My Address to Grads

Five years ago, I was invited to give the address to graduates from our local high school. I was honoured to do so, particularly since my daughter was graduating, and so I knew many students in the class. Since it’s that time of year again, I thought I’d share my thoughts from that time with everyone. The advice in it is really not only for young people. :)

Good evening, everyone, and good evening especially to you, the graduates of 2012. (And if I’ve been to your English class lately, yes, it’s me again. And I thought talking to twenty of you at once was intimidating!)

Actually, I’m very pleased to have been invited to speak to you tonight. I’ve known many of you since you started school, and I’ve watched you grow into wonderful young men and women. I’ve met more of you through school visits, and I know that this class of 2012 is full of kindness, intelligence, spirit, talent, and potential.

When I was invited to do this, at first I wasn’t quite sure what I should say. My guidelines were to give you some “sage advice.” Now, for one thing, I’m much too young to be giving “sage” advice! But I guess I have learned a few things worth sharing. I think they’re some of the ingredients for a happy life. (Don’t worry, it’s not a long or complicated recipe.)

Learn to say “yes.”
I don’t mean, “be a doormat.” I mean, “open yourself to opportunities.” It’s almost always easier to say “no,” especially if we’re presented with an opportunity that seems intimidating, or outside our comfort zone, or more than we’re qualified for. Say yes anyway. It’s only by taking on things that challenge us that we learn our true capabilities and allow ourselves to grow. So make “yes” your default answer when opportunity presents itself.

Learn to say “no.”
When “yes” is your default, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. So learn to say “no” sometimes, too. I know your life seems quite full right now, but once you add in careers and spouses and children and houses and bills and volunteering and grocery shopping and housework and yardwork and travel and deadlines—it’s going to get busier. And in order to give all those things the attention they need—you need a little time to stop and think once in a while. To refocus on the important things and let go of the not-so-important ones. So learn to balance “yes” and “no” wisely.

Remember that who and what you are today is not necessarily who and what you will be tomorrow.
Life is about change and possibility. There’s a lot of pressure on you right now to decide what you are going to be. Don’t let that overwhelm you. All you are really deciding is what you are going to do—at least for the next little while. If you change your mind later, it’s all right. It doesn’t mean you made a mistake. When I left Memorial, I headed for journalism school. Then I changed my mind and became a lawyer for a time. Then I changed my mind again when I realized that I wasn’t happy—and I went back to writing, because that’s where my heart is. But if I hadn’t gone to law school and worked as a lawyer, I probably wouldn’t have met the person who would become one of my best friends and one of my partners in publishing. So even if your path is a winding one, that doesn’t mean you’ve strayed off course. Very few lives are a straight road—and straight roads are generally not nearly as interesting as winding ones.

Create something.
Without a doubt, we live in a consumer society. We consume material things like clothes and cell phones, we consume entertainment like TV shows and movies, we consume far too much of far too many things that are “bad” for us. So to balance all this consumption, I encourage you to also take time to create something. It’s strange how many people deny their creativity—they say, “Oh, I’m not creative”—when what I think they really feel is that they’re not creative enough to do something that someone else would consider “good.” But I think that making things is good for us. You might be a writer or a filmmaker or an artist or a songwriter. You might build bridges or design buildings or craft a new scientific theory. Or you could be a scrapbooker or a woodworker or a gardener. Or you could take pictures or sew things or make music or restore old cars or make a funny video that goes viral. If you don’t create for anyone else, create for yourself. I like this quote from the American journalist William F. Buckley, Jr. He said: “I get satisfaction of three kinds. One is creating something, one is being paid for it, and one is the feeling that I haven’t just been sitting on my butt all afternoon.”

So even if you’re not being paid for it, don’t just sit on your butt all afternoon. Create things.

Think for yourself.
Every generation probably hears this, but I think it is especially important in the world right now. We are facing a lot of BIG issues—political, religious, scientific, global—and the rate of societal change is possibly the fastest it has ever been. You will have to make decisions on many of these issues, so I urge you to be informed, consider the facts, and decide for yourself. Just because your parents or your friends or a politician or your favorite celebrity or some guy on YouTube tells you something, does not necessarily make it true. You can respect their opinions, but think for yourself, and be true to your own decisions.

Don’t strive for normal.
Since the time you started school, you’ve probably been preoccupied with being “normal” or “fitting in.” But what does “normal” mean? It means “standard” or “common” or “average.” I want you all to do something. Put your thumbs and fingertips together, and look through the opening that forms. That’s “normal.” Now look around you, everywhere else. That’s the rest of your possibilities. Do you really want to fit into that little space called “normal?” Don’t be afraid to live outside the boundaries, even just a little. I think you’ll be happier for it.

You are never too old.
You’ve been told many times in the past eighteen or nineteen years that you’re “too young” to do this or that. And while that is sometimes true—you really are too young to drive a car at age twelve, or get married in Grade Three—before long you’ll start thinking (or society will tell you) that you’re “too old” to do things. Don’t believe it. You are never too old to do things you think you’ll enjoy, and don’t let anyone tell you differently. Want to play on a playground? Do it. Change your job? Do it. Learn a new sport, or hobby, or language? Do it. If you truly believe that you are not too old to do something, then you won’t be. But you have to start believing it now, so that doubts and that tiny space called “normal” don’t hold you back later.

Finally, I want to mention the Ethic of Reciprocity. You may think you don’t know what that is, but I’m betting that you do. You might know it as the Golden Rule, which commonly goes something like: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” But it’s a concept that goes far beyond that. The idea that the best way to get along in life is to treat others the way we would like to be treated stretches back as far as the ancient civilizations of Babylon, China, Egypt, and Greece, and it stretches across almost every world culture, religion, and ethical code. In Islam, it’s “wish for others what you wish for yourself”; in Buddhism, it’s “treat not others in ways that you would find hurtful”; in Judaism, it’s “what is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” And so on, and so on.

It’s easy to say it, but when you take a step back and look at it, it’s quite elegant in its simplicity. You can hang almost every other moral and ethical principle on this one directive. Take a minute and really think about what kind of world we would live in if we always considered the other in all of our social interactions. In business, in relationships, in our everyday life. If we always took a brief second to judge our actions by that one, simple test—if someone did or said this to me, would it harm or upset me? If you forget everything else I’ve said here tonight as soon as you leave, I hope this one, at least, will stick. I really think it has the power to change the world.

And that’s it—say yes, say no, expect and accept change, make things, think for yourself, forget about normal, never think you’re “too old,” and always consider the other. My recipe for a happy life! You have already made all of us—your parents, your teachers, your families—incredibly proud, and I hope that as you start down your own winding paths, you’ll find some of these ingredients useful.

There’s a quote that goes: “When it comes to the future, there are three kinds of people: those who let it happen, those who make it happen, and those who wonder what happened.”

Go and be the ones who make it happen!

Thank you.

The Alternative Expletive Project

A long, long time ago, over at The Scriptorium, I had a feature page called the Alternative Expletive Project. Here’s how I explained it then:

For many writers, the use of expletives in our fiction writing presents a quandary. Do we go ahead and use one of those infamous “seven words you can’t say on television” (although I think they’ve all been said there by now)? Do we tone down one or more of those words, making the work less likely to offend–but, some would argue, less realistic?

It’s a personal choice that we all must make at some point, when our character smashes a thumb with a hammer, loses everything in the stock market, gets into a huge screaming match or realizes that the spaceship’s life support system has just failed. To swear, or not to swear, that is the question.

For those who’d like to walk the line somewhere between an “R” rating and an unbelievably dull character, The Scriptorium presents the Alternative Expletive Project. Our goal: to offer writers real-life, inoffensive examples of what folks say in times of anger, pain, despair and other emotional extremes.

I asked The Scriptorium’s readers to send me their examples and suggestions, and the response was…edifying, to say the least. So I collated all the responses into one large (partially) alphabetically-sorted list. As responses continued to roll in, I gave up on alphabetizing them. It’s interesting to note that today’s possibly most popular swear-without-really-swearing, “WTF,” did not even make the list at the time.

When The Scriptorium underwent a redesign, that page was overlooked and didn’t make it back onto the new site. So I present the list here, for your browsing and reference pleasure. You never know when it might come in handy–and it’s fun, at any rate. Do you say any of these? Do your characters?

The Alternative Expletive Datalist

Ah, Buddha All-fired Blamed
Blast Blasted Bleeding
Blimey Blinking Bloody Mary
Bloody Blowed Confound it
Confounded Crap Crappola
Crikey Cursed Cussed
Dammit Dang Danged
Darn Dash it Dashed
Dern Dungduggetty Mud Durn
Feck off Fishcakes Frig
Gee C. Cow Gee Gol-danged
Gosh Heck Jehosophat
Jiminy Crickets Motherfather Motherflower
Poop Rats Sugar
Ballspun Road and Crumpets Fiddlesticks Sugar and (bloody) cats
That’s SpongeBob (means “That’s B.S.!”) Bother Botheration
Tidy Bowl Shiver me timbers Dag nabbit
Split me infinitives By carbonate of soda no Fark
Cheese ‘n’ Rice For frog’s snake Fudge
Good Gravy Jeezly Heavenly Day
Good Googa-Mooga Go to Halifax Gol-dashit
Ficky-doo BALLoons BASTion of indecency
Mother flubber Cock-a-doodle-diddle Drat
Shoot Jeepers Flick
Boulder Dash Chickens Fudgesicle
Nuts Sugar Honey Iced Tea Fungus
Jackrabbit Crappers Dadgummit
Pickles FartBurgers Criminy
Sammich Bachkalooey Hajamabajah
Rat Farts Jolly Bad Luck Jolly Rotten Luck
Dorkburger Filth Belcher Dirt Merchant
Chickenplucker Cheezles Flackit
Summon a witch Grudge damn it Faff (off/you/this)
Judas H. Priest Bollards (load of) Bilge
(you) Richard Cranium Baloney Fricking
Jeeze Louise Cheet Beach
Sugar Plum Fairies Flipping Frack
Howling Horse Biscuits Cheesers
Shittles Skittles Shootles
I could spit nickles Fack Ymir’s Bones
Son of a Biscuit Eater

Two Weeks of Winter

Well, yes, on the East Coast of Canada, we certainly get more than two weeks of winter. Winter meanders in sometime mid-November, hunkers down, and usually has to be forcibly evicted sometime in May. Occasionally it will pack its bags in April, if we’re really lucky.

But the past two weeks have been…worse than usual. Last week my high-school-aged son had three snow days…this week he’s had four. He’s not complaining, and I’ll admit it–I’ve enjoyed being able to sleep later than usual. But–wow. I’m not sure what the two-week accumulation has been, but in one day we had 70+ cm (that’s around 28 inches for my non-metric friends), so you can imagine that the two-week total is considerable. My office window sits at ground level, and it’s a good thing I have an OTT Light on my desk, because sunshine’s been in short supply.

My office window on Valentine’s Day. Not much light creeping through that snow drift!

We had more last night, although a mere few centimetres. And the forecast for the next few days…only flurries!

I’ll believe it when I see it.

NaNoRetro: 2012

Nano2012

Today we jump ahead to 2012 in the NaNoWriMo Retrospective. This was the year I wrote most of the first draft of The Family Business, which is, sadly, another of the still-unfinished manuscripts waiting for my attention.

I had a lot of fun with this one; it’s a ghost story and a mystery, and it’s definitely one I want to finish. Here’s the blurb:

Stella McKarron is sorry when her Uncle Ambrose dies suddenly, but she doesn’t think it will actually change her life much. They’ve never gotten along terribly well, anyway. So it comes as a surprise to learn that he’s left her his cat (she’s allergic), his car (she doesn’t drive), his private detective agency (she’s a librarian) and his collection of ten thousand books (she’s actually okay with that one). The bigger surprise is yet to come, however, when his ghost appears and tells her that he was murdered, and the first case he wants her to take on is his own…

familybusinessHere’s my hastily throw-together cover mockup; I still like the concept although it could be MUCH better executed.

The November draft came in at just barely 50k, since I was also working on the rewrite of One’s Aspect to the Sun that month. I see from the notes in my spreadsheet that I actually did not have an idea for what to write this year until I actually sat down to do it. I’m trying to remember where the idea eventually came from, but it appears to be lost in the mists of time.

Notably, this was the year I set up my treadmill desk, and this was the first project I wrote at it. I don’t seem to have stats from that month, although I suspect they are around somewhere…I do like obsessive record-keeping from time to time.  We do seem to have had a lot of word wars in the Ramsey household, according to my notes, and some successful write-ins with other Cape Breton Wrimos.

I believe that this one remains unfinished because I made that classic error of trying to write a mystery without enough advance planning. Other genres can work out okay with the “gardening” approach, but mysteries require more of the “architect” thinking. Or as I once said in a radio interview, “When it comes time to lay down a clue, you’d better have a clue.”

Someday soon I’ll pull this one out and see what it needs. It’s  fun tale with some quirky characters and deserves to play out to “The End.”

November 11th Musings

Poppies by Benoit Aubry of Ottawa

This morning I walked “into town” to observe the Remembrance Day ceremony. I do actually live in the town, by the way, but on the outer edge, and going “into town” has always been the family nomenclature. I had planned to walk with some others of my family, but due to this and that I ended up going alone with a new plan to meet them there. It was a sunny morning, and the wind held a jagged edge–but, hey, it’s November in Cape Breton–and altogether lovely for walking.

Since I was alone and hadn’t taken my headphones to listen to music, I set my mind, as I walked, to the problem facing me in my current novel project. Which, coincidentally, had to do with war. The question I have been trying to answer is basically, how can a small group of people stop an interstellar war?

The obvious answer, I suppose, is: they can’t. But this is fiction, and that wasn’t the answer I wanted. I wanted an answer that involved cooperation, and determination, and compassion, and alien races working together. I just couldn’t seem to find the right way to make all those pieces fit together into what also has to be a good story.

So I mulled it over as I walked, and I thought a bit about war, and a bit about my Great Uncle John, who fought in the Second World War and did come home, if a changed man. I thought about the characters in my book, and what’s just happened and is happening in the United States, and about other wars and other places and other stories. And I came back to my characters and all the bits of the novel that have already been set in motion.

And. I think it worked. By the time I met up with my family members, some very important story pieces had fallen into place, and others had revealed how they could work together, and new pieces had appeared, too. I didn’t quite dance in the street since it would have seemed quite disrespectful under the circumstances. But I felt much better than I had about the story in a while.

There isn’t really a moral to this story, but I suppose if there is one for writers, it’s that sometimes you have to give your brain a quiet place to churn, and let it go. Maybe it means a change of scenery or activity, maybe it means a nap or just a break from staring disconsolately at the screen. Maybe it’s not forcing ideas, but nudging your thoughts in a certain direction and letting them run, instead of staring at an outline that isn’t working any more. Maybe it’s a walk on a sunny, windy day, alone with your thoughts and a question to be answered. If you’re stuck, try all of these things, and more, if that’s what it takes. The pieces will fall into place.

But whether wake or dreaming, this I know / How dreamwise human glories come and go*

NaNoMusingsEspecially in the second week of NaNoWriMo, writing and the dream of writing can be a switch flipping between elation and despair. While the first week is usually a glorious outpouring of fresh new ideas taking form for the first time on the page, the second week becomes hard work. Those ideas don’t seem so fresh any more, and suddenly things are supposed to start making sense. You haven’t thought this through, and you’re not sure how you’re going to get these characters from that beautiful beginning to a satisfying ending, through a middle of vitality and meaning.

That’s okay. The only way to get there is to keep going. The only way to make it better is to write it badly first. That’s how the dream becomes reality.

Keep going. Week Two shall pass.

*The Dream Called Life – Edward Fitzgerald

Friday Desk Report – Oct. 9/15

my-tools-1239864-639x426So I had this idea to write a sort of weekly roundup/review post, and call it the Friday Desk Report. I envision it as sort of a brief review of the week’s projects, word metrics, links, and anything else notable that happened during the week. As much for myself as for anyone else, I suppose, but it could turn out to be interesting.

Will I be able to keep it up? Only the future will tell. Traditionally, I’m not so good with consistency, but it’s possible I’m improving with age. Come on, it’s possible.

So, what do I have to report? This week I did the most sustained new writing I’ve done since my mom passed away at the end of August. Still not a lot of new words, but it felt good to work like that again. I worked on a short story I’m writing about giant monsters who have laid waste to much of the continent and now threaten my protagonist’s small Nova Scotia farm.

I also worked on a book trailer for The Seventh Crow, and I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. I’m waiting on a couple of images I need to replace some placeholders, and then I’ll be uploading it to share. Should be available sometime next week.

I wrote a book review I’d promised, and drafted a guest blog post I have to turn in by the 15th, so I’m well ahead on that. I also put together a new outline template for Scrivener and began using it to work on The Chaos Assassin, and this morning I sent out a short story submission.

I read far too much on Facebook about the upcoming federal election and decided I need to stop worrying about it and being disappointed in people. It’s far too negative. All I can do now is cast my own vote and encourage others to do so, and hope, hope, hope for better things to come.

NearspaceBibleToday I’m working on my Nearspace series bible, in preparation for NaNoWriMo and the novel I’m planning to work on in November. I already had such a thing but it was NOT well-organized or complete. I found this video from Kami Garcia to be quite inspiring in this regard and look how well it’s coming along!

In other Nearspace news, I also put up another free Nearspace story on this site today, which you can find here. It’s a peek into Nearspace and the first contact story between humans and Lobors, before wormhole travel was possible.

Some cool things from the internet this week:

Okay, I’m impressed. That’s a pretty good report! So back to today’s project…

 

Picking Up Dropped Threads

No, this is not a post about knitting or weaving…at least, only figuratively.

This week I’ve been struggling to pick up an unfinished manuscript and get it moving forward again. I wrote over 50k words of a second Magica Incognita novel last November, and expected to finish the first draft early this year with an eye to rewriting and editing in the spring, and maybe a publication date this past summer.

Well, due mainly to consuming family issues, nothing beyond projects I had outside commitments for happened from early spring to fall this year. I’m very pleased that I was able to keep all of those commitments…but other projects fell by the wayside.

I’ve said before that the key to a really successful NaNoWriMo draft is getting to “the end.” It doesn’t matter how much work that manuscript will take in revisions and rewrites and adding new subplots and taking it apart and putting it back together again–it’s all easier if you have a finished first draft that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Well, I didn’t get anywhere near “the end” of The Chaos Assassin. And the intervening ten months or so have effectively blurred the progression of plots and clues and conversations in my mind so that I sat down at my desk this week not really knowing where to start. Reading through the existing manuscript was a good place to start, of course, as well as reviewing all my notes and mind maps. I also made a timeline of the existing events in Aeon Timeline, a program I recently purchased. Seemed like a good way to try it out, and so far, I like it.

But even all of that didn’t get the story back in my head the way it was when I was writing that first draft. I still feel like I’m floundering around with a fistful of plot threads and no clear idea what to do with them.

So I am going to try making an outline.

Yup, me. Making an outline. Weird, right? Not just of what’s already written–I usually do that anyway, after the fact or as I go along, because it’s invaluable for rewrites later. No, I’m going to go further. I’m going to catch up to where I have written and keep going. Plan out the rest of the novel and then write it.

My head’s almost exploding at this point.

Since I’m not an outliner by nature, I decided to get a little help by looking at various outlining methods online. I wasted  spent a fair bit of time perusing articles, charts, worksheets, etc., but in the end came back to one I’d looked at before and that sort of spoke to me: Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet. Actually, an enhanced version of it by Tom Gowan. And a little bit of Dan Wells’ 7-Point Story Structure and a Scrivener version thrown in for good measure. No, I’m not dedicated to following it rigidly–just to using it as a guide to help put the manuscript back into perspective for me and assist me in finding my way forward.

So here we go. If nothing else, it’s colourful and pretty!

BeatSheet

 

The Summer Library Read

Library_Pataskala_025I’m working my way through my 52-book Goodreads Reading Challenge–a little bit behind, mainly because of writing projects. I haven’t done an actual survey of what I’ve read this year, but I’m going to guess that they’d shake out like this by format: Audio, then Ebook, then Print.

(Well, now that I’ve wondered about it, I DO have to go and check.) Yup, confirmed. Print is at the bottom of the list.

It’s not that I don’t like print books anymore. It’s a matter of convenience–I can multitask and do stuff around the house and garden while I listen to audiobooks. I can easily have an ebook with me wherever I go, on one of my ereaders or even my phone. So while I still love the print format, it’s harder to find space for it in my life.

But not in the summer.

Perhaps because reading print books has become more of an indulgence, they seem to go best with summer reading. I usually devour books in the summertime, and one of the things I love best is the Summer Library Read.

This is the book that you had never heard of before you stopped into the library today. It’s probably the book you wouldn’t be quick to buy, because you know nothing about it, and little about the author. But as you ran your eyes and fingers along the shelf, it spoke to you. The spine caught your eye. The title intrigued. The blurb piqued your interest.

And there was nothing to stop you from giving it a try. Zero committment. Nothing down, nothing to pay (unless you don’t return it on time). You just picked it up, took it to the desk, and then walked out with it. And you’ll settle in to read it at the most indulgent times. When you’re up late because it’s vacation and you don’t have to set the alarm. When you’re at the beach. At the cottage. Sitting out on your step with a cold drink and a bit of shade. Indulging your love of print books, and library books, and the absolute joy of discovering something wonderful and new.

The summer library read. If you haven’t tried it lately, I recommend you give it a whirl. You never know what you might find.

Photo credit: click at Morguefile.com

Exterminate! Exterminate!

256px-Book_burning I’ve read some books I didn’t particularly like. I’ve read some books that I thought had many technical and craft-related flaws. I’ve written reviews on some of those books.

I’ve never felt the need or desire to destroy an author or their book in one of those reviews. I don’t think it’s necessary, professional, or entertaining.

I’m not writing this post because I’ve received any sort of review like this for my own work (or if I have, I’ve been lucky enough not to see it!). But I’ve read some others lately that alternately make me cringe, and make me angry. Have you seen reviews like this? Where the reviewer seems to take a sick delight in completely eviscerating the work–and by association, of course, the author? They can be cleverly written, sure. But their vitriol against the book is actually repulsive. I’m not going to do any of them the service of linking to them. Sadly, they’re not all that difficult to find.

Yes, there are probably more flawed books available now than there ever were before (although don’t think they don’t/didn’t exist inside traditional publishing since its inception). But I don’t know what can prompt a “reviewer” to write such a screed. Even if you think a book is the worst piece of drivel ever written, that opinion doesn’t give you the right to decimate another human being. You can discuss the flaws you found in the book; you can discuss why it didn’t appeal to you; you can even make suggestions for what would have improved it for you. Those thoughts might be helpful to an author in writing another book, and they might be helpful to other readers in deciding whether to read a book.

But if you’re not writing a review with those goals in mind, why *are* you writing it? If it’s to make yourself look clever and rapier-witted at the cost of destroying someone else–you’re just another online bully. And your credibility with me is a big fat zero.

Photo credit: By Patrick Correia from Northampton, MA, United States (Book burning Uploaded by mangostar) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons