Gifts from the heart



Made from greens collected on Cypress Mountain, Vancouver

Helga’s Blog #121:

Gifts, gifts, gifts… can’t sleep because we still haven’t a clue what to give Aunt Nell, cousin Bill, the neighbour who pet sits the cat, and let’s not forget that friend who gave you a gift last Christmas while you had nothing for him.

Time has run out, shipping deadlines are past, stores running low on merchandise. We are doomed, sure to lose friends, certain to be snubbed by family members near and far.

There are always scented candles of course, they are stocked in every drug store, gas stations even, in a myriad of fragrances. A last option. A better one is to give nothing. Far better.


Indeed. Likely the most helpful, most valuable gift you will ever receive, or give. And it doesn’t come from a store. I won’t cost you a dime. You don’t even have to leave your home, no need to elbow your way through throngs of shoppers, lose your temper fighting over a parking space, or any of the myriads of inconveniences called Christmas shopping.

That’s right. You can do this entirely from the comfort of your electric recliner chair if you so wish. Such is the privilege of people who love to read, and because of that love, may have turned into writers.

Because these people, lucky souls, know how to be creative. Like pulling a rabbit from a hat, they create something from nothing. No trip to the ATM is needed, no wrapping paper either. So perhaps it’s time to share this secret recipe of enduring Christmas success for years to come.

There are two options, depending on the preference of your gifting recipients. One assumes he or she is a foodie, the other that she or he loves books. Maybe you are lucky to have friends or family who embody both, so if you cater to their twin passions, you may have a fan for life.

Let’s deal with the foodie angle first. Until a year ago, I would delight family and friends with Christmas baking created from recipes handed down through generations. One that stands out has a special history. It’s a recipe for Dresden Christmas Stollen by one of Vienna’s premier patisseries. I will not indulge you with how I got my hands on this coveted recipe, but in the spirit of Christmas sharing, I am gifting it to you. If you follow the instructions as given, you will produce the best ‘stollen’ available. You don’t have to gift the baked product; a more classy option is to print the recipe on good paper and send it off with your Christmas card. (Recipe is in PDF,  measurements are in metric)

The second option is for the lover of books. No, you do not need to purchase any, your recipients can do that all on their own. As any avid reader knows, buying books is the easy part. Finding good titles is far more difficult. Your recipients will be lucky to get your carefully crafted reading list.

That’s it, you say?

Yes. That’s it. But this is no ordinary reading list. Sure, you can find excellent lists of great new titles at the New York Times Book Review or similar sources. What you, the gifter, will offer is a list of titles that you and your friends have come to appreciate and enjoy beyond published reviews. Not by commercial reviewers, but by avid readers who deemed these titles worthy of sharing with friends. You will offer a list compiled with love and honesty – a gift of passion.

So in the spirit of sharing, here is a short list of random titles (fiction and non-fiction) that trusted friends have recommended and enjoyed. They may not be your genre, but are well written and I am sure worth reading. I have read only a few but will make sure to work my way through the entire list.


Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver

The Secret River, by Kate Grenville

Avenue of Mysteries, by John Irving

On Canaan’s Side, by Sebastian Barry

Engleby, by Sebastian Faulks

The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbough

The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman

A Name of Blood, by Matt Rees

Elemental, by Amanda Curtin


One of Us, by Asne Seierstad,

Dead Wake, by Erik Larson

Between You and Me, by Mary Norris

A Fighting Chance, by Elizabeth Warren

The Almost Nearly Perfect People, by Michael Booth

River Town, by Peter Hessler

The Shelf, by Phyllis Rose

River at the Centre of the World, by Simon Winchester

Dust of Empire, by Karl Meyer.

Happy Holidays to you all. May the muse stay with you and follow you into the New Year. And thanks for being our steadfast followers.


From my Austrian recipes


Internet, your writing friend and foe

Karalee’s Post #108

I’m back from holidays, energized and full of new ideas and ways of looking at my characters. For me a holiday is a change of routine, a gift of time to explore.

And exploring can be anything you want it to be, from bungee jumping to simply sleeping in and reading a new book or rereading a favorite book only to discover something new about it.

My husband and I chose to have a holiday on land on Martinique for a few days before joining friends on their catamaran for the rest of our time away.

The choice was great. On land we were happy campers, driving to see the sights and having the luxury of a somewhat consistent internet connection when back in our hotel room. We could keep up with email and Facebook, etc. Writing was still an option without resorting to pen and paper.

We were away, but not getting away from it all!

Then, when we stepped onto the boat, all our internet connection was pay-as-you-go through my husband’s phone. In effect I was cut off cold-turkey.

At first it didn’t bother me. A couple of days went by with me catching up on sleep, visiting with our friends, playing board games, eating/drinking, and reading real books. Oh, I got the pen and paper out too, and jotted down some ideas.

In effect, I was okay being disconnected from the www.

Then some withdrawal signs crept in. My routine was disrupted. I was used to checking my email and seeing what was up on Facebook. I was used to looking up stuff on the internet.

I wanted access.

And with access denied, my desire was compounded. It made me realize how much time I spend on the internet on a regular basis. Time that used to be spent reading, visiting and interacting with real people, and even doing stuff like cleaning my house and working in the garden. Or writing!

Yeah, writing!

Every day still has 24 hours, so no time to spend on the internet meant I had to do other stuff. It’s refreshing not to be “interrupted” from reading. I read different books, like What Would a Buddha Do? and Living in Gratitude. Guidebooks were pulled out and books on the birds and fauna. I took more time to meditate and roll on my ball to help my back pain (not because I was bored, rather it’s something I normally avoid).

My time was spent visiting, playing games, swimming, cooking and eating, and cleaning up. And reading before sleeping and again when waking.

What pleasure!

I had forgotten how awesome it is to have an old-fashioned holiday!

I wonder how many of us really disconnect from the pull of the internet when we take time off?


Writing Progress: I have had a personal breakthrough in flushing out theme in my writing and I’m looking forward to paying attention to this aspect not only regarding my protagonist’s story, but how my secondary characters’ stories fit in too. Back to writing routine too!

Fun stuff happening: Our middle son is graduating from UBC next month. We’re planning a big party before he takes off traveling May until August. To be young again…

Treats eaten: too many on holidays. Back to less of everything!

Perspective Photos:

boat and nets















Happy writing.


Reading is the best medicine

Joe’s Post #133

Good readsActually, I should say reading good books is the best medicine.

In my newly busy life, I’ve found it hard to carve out time to read (and write, but, ah, yeah, let’s not talk about that). However, for any writer anywhere, especially if you’re in a writing funk as us 5/5/5ers seem to be, then books are the answer.

Why not TV? TV is awesome and fun and easy to do. But that’s exactly why it’s good escapism, but bad for your writing health. Oh, it may give you a few good ideas about story or character or even some pretty visuals, but nothing beats words actually entering your head from your eyes.

But books do take time. I’ve never been a speed-reader so I tend to avoid War and Peace-size books and gravitate towards the ones that are about 400-500 pages. Oh sure, tomes like Game of Thrones sneaks in (you know what, I have to confess I have a soft spot for super chubby fantasy books – 800 pages ones) but mostly what I read can be read in a week.

If I take the time.

Kardashians! Not Cardassians!!!!

Kardashians! Not Cardassians!!!!

So these last few weeks, I’ve made a greater effort to make the time. I’ve not watched Survivor or hockey or anything to do with the Kardashians (not that I ever did). I’ve tried to go to bed a little earlier so I can have time to read.

And it’s working. By reading words well written, I’m getting inspired with ideas and characters and locations and all of that writing stuff. It’s the first step to recovery, I think. It’s that step that hopefully gets me back to the love of writing.

Ah, the Martian Chronicles. So good.

Ah, the Martian Chronicles. So good.

Hey, think back. What inspired you to write? Odds are it was another book. For me, it was grade 7. Mr. Moore’s class. He read to us Ray Bradbury and all I wanted to do was run home and write about martians and aliens. I still do in some way.

Now, however, I have all these voices in my head that say I can’t do this or I can’t sell that. I have to find a way to deal with those voices, but in the meantime, I’m returning to the beginning. To how I got started.

To reading.

So what books inspired you to write?


Best show last week – As per the post, I didn’t watch much but I did spend an hour with Battle Creek. Funny show. Created by the dudes who made Breaking Bad and it features a gung-ho FBI agent sent to a bankrupt small town.

Book that I’m reading at the moment – Finished Brent Weeks. The Way of Shadows, and his next book, Shadow’s Edge. I’m on his last one now.

Pages written on new book  Got 20 fun pages done on characters. Does that count? Probably not, but again, it’s better than nothing.

Social media update – 1 blog every 2 days on my step-dad site about my experience as a chaperone on a grade 7 camping trip.  Fun times, let me tell you. Check it out.

Health  OMG, finally better. Dare I say I’m in good health or am I tempting fate to give me another infection.

Best thing last week  Well, it was actually on March 8th, but my best friend got married. Congratulations Sheila and Gord. Beautiful wedding.

Worst thing  My laptop has problems, again. Grrrrr. I have a loop of word file syncs that somehow shuts down my computer.

Reading out loud

Joe’s Post #132


As Silk posted in her blog, she got a chance to read her novel out loud. Well, the first 10 pages, anyway.

Pretty terrifying, but it also got me thinking. (Originally written as … “it also got me to thinking”.)

I remember someone said you should always read your work out loud. It might have been one of the gurus at a writing conference or maybe the McDonald’s drive-thru guy who loves my Mustang, but someone said it… and you know what? It’s good advice.

The reason is that there’s a flow to language that’s hard to get when you’re reading it in your head. Even harder when you’re reading your own work in your head while drinking a glass of wine and listening to “If I Had A Rocket Launcher” in the background.

eyeI have, therefore, officially become a fan of reading your own writing out loud. Man, can you ever tell when something doesn’t work. It’s like a misplayed note. Or a fork in the eye.

We can catch a missed word, a wrong tone or slip of voice, or an awkward sentence.

All sorts of things.

It’s like having a copy editor right inside your throat. (See, that sounded totally way better in my head.)

It can also help you spot when something’s dead boring. Or identify when your POV shifts. Or hear when dialogue sounds like something that’s written instead of spoken.

It’s really remarkable. It’s like your brain works a whole different way when you’re speaking and listening.

blue and blackHey, I can’t explain it, since I barely understand why my brain thinks that dress is blue and black. (It’s blue, right? Blue?) But try speaking your own words out loud and you’ll see what I mean.

I know I will.

In the meantime, something fun.

It’s Gilbert Gottfried reading 50 Shade of Grey, and that means, NSFW. Seriously, seriously, seriously NSFW!!!

You have been warned.

Best show last week – Not the Walking Dead. Not Better Ask Saul. Nope. I binge-watched House of Cards. OMG, brilliant. Has anyone else seen the show? It’s an amazing example of having us root for a horrible human being because he’s opposed by even more horrible people and/or events.

Book that I’m reading at the moment – Almost done. Brent Weeks. The Way of Shadows. Again, a book I’d recommend.

Pages written on new book  Got 10 new pages written, but Paula’s right, we’ve lost our mojo.

Social media update – 1 blog every 2 days on my step-dad site about my experience as a chaperone on a grade 7 camping trip.  My readership and loyal fans continue to grow. However, I think I’ve lost the “I love camping” crowd.

Health  Well, now I have an ear infection. Sigh. I even went to the clinic and waited for 3 hours to get some meds. I hope to be better soon.

Best thing last week  I got a chance to marathon House of Cards.

Worst thing  House of Cards ended with a cliff hanger! You bastards!!!!!!

Writing as performance art: my first reading


Silk’s Post #121 — And now, we interrupt my mini-series of posts on how to overcome obstacles to writing with this eyewitness report from the literary front …

Sunday, March 1, 10:00 am — Weeks ago, I was invited by my friend, Miriam, to do a reading at an annual Literary Salon she attends in Victoria, BC. Cool, I thought. Sit around with a small group of friends, kind of like a book club. All nice and casual. Get some feedback. Easy peasy.

Then I was contacted by the hostess, Kathleen. Actually, there would be at least 20 people attending (not the small handful I had imagined), and two other writers – published writers – would also be reading. I could bring copies of my books to sell if I liked. I fought down a rising panic. Holy shit. I was already committed. Did she know I’m unpublished, without even a final draft to my name?

Then she told me that she invents a new martini for each salon, and I’d get to slurp one up before the reading. This salon’s martini would be called the Pussy Riot. This soothed me immensely. A Pussy Riot would be bound to loosen me up. Even if I experienced that on-stage death – the kind that stand-up comics suffer through when no one laughs at their jokes – maybe I wouldn’t remember it. I made a note to self: try to snatch a second Pussy Riot off the tray.

So, I relaxed. It was all good.

Until last night. Salon Eve.

The panic returned. What would I say? What would I read? How would I fill 20 minutes of time with 20 pairs of eyes watching, and 20 pairs of ears listening?

It wasn’t like I couldn’t pick out a few pages of the many, many thousands of (un-re-written) words I’ve put on paper in the past 4 years. And I’ve got more than enough material to talk about the “writer’s journey” from my 120 blog posts on 5writers.

What my panic was really about is the fact that, as a writer, I’ve been feeling like a fraud lately. Why do you think so many of my recent blog posts are about overcoming writer’s block? Yes. I confess. I haven’t been writing in a while. Or not much, anyway.

But the show must go on. And the show is today. I’m on the 30 minute countdown to leaving the safe shelter of my writer’s desk and venturing out into the real world.

I will finish this post when I return home tonight. By then, the Pussy Riots will have worn off, and I’ll either be floating on a cloud of adulation and optimism, or trying to reconstruct my shattered ego.

LITERARY SALON INTERLUDE (sounds of conversation and martini slurping)

Sunday, March 1, 8:00 pm — Whew. I survived. Ego intact. Writing ambition renewed. Confidence, for the moment (since, like the weather, it is subject to change every day), restored.

Thank you to the Salon’s delightful hostess in the stylish hat, Kathleen Martin, to the many-hatted, book loving guests, and to the the talented writers who presented. It was a pleasure and a privilege to spend the afternoon with you.


Kathleen’s Pussy Riot martini bar

Yes, it turned out to be a hat party. A hat party with Pussy Riot martinis. Pussy Riot martinis served in a collection of dainty, bone china tea cups, with saucers. And tiny sandwiches and petit fours. The perfect combination of impeccably civilized hospitality, served with a dash of wild-girl rebellion.

I counted cloche hats, demure hand-crafted headdresses of tulle and feathers, picture hats, felted flapper chapeaux, rhinestone headbands, Sunday-go-to-meeting pillboxes with veils, flowery crowns, miniature devil horns. By happy chance I had worn my raspberry beret, which perfectly matched the martinis in colour and flavour, so I immediately felt like part of the Salon Society. In my opinion, there should be more hat parties, especially on Sunday afternoons.

But the reading part, you say … what was it like to stand up and read to roomful of people you don’t know for the very first time? Did you have stage fright? Did they throw rotten tomatoes? Did they give you a standing ovation?

Well, that’s why I had to set the stage. Picture it: 20 hatted ladies, most of a certain age, comfortably crowded in the smallish front sitting room of a lovely heritage Craftsman home, aglow with Pussy Riots and sated with tiny, delicious savouries and sweets. Does this sound like a tough audience? Perhaps not. But the literary bar was about to be set high. Very high.

I was the third of three authors to read. The first two were amazing.

Lisa Abram, a writer who brings a marketing background and a wide range of interests to her non-fiction stories, broke the ice reading her hilarious memoir (published this month in Reader’s Digest More of Our Canada) about her childhood crush on Toronto Maple Leaf captain, Darryl Sittler, and her lifetime quest to secure a selfie with the hockey legend. That really got the room rocking.

It was a tough act to follow, especially for a poet, but Wendy Donawa – an accomplished scholar, writer, teacher, artist, cultural researcher, and former museum curator – totally captured the audience when she started reading in a quiet voice. Her evocative and atmospheric poems set in Victoria, the Canadian prairies and Barbados cast a reflective spell. Wendy is also the co-author of an anthology of essays by contemporary Canadian YA writers, Reading Canada: Teaching Canadian Fiction in Secondary Schools.

I was up next, just as my second Pussy Riot kicked in with full force. As Kathleen introduced me, my mouth went dry and I felt on the verge of a flop sweat, remembering at the last moment that my reading glasses were in my handbag in the other room.

This turned out to be a blessing, as it gave me an excuse to flee. I picked my way through the room to my distant handbag, trying not to step on the rows of feet in my path, then grabbed my specs, tore off my jacket and beret, and took a few cool, deep breaths. Okay. Ready.

I’m not sure what happened after that. Oh, I know I talked about my huge learning curve making the late-in-life career transition from an agency owner/creative director who wrote ads and slogans, to a wannabe novelist. And I know I read the first 10 pages of the book I’m working on right now (the only pages I’ve written so far, as it happens).

And I know I got a couple of nice rounds of applause.

But I couldn’t tell you more about it than that. As many times as I have pitched, presented, lectured, spoken to groups, or been “on stage” in any capacity (and I’ve actually done a lot of it), the minute it’s over I always have total amnesia about what I said, how long I spoke, or how people reacted. Maybe this is the irrational flip side of stage fright. I always have to ask someone else who was there how it went, because I’ve blocked it all out through some primitive kind of survival mechanism.

Judging from the congenial “farewell” phase of the event, I’d say it went pretty well. Everybody hugged (as ladies in hats often do), I got many thank yous and encouraging comments, and our thoughtful hostess presented each writer with a thank-you envelope (a gift certificate to one of the best book stores in the world, Munro’s in Victoria).

Do all readings go like this, I wonder? Anyone out there have an experience to share?


Literary Salon divas (left to right): Silk, Kathleen, Wendy and Lisa.

PS — Upon reflection, I’ve had an unexpected, perhaps masochistic, reaction to the experience of sharing my unpublished work at this very pleasant Literary Salon.

It made me pine for the long, torturous critique sessions we 5writers used to have in our early days, when we’d mix lavish praise for each other’s work with savage, mostly well-founded barbs of criticism. Okay, maybe “lavish” and “savage” are exaggerations. But when you’ve spilled your guts and bared your soul to your literary peers, offering yourself up for sacrifice, it can feel that way.

Yes, sometimes it shook my confidence. But it always raised the bar, fired me up, and made me a better writer.

Do you need to make a resolution to write?

Karalee’s Post #99

Our 5Writer’s group is resetting their compasses to point to the directions each one of us desires to take in 2015. Of course we are all writers, so when I gave my resolutions a quick thought (I’m not one to make resolutions on January 1st just because it is January 1st) one of the first ideas that came to mind was “I will make a resolution to write.”

Last year was an okay year for my writing productivity, but the mere thought that a writer would think about making a resolution to write struck me as odd. Writers write, so either you are a writer or you aren’t. But hey, that’s not reality either. There are as many reasons that can stop a writer from writing as there are writers.

So in fact, that isn’t the statement that is really meant by that resolution. It’s like subtext in writing itself. What is underlying the resolution to write? I think the question should be, “What is stopping me from writing?”

Silk’s last post clarified many of the reasons writers get stalled from following their passion. The post is worth another read.

What helped me last year was setting a daily writing time commitment of 3 hours where I sat in my office without social media interruption and took care of my writing needs. If I didn’t write per se, I was thinking about my story, the characters, the plot, climax, and all the wonderful “what if’s” that spur one’s imagination.

This year I won’t resolve to write since I know that is already happening, but to enhance my skills I commit to do the following activities:

1. Read more.

It’s great to have some fun things on my To Do List! You may want to set a reading commitment with a reading challenge like below.

reading committment

2. Enter more Short Story contests. I like writing short stories and this is a great way to keep developing my skills with characters, plot and settings. Writer’s Digest has many contests throughout the year. You may want to check them out too.

short story committment

3. Journal and complete one exercise daily in the book my wonderful family got for me.

writing book 642 ideas









4. Writing is a wonderful privilege and being mindful and grateful will continue to keep it that way.










What are your writing plans?

Have a great 2015.

Happy writing!

How to give like a writer


Silk’s Post #113 — I always get a little misty when I hear Christmas carols. I think the sound of music is directly hard-wired to our memory banks. I can’t hear “The Little Drummer Boy” without choking up.

It transports me back to a cold, crisp Long Island night years ago. We’re bundled up in boots and scarves, music sheets in hand, the big fir tree in the town plaza winking with coloured lights, singing our hearts out. It’s probably a composite memory, a montage of Girl Scout carolling, school concerts, the car radio in the background of holiday double-dates, the soundtrack for trimming the tree on Christmas Eve.

Age of innocence stuff.

What I especially loved about “The Little Drummer Boy” (written in 1941 by Katherine Kennicott Davis) was its magnificent humility. It was, and is, my favourite carol by far. As all know, it’s a story set in the Christian nativity scene, where a poor drummer boy, who has no gift to give befitting a king, is asked to play his drum as his tribute to Jesus. No gold, frankincense or myrrh. No angels with golden trumpets. No soaring religiosity. Just a kid who knew how to play a drum. That was his gift.

What it means to me is this: if you have a gift, share it. 

This multi-faith season of celebration seems a perfect time to think about what everyone with a gift for writing can share with others. Maybe it’s something you can wrap up and hand to a loved one, or maybe it’s something you can give to many people over time. But if you are lucky enough to be a writer – to be a lover of words – then it’s worth thinking about how you can proactively share your gift with others.

You know I’m going to have some ideas on this … so here are 8 great ways to share:

1. Give books to kids.

If you have children or grandchildren or nieces and nephews, make sure they have books to unwrap every holiday season. Start, if you can, before they know how to read. Engage the adults in their lives to read to them, to make sure they fall in love with storytelling. As they grow, keep their library shelves full. Find out what kids at their age level are reading now. Challenge them to read up a level. Introduce them to the classics. Feed them non-fiction that expands their understanding of the world. Keep them engaged in reading, from nursery rhymes up to YA fiction. Give video games and sports and other time-sucks a run for their money by making sure kids have every chance to become life-long readers. And maybe even writers, someday. (Of course, giving books should be at the top of the list for friends and family of all ages!)

2. Be a volunteer writer.

Every single non-profit organization in the world needs to communicate. Whether they’re raising money to cure cancer, recruiting volunteers for community service, or reporting to members about events, these organizations all run on networks. And words are the glue that hold those networks together. Hey, it’s not literature. But writing is essential to meeting the goals of all these groups. If you have a gift for writing, you can contribute hugely to the success of whatever organization you wish to support. And you also get the opportunity to prove that newsletters can be entertaining and effective, that volunteer-run websites can have pro-quality content, and that even email blasts can be worth reading. And you thought writing a novel was challenging?

3. Write something for someone you love.

Okay, we’re writers. We all want to be read – preferably by millions of people. But sometimes an audience of one is the most important of all. The obvious example is literature’s rich trove of love poems, but there are many other gifts of writing you can give to people you care about. Write a story for your children or grandchildren. Write a family history or a memoir for the generations to come after you. Write about a trip or occasion shared with friends. Now add pictures. Now publish it using iPhoto or Shutterfly or Snapfish – there are lots of resources that are extremely easy to use and economical that allow you to create and print beautiful one-off books of memories. These books are incomparable gifts from the heart.

4. Write book reviews.

In this digital age, when many books are e-published and purchased online, reviews of books by readers are critical to commercial success – especially for writers who self-publish or aren’t yet famous. That’s why so many writers are constantly on the search for reviewers beyond family and friends. Taking the time to write thoughtful reviews of books for websites like Amazon and Goodreads, or on your blog (or someone else’s), is a gift to the author and the writing world as a whole. Reviews written for the wrong reasons – gushes of false praise for a friend’s book, or undeserved and destructive criticism to satisfy some weird urge – do not count as real gifts (at least according to me). But writers who are generous with each other in providing sincere and intelligent reviews online will be rewarded in kind.

5. Write for other writers.

There’s an incredibly rich array of great writer-to-writer blogs (this will be a topic for a future post). Generous writers who share what they’ve learned with other “emerging” writers are creating a new kind of community. We’ve tried to do our bit with 5writers5novels5months, and our purpose has evolved over the past couple of years. It began as a bit of a madcap writing adventure when we challenged ourselves to each write a novel in 5 months, back in 2012. The blog idea was something of an afterthought. Maybe we could engage people to follow our progress. Maybe they’d like to read our resulting books. It was fun. But what we learned from the exercise was that the act of blogging became an education in itself. Instead of our readership disappearing after our 5 month challenge, it continued to grow as we kept writing about our successes and failures as we pursued the dream of becoming published writers. And from our comments, and the great online friendships we’ve made with other writers, we know that, as we’ve shared what we’ve learned, we have also helped others. Even if you don’t blog, your comments on others’ blogs contribute to this community, so join in the conversation.

6. Get involved with literacy.

There are literacy organizations in many communities, from big cities to small villages. Wherever you are, you can probably find an opportunity to volunteer to help promote literacy – and thereby reading. Remember, without readers there’s not much of a market for books (or any kind of writing). And what a sad world that would be. There’s a historical name for it: The Dark Ages. Whether you can teach, coach or contribute in some other way, consider getting involved with efforts to promote literacy. It’s one critical issue in which all writers have an obvious stake.

7. Teach and promote the writing arts.

Hundreds of writers’ conferences, workshops, festivals, organization-led events and other activities are held every year. Often, speakers and workshop presenters are paid. Often they also have some skill, service or book to promote. Wouldn’t you love to get to that elite point in your writing career? Sure. So would I. But these folks are likely not getting rich at it. And there are thousands of other contributors to activities that promote the writing arts who volunteer their time backstage, or provide workshops or presentations without pay. (A great example is the Surrey International Writers’ Conference, with their amazing team of volunteers). Do you have a teachable experience, a skill or some advice that would help develop better writers? Look for an opportunity to share it (and be prepared to spend probably more time than you ever imagined developing a great program).

8. Share your library.

And by “share”, I pretty much mean “give away”. If you’re like me, you’ve already run out of room for the ever-growing lifetime collection of books you’ve got squirrelled away in every possible corner of your house. And perhaps basement, garage and attic. I’m long overdue for a big book giveaway. Okay, I can’t part with many of them for various reasons, both practical and sentimental. However, hundreds of books sitting on my shelf are doing no one any good. Books are meant to be read, not stashed. So join me in finding a good channel for sharing … and purge. It might be a fundraising book sale, an organization that promotes literacy, or some sort of local library. Get your previously-enjoyed books in circulation and you’ll be promoting reading. Always a good thing.

Like “The Little Drummer Boy”, writers have a unique talent to share. While our main focus is, and should be, sharing our own stories in published form, there are other ways to give that can make a real difference.

And here’s an absolutely knock-out a cappella version of “The Little Drummer Boy” carol by Pentatonix. Give yourself a gift – and a lift. Click on the link.

Happy holidays to all!


Backstage at a bestseller


Silk’s Post #105 — When Paula wondered in her last post whether the 5/5/5 exercise of deconstructing a novel was a waste of time – didn’t it make more sense to stop with the procrastinating and diversions and just dive in to writing our own novels? – I admit I was conflicted too.

My enthusiasm for getting started on a new project was boosted by our 5/5/5 mini-retreat in Vancouver, and I couldn’t wait to shake off the demons of sloth and get back to writing again. Did I really need this deconstruction side trip? I have what I think is a strong story premise and promising characters. It felt like this was the time to step on the gas, not the brakes.

At the same time, I know that building a plot and structure that really works for this story will be an architectural challenge. And I know I haven’t mastered this fundamental skill. Do I really want to spend the next year of my life creating a novel that can’t pass book-building inspection, and is destined to fill yet another bottom drawer for eternity?

So I decided to at least try it. The possible up side (finding the magic plotting bullet) outweighed the possible down side (getting derailed from my writing). I figured the likeliest outcome would be that I’d re-read a great book and at least get inspired, at the expense of a quick start on my own story.

Well, it looks like I was wrong – in a good way. Let me explain.

The thing about learning a delicate craft – like writing – from books, or workshops, or courses, or writers conferences, is that these are a lot like elementary or high school studies. Learning from books and lectures has some major limitations. You can memorize and grasp concepts and follow step-by-step instructions all you like, and at the end you’ll probably have a book. But will it be a good book? A well-constructed book? A book that a smart agent will take a chance on? A book that compels readers to turn the page? A book they’ll actually remember a month after they read it?

I’ve read that most new writers essentially learn their craft through trial and error. That’s certainly been my path. But how much of this learning-from-your-mistakes can you do and still remain inspired? Frustratingly, finding out exactly what mistakes you’ve made is a whole challenge in itself. A critique group certainly can help here, but many unpublished writers learn that they’ve (probably) made mistakes through rejection letters – without getting the feedback needed to actually learn from those mistakes.

Another of the oft-repeated pieces of advice to writers is to read read read. Read widely, but especially read great writers and learn from them. The theory seems sound: learn by example. Somehow, by osmosis, you will absorb the literary genius of a bestseller and replicate it, with practice. Kind of a monkey-see-monkey-do thing.

While reading is an absolute essential for writers, and it’s easy (almost too easy) to mimic another writer’s style and voice, there’s one little hitch in learning to plot through exposure to good writing.

As a front-of-stage reader, the backstage mechanics of plot and structure are invisible to you, hidden behind the curtain. That’s the magic. The more skilled the writer, the more opaque are the pulleys and levers and ropes and set and lighting elements that make the whole show work seamlessly. The girl who appeared to be sawn in half emerges whole. The doves fly out of the hat. The magician disappears in a puff of smoke. You, the reader, are simply transported, disbelief suspended.

Every time I read a great book I find myself fooled once more. Even though I’ve learned much about writing, I get swept away in a good story and at the end I find myself again wondering: how did the author do that magic? (Formulaic books are another thing altogether, their plots often transparent and predictable.)

glass-rainbowBut within the first 10 page of deconstructing my chosen book, The Glass Rainbow by James Lee Burke – using the methodology suggested by James Scott Bell in his book Plot and Structure (see “How to Improve Your Plotting Exponentially”), I realized I had just stepped backstage.

This is where the magic gets done. Immediately, secrets began to be revealed. The pulleys and levers became exposed as I watched the master writer at work, behind the curtain, and documented what I saw.

The bizarre thing about novel deconstruction is: all you’re doing is reading, but with one difference. You don’t sit in front of the curtain in the audience and let the plot sweep you forward. You simply go backstage and stop the action at the end of every scene to examine what the writer has actually done.

Every page, every paragraph, every word in the opening of The Glass Rainbow had a job to do. By page 1, the reader had been sucked into the humid, decaying world of a marginalized and lawless society, set at the slow-simmering pace of the deep South. By page 2, the reader had seen inside the sleuth/protagonist’s heart-of-hearts and come to understand what he values, what he fears, what drives him. By page 6 the troubling circumstances of the crime that triggers the whole plot, and the challenges of achieving justice in this case, had been introduced.

All this was accomplished in 2 scenes and maybe 2,000 words. The magic? Even though the pace was as unhurried as a road gang prisoner sweating over his labour under the noonday Mississippi sun (the setting of Scene 2), the reader on the audience side of the curtain had quickly been swept deep into the plot and hooked on the story, the characters, the setting … the mystery of it all.

And now that I’ve been backstage, I have a good idea how James Lee Burke did it.


For me, this exercise is not a diversion from writing. It’s an internship with a master.


Box Score

Books deconstructed: < 1% of one book

Pages of my book written: 0

Blog posts written: 1

Travel planned and booked: 1 trip (New Zealand)

What I’m reading this week: The Glass Rainbow, James Lee Burke; The Ascent of Women, Sally Armstrong; New Zealand, Lonely Planet

Health status: Miserable cold

Pies eaten: 1/3, variety: pizza

Best thing this week: Discovering deconstruction

Worst thing this week: Relentless Ebola news everywhere

Conflicted… again.

Paula’s Post #84

I”m conflicted.

If you read my post from last week, Open for Debate, you’ll note that this week, I had every good intention of continuing with the topic of ‘deconstruction’ as a tool to improve our writing. As I noted last week:

Just like the title on the Meccano box says: we’re going to start with ‘parts and how to use them’. Each of us will figuratively rip a bestselling novel apart, and then examine the bits and pieces of the type of book we want to write. We’ll study each of those bits and pieces, having regard to the end product we wish to write, until we have a solid understanding of what made those novels ‘tick’.

So, determined to make good on that promise, I walked down the road of good intentions this weekend, spending hours on Amazon and Goodreads, trying to decide exactly which novel I wished to ‘deconstruct’.

It had to be a good one. It had to be an author I loved, or could fall in love with. It had to be an author who’d met with high critical acclaim in the mystery-suspense genre.

Soon, a number of excellent candidates vied for my attention:

John Grisham’s Pelican Brief – a great yarn and a strong female lead. And I’d read it. A long time ago, but I’d read it. They even made it into a movie! A pretty good movie starring Julia Roberts.

Pelican Brief

Stuart Wood’s Orchid Beach – the first in his Holly Barker series. I hadn’t really read much of Wood’s work, (he’s more known to readers for his Stone Barrington series) but poking around, I discovered he publishes about three books a year under his contract with Putnam, and something like his last 30 novels have all been hardback bestsellers on the New York Times list for fiction. Not too shabby.

Orchid Beach

Margaret Maron: The Bootlegger’s Daughter – Where the heck have I been? I haven’t read Maron’s series either. But her protagonist, Judge Deborah Knott, according to my research, has just appeared in the 19th book in this venerable, award-winning series. What else did I discover? Maron’s won the Edgar, Agatha, Anthony and Macavity awards. A stellar achievement. (I hopped right over and ‘liked’ her page on facebook).

Bootlegger's Daughter

Hilary Davidson: – Damage Done – The debut novel in her Lily Moore series and an Anthony award winner for best first novel, not to mention finalist for the Arthur Ellis and Macavity awards. A pretty hot start, right out of the gate. But wait, I haven’t read that one either.

Damage Done

By now, I’m beginning to get a little knot in my tummy repeating this over and over again. Maybe I’ve been working too hard at my ‘other’ work’, I mutter under my breath. ‘What’s that dear’, my husband asks. ‘Nothing.’

I shake my head, startled at how far I’ve fallen behind in my reading.

Louise Penny – Still Life – Canadian author of mystery novels and winner of the Ellis and Anthony awards, for her debut novel featuring Chief Inspector Gamache of the Homicide Department of the Surete du Quebec.

Still Life

Whew! I can wipe my brow with relief. I discovered the fabulous Ms. Penny last year, and even blogged about it in my January post: Reflections on my ‘Not Writing’ Life.

Damn! I have a sneaking suspicion that is maybe what we are all doing with this whole deconstruction project. Not writing, that is. This isn’t good. Not for a writers’ group.

So that’s why I’m conflicted.

Last evening, I explained the whole deconstruction idea to my husband, always a good sounding board. He listened for awhile, mostly patiently, while I described what we hoped to achieve. He even hung in there as I read the first pages of several of the novels I was considering ‘deconstructing’ (he voted for Louise Penny, by the way).

In the end, however, he turned to me with growing impatience and said, quote:

“Success is measured by how well you tell your stories and not by whether you make the best seller list. You shouldn’t try to be an industry, some of them (the bestselling writers) are just bad writers!”

“Go back to your Hawaii novel and tell a good story.”

He thinks we 5writers are becoming way too pre-occupied with writing about writing, and have lost sight of the whole purpose: which is just to tell a good story.

I told him I would think about that, and would even include his words in my blog today.

So I am.

Food for thought: maybe I shouldn’t get bogged down in deconstructing someone else’s bestselling novel. Maybe I should just tell the story I want to tell.

I’ve told my 5writers’ colleagues that if I do ‘Deconstruct’ it likely will be either Louise Penny’s ‘Still Life‘ or ‘ Margaret Maron’sThe Bootlegger’s Daughter‘.

But I remain conflicted.

Yet, in the end, maybe we don’t need to be ‘all in’ on this. One of the best articles about ‘deconstruction’ for writers is Kathy Steffen’s ’10 Steps for Deconstructing a Novel (or How to Learn from Great Authors). Steffen prefaces her ’10 steps’ with the following advice, which I’ve excerpted in full:

The best way to learn how to write a book is to read and write. Seriously. The write part is easy (hahaha—at least in theory). Write. As much as you can—early in the morning, or at night, or at lunch, or write every day at a specific time, or, or, or…(for ideas on time to write, here are some ideas in Make Time to Write and Find Time to Write). You get the idea.

Now for the reading part. If you are a writer, you are probably a voracious reader. Read, read, read everything you can, especially in the genre you want to write. Reading other’s work will help you study story structure and analyze what works and what doesn’t so you can apply concepts of writing that resonate with you to your own writing. How to do this? Read first as a reader to enjoy the book, then go beyond the “magic” and take a look behind the curtain to discover how the writer enthralled you. Get that other part of your brain working—not the imagination part, but the analytical part. Read as a writer. Deconstruct your favorite novels.

Novel deconstruction isn’t a book report where you just tell what happened in the book. This is a method of digging beneath the surface of the book to see what makes it a can’t-put-it-down read. This can be an eye-opening experience. Give it a try!

Good advice, eh?

I’m going to think about that, but first, I’m going to catch up on my reading.

A clear and present danger


Paula’s Post #65 — We live in the digital age. A time of ever-increasing distractions. Our iPhones, our iPads, our Fuel Bands and Fitbits, our 1000+ digital cable channels, our Netflix and Twitter and Linkedin accounts… all contribute to a world where the hours of the day are subjected to being sliced and diced like a French chef’s mirepoix, until there is nothing left but a few stray minutes here, an hour or so there.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t shake the vague sense of feeling ‘robbed’ by all these distracting influences.

I know, I know,  I can hear you all now: “It’s your own fault if you can’t turn off your phone for an hour or two – if you can’t push yourself off the couch and pick up a book instead of sitting rooted, like a gnarled old oak, transfixed by the Olympic’s Women’s Parallel Slalom Snowboarding event or the latest episode of Downton Abbey.  

We all make choices, this is true, but there is no disputing the radical changes the digital age has brought to our everyday lives.

Just 10 years ago, I actually visited libraries on a weekly basis. Visited bookstores too, almost as often, checking out with armloads of heavy books from my favourite authors. I recall vowing to purchase Sue Grafton’s alphabet offerings, in order, all the way to Z is for… but alas, faltered somewhere around P is for Peril.

P is for Peril

I was amongst the first to cheer the introduction of the eReader, the device that heralded the dawn of a new age, a utopian future where we could travel through Europe without fear of running out of books to read, or of being charged excess baggage fees when the 17 travel guides we’d squirreled away in our luggage resulted in our suitcases topping out the scales at somewhere north of 50 pounds.

Up until the last decade, for better or worse, actual physical ‘books’ were an omnipresent part of our everyday lives.

Now, with rare exceptions, most of my books are downloaded to my iPad. I still like to buy real hard copies of the reference books that I used in my business and  I think I will always want to buy hard copies of ‘writing’ books, for these I like to index with little stickies and dog ear the pages to mark passages that resonate with a particular sage piece of advice. But now, my purchase of ‘real’ books, as far as fiction is concerned, is more often than not confined to purchasing that special first edition of a favourite author’s book, or better yet, the hot off the presses launch of a writing colleagues debut novel.

To me, this is disturbing.

How could so much have changed in so short a time?

Not everyone is like me. I’m sure many of you are still acquiring books, whether from a genuine preference for the touch and feel and smell of ‘real books’ or from an altruistic need to ‘save’ a dying art form.

When I packed up my house to move last summer, I could have built eight foot walls from the shelves full of books we’d accumulated over the years. Some purchased, some inherited, but either way far too many to move yet again.

In case you think otherwise, there isn’t a huge market for used books – they’re difficult to even give away. But my 5writer colleague Joe was quick to step in, offering to ‘shelter’ several fine books in his collection.

Indeed, I’ve started to think maybe we need to develop ‘book rescue’ organizations, something akin to ‘pet rescue’. Noble undertakings where you offer to provide a home, temporary or otherwise, to save old books from being euthanized at the dump.

But think about it for a minute. Even if you do rescue these books, how many of these books are you actually going to read? Are we ‘book readers’ the last of a dying breed?

What about young people? Are the majority actually reading actual books these days? I know the Hunger Games trilogy and the Divergent series have captivated a certain segment of teen and young adult readers, in much the same way as J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter series managed a decade before with somewhat younger readers, but is this an isolated trend?

My sister-in-law Eleanor is visiting this week; a retired high school teacher, she is a life-long reader who still works with young people, tutoring ESL students. Eleanor is a true reader, having read every day of her life, from the time she learned to read. She even admits to feeling upset if she doesn’t read a little bit everyday, if only for ten minutes, before she falls asleep.

But Eleanor readily agrees that she finds it disturbing when she has to almost ‘force’ some of her young adult students to read books, even for pleasure.

I’m beginning to wonder if we may have done our children a disservice, herding them into English class and forcing them to dissect books like specimens in a biology lab. Dictating that a novel must be ripped to shreds until there is nothing left to love. Lost is pacing, plot and most egregious of all, the suspension of disbelief. Who wouldn’t rather play video games?

Perhaps what we need is a revolution in reading. Since it debuted in 1996, Oprah’s Book Club has helped to keep reading fun, social and interactive. She’s even got lists to help introduce kids to the joy of reading.

Yet even here, some have criticized the pop culture, mass appeal of the books Oprah has championed over the years: Scott Stossel, an editor at The Atlantic, wrote:

“There is something so relentlessly therapeutic, so consciously self-improving about the book club that it seems antithetical to discussions of serious literature. Literature should disturb the mind and derange the senses; it can be palliative, but it is not meant to be the easy, soothing one that Oprah would make it.”[1]

Seriously? What a snob!

I don’t know about you, but I want to fall in love with books again. Yesterday, a beautiful 80 degree blue sky day in the California desert, I launched my floatie raft and drifted about my pool. Within minutes though, I was antsy. I knew something was wrong. I didn’t have a book I could take into the pool. Two sat on my bedside table: The Spellman Files, a hardcopy, first edition mystery by Edgar nominated author Lisa Lutz bearing a personal inscription to the friend in my Bocce league who’d lent me this delightful debut novel.

No, no, no, no – definitely not taking that one in the pool.

Ditto for the second book on my night table, The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett, another hard copy first edition debut novel that is winning rave reviews. This book a Christmas present from my cousin Mark.

Not pool fodder, no, no, no.

I finally settled on launching with NumbersRachel Ward’s debut YA psycho thriller about a disaffected teen with an unusual affliction, the ability to see ‘numbers’ attached to people, the numbers the dates of each person’s death. I’d purchased the book when researching the genre for my own 5writers YA novel, but never did more than read a few of the early chapters.

Yesterday, floating on my raft under an azure sky, I lost myself in this little paperback book, if only for an hour or so before yet another social engagement. But that hour was enough to rediscover the joy of reading. I didn’t pick it up at the end of the day, when I was exhausted and destined to fall asleep in a mere 10 minutes or so. No, for once I found the time to read in the middle of the day, my iPhone and iPad safely ashore, I floated adrift and unplugged from the normal distractions of everyday life.

I can’t say it is the best book I’ve ever read, but that is not the point. Yesterday, I cherished the simple pleasure of reading just for fun.

The Atlantic’s Mr. Stossel would no doubt cringe at my choice of reading material, decrying the author’s thin characterizations, familiar themes and simple prose.

Who cares!

If we do not rediscover the joy of reading for pleasure, I fear there is a clear and present danger lying just ahead.

I fear we will have no one to write for.

For you followers of our 5writers blog, I suspect I’m preaching to the converted. If you’re following a blog about writing, your either a reader, a writer, or both. Most likely your spouses and kids are too.

But what about the rest of the people in your little world? Do you know a boy or girl who never reads? A young adult who has yet to discover ‘the joy of reading’? A spouse who may have slipped from grace, distracted by the easy ability to watch six episodes of Breaking Bad in a single evening instead of picking up a book? Even amongst yourselves, are you finding you have too many books you are ‘supposed’ to read, with little time to just read for fun?

If so, I’m suggesting a small experiment. Pick up a book you’d never otherwise read. Read it for fun as quickly as possible. Try not to analyze it. Try just to enjoy it.

When you are done. Give it to someone else.

Bonus points for anyone who can coax a young person, under thirty, into reading a book, just for fun.

Paula’s Post #65.5 — A quick update: Alas, I did not quite manage to get this post posted by Tuesday, midnight, the deadline for my once a week blog offering. As in ‘if this is Tuesday, it must be Paula’s 5writer blog day’.

As we 5writers all know only to well, the road to you-know-where is paved with good intentions. I’d smugly written this post Monday morning, leaving it to add only the insertion of a number of links to author pages, etc. I figured I had plenty of time to do that Tuesday morning before my flight from California to Canada.

I figured wrong.

Remember, suspense in fiction is created by unexpected events. Events like the misplacement of keys before an international flight. The only set of keys that would let us into our rented postage stamp apartment in Vancouver. The keys we were sure we’d taken down to California, but were no where to be found, despite a massive key hunt. The keys that made us an hour late for our flight (good thing the flight was an hour late too).

But as Will Shakespeare famously wrote: ‘Alls Well that Ends Well’: a good friend picked us up to the airport in Vancouver, stayed with us all afternoon and hung out at Starbucks with us until we managed to track down our property manager and an extra key to our apartment. Our kind friend then joined us for dinner and drove us both to dinner and home, after we realized we still didn’t have a working ‘fob’ that would get us into our locked garage where our car is parked.

The fob is coming at 9 am this morning and we’ll be back in action, even if it looks like I’ll end up with a late start for my journey up the coast to check on our renovations. No bumpy journey is without a silver lining. For me, that was being reminded of the true value of a good friend.

Thanks, Colleen!