Reflections on being a writer in residence

A shorter version of this article was published in Metro Edmonton on Dec. 20, 2013.

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An Instagram from my first day on the job – January 2, 2013.

I can’t believe the year is over. It feels like just yesterday I arrived in my Edmonton Public Library office, said something scandalous about books and clutter, and then had to recover from that gaffe on my first day.

It’s been an incredible year as one of two Metro Federation of Library writers in residence. When I became the Edmonton Public Library’s 2013 writer-in-residence in January, a little girl asked, “Does that mean you live in the library?”

Not quite, I told her. Though there were some long stretches of writing in my office when I wished I could just roll out a sleeping bag and dream my story’s problems away.

What the library writers-in-residence do is help nurture other storytellers with mentorship, feedback and public programming, while nurturing their own stories with the time and space the library provides. I will miss that.

In twelve months I probably saw 100 writers of shorts, novels, plays, journalism, whatever.  I said yes as much as possible and relished the variety of manuscripts cascaded across my desk. The range of interest was broad, the range of talent was expansive, but the passion for storytelling was always consistent. Meanwhile, I worked on improving my own writing, specifically my first-person journalism.

It allowed me to tell stories about rogue restaurants, elusive billionaires and ambivalent millennials. The one I’m most proud of, and which I worked on longest, is a story in Eighteen Bridges about Eddy Haymour, a controversial modern folk hero. Without the residency, I would not have had the space and time to complete the copious research and travel to tell this story right. So needless to say, I’m eternally grateful to the writer in residence program.

I want to extend my thanks to Natasha Deen, the keenest writer I’ve ever met, who would need a rocket launcher to keep up with, and the Metro Federation of Libraries committee: Librarians Michelle Papineau-Couture, Stacey Wenger, Lori Purvis, Sally Neal, Anna-Marie Klassen. I especially want to thank Mona Bacon, a member of that committee and whom I worked closely with at the EPL. (She’s burgeoning author herself – check her out in Prairie Fire.) Above all, I offer my gratitude to the staff and especially librarians at EPL.

The Edmonton area is lucky to have two new writers in residence bringing different skills and passions to their respective offices, Margaret MacPherson, who’ll be stationed in the bedroom communities, and Jason Lee Norman, who takes over my office at the EPL. I’ve already told Jason where the best bathrooms are in the building, so he’s halfway settled.

Friday, Dec. 20th, as I packed up my Canadian Oxford Dictionary and made room for him, I looked back at my year and thought about what I’d miss the most. The office was a luxury and the writers were inspirational, but it’s watching the modern library in action that I’ll miss the most.

That libraries aren’t just about books and reading anymore has become a tired truism.

I never saw a librarian shush a talky patron. That too is an old cliché. But I have watched a librarian help a grandmother contact her grandkids on Facebook; organize a community group meeting; and borrow change from the staff coffee jar so that a down-on-his-luck man would have bus fare for a job interview.

One librarian I met at the Lois Hole branch even helped a Nigerian immigrant bring his daughter to Canada because he struggled to understand the paperwork. She thought it was her duty to succeed where customs had failed him.

“There has always been an element of social work to my job,” she told me.

Seeing librarians at work, and this institutional evolution, has been fascinating and humbling, especially at the Stanley Milner branch.

It’s no secret that from the minute the downtown library opens to the second it closes, it’s a home to the homeless. But this, too, is only a small picture. Truly, the central branch is the city’s most egalitarian space, a place that nobody is too rich, or too poor, or too uneducated or too privileged to need.

One-hundred years ago, the Edmonton Public Library was born with a simple goal to make knowledge democratic. In its centennial year, it continued to reinterpret what that means by adding a makerspace, a video game lounge and an outreach worker for youth.

Some might say that this is the library trying to stay relevant in a digital age, but in fact libraries have never been more popular and never been more relevant.

In our hyper-consumerist society, we’re running out of free public spaces. Edmonton’s public parks are only hospitable for half the year and at our many malls there’s pressure to spend. But without asking you to open your wallet—not even to retrieve a membership card—the library allows you to access all its resources, whether it’s a computer, book or resident writer.

To have spent a year playing a small piece in the library’s mandate, to share, is a privilege. But the best thing it shares is its space.

Live from the Edmonton Young Offenders Centre: “When I’m Out”

Laura Young is a Castle Downs librarian who runs an incredible book club inside the Edmonton Young Offenders Centre. Last spring she asked me if I could pay them a visit and maybe run a writing workshop. I said, “Of course, but…”

The “but” was this: Would they maybe be more interested in a rap workshop?

The answer was a resounding yes. They gobbled up my lecture on the art of writing raps and got to work on their own verses. Most of them needed little prompting or guidance because they were skilled MCs already. The next week I returned with a PA system and we had a rap battle that was somewhat unsettling for the program facilitator, Jill, until it was explained to her the battle rap tradition of verbal aggression and lyrically attacking your opponent.

I was invited back in November but I wanted to do something else. I wanted to make a single song with them — a cohesive track around one theme — and I wanted to record it for them to take with them when they get out of prison.

“When I’m Out” was recorded literally feet from their jail cells. In less than five hours, 10 boys and young men serving time wrote and recorded their verses to Kendrick Lamar’s “HiiiPOWER,” which I took back to the office and mixed.

Some of them stuck to the theme, and others didn’t. Some saw their futures as hopeful, others couldn’t or wouldn’t pretend to. We did not try to censor them, or nudge them in a positive direction, so some of the content might offend you. The point was simply to give them something to look forward to for the future and to have them express themselves artistically.

Due to privacy issues, I can’t share the song with you. But it’s probably the most important song I’ve ever been a part of. Props to Laura, Nicole, Jill and Caitlin for being a part of it too.

The Five Most Surprising Things I Have Learned From Self-Publishing

Ethan Jones self-published Arctic Wargame, the first in his Justin Hall spy thriller series, in May 2012. Since then, he’s published three more books, including Double Agents, which is out this December. Through Amazon’s book store and Kindle, the Justin Hall series has sold over 10,000 copies.

He joins me Sunday, November 24 to talk about what’s become one of the biggest trends in publishing. Together with author Marty Chan, who’s been on both sides of coin, having put out books through mainstream imprints and his own, we will cover the ins and outs of self-publishing. The event begins at 1:30 in the Stanley Milner Library’s new Makerspace. As a bonus, we’re following the event with a demo of the library’s new Espresso Book Machine. 

In the meantime, Jones shared with me the five most surprising things he’s learned from self-publishing.

1. Self-publishing is a lot of hard work and I have to do much of it by myself

“As a self-published author without the backing of a publishing agency, I have to do many things by myself, things that do not fall in the realm of writing. I am responsible for finding beta readers, proofreaders/editors, cover art designers, and for making arrangements for promotional and marketing campaigns, blog tours, giveaways, and so on. Some of these services can be hired out, but still I have to find the right people in order to get results.

2. I need to approach self-publishing as a professional

“I started self-publishing my stories so that they could entertain readers, and soon enough I found that readers can easily tell if a self-published writer is an amateur or someone who has put some serious thought into this process and has a professional approach toward it. I have to convey an image of professionalism in my work, beginning with the title, the blurb, the cover, the sample writing — in short: with the entire book or series.”

3. I need to write more books and fast

“It is extremely difficult to build my brand as a writer if I have only one book or if I only release one book each year, like in the traditional publishing industry. I already have three books and three short stories published and the fourth book in the Justin Hall spy thriller series is coming out this December. In order to attract readers and keep them satisfied, I need to write more books in the series they love and do it as fast as I can.”

4. I have the freedom to set my own schedule

“One of the beauties of self-publishing is the freedom to work for myself, without any deadlines but those imposed by me. Depending on my life circumstances, I can set the time of the release of my next work, along with the daily number of words needed to reach that goal. There is no boss in self-publishing, which means that I need to motivate myself to keep writing and keep publishing.

5. Things change very rapidly in this industry and I must adapt

“The self-publishing industry has come a long way since three or four years ago and some of stigma surrounding it has started to disappear. More and more writers who were published traditionally are making the jump to self-publishing, sometimes with hybrid deals (self-publishing electronically but publishing in hardcover and paperback through a traditional publisher). As things change,  I need to keep abreast of these changes, learn, and adapt, so that I can ride all waves and survive all storms.”

Ethan Jones is the author of the popular Justin Hall spy thriller series. The first book in this series, ARCTIC WARGAME, came out in May 2012. The second novel, TRIPOLI’S TARGET, was released in October 2012. The third one, FOG OF WAR, came out on June 4, 2013. Ethan has also published three short stories and maintains an active blog at http://ethanjonesbooks.wordpress.com/ He is a lawyer by trade, and he lives in Canada with his wife and son.

Meet authors of the Seven Series literary blockbuster and welcome Metro Edmonton’s newest writers in residence

Edmonton writers, bibliophiles, and unabashed library-lovers — mark your calendars for December 9th and 10th, when the Metro Federation of Libraries hosts four authors from the literary blockbuster series Seven and makes an exciting new announcement.

John Wilson, Ted Staunton, Sigmund Brouwer, and Shane Peacock are some of Canada’s most successful authors and they’re here for this two day event in which Natasha Deen and I — your 2013 writers in residence — are passing on the torch to the next two artists lucky the serve the Edmonton region’s many writers.

There’s so much to enjoy that we’re spreading it out across two days, two libraries and two towns: the Strathcona County Library on December 9th and at the Stanley Milner Branch of the Edmonton Public Library on December 10th.

Both events begin at 7:00 pm.

As Natasha Deen and I say goodbye, we’ll celebrate the launch of the Regional Writers in Residence for 2014 and host our guests as they promote their Seven Tour, based on the series.

The Seven Series is one of the best-selling series currently in print with over 100,000 copies sold.

THAT. IS. NOT. A. TYPO.

The premise of the novels: seven grandsons undertake a quest given to them by their grandfather, via his will. There’s been no other series like it in Canada—seven linked stories published all at once; novels that can be read in any order. Within two weeks of its release, the series hit the best-seller list. The novels have had three printings and are in the process of being translated into four languages.

Ted Staunton’s novel, Jump Cut, and Sigmund Brouwer’s book, Devil’s Pass, have been nominated for a 2014 Red Maple award. Sigmund Brouwer’s work was also a John Spray nominee and Shane Peacock was nominated for a Governor General award.

Thea Bowering’s tips on publishing a short stories collection

Author Thea Bowering’s ambitious debut, Love at Last Sight, is an intimate and voyeuristic collection of short stories, several of which take place in Edmonton, where the former Vancouverite now lives. On Sunday, Sept. 29, she joins fellow debut author Michael Hingston and me at the Stanley Milner Library to talk about the process of writing and publishing her first book. (The event is free and begins at 1:30pm.)

Here, she debunks a few publishing myths and offers 3 tips to publishing your own short stories collection.

People say short stories are a hard sell. Is it true?

Short stories are often talked about as a hard sell in the publishing world. This has never made sense to me since much of Canada’s best known writing is short fiction. Everyone I know loves to read and listen to short stories. They seem to be easier to get published in collections and magazines than novel excerpts.

Are there other misconceptions?

The other thing you are told is that you need to find themes or threads that tie your stories together, so they seem like a novel. You are probably working with recurrent themes anyway, ones that interest you, so you don’t really need to worry about this until you write the book abstract to send along with your manuscript.

What’s the process of writing an abstract like?

This involves an uncomfortable week or so, sometime after the writing is done. If you’re thinking about—and reading—the others’ stories throughout your own writing process, you will understand your literary landscape and want to do what isn’t being done—or is being done only by a few, in a slightly different way than you. You might come up with an interesting thing that someone at a press will think of as new or unusual, as well.

The short story is an attractive form that can always involve something new: this may make some big presses nervous, but will attract smaller presses that are interested in innovative writing.

Tip #1. Read literary journals. Find ones that publish stories you like, are edited by editors you like. Submit to them. Pay attention to special issues, and submit when the topic is in line with your work.

Tip #2. Do the same thing with publishers. Find the ones who publish work (that is, short stories) you enjoy, presses that and who have a history of publishing work you admire and respect. Submit to them

Tip #3. Make a limited run chapbook if you have a story that is strong on its own. Chapbooks are most often designed for poetry, but why not a story? Now you have a nice little object to sell at readings and offer to an interested press.

Thea Bowering reads from Love at Last Sight

Thea Bowering, the author of the new book Love at Last Sight, joins me in the Writers’ Corner this Sunday, September 29, at the Stanley Milner Library at 1:30 pm. Together with Michael Hingston, author of the critically acclaimed novel The Dilettantes, we’re talking first books — how to get them published and what to expect.

Michael actually interviewed Thea about her collection already in his Edmonton Journal books column, which you can read here. In the video below, also via the Journal, she reads from her debut short story collection.

More NaNoWriMo events happening around you

More NaNoWriMo events courtesy of the Edmonton branch.

Edmowrimo Schedule of Events for 2013

Event: Plot Planning Party (Writing/Social Event)
Date: Saturday, October 26th

Time: 2:30-5:30 pm
Location: Program Room, Strathcona Branch – Edmonton Public Library (8331 – 104 St)
Details: Get prepared for NaNoWriMo 2013! Come out to meet your fellow wrimos and work on planning your novel’s characters, plot, and setting.

Event: Kickoff Party (Social Event)
Date: Saturday, October 26th
Time: 6:00-8:30 pm
Location: Armoury Resource Centre (10310-85 Ave)
Details: Come out to celebrate the start of NaNo with potluck snacks/treats, games, and maybe even a slideshow!

Note: The Plot Planning Party and Kickoff are back-to-back on the same date and are easy walking distance apart (about three blocks). We’ll be travelling as a group from one event to the other if you’d like to attend both, but you are welcome to drop in to either of these events at any time.

Event: NaNoEve Countdown (Online Writing/Social Event)
Date: Thursday, October 31st
Time: 10:00 pm to 1:00 am
Location: The Edmowrimo Chatroom (#edmontonwrimos on irc.goodchatting.com)

Date: Friday, November 1st (Writing Event)
Time: 10:30 am – 8:30 pm
Location: Edmonton Room – Basement, Stanley A. Milner Library (7 Sir Winston Churchill Square)

 

Date: Sunday, November 3rd (Writing Event)
Time: 1:30-4:30 pm
Location: Program Room, Strathcona Branch – Edmonton Public Library (8331 – 104 St)

 

Date: Wednesday, November 13th (Writing Event)
Time: 5:30 pm – 8:30 pm
Location: Program Room, Whitemud Crossing Branch – Edmonton Public Library (145 Whitemud Crossing Shopping Centre, 4211 – 106 St)

Date: Saturday, November 23rd (Writing Event)
Time: 10:30 am-5:30 pm
Location: Program Room, Jasper Place Branch – Edmonton Public Library (9010 – 156 St)

 

Date: Monday, November 25th (Writing Event)
Time: Time: 5:30 pm – 8:30 pm
Location: Program Room, Idylwylde Branch – Edmonton Public Library (8310 88 Ave)

 

Date: Thursday, November 28th (Writing Event, Age 18 and over)
Time: 8:00-11:00 pm
Location: Upstairs, Rosie’s Bar & Grill (10475 80 Ave NW)
Note: Participants must be legal drinking age (18+), bring photo ID

Writers’ Corner: All About Food

August 25th, 1:30 pm, Stanley Milner Library (Southeast Corner), Free drop-in session

Image from http://lexleader.net/

Want to become part of the growing number of food writers? Thinking of starting a recipe blog? Or are you working on a cookbook? Find out how to capture flavours in words, review restaurants fairly and keep up with the food trends in this panel discussion with three of Edmonton’s top food writers, Mary Baily, Jennifer Cockrall-King and Tina Faiz.

Mary Bailey is editor of Edmonton food and wine magazine The Tomato, a sommelier and instructor, and co-author of The Food Lover’s Trail Guide to Alberta.

Jennifer Cockrall-King specializing in food, urban issues, and culture. She’s the author of Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution a contributor to many Canadian and US publications, such as enRoute and Maclean’s.

Tina Faiz is an award-winning writer who regularly contributes to Avenuemagazine, Edmonton Journal and CBC Radio. She’s the local editor forWestern Living.

How to participate in The Open Book

I’m soliciting advice and help throughout the 72 hour ordeal adventure. I’ll take whatever you’ve got for me — a piece of dialogue, an idea for a character, a plot twist, sage writing advice, even a literary dare. The only thing I’ll refuse is written narrative. That, I think, would be cheating.

Here’s how you can participate:

From the NFB archives: “First Novel”

Jennifer Cockrall-King passed this little gem on to me this week and I just love it. It’s a little hokey — and on-the-nose like a fly on a farm pig — but the short film about a first-time novelist’s dreams and reality is sweet and, I’m guessing, quite accurate (of the times, at least — Canada has more than 50 book stores today, and that’s in the post-Amazon era).

Watch the movie and pay attention to the screenwriting credits. I think you’ll be surprised!

First Novel by Donald Wilder, National Film Board of Canada

First Novel by Donald WilderNational Film Board of Canada