Author Archives: Maria

About Maria

A communications professional, indexer, editor, dreamer, and planner. Oh, and she likes to write.

Chasing tales

Scary_roadMy feet tend to take me to dark places when I run. And not just because I run in the very early morning before the sun rises. The dark and quiet play games with my mind, and I have to talk myself out of my creepy thoughts.

I sometimes wonder if I should be running all by my lonesome when it’s so dark out. What happens if I sprain my ankle? What happens if I get hit by a car? What happens if that other runner over there turns out to be a serial killer?

My fellow early-morning runner raises a hand in greeting. Not a serial killer, as far as I can tell. I try to run with better form and less wheezing…at least until he’s out of sight. Soon it’s just me again.

There’s a rustle of leaves off to my right, and a rabbit darts across the street. What is that rabbit so scared of? Should I run a bit faster too?

My pace picks up a bit, until I manage to get my heart-rate back under control.

Good lord, is that a bear? No, it’s a hedge. A bear-shaped hedge.

A vaguely man-shaped figure appears out of the mist in the local park.

Sweet heavens, is that a zombie? No, that’s just an early-riser, taking his dog out to do its business. You say hello to him every morning. And everyone looks like a zombie before they’ve had their coffee.

“Morning!” I say. He says hello back. His dog hunches and watches balefully.

A few blocks further, a dark shape lurches towards me from the gutter. Gah, it’s a C.H.U.D.! Wait, nope, false alarm—it’s just a skunk.

Gah, it’s a skunk!

I pour on some speed and soon I’m at the half-way point of my run.

I glimpse the shadow of something gnarled and limb-like and sinister reaching across the sidewalk. My heart jumps into my throat once again—a gigantic spider!! Um, no. No gigantic spiders here. That’s a tree-branch. A tree-branch that someone really should move off the sidewalk.

Although, that tree-branch kind of looks man-made. Like machinery. Like maybe a drone, but one that short-circuited and then fell from the sky and smashed to pieces. Wait—did one of the drone’s appendages just move? No, it’s still just a branch, caught in a gust of wind.

Okay, maybe it’s not a drone today. But there could be drones here tomorrow, doing drone-y suburban tasks like delivering newspapers or surveying the golf course or baby-sitting small children. Soon they’ll be everywhere. Next thing you know, the drones become self-aware and demand better working conditions. Then there’s an uprising and a counter-revolution and the whole world goes to shit. That’s how Terminator happened.

My running route takes me through a stately suburban neighbourhood, where the biggest threat to public safety is kids riding their bikes too fast. Yet somewhere between minute 7 and minute 26 of my run, I’ve encountered enough beasts and ‘bots to populate a few new creepy short stories.

As I slow to a walk and approach my driveway, I wonder if this is how Russell T Davies gets his ideas.

And then I get writing.

Maria

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Filed under Inspiration, Motivation, Writing ideas

Road trip: Coping with the commute to feed my book habit

The walk to my bookstore was almost as nice as this.

The walk to my bookstore was almost as nice as this.

Growing up in downtown Burlington, I lived a 10-minute walk from my local independent bookstore. And I was there a lot. As a child, I enthusiastically browsed picture books on sunny Saturday afternoons. As a sullen and rebellious teen, I retreated with the bookstore cat to the upstairs poetry section on my lunch-break from high school. As an adult blissfully working in the same bookstore after university, I strolled to and from the store under a canopy of old-growth trees, and enjoyed a leisurely lunch of brie sandwiches from the local deli.

There is no chore less chore-like than walking to the bookstore.

Walking back home with the goods was almost as nice—less the thrill of anticipation of unknown pleasures; but with more contented looking-forward to perusing or giving away new purchases.

Where I live now, there is no bookstore within walking distance. If I want to buy a book—say, for Mother’s Day—I have to drive a good 20 minutes to find an independent bookstore or even a chain, and then pay for parking too. Biking there isn’t really an option either. Sometimes the hassle of getting to the bookstore casts a pall of irritability on what should be a pleasurable adventure.*

But, because I am nothing if not able to look on the bright side, I’ve learned to turn my car-aided book-buying trips into more pleasurable excursions. With the help of my trusty automobile, I get to:

  • Buy more books. I used to be limited by what I could carry in two hands. Now I can swipe my VISA with abandon, knowing I have a whole SUV to cart my purchases home.
  • Make it an afternoon. My favourite downtown bookstore is in a neighbourhood with plenty of pubs, coffee shops and other places to read. If I’m going, I might as well go for the long haul.
  • Or make it a quickie at lunch. I can buy a new book and still have time left over to nuke a Lean Cuisine before returning to the grind.
  • Bring a friend. Book-buying is more fun times two. And then you get to ogle each other’s purchases over lunch.
  • Browse in the rain. A stormy day doesn’t stop me from buying books.
  • Explore. If I have to get in a car anyway, why don’t I check out independent or second-hand bookstores in other cities?
  • Pass it on. In the same trip, and hopefully with a friend to help with the heavy lifting, I can bring boxes of books to donate to a charity book sale.

I hope one day to live within a short and pleasant walk of my local bookstore. That would involve a move or some brave soul opening up a new shop in my current neighbourhood. (Don’t look so pessimistic—booksellers have reason to be optimistic, even nowadays.) Time will tell. Until then, I’ll have to make do with getting there on four wheels.

What about you? Do you have a much-loved bookstore in your neighbourhood?

Maria

*True, my local library has a branch that’s a very easy five-minute walk from my house. But some days, I just want a bookstore. I want to browse, fondle, flip through, sniff, choose, discard, revisit and purchase books. I want to own books. I want to hoard them to an unhealthy degree. I want to give the second-best ones to friends and family. I want to dog-ear pages, scuff spines and highlight choice phrases with abandon and without fear of ruining the books for anyone else. I want the freedom to be able to buy a book and immediately chuck it in a puddle. (Not that I ever would—that’s shockingly disrespectful to the written word.) I’d just like to shop quietly and happily for books that I get to keep forever, thank you very much. And please don’t get me started with buying books online.
 

Photo credit: Crystal Palace by Ewan-M. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic.

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Filed under Books and stuff, Life and stuff

Getting to done: Applying writing advice to my life

“To be everywhere is to be nowhere.”
Seneca

to-doI’m having a problem focusing these days.

This comes as no surprise to my fellow Restless Writers, to whom I have been promising a fresh new blog post since the holidays.

The symptoms of my lack of focus are not limited to delayed blog posts. I’m also finding that I can’t read a whole book. I went from neglecting a new novel, to not being able to finish a short story, to skipping whole paragraphs in Globe & Mail articles. Even my Twitter feed has started to feel like too much pressure.

And it’s not just reading. I have a to-do list as long as a Canadian winter, enough Post-It Note reminders to wallpaper my guest bathroom, and so many evening appointments and meetings that I am thisclose to forgetting what the inside of my fridge looks like. The idea of replacing the light bulb in my kitchen seems overwhelming but I know I have to do it soon because it’s hard to make G&Ts  coffee in the dark. (Hard, but not impossible.)

Many of you know that my life has taken some turns over the past six months. I’m not surprised that all these changes have affected my day-to-day life in some way, but I didn’t expect that I would turn into a slack-jawed scatterbrain. I can’t seem to finish anything I start, and hunkering down to write seems impossible.

So what to do about it?

In my search for ways to tame my monkey-brain, I turned—of course—to other writers. Who better to advise on how to focus, since so many writers struggle with the fidgets and a perverse inability to just sit down and get ‘er done already.

Here are some of the best tips I’ve culled from the Interwebs about focusing on your writing. I’ve re-jigged them so they will help me focus on my to-do list and hopefully help me read (and eventually write) that book.

Block out time, not tasks: Getting to a word count goal can seem daunting, but telling yourself that you’ll write for an hour is manageable. Likewise, if I give myself an hour in which I can tackle, say, roaming around Home Depot, it might be easier than telling myself I have to choose the perfect light fixture today.

Be mindful of distractions: You can’t avoid distractions, whether you’re writing or trying to put together an IKEA shelf. The phone will ring, emails will keep coming in, and Rob Ford will inevitably do something stupid and burn up your feeds. Identify what distracts you the most. Is it Twitter? Indulge for five minutes, but then shut it down. Text messages? Put your phone in another room. Coffee craving? Keep a carafe full of hot tasty brew on your desk so you’re not forced to hit a local Starbucks.

Say “no”: This one’s hard. Writers are very protective of their time, and often have to employ drastic measures to make sure the world doesn’t keep them from their keyboard. These days, I am trying to fill my life with people and events, so saying “no” to an invitation gives me a bit of anxiety. I have to remember that saying “no” when I feel overwhelmed will help me save my energy for when I am ready to enjoy an activity or someone’s company. (Yes, this includes dates.)

Have an accountability partner: Writers share word counts and pages all the time. Maybe I’m doing the same thing by writing about my challenges and efforts to succeed right here. I may have to call on my sisters and friends to check in and make sure I’m chipping away at life.

Track the resistance: What is it about finding the perfect light fixture that’s so goddamned difficult? The parking lot? The bone-deep chill of winter? The crush of people? Whatever it is, I need to pay attention to where the barrier is, so I can figure out a way to get around it. It’s like with writer’s block—I need to figure out what’s keeping me from moving forward.

Treat yourself: Let’s say I do manage to find that perfect light fixture when I go to Home Depot on my lunch break. Just as when I finish a writing task (like finishing this blog post–yay!), checking that off my to-do list deserves a minor celebration, whether it’s a fancy coffee or a mini-iTunes shopping spree.

Do a little every day: I can’t do everything in one day—which pisses me off a bit—so I have to give my controlling self a break. I need to celebrate the little wins, keep checking things off my to-do list, and remember that things will get easier.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve heard that you can also apply to your life?

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Filed under Life and stuff, Organization, Trials and Tribulations

Get up close and personal with your character on a field trip

Baboons at the zooOne of the characters in my newest short story is mute. Not on purpose—it’s just that I don’t know enough about him to get him to say anything. So far, all I’ve got out of him is “yep,” “nope,” and a couple of nods and glares. And he’s kind of important. He’s a great, big, gaping cipher in the middle of my story, and I need to figure him out before I can move forward.

It shouldn’t be this hard, right? He’s an imaginary person, and I can pretty much get him to do or say what I want.

Whatever he does or says, it has to jive with the choices he makes within the story. His actions and the things he says have to be authentic and honest, even if they are all imaginary.

I recently re-read an interview with Erin Morgenstern, author of The Night Circus. She said that she was bored with her original story and decided to send the characters to the circus to stir things up. I was inspired, and decided to see if sending my character on a field trip would help me figure him out.

Field trip # 1: The zoo

Okay, it’s a lot like the circus, so no points for originality–but it’s definitely a destination where almost anything can happen. I found out that my character is “that guy” who will jump into the baboon enclosure if someone dared him to and if there was an audience.

Field trip # 2: A job interview

Not exactly a walk in the park, but this helped get my character talking about himself and his past, and helped me understand how he would react under stress. I found out he’s a bit of a showman in an interview, and adept at highlighting his accomplishments. But he is stymied when questions about organization and prioritization come up. Maybe I should get him to take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator next. Hmm…

Field trip # 3: A funeral

This was a bit of a downer, but it helped me get a grip on how well my character would mingle with other people in a more somber, emotional environment. It turns out he is uncomfortable with displays of emotion, and doesn’t want to be relied on to help other people manage their problems or their grief. He prefers to work through his own emotions by himself, and he expects other people to do the same. Sheesh. No wonder his girlfriend is on the fence.

So will any of this help? I think the exercise was valuable. As I continue to flesh out the scenes in my story, these tidbits about my character will help me figure out how he reacts to events, how he interacts with other people, and why he makes certain decisions. It might even change where my story ends up. And I hope that will help make my story better.

What about you? Where will you take your characters?

Maria

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Filed under Inspiration, Trials and Tribulations, Writing ideas

Call for submissions: Greater Hamilton Musician – Musicians Annual 2013

Musician with Guitar Jumping into AirHere’s a great opportunity for you writerly types in the Burlington/Hamilton area who are also connected to or interested in the local music scene.

Greater Hamilton Musician, a website and resource dedicated to promoting local musicians and connecting them with their community, is looking for submissions for its Musicians Annual, 2013 edition, which will be going to print at the end of November. It will be distributed around Hamilton and Burlington.

Greater Hamilton Musician is looking for stories, reviews or other articles that would interest musicians. They are looking for exclusive interviews with local artists and arts supporters/administrators/event-makers who exemplify quality, passion, and performance talent in the local music scene; articles with unique, unexpected angles and subjects that will remain fresh; writing that educates readers about new performance ideas, new opportunities to earn income, and new ways of using technology; and balanced critical reviews. Photographs are also being considered.

Does this opportunity sound pitch-perfect for you? You can read the detailed submission guidelines here. You can also read the Musicians Annual 2012 to get a taste of content and tone.

Queries (a one-page pitch in an email is ideal) can be sent to editor@ghmusician.com. No unsolicited submissions, simultaneous submissions or writing on spec will be accepted. Pieces selected for publication will be paid for.

Good luck.

Maria

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Hyperlocal: An interactive story map and competition from Canada Writes

Row housesCanada Writes, CBC’s online home for original writing, recently announced a national writing competition called Hyperlocal.

The competition focuses on what’s new and changing in your neighbourhood, and what those changes mean to you. They are looking for Canadians to submit their true, personal stories as text, photo essays, audio or raw video. The submission deadline is Friday, May 3, 2013. There is no cost to enter.

There are different ways to submit:

  • Text entry between 400-500 words (photo optional)
  • Photo essay and caption (3 photos + 50-100 word caption)
  • Video or audio (maximum length: 2 minutes) with a 50-100 word accompanying text

According to the Hyperlocal website, “Stories may touch on some of the big issues we face in a fragile economy, or may reflect small changes in a neighbourhood as it becomes gentrified, as the last post office closes, as a new restaurant opens with a fusion of cultures and cuisines, or as memorable characters move in or out.”

All stories will be posted online, and at the end of the month one winner will be selected by a jury panel. The grand prize is an interactive adaptation of the winning story by the National Film Board of Canada’s Digital Studio and a laptop computer.

Throughout the project, you will hear from bloggers across Canada and featured writers—David Bezmozgis, Joseph Boyden, Esi Edugyan, Will Ferguson, Lisa Moore, Heather O’Neill and Miriam Toews—who will be sharing their own reflections on changes in their neighbourhoods.

In addition, the National Film Board will adapt five personal stories from the featured writers into interactive web-based story experiences. The full interactive experience can be viewed at www.nfb.ca, with each individual interactive story also displayed on the Hyperlocal interactive story map.

To explore the interactive story map, learn more about the competition, or submit your story, go to http://hyperlocal.cbc.ca/.

Bonne chance, all!

Maria

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Keeping it short: A contest and some resources for on-the-go inspiration

Isolated pencil with bite marks on“Short fiction seems more targeted—hand grenades of ideas, if you will. When they work, they hit, they explode, and you never forget them.”

Paolo Bacigalupi, American science fiction and fantasy writer

Here’s a contest for those who like to write in short form—the Little Bird Writing Contest. Created by award-winning Canadian author Sarah Selecky, Little Bird showcases the work of emerging short fiction writers. Submissions will be accepted until March 31, 2013.

The first step is to sign up for Sarah’s daily writing prompts—your story must feature one of the prompts.

Next, take advantage of the free resources on Sarah’s website. Her Deep Revision e-mail series, designed to help you refine your story, is already underway. Her e-book, “The Incomparable Short Story,” has some essential tips for writers. You can also listen to a recording of the March 1 Little Bird Salon, a teleconference where she and contest judge Alix Ohlin answered questions from callers-in around the world. If you’re looking for a targeted online writing course, read more about Story Is a State of Mind.

And finally, submit your best work! Check out the Little Bird web page for submission guidelines and resources.

Looking for short inspiration on the go?

  • Every Day Fiction: Every Day Fiction is a magazine that specializes in presenting fine fiction in bite-sized doses. Every day, they publish a new short story of 1,000 words or fewer. You can sign up to receive a flash fiction story in your inbox every day. http://www.everydayfiction.com/
  • The NUB: The Nub is the first independent arts and culture smart phone/tablet application in Canada. The Nub provides users a new piece of writing each day from five of Canada’s top independent arts and culture magazines: Broken Pencil, Geist Magazine, Subterrain Magazine, Matrix Magazine, and Taddle Creek Magazine. Get the app for iPhone/iPad or Android devices today: http://www.brokenpencil.com/thenub

Maria

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Filed under Awards and contests, Writing Contests, Writing resources

Call for submissions: Love on the Road 2013

“It would be good to live in a perpetual state of leave-taking, never to go or stay, but to remain suspended in that golden emotion of love and longing; to be missed without being gone, to be loved without satiety.”

John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez

BusinessTripHere’s a new project that seems tailor-made for restless writers–Love on the Road 2013. According to the project’s website, Love on the Road 2013 “will be an anthology of stories about making connections, from heartfelt ones ending in weddings, to less high-minded ones ending in beds (or wherever). Half the stories will be about travelers meeting people far from home, and the other half about people meeting travelers passing through.”

If you have a tale of ships passing in the night, suffer from incessant wanderlust, or are simply a restless romantic, consider submitting your short story (up to 5,000 words) by March 31, 2013. There is a $10 reading fee, payable via PayPal on the website. The top 12 stories will be published in Love on the Road 2013, a paperback book distributed through Amazon.com’s publish-on-demand service and an e-book distributed through Amazon.com’s Kindle service.

For more information about the project and how to submit, visit the project’s website: http://loveontheroad2013.com.

Maria

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The Freelance Switch: Being scared and doing it anyway

Working from home, legs up on deskI’m no stranger to freelancing. I’ve been moonlighting as a freelance book indexer and writer for the past 11 years. And it has always been mostly manageable. Up until now, that is.

I recently made the decision to leave a stable, comfortable and well-paying role in communications to focus on my freelance work. Trying to be kick-ass in two careers was getting too challenging, and I decided the time was right to choose the path that was the best fit for my strengths, skills and passion. Today marks the two-week countdown to owning my days.

The people in my network who know about my moonlighting side say it’s about time. I have wanted to strike out on my own for as long as I can remember. For years I have been gobbling up books like My So-Called Freelance Life, The Anti 9 to 5 Guide, Making a Living Without a Job, and the $100 Start-up. (PS: If you know someone with as much love for the “joyfully jobless” life, tell them to connect with me on LinkedIn, because I’d love to hear their story.)

I expected to hear a lot of negative remarks from my friends and family. Instead, I got the opposite: most comments consisted of variations on “I’m so jealous” and “You’re so brave.” The ones who are jealous probably think that working from home means I’ll be enjoying long lunches and coffee breaks with the PVR, luxuriating in impromptu naptimes, and writing dazzling prose while reclining in the La-Z-Boy. Those people probably also think that Sex in the City realistically depicts a writer’s life.

The ones who said I was brave have a more realistic view of the freelance life—the ups and downs, the lack of a support system, the isolation, the uncertainty, the potential drop in personal hygiene standards. True, there are many benefits to being the captain of your own work-at-home ship, but I am still pretty anxious.

Here are the kinds of things keeping me up at night:

  • Will I forget how to act in polite company? I will probably swear a lot more than I do now.
  • Will I go a little stir-crazy? Granted, I already talk to my cats when I’m on a deadline, but what if they start talking back?
  • Will my lazy side turn out to be my dominant side? I confess to already being a champion napper, and it is very easy for me to be busy doing absolutely nothing.
  • Will easy access to the fridge make even my comfiest yoga pants feel tight? Note that said fridge is often filled with tasty pastries, sauces made with real butter, and puh-lenty of carbs. (My husband is a pastry chef. Do not envy me.)
  • Will I be able to motivate myself to be successful? Every decision will be my own, and success or failure will be up to me.

Despite all these fears and anxieties, some more serious than others, I am still making the leap. Interested in hearing how it turns out? Watch for more posts to come with the scoop on what it’s like to make the freelance switch.

Maria

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Planning a writing retreat, Restless Writers-style

Writing retreat - complete with a dockThe Restless Writers are about to head out for an inspiring, tranquil, meditative, get-your-ass-in-gear writing retreat at a nearby lake-side idyll. What last minute writing ideas and goal-setting are we engaged in tonight? Find out for yourself:

Maria: Okay, the most important question: What should I pack? Is it super-informal? Dress up for dinner? Or casualence?

Beckie: Is that a real word?

Lori: [To Beckie] Casual plus elegance, duh. [To Maria] It’s a B&B. You can walk around in footie pajamas and rollers if you want.

Maria: I need to know how many bras to pack. I’m a planner.

Lori: The important thing to remember is that this retreat is all about writing. We’re all trying to get back into the flow. I know I need my writing mojo back. This day-job thing is killing me!

Beckie: I really need to buckle down, guys. I have projects pulling at me from every direction. I need to focus and just WRITE!

Maria: Same here. Now that I’ve decided which project to focus my energies on, I’ve got to keep the momentum going. Working through the pitch process as a group was really helpful. Now the real work lies ahead…

Lori: Here’s the real question: Is there Wi-Fi?

Beckie: Yes, according to the B&B owners. We are going to love this place. I hear there’s a three-course breakfast.

Lori: Honey, if there aren’t Cheerios in my sock drawer and I get to pee alone, it’ll feel like the frickin’ Taj Mahal.

Sharon: I wish I could come too…

Maria: Yeah, we’ll miss you! Just hang with us on Twitter. We’ll all be tweeting. It’ll be like you’re there in spirit. Maybe you can do a backyard writing retreat at the same time.

Sharon: Yeah, while dodging flying soccer balls and listening to an endless chorus of “mom, watch this!” I can feel the inspiration.

Beckie: Let’s pack running shoes so we can burn some calories while we brainstorm.

Lori: *snorts into her pomegranate juice*

Maria: That’s it. I’m bringing three bras.

Lori: I just hope I can find one that my kid hasn’t used as a slingshot recently.

Beckie: I get the Jacuzzi room. Called it. No erases.

Maria: As long as my room has a working mini-fridge and our stash of sauvignon blanc, we’ll be set.

Beckie: Hmmm… I don’t think there are mini-fridges. But either way, party in Maria’s suite Friday night!

Lori: Sigh… I’ll bring the ear plugs. And the SleepEze.

Want to see if we survive the weekend? Stay tuned…

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Filed under Diablogue, Group meetings, Retreats and conferences