacy, and the two things, litter and illiteracy, have more in common than alliteration; both are pervasive, but only one is visible. With all this in mind I began photographing certain pieces with the idea of writing about them, maybe doing a thin collection and giving any proceeds to a local literacy group. But I wanted the effect to be broader than that. When a friend suggested I do something online, a light went off. That was it!
How are you organizing the material for the blog?
I drafted a plan, figured out a way of offering a small honorarium (am a big believer in paying for the written word), invited a number of writers to participate, created a site and named it The Litter I See Project. It went live in June of 2015. How it works is that I send out a picture of a piece of actual litter from my ‘collection’ and, using that ‘debris’ as a prompt, or inspiration, the writer responds in the form of poetry, prose, memoir, anything at all. As submissions come in I try to keep posts varied, giving consideration to genre and a few other things, but mostly it’s just a happy, trashy party.
Carin has also arranged for donations to be made on behalf of the blog to Frontier College in Toronto, a school dedicated to teaching literacy.
How much longer do you see publishing this particular theme?
No idea how long I’ll keep the party going. Through winter anyway, and probably spring.
Is there anything you have learned through writing this blog that you’d like to share? Any surprises you hadn’t expected?
It’s been more work than I thought but the best kind. I love getting these constant surprises in my inbox. I send out a muddy grocery list and get back poetry; a chocolate bar wrapper in a ditch inspires a childhood memory. I’m in awe of the talent in this country, most of which isn’t celebrated nearly enough. I also like the way the litter conversation has already grown to include larger questions, such as in Betty Jane Hegerat’s piece about homelessness, and Tanis MacDonald’s ‘rabbit litter’.
The lovely thing about a blog is that it’s your own world and if you don’t like something you can change it. I’ve been hanging out in this space for over five years and I’ll keep doing it as long as it’s fun. If that requires adding, changing things, great. When it stops being fun, it stops being.
Blogging is a commitment like any other kind of writing. You get out of it what you put in. I think readers sense the place you’re coming from, the vibe you create. That was a pleasant surprise, the feeling of connection with readers, something you don’t get from traditional forms of writing.
Was there a single post you were particularly proud to have included? And what made it special?
If I had to pick one special post it would be bill bissett’s. I was beyond chuffed to have him kick things off with his fabulous piece, ‘yr littr has arrivd, eet it’.
Overall, what is it you hope your readers will take away after reading your blog?
My hope for readers of The Litter I See Project is that, in addition to the attention and conversation it brings to the problems of litter and illiteracy in communities across the country, it might also serve as a way of introducing readers to new writers. The posts are all intentionally positioned as bite-sized morsels, meant for easy browsing, a few at a time …
Now, in keeping with the Reading Recommendations idea, please name three authors or books you’d like to recommend to readers.
If I had to recommend three books, I would reply with: Egad!! Only three??? I’d have to go with a theme; makes it a little easier to choose. So, let’s say the theme is “writing from a disadvantaged place” … in which case I’d recommend the following:
The Education of Augie Merasty, by Augie Merasty (with David Carpenter)
A Crowbar in a Buddhist Garden, by Stephen Reid
One Hour in Paris, by Karen L. Freedman
How Poetry Saved My Life: a hustler’s memoir, by Amber Dawn
(oh, are we up to four already??) (;
Also, I HAVE to add Anakana Schofield’s Martin John because a) it’s different than any book out there; it’s daring and changes how we think about sexual deviants, harassment and all manner of perverted crimes. Including the ones we pretend aren’t happening. And because, b) it’s brilliant.
I’ve chosen this theme, not because I only read heartbreaking or uncomfortable stuff (far from it!), but because I feel books that express well what it is to be human help us to understand one another and become a more broadly-thinking and compassionate society. Despite the topics covered … residential schools, prostitution, rape, sexual perversion, imprisonment… none of these books are written in the mass market scandalous-to-cause-reaction style. They’re not scandalous at all. They’re written from a real place with real feelings about things that happen all the time whether we like to admit it or not. That’s both the scary part and the part that matters most.
What are you working on now or what do you plan to do when you finish writing this blog?
Currently working on a collection of short prose and, forever it seems, a medium sized novel.
Carin Makuz maintains a main blog, Matilda Magtree, where she publishes regular segments, (at) eleven: chatting with writers (I was once hosted here!), this is not a review, and Wordless Wednesday, featuring her photography.
A number of Reading Recommendations-promoted authors have been featured on The Litter I See Project: Alice Major, Betty Jane Hegerat, Bruce Hunter, Fran Kimmel, Gail Anderson-Dargatz, Katherine Govier, Kimmy Beach, Lori Hahnel, Rosemary Nixon, Steven Mayoff.
I first met Shaun Hunter in Calgary through the city’s writing community. Shaun is known locally for her non-fiction, personal essays and memoir writing, but I’d like to focus on this brilliant concept for a blog she has been publishing lately. Here’s Shaun to tell you all about Writing the City: Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers. Welcome, Shaun!
I have lived in Calgary most of my life but have only rarely seen the city imagined on the page. About a year ago, I went looking for the city in novels, poetry and creative nonfiction. I was curious: what could writers’ stories tell me about the city that shaped me and continues to confound me? In the spring, I shared a few of my findings on a literary Jane’s Walk through downtown Calgary. The idea for the blog grew from there: Writing the City: Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers would be a virtual walk through Calgary’s literary history as I was discovering it.
For me, and I hope for readers, the blog is a treasure hunt: every week turns up a fresh surprise tucked away in the city’s literary history. The series roams Calgary’s past and its geography, following the meandering path of my own curiosity. The featured excerpt has to be from a published work of fiction, poetry or nonfiction, and has to capture some aspect of the city – no matter how uncomfortable. The blog is not intended as a travelogue or an exercise in civic boosterism. The series offers the city as writers have engaged with it and lets readers make their own connections.
The blog launched at the beginning of Stampede Week 2015 with daily posts. Since then, I’ve been posting a new excerpt every Friday. I plan to wrap up the series after this year’s Stampede, but there is more material than I can feature on the blog. A book proposal is in the works. Stay tuned!
I know from my own experience that Calgary is more than its stereotypes of cowboys and oil barons. But seeing the city through the eyes of writers, I am continually surprised by the different responses writers have to this place. As the series unfolds, my own connection to the city is deepening in ways I had not imagined. I have kept that story out of the blog series, but it’s simmering underneath.
So many of the posts have stories behind them, but one in particular stands out. I am a latecomer to local history. Only recently have the stories of early Calgary begun to capture my imagination. Last summer, I set out to correct my historic deficit and showed up for a tour of Union Cemetery during Historic Calgary Week. The guide, Ruth Manning, had deep roots in the city and was a trove of stories about the people buried on Cemetery Hill. On a ridge overlooking downtown, she talked about what she believed to be the first lines written about the site that would become the city of Calgary. With her eyes closed, Ruth quoted from memory the words of NWMP officer Sir Cecil Denny as he stood above the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers: “Our first sight of this enchanting spot was one never to be forgotten, one to which only a poet could do justice.” In that moment, on that historic hill, I felt myself sinking a little deeper into the city’s soil.
This seems to be a golden age in Canada for literary mapping. Noah Richler offers a compelling exploration of the country’s literary landscape in This is My Country, What’s Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada (though he doesn’t stop in Calgary). To date, Project Bookmark has installed sixteen plaques across the country, connecting poetry and fiction to specific Canadian landmarks. You can take literary tours of Vancouver and Toronto through these excellent public library projects: Vancouver: Literary Landmarks, Toronto Poetry Map and books set in Toronto neighbourhoods. 49th Shelf also offers an annotated literary map of the country.
Calgary is not just one story. Talk to people who live or have lived here, and you discover that each one has a unique connection to this place. I hope that in discovering writers’ stories about Calgary, readers experience the city as a complex urban landscape with fascinating contradictions, ambiguities and humanity.
Calgary’s Grand Story (University of Calgary Press, 2005) by Donald B. Smith
In Calgary, we often wear change like a badge. But go back to the city’s first gilded age in 1912, and the story of two of its landmark structures (the Lougheed Building and the Grand Theatre) and you will see that Calgary is consistent with its beginnings.
The Calgary Project: A City Map in Verse and Visual (Frontenac House, 2014) by Dymphny Dronyk and Kris Demeanor
I’ve featured a few of the fine poems in this anthology on the blog, including those by co-editors Kris Demeanor and Dympnhy Dronyk, as well as Cecelia Frey, but there is much more to discover. My only caveat in recommending The Calgary Project is that you won’t be able to fit the book in your back pocket as you explore the city’s streets.
Long Change (Random House, 2015) by Don Gillmor
Don Gillmor’s fictional take on the city’s illustrious oil sub-culture is at once excoriating and compassionate. There is an unforgettable New Year’s Eve party at an oil baron’s estate west of town you won’t want to miss, and a dinner party that will change the way you look at geology. I’ve posted a glimpse of Gillmor’s novel on the blog.
Shaun Hunter is the author of five biographies for young readers about the lives of celebrated women writers, artists and scientists, African-American Olympians and Canadian entrepreneurs. Her personal essays have appeared in literary magazines, anthologies and The Globe and Mail. In July 2015, Shaun launched Writing the City: Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers, a weekly blog series that explores the way writers have imagined the city in fiction, nonfiction and poetry. She leads occasional guided literary walks of Calgary. Shaun has a master’s degree in Canadian Studies from Carleton University. She lives in Calgary, Alberta.
I’m working on a proposal to turn Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers into a book, and making notes toward the personal story percolating underneath the blog series.
Thank you, Shaun! I suggest that everyone reading this check out previous posts Shaun has published on her blog. You’ll find writing by many talented and accomplished authors, some very surprising (such as Graham Greene, Rupert Brooke and Nancy Huston) and quite a number who I have promoted on my blog, Reading Recommendations … such as Katherine Govier, Aritha van Herk, Bruce Hunter, Lori Hahnel, Barb Howard, Betty Jane Hegerat, Fred Stenson and Don Gillmor.
Hubert O’Hearn has previously been featured on Reading Recommendations. He is a Canadian-born playwright and journalist who now lives in Ireland. When he announced his new The Writer’s Pro Shop Series recently I asked if he’d like to write a guest blog post to help promote this service that’s intended for writers at all levels in their careers. So, here’s Hubert!
The Writer’s Pro Shop Series. Why You Need It.
The Writer’s Pro Shop is a series of weekly writing exercises I am offering for free on the internet. Not only are these important skill development exercises on my own website (bythebookreviews.blogspot.com), I’m also allowing anyone with a personal website or blog to freely use this content just so long as it is properly attributed back to me. Everybody wins!
Why Did I Develop These Exercises?
Through my work as an independent book editor I have discovered that my writer-clients get stuck in patterns. They – and probably you – see their writing projects in only one perspective and so, when a need arises for a change to a scene or even a book’s overall structure arises, they literally do not know how to shift their minds to write anew.
Because of the above, I started using a modified technique derived from my work as a theatre director and acting coach. Actors too get stuck in their heads, to use the conventional phrase. They are reluctant to try something different when playing a part because what they have been doing feels safe. Familiar is safe, change is scary. Therefore I would challenge them with games, improvised situations, role switching, you name it, just to get them to see their character and scene differently and so jump-start the discovery process.
For writers, I would suggest similar exercises, short assignments related to the manuscript yet not necessarily a re-writing of a given scene or chapter. If there was a scene in a novel that involved two main characters having a conversation in a restaurant, how did the waiter observe that? Re-do a paragraph in the present active voice. If the dialogue was dull, write a four-way conversation with no ‘John said’ indicators yet have the four voices be individually identifiable.
Because these were exercises and not taking a sledgehammer to the walls of the novel (these techniques work perfectly well with non-fiction, drama and poetry too) my writers did not feel threatened; instead they were freshened. So that is where the idea for both The Writer’s Pro Shop and my Six Months to Better Writing subscription course began. Yet I wanted to take it a step further. I started to think of writing in terms of Sports Science.
What Does Sports Science Have to Do With This?
Let’s assume you have a favourite sport. Your favourite team or individual performer does not train by only playing practice games. That might be fun, yet playing the same way does not result in improved performance, or at least not efficiently. As the great golf coach David Ledbetter says, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent. Perfect practice makes perfect.”
I took a look at two games – golf and poker – for comparisons to writing. If you’re a golfer and you go to a driving range, are you like most people and just stand on the tee and hammer away at your dwindling bucket seeing how far you can hit the ball with each club? Do you ever try a new swing thought, stance, cut or draw, rhythm, or anything at all different from what you’ve always done before? Have you ever worked one-on-one with a pro? You can only see yourself from within yourself, whereas the pro sees all of you. Bear that in mind as we proceed.
Poker is another great metaphor for writing. It costs $10,000 to enter the Main Event at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. Anyone with ten grand can enter, and literally thousands of ‘anyones’ enter every year, which is why the prize money for the winner has risen to the multi-million dollar range. $10,000 is a pretty good number for a writer to consider. When you factor in the time you take researching and writing a book, plus formatting and marketing it, if you are going the independent route, you’re spending at least $10,000. Now, is that money going towards making you money, or is it adding to the prize purse of a marketer or Amazon/Kindle?
How is this relating to writing?
Writers are exactly like the golfer who just practices the same thing over and over, or the poker player who enters the World Series convinced he can be the next amateur to win the whole thing having done nothing to prepare other than being the best among a small group of friends. Both are making their ways, their habits of playing, permanent.
That, my curious friend, is exactly what with absolutely no exaggeration 99% of all writers do, which is why only about 1% of all writers make a living at it. They don’t work to improve their game.
Look at the practice range at the next major golf tournament on TV. What do you see the players doing? They are working with their coach, their caddy, even other players, getting swing tips and advice. At the WSOP, even someone who has won multiple winner’s diamond bracelets, like Phil Hellmuth, spends weeks before the event practicing specific situations that may come up during the actual tournament. Pro golfers and professional poker players alike are always looking for that little insight that will make them one-tenth of one percent better, because that 0.1% improvement is the difference between cashing a decent cheque or eating hot dogs for dinner.
What Most Writers Do is What You Shouldn’t Do
Most writers – and this definitely includes many of the greats – use the same inefficient technique for improvement. They write an article or a book, it doesn’t sell, so they write another. They may read a book about writing, or some interviews, maybe listen to an editor like me, then go and write another article or book (or play, poem etc.). Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat …
What makes no sense to me is why anyone would go through a process that can take years or decades before it makes a positive change in a writer’s skills. Go spend that $10,000 on scratch tickets, because you’re playing the same odds and you’ll save yourself a lot of time.
The Writer’s Pro Shop Exercises: Perfect Practice Makes Perfect
This is why I have built this series of exercises. I know that you need to work on specific parts of your game. You need to make your strengths – let’s say you’re brilliant at dialogue – powerful strengths, plus we’ll use what you’re already strong at to improve the areas of writing you’re weak at.
Now, there is a flaw to all this! I would be dishonest if I said The Writer’s Pro Shop is all you need to succeed. The flaw is that you’re like the golfer who works out and practices with a mirror or video camera, guided by a coaching manual or DVD. You really aren’t getting direct feedback and commentary from a pro. You really do need to work one-on-one with someone you feel comfortable with and who knows what they’re talking about. But I’ll save my strong suggestion that you sign up for the Six Months to Better Writing course until the very end of this article. So let’s just ‘q.v.’ that one for now.
What I have done in the Writer’s Pro Shop is develop weekly writing assignments that you can easily adapt to a present project, or use generally to improve your skills. It is really based on not anything so technical as improving your grammar or expanding your word choices. Using our golf metaphor once more, those factors are club selection; we need to work on your swing and visualization.
Visualization is everything in the Writer’s Pro Shop Series. We write what we observe, after what we observe runs through the colours of our imagination. So, let’s observe differently. It will be easier for both of us if I show you what I mean. Here is the first exercise I give every client, from absolute newbies to seasoned professionals:
On the internet, find a photo of a painting that interests you and draws your attention. The only restriction is that it must contain at least one person in it. Download the photo, then write 500 words of any story you feel emerging from it. Do not concern yourself with a beginning or end. Just write what you feel. This is not for publication, so allow your instincts room to play.
Do you get it? To write more artistically, think like an artist. To short-cut the process, that exercise makes you look at a piece of reality that a painter has already seen as art. Then we move on through areas like:
• Character development
• Finding the crucial detail
• What voice to use
• Making a plot logical, yet still enthralling
And (using my TV pitchman’s voice) many more!
Speaking of TV pitchmen, you do need to work one-on-one with a coach like me. I’m not a big believer in writing workshops. I don’t take them, I don’t lead them, frankly I avoid them. I find that their time is too compressed and they tend to break down into something akin to a herd of rutting stags clashing horns. They may be great vacations and you may have a couple of great takeaways in terms of tips or friendships, but as a career developer ….. meh.
Six Months to Better Writing, my course, uses the same exercises as The Writer’s Pro Shop, except I adapt them to suit your specific needs. Also, you get direct commentary every week from me on your assignment, along with the next week’s assignment that frequently builds off the work you have already turned in. Sixty bucks a month, quit any time, or stay longer than six months. Plus I limit the number of student/clients I work with to 24. Any more, I’m a factory and the only good writing that came out of a factory was Cannery Row.
Thoughts? Comments? Suggestions?
If you want to get in touch with me about either the Pro Shop or my course you can email me here or by using the contact info below. Regardless, thank you for reading this. That’s all we writers ever ask for: Someone to read our stuff.
Be seeing you.
Hubert O’Hearn is the author of two books, an independent editor, and a professional book and music reviewer. He also is the designer of the Six Months to Better Writing Course, working one-on-one with writers drawn from the entire range of experience. For comments or queries he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Gordon Cope was previously featured on Reading Recommendations and offered to write this new 3-part series about writing travel memoirs.
How to Write Travel Memoirs
I recently attended the San Miguel de Allende Writer’s Conference, held each February. In addition to fantastic speakers (Alice Walker, Gloria Steinem and Scott Turow this year), the conference runs over 50 seminars on everything from ePublishing to poetry. When an instructor asks for a raise-of-hands to show who is working on what genre, the memoir always wins.
The memoir genre is not held in high regard; I once heard it described as the bastard son of non-fiction. But for aspiring writers, it is an enjoyable, accessible vehicle; the travel memoir, especially, inspires nascent authors to grasp their digital mice and let their imaginations flow.
Having read many travel memoirs (and written three), I recently sat down and pondered exactly what makes a travel memoir a success, which I measure by the ability of the author to include me as a companion in their exploration of fascinating and exotic lands.
As part of the Tenth Anniversary of the publishing of A Paris Moment, I offer some tips and advice on how to write a travel memoir.
MARKETING YOUR TRAVEL MEMOIR
FINDING A TRADITIONAL PUBLISHER
Now that you have finished your travel memoir, it is time for the public to enjoy it.
Traditionally, authors approach publishers with query letters. If you wish to go this route, find a number of publishers that have put out books similar to your work, outline the highlights of your manuscript and ask if they would like to consider it for publication.
I should note that, in almost 30 years of writing and sending query letters, I have never had a positive response. Publishers receive thousands of unsolicited queries every year, and unless you are a celebrity or prominent expert, they will not seriously consider your work. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, but they are exceedingly rare.
How, then, do you interest a publisher? I have had three travel memoirs and one mystery thriller published by four different houses. Here’s how I did it:
Step 1. Make friends with published authors. When I had completed A Paris Moment, I approached an old friend, Brian Brennan, who had several books of non-fiction published. I asked if he would recommend me to his publisher, and he agreed. Charlene Dobmeier, head of Fifth House in Calgary, read my work and agreed to publish it in hard cover. Once you are an established author, publishers are much more willing to consider your work.
Step 2. Don’t know any authors? Join a guild, and you will soon meet some. Most provinces and states have some form of writer’s guild. The Writer’s Guild of Alberta, for instance, offers unpublished authors the opportunity to join; for a very modest annual fee, you will be invited to social events, readings, conferences and workshops where you will be rubbing shoulders with aspiring writers and veterans.
Authors, even very famous ones, are generally very approachable and pleased when you show interest in their work. I recently had the opportunity to ask Lawrence Hill to sign my copy of The Book of Negroes, and he was as happy as a kid in a candy store to do so. Writing is a solitary occupation, and authors appreciate the opportunity to socialize and meet new people. Simply asking for advice or opinions is an excellent way to start building rapport.
As you make friends and learn more about the profession of writing, you will eventually reach the point where asking for help in seeking a publisher will be a natural extension of your relationships. Most publishers will gladly give serious attention to a manuscript from an unknown writer if an author in their stable gives a recommendation.
Self-publishing has become a viable alternative to traditional publishing. In fact, if you do not currently have a track record in traditional publishing, I recommend you devote time and effort to learning more about the nuts and bolts of being your own publisher. It’s not easy, and you can waste a lot of money, but if done right, you can have the reward of seeing your own name in print.
Learn as much as you can. Every year, I attend the San Miguel de Allende Writer’s Conference in Mexico. It’s a lot of fun, and there are many workshops devoted to self-publishing. I also have the opportunity to talk to authors who have already gone down that route, and they are a wealth of information.
Come up with a plan. As an author, you are responsible for creating the manuscript, but as a publisher, you are responsible for editing the manuscript, creating a cover and layout, producing the book, marketing, distributing and collecting payment. Each step is unique and necessary in order to be successful. You have to decide what parts you are going to do, and when it will be necessary to hire a professional. If you don’t sort that out, you can waste a lot of time and/or money. Once again, learn everything you can before you begin.
Some Nuts & Bolts Advice. The publishing rights for A Paris Moment recently reverted to me after the publisher stopped printing it. In order to learn more about self-publishing, I decided to launch the 10th anniversary edition in eBook form as a test case. I had the benefit of already having a manuscript that had been professionally edited and a cover that had been professionally designed.
I hired Human Powered Design (HPD), a Calgary-based eBook company, to convert my manuscript to the proper eBook files. It cost me around $200, but the money was well spent, as they created files for Kindle and Apple readers that looks very professional. You can do it yourself, of course, but if you have ever purchased a book where there are missing pages, changes in type settings, etc., you know how annoying it is to a reader.
HPD also obtained my ISBN, distributed my files to Amazon and the Apple store, and aggregates my royalties for a monthly payment. Note that I went with the eBook version only. If you wish to publish hard or soft cover, you have to create a PDF file and either print off a set amount, like 1000 copies, or do print-on-demand.
Keeping Costs Down. You can spend thousands of dollars having your manuscript turned into a book at sites like CreateSpace, Amazon’s online book publishing service. Depending on what package you purchase, they edit and format your manuscript and devise a cover, then distribute it and collect royalties. The downside is that you don’t really learn much about how it’s all done, and you have to sell a lot of books to recoup your losses. You can produce an eBook or have hard copies printed out.
My advice is to stick to the eBook format for your first project. Spend money to have a professional edit your book, and a professional to design your cover (check around on the internet to find specialists). These two steps will cost around $500 each, but they will catapult your work over most of the competition.
Build Your Marketing Platform. Go to WordPress and purchase a website template. They look very professional and are easy to manage. Learn to link Facebook, Twitter and other social media to your website. Start your own blog, and contribute to others. Build an email list of friends and acquaintances who will be interested in hearing that your book is available in eBook form.
As a final reminder, the best way to learn is to find other authors who have blazed a trail before you. As I mentioned earlier, joining guilds, taking courses and attending conferences are excellent ways of meeting people and discovering resources. You are about to set out on a journey that is going to take several years to complete; enjoy every step of the way!
One last excerpt from A Paris Moment:
They are performing Mozart at Sainte-Chapelle tonight. The 12th century church, built by Saint-Louis, has to be one of my favorite buildings in the world. Nestled into the courtyard of the Palais du Justice on the Ile de la Cité, the church is appealing not only for its architectural splendor, but also for its story. In 1239, Beaudoin, Emperor of Constantinople, needed money for a military venture, and hocked the crown of thorns to the Venetians. When Beaudoin couldn’t repay the debt, the Venetians contacted the King of France. Louis knew a celestial bargain when he saw one and redeemed the crown, along with a few handy sacred nails and slivers of wood that had been thrown in to sweeten the bargain.
Naturally, Louis needed a suitable space to house the holy relics, and he commissioned Pierre of Montreuil to build the chapel, which the architect knocked out in three years, the exterior walls being composed solely of stained glass and delicate, almost ethereal stone columns.
The effect is truly amazing. Sitting in the main chapel, my eyes follow colorful biblical scenes as they ascend the walls to the immense roof, which is painted blue and covered with gold fleurs-de-lys that sparkle like stars in the night sky. The notes from the string quartet float through the air and fill this magical place with perfect music, no doubt pleasing the spirits of Jesus, Saint-Louis and Mozart.
Curiously, the earthly whereabouts of all three men share a similar dispersal; Christ, of course, got up and left the tomb for points celestial under his own steam; the remnants of Saint-Louis were exhumed from their resting spot in Saint-Denis during the Revolution and scattered to the four winds; and Mozart, who ended up in a pauper’s grave, had his bones dispersed by scavenging dogs. May they all rest peacefully tonight in Sainte-Chapelle.
Gordon Cope was also a guest blogger of a 3-part series about the San Miguel Writers’ Conference. Here’s Part One. As well, he also contributed a 3-part series on the Femmes Fatales of Paris. Here’s Part One of that.