Thursday 26 May 2011

Lament for a Convent

Two years ago I stumbled on a magnificent place to write - a convent. It was perfect. Quiet and clean, filled with dark hallways and surrounded by protected land, on an island by the St-Lawrence Seaway, great freighters floating by on their journey to Montreal. The rooms were small, with only a single bed, a reading chair, a desk and a sink. The low fee included three meals, buffet style.  And lots of coffee.

I made of point of going twice a year, in the spring and the fall, when I was just about to complete a manuscript. The true magic of the convent sprung from its gift of time and peace, of a place for you to exist with only your thoughts, your story, your characters.

I've learned to go for three nights. I try to arrive around supper time the first night, and then spend the evening planning my writing, word count and story chunks. I mark everything on sticky notes and post it on my wall, right in front of my desk. The laptop is plugged in, the words are ready to flow.

Utnu, during my first visit.  Yes, I bring candles.  Atmosphere!
Utnois, during my latest visit.  Hand cream is important, too.  Dry fingers move less quickly.  Greasy fingers slide on keys.  Choose your hand cream carefully.

But I don't start writing just yet. My body is still full of adrenaline from the day's rush and stress, my mind braced for more grind of multitasking. I go for a walk. I stare at the water and slow my thoughts. I let my hand slide on stone or flower, I listen to the call of the birds, I relish the scents of fresh cut grass.I awaken my senses.

Or, sometimes I stare outside my window, from the warmth of my room.  This was spring.  The snow had overstayed its welcome.  Yet again.
Then, when I don't feel like I should be doing twenty things at once and I've stopped twitching (internally, mostly),  I refocus my thoughts towards my story. And only my story. My characters come snuggle in my consciousness (poor characters), and settings erupt in colour. I get really, really excited. I break into a run. I run up this path:

And then I run up many stairs, including this set by the orchard:

And then I say hi to Giant Jesus:

That's an artsy shot, because the flowers were in bloom and I was running around the orchard.  I'm usually standing right below him.  He's very spiderweb heavy and lights up at night.  And yes, for those of you who've heard me tell the tale, it's *this* convent and *this* Giant Jesus. Good times.

I pace around Giant Jesus, rant and rave, discuss plot points, difficult scenes, frustrations and anticipated deaths. I tell him everything. He's an excellent listener. Sometimes pilgrims walk by and then turn away from Giant Jesus. I imagine they think: "She's very religious," or (closer to the mark) "She's insane."  It doesn't matter - I'm on a roll, I'm excited, that story is ready to explode out of me, and voicing my ideas helps solidify them.  

I'd be wondering if I were you, so I'll lay it down at the root of this pretty tree - I grew up Catholic, but I don't consider myself a Catholic.  It just doesn't work for me, but awesome if it works for you.  I'm best friends with atheists, pagans, fundamentalist Christians...  I love them all equally.  My friends all believe in personal responsibility, and the rest, for me, is just details. I studied religion and culture in university.  I love religion, I love religious symbols, and I love hymns.  They're so organized and rhythmic, it makes me bubbly.

When I'm done chatting with Giant Jesus and scaring pilgrims away, I usually go say hi to the nuns in the cemetery. I don't think they get many visits, and the Grey Nuns are awesome. Theirs is a small cemetery and each year another row is consolidated and new tombstones erected, bearing the names of three sisters instead of one. 

Stacking the nuns, counting the dead.

But now, like the great ships sailing into the sunset, my beloved retreat is at a crossroads.

See? Ship, sunset, and chair to witness the passing.
Due to a decline in the number of women taking up the veil, the order sold the convent to its host city, for better or for worse. Three nuns remain on-site, with a promised three years for winding down religious activities. Last weekend was my first visit to this newly secularized convent and the difference was palatable. The devil was in the details. No hymns woke me up in the morning, streaming from the chapel through the heating conduits. The only music was radio pumped through the cafeteria, some irritating radio station, to top it off. The nuns are no longer greeting guests to meals, but rather eat in peace in a sequestered area.

And nobody seemed to understand a quiet retreat. I'm a social being, but I'm not there to make friends. I'm there to blow ships up and emotionally scar individuals (in my book, mostly).  I've never had people speak to me before, no more than a "hello" and a smile.  I've never even had someone ask me why I wasn't going to mass and joining the throngs.  Yet this time, I had one person try to convert me to government work (ha!), another whine about the lumps in the potatoes until he made it as a character in my book that I blew up, and a third person speak about the postal system.  Seriously?  (I always thought the religious people would be broaching conversion, so the government thing was funny.)  

It was different.  An air of peace and serenity had been whisked away by bird watchers and government workers.

But I still love the convent now ex-convent. I still have my little room where I can draw the curtains to hide the sun when I'm meant to write. I love the lack of television, phones and Internet.  I'm not sure what will happen to my little corner of paradise, but I doubt a nun will ever again scratch my butt there (ah, the good times). Still, I've made my reservations for Labour Day Weekend, hoping it won't have changed so much that, upon leaving, I'll say a final goodbye to Giant Jesus. 

(He'll still be there.  No one would ever tear down Giant Jesus. He's too useful.  And big.)

Tuesday 24 May 2011

Anime North Panels!

After an awesome weekend of writing mercilessly (45k words in two days - a new personal best), I'm very much looking forward to next weekend's activity - Anime North!

Anime North will be doubly special for a con since Roomy will be making her first con guest appearance as a My Little Pony collector and customizer!  An award-winning one too, to boot. She just finished a cute booklet she'll be handing out at the customizing panel, and you'll want to come just to get a copy, trust me (I'll put a link to it on my blog after Anime North so that you may all partake of the beheaded pony cuteness).

My own panels will be shared with a great group of writers:  Eric Choi and Derwin Mak, co-editors of the Aurora nominated anthology The Dragon and the Stars (and both wonderful writers), and Timothy Carter, author of some wickedly fun young adult fantasy novels.

My schedule of where I'll be, all at the DoubleTree (I'll be at Roomy's panels as well, to cheer on):

8pm: Making Believable Characters
9pm: My Little Pony Collectibles (Roomy!)

1pm - Blowing up Writer's Block
2pm - Creating Tension in Stories
5pm - Ask our Experts
6pm - Reality of Being Published
9pm - Customizing MLP (Roomy!)

Hope to see you there!

Monday 16 May 2011

Aurora Award Nomination!

I had the luck of being at the Prix Aurora/Boréal ceremony at the Congrès Boréal yesterday when they announced the English Aurora Award Ballot.  And Destiny's Blood made the ballot!


I can't thank everyone enough for taking the time to enjoy and nominate Destiny's Blood.  This wouldn't have happened without your support!

So now it's been nominated for the Foreword Book Awards, a judge-selected award, and the Aurora Awards, a fan-nominated award.  That is AWESOME!

I'm pleased to share the ballet with a bunch of awesome folk and friends.  Here's the full list.  I'll let you know when the polls are open!

(Interesting note - three members of the East Block Irregulars, my writing group, made it onto the ballot: Hayden Trenholm, Matt Moore and myself.  That is also pure awesome.)


Professional Awards

Best English Novel

Black Bottle Man by Craig Russell, Great Plains Publications
Destiny's Blood by Marie Bilodeau, Dragon Moon Press
Stealing Home by Hayden Trenholm, Bundoran Press
Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay, Viking Canada
Watch, by Robert J. Sawyer, Penguin Canada

Best English Short Story

"The Burden of Fire" by Hayden Trenholm, Neo-Opsis #19
"Destiny Lives in the Tattoo's Needle" by Suzanne Church, Tesseracts Fourteen, EDGE
"The Envoy" by Al Onia, Warrior Wisewoman 3, Norilana Books
"Touch the Sky, They Say" by Matt Moore, AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, November
"Your Beating Heart" by M. G. Gillett, Rigor Amortis, Absolute Xpress

Best English Poem / Song

"The ABCs of the End of the World" by Carolyn Clink, A Verdant Green, The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box
"Let the Night In" by Sandra Kasturi, Evolve: Vampire Stories of the New Undead, EDGE
"Of the Corn: Kore's Innocence" by Colleen Anderson, Witches & Pagans #21
"The Transformed Man" by Robert J. Sawyer, Tesseracts Fourteen, EDGE
"Waiting for the Harrowing" by Helen Marshall, ChiZine 45

Best English Graphic Novel

Goblins, Tarol Hunt
Looking For Group, Vol. 3 by Ryan Sohmer and Lar DeSouza
Stargazer, Volume 1 by Von Allan, Von Allan Studio
Tomboy Tara, Emily Ragozzino

Best English Related Work

Chimerascope, Douglas Smith (collection), ChiZine Publications
The Dragon and the Stars, edited by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi, DAW
Evolve: Vampire Stories of the New Undead, edited by Nancy Kilpatrick, EDGE
On Spec, edited by Diane Walton, Copper Pig Writers Society
Tesseracts Fourteen, edited by John Robert Colombo and Brett Alexander Savory, EDGE

Best Artist (Professional and Amateur)
(An example of each artist’s work is listed below but they are to be judged on the body of work they have produced in the award year)

Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk, "Brekky" cover art, On Spec Fall
Erik Mohr, cover art for ChiZine Publications
Christina Molendyk, Girls of Geekdom Calendar for Argent Dawn Photography
Dan O'Driscoll, cover art for Stealing Home
Aaron Paquette, "A New Season" cover art, On Spec Spring

Fan/ Amateur Awards

Best Fan Publications

No award will be given out in this category due insufficient eligible nominees

Best Fan Filk

Dave Clement and Tom Jeffers of Dandelion Wine for "Face on Mars" CD
Karen Linsley; concert as SFContario Guest of Honour
Phil Mills, for “Time Traveller” (song writing)

Best Fan Organizational

Andrew Gurudata, organizing the Constellation Awards
Brent M. Jans, chair of Pure Speculation (Edmonton)
Liana Kerzner, chair of Futurecon (Toronto)
Helen Marshall and Sandra Kasturi, chairs of Toronto SpecFic Colloquium (Toronto)
Alex Von Thorn, chair of SFContario (Toronto)

Best Fan Other

Tom Jeffers, Fundraising, FilKONtario
John and Linda Ross Mansfield, Conception of the Aurora Nominee pins
Lloyd Penney, Articles, columns and letters of comment - fanzines

Monday 9 May 2011

It was *that* big!

On April 18, I had the pleasure of performing in Monteral with the talented storyteller, JD Hobbes, and wicked musician Shayne Grin.  The two of them often perform together as Taelstrum  They're awesome.  It was the first show of our whirlwind cross-Canada tour, the second show being in Ottawa on May 14.  (Okay, maybe not cross-Canada. Give us time and maybe about a decade.  We'll work it.)
This is what transpired at the Montreal show.  Totally.  I'm not making anything up here 'cause I think it's funny and the photos loaded in this order. Nope.  Storyteller's word - this is all completely true.
Storytellers agreeing on stories before show.  Hobbes shakes his fist emphatically.  "This is what will happen," he says. Innocent and naive, I believe him and let him open the set.

Me smiling.  Ready for Hobbes to tell it right.  Tell it true.

See that less impressed look?  We had agreed that wasn't the story.  He's exaggerating.  He is, in fact, lying.  His hands, you see, are entirely too far apart.  It was never that big.

I go up, bravely ready to set the record straight.

Shayne, caught in a storytellers' war, feels the pain but sings through it.  Brave man.

Hobbes next.  I watch him closely.  "Tell it right," I whisper.

He brings Shayne up, giving dramatic music to his story. But it doesn't matter.  It's still not true!

"He may have exaggerated, it's the storyteller in him," I explain.  "It was actually only this big." 

Shayne is feeling the pain more now.  He wants to say I lie, but he knows better.  Yes, you heard me.  He knows better.

The audience is enraptured.  They hear the pain, and in it see truth.

But Hobbes is back. "I wasn't lying," he insists.  "Listen to me." 
"No, no, no!  Listen to me or face my karate chop of death!"

You saw where I was sitting.  Right there.  Where he's gesturing.  It's a threat, I tell you.  A threat!  To me! 

I was shocked!  It was THAT threatening! (The camera didn't capture the moment, but this is very representative.  Floating heads are my drawing specialty.)

He laughed evilly.  And his hat got bigger, and fangs, yes, fangs, began to grow.  Totally.

The audience was equally stunned and drunk!  It was shocking!

I admit it.  I caved in.  I told the story, as he wanted to tell it.  I'm not proud, people, but I did it to protect the audience. Truly, I did.

He stepped up, backing my claims.  I put on a brave face, but...  ya.  It was a LIE!
So now you're asking: What the heck is she going on about this time? I mean, seriously?  Was it THAT big??? And, for the less dirty-minded amongst you, you might still be asking what exactly was that big. I applaud those (undoubtedly few) amongst you.

If you'd like to find out the rest of this story, there's only one way.  Only one.  I will tell the entire sordid tale, with the right amount of heartbreak, fear, shock and, yes, evil storytellers wearing hats, at the Ottawa leg of our show.  See you on May 14 at Maxwell's Bistro on Elgin, 3:30 pm sharp!

... and yes, the show is kid-friendly.  So I guess it ruins THAT theory.

Thanks to the wonderful Daniel P. Kenny for the lovely pictures! 

Tuesday 3 May 2011

Suffering For Your Art

... really?  I mean, I don't mean to knock anyone who suffers, who is suffering, who has suffered, which right there probably covers the entire scope of mankind.  So I guess I don't mean to knock anyone.

But I've heard this saying a few times over the past year and, truth be told, it bugs me.  There are variations of this, of course.  Here are a few I've heard:

You must use your disturbing past to feed your fiction.  Okay, I know some people do this, and that's awesome.  If it works for you. I personally don't think you need a fascinatingly disturbing past to write fiction and, if you have one, do you really want to dwell on it for the course of a book?  Are readers going to be that interested in it? My take on it is: take themes from your childhood that stuck with you and work 'em.  But a haunted past isn't enough to hold up a story - most of us have one, or a variation of one and, it's hard to face, but most people (except your paid therapist) won't care all that much.

Generally, themes from your past will emerge in your stories, just because they've made themselves at home and are all cozy and snuggly in your psyche.  One of my recurring themes is home, or so I've come to realize.  The search for home, the desire to return home, the quest for friends and family who represent home.  I moved a lot as a child and I believe went to six grade schools and two high schools, so it's not hard to understand why it's a big theme for me.  And, in the end, family and friends are home, not a physical place.  It's too early in the morning to count how many places I lived as a child/teenager, but trust me, that's a tested theory.

I'll give up everything for my art.  I feel like I'm doing an intervention here, but don't. Seriously, don't. Like the bad boyfriend in high school you swore off everything for, art isn't worth it.   Art will give up absolutely nothing for you, because it doesn't care if it exists or doesn't. I mean, seriously, it's not alive.  Give up some things for art, sure.  You'll have to if you're serious about this.  Some friends, habits, social events might be left behind.  But don't give up everything.  Because at the end of the day, when all that's left is you and your art, you'll be left with nothing.  A published book is no comfort when celebrating your success alone at the bar.

When I get in a good writing spree, I have to admit that I drown out the world.  Emails go unanswered, phones don't exist in my reality, meals and sleeps are skipped.  But I'm not giving up anything, because I've surrounded myself with people who will support me.  And I make up any lapses in contact as best I can.  I'm usually playing social catch-up, but I figure anyone who supports writing will understand.  Anyone who doesn't will hopefully not be offended as they vanish into the woodwork.  In the meantime, I still have my team, my family, and my espresso machine (and more cats than necessary).

I would starve for my art.  Okay, kind of along the same vein as the previous one, but being a starving artist is not good for anyone, really, least of all the art.  It's not easy being creative when you're actually starving, or freezing, or wondering how you'll make next month's rent.  It's okay to have a full time job, with good pay.  As long as it doesn't drain your energy, you're gold.

I can't even apply this to me.  Not only do I not starve, I eat really well, as often as possible.  I love food, all foods, and I love cooking.  I'm getting hungry just writing this sentence, in fact.  And I work full-time. Have for more than a decade.  Will for many more years.

And the last one I'm bringing up:  I hate the process of writing, but love having written.  I'm not sure I really understand this one yet as I'm still processing it (most processes are slow right now.  I'm in final stages of book writing so less power is available to other causes, like thinking).  I think I get it, but all I keep thinking is: life is so short.  Why spend so much time doing something you dislike?  For what?  A book on a shelf?  Is it worth it?

I can't answer that.  There are times I dislike writing, sure.  Somedays are rough.  I've been frustrated and have broken down once in a while.  But overall, I'd say the experience is pleasant and fun, and worth repeating. Kind of like eating a chocolate sundae with extra sprinkles on top.

But maybe this is the same reason I don't starve for my art.  I'm not into the pain thing. Still, if you ARE a writer who hates writing, consider another form of art.  Again, life is short, so no need to make it miserable, 100,000 words at a time.

My personal take is that's it okay to have fun, it's okay to just write because you love it, because you're looking for the next plot twist, for the next ally, the next adventure, the next character breakdown.  More often than not, I look up from my writing and think "this is why I love doing this."  My heart swells with writing love, or whatever romance line you'd like to put here.  I *love* writing.  Not every day.  It's like a relationship.  Not every day is gold and it's a lot of compromise, but in the end, enough days make it worthwhile to remain with this sometimes fickle lover.

Flip side of the coin (to keep me honest): If you feed your fiction with your pain, that's cool, too.  I know authors who feed their depression into their stories and the power of their words is breathtaking.  But they're not willingly suffering for their art.  They're using writing as escapism, as a way to express their pain, as an outlet that this world just doesn't otherwise provide for them.  And I respect that immensely.

When suffering is not a choice, art can be a saviour.  But that's not suffering for art.  That's suffering despite art.  Big distinction, in my mind, and I admire anyone who suffers from constant or periodical depression.  I think that includes everyone, again.

There you go.  I don't mean to offend anyone and I admire everyone.  I think humanity's pretty cool, what can I say!