2015 Ottawa Book Awards

It can be difficult to keep up the buzz for your book once the publication date begins to fade into history. So it was exciting this morning to see The Cutting Room named as a finalist for the 2015 Ottawa Book Awards. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the awards, which recognize the top English and French books published by local authors in the past year. The list of English fiction finalists is an intriguing one, and I look forward to learning more about the other books. Winners will be announced October 21 at City Hall. I’ll be there.

Clearly an intelligent book club

Word has made it through that the esteemed PILLS (Pender Island Literary Ladies Society) has chosen to focus on my book, The Cutting Room, at their meeting this Sunday. Full disclosure: there’s a family connection. Nonetheless I’m honoured. I wish I could be there. Alas, their budget didn’t allow for flying me to the coast.

Enjoy, ladies. I hope it’s a lively and critical discussion.

Authors for Indies 2015

In Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado (one of my favourite films), Kevin Klein admits to Linda Hunt that “A good smelly saloon is my favourite place in the world.” I don’t think I’ve ever been in a saloon, although I do fancy a good pub—preferably one that’s not overly fragrant. Two other favourite haunts are classic hardware stores and local independent bookshops.

The Home Hardware just a few blocks from my house is, I hope, not a dying breed. It’s a true neighbourhood shop, not far removed from a general store with its selection of tools, bird feeders, small kitchen appliances, and window glass cut to size. And they welcome dogs, which is handy when Fido needs to point out the specific cordless screwdriver he wants for Christmas.

My neighbourhood has been stripped of most of its bookstores in recent decades. Not too long ago we had a couple of excellent used bookstores, as well as Prime Crime (a mystery book shop), Britton’s and Octopus. Only the latter remains, a tiny little gem of a store on Third Avenue just west of Bank Street. Rockliffe/New Edinburgh/Vanier has Books on Beechwood, Old Ottawa East has Singing Pebble, and Centretown has Perfect Books.

This Saturday, May 2, 2015, is Authors for Indies day in Canada. I’m not sure whose idea it was, but it’s a great opportunity for those who write books to thank the small local bookstores that sell them. Authors (well known and obscure) will be haunting the isles in bookstores across the country on Saturday, meeting shoppers, talking up their books and reinforcing the vital importance of independent book shops.

Take a few minutes to drop into one or more of your local bookstores this Saturday. Ask for a book recommendation or just say hello. I’ll be the obscure author at Perfect Books on Elgin Street from noon to 3:00. Hope to see you then.

On the air

It was a pleasure to talk with CBC Ottawa's Lucy van Oldenbarneveld about my book, The Cutting Room. The interview aired as part of Our Ottawa on March 21, 2015 (starts at the 28:45 in this link). Visiting CBC was a bit like old home week for me. I worked at CBC radio way back in the mid-70s when it was based on the seventh and eighth floors of the Chateau Laurier. I worked with Lucy's producer, Adele Cardamone-Martel, on a pilot for the TV network and Ottawa's Skit Row comedy troupe back in the '80s. And it turns out I lectured Our Ottawa's director—Gerry Buffet—while he was a student at Algonquin College at about the same time, just a few years after I left teaching at the school. Thanks to all for having me on the show. I'd like to say I can use the practice!

See it. Write it.

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to talk about The Cutting Room at a neighbourhood book club. Someone asked me if the main character’s house was my own. “You seemed to know it so well,” she said. She could picture it, probably because I did it first. 

The house was not mine, but I had sketched the floor plan and yard in detail as I was writing. I had to. Perhaps due to my background as a film and video director, I consider visualization essential in writing. The believability of a character relies in part on the realism evoked by the world they inhabit.

While precision is important, the detail should not be explicit. It’s part of what I call the understory—the plot, setting and character ‘data’ that are crystal clear to the writer and largely invisible to the reader. It’s always hard to know just how opaque to be. Lending a scene Alex Colville realism may have its merits, but it can also deny readers the chance to paint it for themselves. It crosses the line from showing to telling (but that’s a blahg entry for another day).

What I’ve found is that it’s best to write a scene first for its intent, then revisit it to determine what role the visuals should play. I’m generalizing, I know (the luxury of blogging), so let’s take an example: you’re describing a romantic dinner between two main characters. You may be able to visualize the restaurant—say they’re dining al fresco along a canal—and that certainly suggests some pretty pictures. But what’s really important is what’s going on between the characters. To an extent, you have to ignore everything but the practical features of the location. The trick is to call just enough on the surroundings to support the story.

In my novel, The Cutting Room, there is very little physical description of the characters, especially not the main ones. I think most readers are able to picture them in their minds’ eyes. This is the reader’s magic, not mine. The more time we spend with a character in any book, the more we get to know them, the more we ascribe characteristics that don’t otherwise exist. 

Writing is actually a product of all the senses. I suspect it’s a common fault among aspiring writers that we get hung up on what we think we see (we’re awfully visual critters here in North America). We forget the power of sound, smell, taste and touch in a narrative, and to help shape believable characters.

If you ever get hung up on a scene, look to your senses, or those of your characters, for the ‘what if’ triggers. What if that object in your character’s hand feels like a weapon? What if the scent or stench that hits your character when she enters a room makes her suddenly think of home? What if.

Book clubs

I’ll be making my first book club appearance tomorrow night here in the ‘hood. Members of the Glebe’s Fourth Avenue Book Club (clearly enlightened readers) have graciously invited me to join them to talk about The Cutting Room. As an author, I don’t think I can say enough good things about book clubs. They’ve become essential to the world of literature, helping books survive as tactile and, yes, fragile things we can hold in our hands, open (and close), scribble in, loan to friends, shove onto shelves—and resell at garage sales. These gatherings—the clubs, not the garage sales—are unique and intimate opportunities to bring together authors and their works. I just hope my presence doesn't stifle discussion. I like to hear praise, but I'd be disappointed if the evening descended into a love-in. Then again, perhaps some armour is in order...

Official book launch November 13

The official launch of The Cutting Room is scheduled for November 13 at the Glebe Community Centre. Check out the poster for details. Copies of the book will be available for sale (cash only, please: $18, tax in). I look forward to signing a few copies and doing a short reading. I'm delighted to say my friend and sommelier par excellence Phillip Nicholson has graciously offered to serve wine and some nibbles; there'll be coffee, tea and my wife's homemade baked goods as well (perhaps the best reason to show up).

I hope you can drop in and say hello. You'll be especially welcome if you arrive with deep pockets and intent to purchase the film rights. See you November 13.

Finally.

We seem to be up on all channels: local independent bookstores, online in Canada and the US for ordering the paperback, all major ebook platforms (check out the Buy page). I've got a whole new appreciation for the work of the publisher, but no regrets at having done it myself.

If you need permission to hate my book, this is it.

A friend just pointed out to me his apprehension about recently reading The Cutting Room. He was afraid how awkward it would be if he hated it.

His comments made me realize that there may be a lot of people out there with the same concern. And whereas he loved the book (at least he said he did), others may not. That’s okay. Well, no, it would be too bad. But I get it. I don’t like many of the books I pick up. I give them all a chance, but I end up tossing aside a lot more books than, say, my wife, who can’t put anything down. She’s reading Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter right now and keeps telling me how much she dislikes the dialogue. But she keeps plugging away.

I don’t want anyone to think they can’t be honest with me. I’ve had the nerve to publish the damn book. The least I can do is gracefully accept the criticism—much of which I know will be constructive. After all, no one knows the book's weaknesses better than I do.

Persona non grata

My plan is to make The Cutting Room available in a few of Ottawa’s independent bookstores. Sales will primarily happen online. But Ottawa is my hometown and one of the subjects of the book. And yes, I’d like to see The Cutting Room on a store shelf, perched among the works of other ‘D’ authors.

Okay, I’d better back up. Ottawa only has a few independent bookstores left. The online and boxstore giants are crushing these neighbourhood gems. It’s tragic. I love small bookstores. Octopus Books on Third Avenue is the lone survivor in the Glebe. Elsewhere in the vicinity of downtown we’ve got Perfect Books on Elgin, Books on Beechwood, and Singing Pebble on Main Street.

I’m as guilty as the next guy for not supporting the independents. Spending a few minutes in these shops on the weekend reminded me that I should be buying my books there as well as selling them. I know stocking a couple of copies of The Cutting Room isn’t going to make much difference (until Hollywood buys the movie rights). But maybe if I drive a few buyers through their doors… maybe people just need to reacquaint themselves with the beauty and pleasure of a small bookstore.

I was in North Carolina in June visiting family. We took an afternoon drive to Fearrington Village, an odd tourist/retirement community near Chapel Hill. I spent about an hour in McIntyre’s Books, as idyllic a book shop as you’re likely to find in North America. Well stocked. Lots of cubby holes crammed with more books. Super knowledgeable staff. And reviews, an astonishing number of them, handwritten and tucked into books throughout the store. Who can read that many books? Who can formulate so many coherent opinions? Very impressive.

Back in Ottawa, I dropped into one of my hometown independent stores last Saturday. There were three women at the cash. When I asked if they took self-published works on consignment, the older two scattered like scared rabbits, leaving the junior to ‘handle it.’ She was polite but short on enthusiasm. I’m sure they get all kinds. It must be frightful. Feeling sympathy for the girl—and not being the best self-promoter—I simply left a copy of my book along with my business card. Have a look, I told her. I’ll call you in a week.

 No one said this was going to be easy.

The perils of proofing

My hard-copy proof of The Cutting Room arrived a couple of weeks ago. It’s really something to hold the damn thing in your hands. It feels like a book. Open it up and it looks the way a book’s interior should look. Someday it will smell like a book—once the volatile organic compounds wear off.

While we ironed out a few niggly issues with the cover, I scoured the interior to make final tweaks and sniff out what I hoped were the last of the typos. In my day job at Stiff Sentences, we maintain that in a document of any great length (in this case a tad more than 70,000 words), some mistakes are bound to sneak through. But that doesn’t absolve the writer from trying to find them.

Proofreading is a ridiculously specialized skill. A good proofreader is something of a freak of nature, I think—and I say that in complete reverence. They don’t read so much as observe. They have to avoid getting wrapped up in the story, otherwise they’d miss whoppers like: “…legalconstraintsimposedbyyesterday’scourtinjunctionagainstherfilm…”

I was halfway through that sentence before I realized there were no spaces between the words. The problem is that I know the text so well, I don’t need the spaces. You do. I mean I wouldn’t make you wade through that, even to save paper.

My personal favourite typo was “half-eaten foot”, which I corrected to “half-eaten food”, although I was very tempted to leave it.

Part of me thinks human error, in small doses, gives a book character, which it may otherwise be lacking. It’s manufactured by a machine, after all, so somebody has to take credit for inserting the wobbles.

I had a couple of very kind offers to proof the book by highly capable individuals. I declined for a few reasons. One, if there’s a mistake, I’d prefer the blame fall not to the proofreader, but the writer. Me. Two, I’m a bit of a perfectionist and I want to get better at this task of proofreading. Again, this is about taking responsibility for what you write. Is the story really any good if it’s riddled with sloppy technical errors? Three, on a project like this, I’ve grown weary of asking people to do things for nothing. I’m content now to live with the mistakes in this book.

By the way, I found half a dozen typos in the first printing. I fixed those with a quick update to the file on Amazon CreateSpace. I hope the number of outstanding errors is minimally embarrassing. Please feel free to contact me if you find one or more. I’ll make all necessary repairs in the next edition, with thanks.

Nice piece here by the American Copy Editors Society.

Cat thing

My bloody book isn’t even available yet and already I’m being accused of being a psycho catman more concerned with feline welfare than that of my fellow humans.

Let’s get this straight: I do not have a cat thing going on. Yes, there’s a cat on the cover of my book—and an intrepid fellow he appears to be. Yes, a cat appears in my website homepage photo (my adoring fan). Yes, a cat is mentioned in my book; okay, twice—but it’s the same cat. Yes, my wife and I co-exist with two cats. Yes, I emailed my wife a picture of one of them this morning. But that’s as far as it goes. I do not Google cat videos. I have never owned a kitten poster. I do not believe cats are smarter than dogs.

My sister is the one with cat-food and electric water dispensers on every floor of her house—in every room, it seems. There are more litter boxes in that house than toilets. I haven’t considered this before, but maybe she sees this as a good sales feature: “Handsome two-storey single family home with 3.5 baths and 6 litter boxes.”

Okay, this isn’t getting any funnier. I just had to put the kibosh on this cat grumbling. If I ever get an interview with Eleanor Wachtel, I do not want her going on about how cats figure prominently in my work. Unless…Eleanor…happens…to…like…cats…

Gotta run. The cats are hungry.

A book and its cover

In their 2013 book, APE: How to Publish a Book, Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch point out that successful indie authors assume multiple roles. They not only have to write, but also do all the work traditionally shouldered by publishers. In short, they must be entrepreneurs. I’ve been struggling to be the author, publisher and entrepreneur, and I’m glad I didn’t have to add book designer to the list. I have a basic sense of design, I think. ‘Basic’ in the Cro-Magnon sense. Just enough to let me know I should hire a professional (Cro-Magnons were all about outsourcing). Sure, second-rate writing has given self-publishing a bad name over the years. But the main curse of many self-published books has always been self-designed covers. Yikes. What were those people thinking? Look, if you expect your writing to be compared to other books on the store shelf, don’t you think your cover should lead the way? But I vent.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the cover of my book. My wife and I invested an afternoon at Chapters comparing covers and spines, photographing those we liked. Many hours have been lost pouring over the Book Cover Archive—a great resource.

Now I realize I’ve been pushing my designer around (not that this isn’t necessary now and then). Nicole is a pro, a former president of the Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario. But she’s a minimalist. I’m not, unless you’re serving me rhubarb. So we’ve been doing a lot of back and forth. It’s all good—very collaborative, from my perspective at least. And I’m very excited about the results.

The cover features a work by one of my favourite local painters, Gwendolyn Best. Bless her, she was kind enough to give me permission to use Cat in a Box. I’m not much of an art expert, but what I love about this painting is that it’s at once dark and comic. That balance appealed to me as being relevant to the theme of The Cutting Room, which is, oh I don’t know. Most of the time theme to me is, uh, a five-letter word.

As we fiddled with the front-cover text—er, as I fiddled with the text, I suggested that it might be cool if we slashed the word cutt­ing. You know, as if Zorro had taken a swipe at it, or Danny Kaye with a snap of his finger in The Court Jester, or Tony Curtis in The Great Race (not much of a movie, but a fabulous sword fight scene—gads, it’s even online. And so is Kaye. This calls for another blog, or more time on YouTube). Actually, I can’t take credit for the idea. It was my wife’s. She’s got the design sense I was denied at birth. And Nicole agreed it was a good idea, but she was diplomatic in pointing on that the cover was already a busy place, filled with nuance when one considered the title on one hand and, on the other, the painting’s cat, striking a heroic pose as he peers into the darkness of the box.

In fact, I think slashing the word cutting was more than Nicole could stand. She directed me to a TED Talk featuring book designer Chip Kidd. This is a piece all writers should watch. In fact, I think all booklovers will find it entertaining.

Anyway, Nicole. I get it. You’ve minimized me. And I feel maximized for it.

My kingdom for an ending

Plot has been the bane of my existence as a wannabe writer. I’ve never been at a loss for beginnings; I could envision midpoints, but endings have eluded me with just about every story I’ve begun. In part, I think it’s because the trip from beginning to end seems so overwhelming.

As I planned The Cutting Room, I decided a solution might lie in an enforced beginning-middle-end structure. So I mapped the plot across five days. The story starts on a Wednesday and ends on the following Sunday (each day is a chapter). A great deal happens in between—the story skips continually off the timeline to explore tributaries of memory—but I was liberated by knowing the climax would have to come by the time the Jamieson International Documentary Film Festival closed that first weekend in March 2011. The structure anchored the story; I always had a plot point to come back to, even if it was just a date. The effect was profound. It’s not that I felt I suddenly had permission to write freely, rather that a restriction had been removed. I was running on dry land, not underwater.

What’s interesting to me is that, as I work on my second book, I feel no need to impose any similar kind of structure. I am (touch wood) over the hump.

It doesn’t seem to matter that I don’t yet know how the new story will resolve. I don’t mind a story petering out if it’s been worth the read. Sometimes you have to let the reader down slowly. What happens in the story is more important than how it may resolve. I wonder if I feel this way because I tend to slice and dice plot a great deal. It’s a script thing, bouncing forward and back, interweaving. Starting in the future and filling in the past, for example. I know: this is nothing new to the art of the novel. But I enjoy taking it to an extreme. In film, narrative is constructed partially through editing. Plot is advanced through the juxtaposition of shot and scene. I can’t help it. I see the scenes and how they should knit together. There are parts of The Cutting Room that are virtually scripted and shot-listed—the media conference, for example.

Does it always work? I hope so. If not, it’s at least been a lot of fun to write.

A drop in the bucket.

I don’t have a bucket list, but if I did, writing a novel would rank high among the items on it. Now I’m about to check off that item. The Cutting Room, my first novel, is still weeks away from publishing, but I know now that it’s going to happen. The manuscript is complete. The lawyer’s vetted it. The cover image is selected. It’s all in the designer’s capable hands and should be available on Amazon before the summer reading season kicks in.

This is a self-publishing venture, of course. I doubt any self-respecting publisher would be interested in the book, and I have no interest in waiting nine months to find out and another year to see it hit the market. I’m just going to float this puppy and see what happens. I’m prepared to work the old social media to make it happen. Hell, I’ve even signed onto (gulp) Facebook. I figured now that Facecracker—as my sister-in-law calls it—is losing its cachet, it’s time I climbed aboard.

I have no illusions of reaching best-seller status. But it would be nice to hear that people like the story and want to read more, because work has begun on my second novel. This one won’t take three years to write. Fingers crossed.