Sunday, August 29, 2010


When you attend a conference, you never know what's going to resonate a month later. My initial response to the SCBWI summer conference in L.A. was author envy. Jon Scieszka, Gordon Korman, Marion Dane Bauer,…I'm not worthy! The sentiment lingered and this surprised me. In another life (as a lawyer), I'd lived in Los Angeles and had many star sightings: Bob Newhart in the video store! Rick Springfield ordering a sandwich in front of me! (I'll have what he's having.) Alfre Woodard at the dry cleaners! The moment of glee lasted as long as an Altoid. But I never (seriously) aspired to be an actor or a singer. A successful author? My ultimate dream.

I tried to live in the moment, listening to each esteemed writer and illustrator's keynote, hoping that their talent and good karma would transfer to me. A ridiculous wish considering I was one of 1,100 people in attendance, but there are no Wish Censors. If there were, fountains would have no more than three or four pennies lining their bottoms. On the return flight home, I wasn't sure what I'd gained from the four-day event. I had a vaguely positive feeling, but it couldn't pin it down to inspiration or direction.

Today, as I sat in a café in town, I stared at my laptop and felt I'd hit a snag with my latest project. Then, an L.A. moment flashed to mind. I tried a writing tip offered by Gail Carson Levine (Ella Enchanted). I flipped through my journal and found a notation from her speech. When she feels a part of a manuscript lacks oomph, she brainstorms other plot possibilities. The list must reach a dozen. Don't stop even if you like one of your first seven ideas.

I am outlining a new YA manuscript and, as I reviewed my notes, I struggled with why a character would do something seemingly unexpected. I started listing. The first idea seemed plausible. I could go with it, but I let the list persist. Item two, acceptable, although I was dwelling too much on one of the emerging themes. Too blatant. Item three—meh. I really liked my fourth and fifth ideas. The fifth, in particular, took off. I madly typed notes to expand on this possibility. I was sold on it as a compelling explanation.

Don't stop till you hit a dozen. I felt like I was back in math class, clearly getting a concept yet having to do all the assigned homework questions, ostensibly to solidify my understanding. Bah! Busy work. I'd resented Mr. Houston and Mrs. Hinich then and now I was resenting Gail Carson Levine. I was under no obligation. She wouldn't do a homework check. She didn't threaten detention or black marks in the grade book. I could stop and she'd never know. She wouldn't care if I followed her advice. She didn't know me. She didn't even follow me on Twitter, for Bill Peet's sake.

Ah, but the curse. I was always an obedient student, dammit. I continued with the list. After each new idea, I'd count my ideas as if by chance an extra one or two crept in from nowhere. By the time I had ten ideas, I got up and requested a coffee refill. Ten was terrific. It showed I could consider alternatives. Good enough.

I sat back down and figured a couple more ideas wouldn't hurt. Eleven. Twelve. Whew. Done.

You know what? I have to thank Gail Carson Levine for pushing me. As I review my list, it is clear that not all of the ideas are home runs. There are a few fouls and one or two embarrassing strikes. Still, creating the list helped with more than finding a fitting motive for a character. By exploring many possibilities, I had to consider my main character's relationship with each of the other characters. I deepened my understanding of some of the minor characters and tweaked other aspects of the plot.

Which idea will I go with? It's down to Numbers 5, 8 and 10. Five still feels the strongest, but I need to let the possibilities simmer. The fact that the tenth idea is a contender proves that I didn't fill the list just for the sake of reaching the seemingly random number of twelve. I fully committed to the exercise. And why wouldn't I? I am excited about my manuscript idea. Should I eventually get it published, I'll have to add Gail Carson Levine to the Acknowledgments. Turns out I was doing more than star gazing in L.A. after all!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Most of us have a decade we relate to more than the others: the hair, the clothes, the music, the movies, even the commercials. Friends would say I'm stuck in the '70s and, although I never want to see platform shoes again or go back to teasing my hair into a strawberry blond afro, I don't fight the label. I'd rather wear bell bottoms than acid-washed or jeans that sag to your knees. I'll gleefully listen to one of the most banned songs of the decade, startle my dogs with my Arnold Horshack laugh and doodle smiley faces while craving a Kojak lollipop.

Somehow I've managed to move forward even if I'm never quite current. I blame technology. I can't keep up. I was so proud of myself when I gave up my landline and relied solely on a cell phone. At the time, I was one of 8% of North Americans to do so. Cutting edge! But then BlackBerrys and iPhones became the rage and I failed to board the trend train. I still don't see the need for 24/7 communication and accessibility. (I regularly turn my cell off and forget to turn it back on. No withdrawal symptoms.) Knowing how much I love music, colleagues bought me an iPod when I left my last job. They thoughtfully preloaded it with "Mandy" and "Shannon" and "Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves". Still, it sits in a drawer somewhere in my home office. My name is Gregory and I am technologically stunted. I don't own a flatscreen and one of my TVs doesn't even have a remote.

Yeah. Stuck in the '70s. (Where are my tube socks?)

I'm not calling for a techno burning. I do see value in some of the latest devices. It just seems we're too gadget driven and some very rich ADD developers and marketers are mocking us saps who buy into the buzz that every new upgrade is a need, not a want. It's like we're going from vinyl to 8-track to cassette to CD to iTunes in the course of four years instead of four decades. Yesterday, I read an article telling me that my four-month-old netbook would soon be obsolete. (Same with Kindles, digital cameras and, gasp, iPads.) Why shell out money for soon-to-be landfill fodder? Why can't we put something on the market and stick with it for 7-10 years? Products that I talking blasphemy? How long has the stapler been in existence?

Help me, Rhoda Morgenstern! Gosh, I miss those lines of beads hanging in the doorway of your apartment. I need to calm myself with a tall glass of Tang—it was good enough for astronauts, it's good enough for me. I need Olivia to restore myself with "Have You Never Been Mellow" and then shake things out with a little "Boogie Oogie Oogie". Ah, good times, J.J., Good Times.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


Four hundred sixty-three pages to go. I'm never going to make it. Why do some authors have to be epic-centric?

Ten months ago, while staying at the family cottage in Ontario, my cousin's wife and I sipped wine and chatted about what makes a good book. I'd said I was drawn to stories in which the writer brought the characters to life in such a way that I felt I knew these people. She recommended a book she'd recently read. Would I want to borrow the book? Sure, why not. A week later she handed me the book. Lift with the knees, not the back. The hardcover came in at more than seven hundred pages. As a person who has always been a slow reader, the rounding rules from math class do not apply. In my mind, the tome (tomb?) was an eight-hundred pager.

I flew back to Vancouver, relieved that Air Canada didn't charge more for the added weight in my suitcase. I set the book on my dresser and proceeded to forget it existed. Entertainment Weekly was a much more consumable read. (Sometimes, after reading, I felt I knew James Cameron and the "Glee" cast, too.)

On impulse, I booked a flight back to the cottage and that book could no longer be ignored. I could not in good conscience borrow a book for almost a year and return it, mumbling, "Sorry, never got around to it." I am a writer. Writers are voracious readers, right?

Then July came and I booked another trip to the cottage. Suddenly the book taunted me every time I walked in my bedroom. Gonna read me? Or are ya just a literary fake?

It was like I was back in college, end of semester, 1,900 pages of text behind in my reading assignments. That's when I'd curse the history prof who had five texts on his course syllabus. Should have dropped it the first week. Would have saved a bundle at the university bookstore and might have gotten more than a few naps in the days leading up to finals. I told myself that 800 is nothing compared to 1,900. Less than half! A snap! But 1,900 came twenty-five years ago when four hours of sleep was the norm and all-nighters were trendy. Cramming made sense. (Being prepared was for Boy Scouts and that was the last thing I wanted to be compared to in university.)

Could I cram again? Was there any point in even doing so? It's leisure reading. Setting daily page quotas seemed to violate the intent.

I didn't for a moment think about surfing online to read a few reviews and finding a Wikipedia entry about the author. Even in a reading crisis, I never cheated. Never looked at Cliff's Notes. I'd do the time. I'd walk around with raccoon eyes, wear them as a badge of honor.

And so I began reading Wally Lamb's The Hour I First Believed. The main character immediately came off as cold and passive-aggressive. That was my out! Sorry. Couldn't get into it. Couldn't relate to the main character. I could go back to reading Julia Roberts' latest interview promoting her new movie. But no. The writing was strong. So what if I didn't like the character? Wasn't that the point of strong storytelling? I could be introduced to new people but never have to sit with them face-to-face.

I read on. Columbine. Ugh. I cannot handle reading about violence. This author had done extensive research about the massacre. If not abandoning the book, I could have skimmed the scores of pages dealing with the shootings. And yet I didn't. This book had been offered for reading, not skimming, scanning, perusing. I worked through the pages, felt like I was there, not that I wanted to be. Effective writing.

And then the book began to unravel. The author included a flashback chapter to his childhood. Interesting backstory, but unnecessary as such a large chunk. If the book weren't so long, I could overlook this, but I cursed the editor. Save a tree for Pete's sake! The novel drifted farther from its core as letters from an ancestor and family history took up more text, offered in the form of a subordinate character's thesis. I grew more annoyed. My editor would have never allowed it. Easily two hundred pages could have been chopped. Still, I read.

One hundred thirty-one more pages. I finished the novel on the plane. I think I felt more relief than satisfaction. The pacing of the book felt off. For the first seven hundred pages, the writer meandered about, freely going off on side paths before finding the main trail again. And yet the final thirty pages felt like a whirlwind wrap-up, quickly updating character stories to bring the story to its conclusion. It felt like the kind of update that flashes on screen at the end of a movie biopic before the end credits roll. Made for a tidy conclusion, but also made the tangents in the story more aggravating. (SPOILER ALERT: I also didn't care for the fact that the meaning of the book's title wasn't revealed until the last page of the book. As I read, I kept stopping and wondering, "Is that 'the hour he first believed'? Did I miss it?!)

So I did it. I surrendered the book yesterday, leaving it with another cousin. I won't even have to have a conversation with the donor about my impressions of the book. I could have gotten away with not reading it. And yet I am pleased to have made it through. To his credit the author created strong, distinct characters and built a story atop a foundation of core themes and values. I am also more cognizant of the importance of ruthless editing whereby no passage gets a free ride no matter how beautifully written.

I'm currently reading two short story collections. They are just the antidote after the marathon read. I find comfort in knowing I can skip a short story if it doesn't pull me in from the outset. And I look forward to getting back on a normal sleep schedule. Here's hoping Rocky the Raccoon goes into a long hibernation.

But then I remind myself I've never read War and Peace. How can I call myself a writer if I haven't read that? And I can only renew library books twice. I see late nights ahead of me…

Friday, August 6, 2010


Every now and then, we can expect well intended advice from family members to bring us down rather than lift us up. From strangers, I'd like to think I can tune out the unhelpful pearls of wisdom.

Easy for him/her to say. He/She doesn't even know me.

So when I checked out Stephen King's On Writing (Scribner, 2000) from the library after an acquaintance recommended it, I looked forward to gaining perspective, even inspiration from a successful writer. Any little boost helps. Sadly, Stevie's treatise proved to be a downer.

I have no doubt Stephen King set out to motivate struggling writers, giving us fuel to continue on a lonely path where we often flagellate ourselves with self-doubt. And, yes, I found affirmation in some of what he related. Nothing new, but it felt good to know some of my writing practice resembled that of a ridonculously successful author, one of the few who is a household name. I too set first drafts aside to let them breathe on their own for a period of time before tackling the first round of revisions. As well, I can vouch for the value of keeping a sustained focus on writing, going at it at least six days a week.

I received some friendly reminders. For instance, I need to read more. (Doesn't every writer say this? Where's the "READ MORE" bumper sticker?) Sometimes I have to hear something 1,417 times before it sinks in. I've formally scheduled book reading into my daily routine. (I read plenty, but it's mainly magazines, newspapers and online articles. If I'm writing fiction, I should be reading fiction.) I also gained a new visualization for the writing process: the first draft is pounded out with the door closed (getting my thoughts down), the revisions with the door open (focused on the would-be reader).

But then came the crushing facts, read with astonishment, envy and complete despair. While money does not drive the desire to write, I do dream of being able to earn a living from it. When Stephen King mentioned that his first big publishing contract included a $400,000 advance—in the 1970s!—I had to put the book aside and go for a walk. Sure, he had a stack of rejection letters hanging on a nail by his desk, but he went from being broke to winning the lottery. My advance for my book, published in 2008, was well under 1% of Stevie's payday.

A day later, I opened the book again. I reminded myself I was looking for writing inspiration and financial information was irrelevant. (Not sure why it's even in the book. I get how it came at an opportune time in Mr. King's life, but I don't see how it assists in sharing the lessons he's learned about his craft.) Toward the end of the book, he included a section that led to more despair…and aggravation. He created "Frank", a composite of three writers he knows who haven't hit the big time yet, but are well on their way. Ah, yes. I started to get excited. This will show Stevie's understanding of those of us with Google-free or Google-lite names.

Frank begins to build a track writer as a published writer in small, prestigious journals. But there are bumps and setbacks as well. A sample query letter from Frank is included. Stevie makes clear that Frank has no connections in publishing. He's just another Joe Schmo, like you and me. Frank sent a dozen letters to agents and received expressions of further interest from all but one (who wasn't taking new clients).

I put the book aside and went for another walk. The fact that Frank is an agent magnet is about as relatable as Mr. King's cash advance. According to Stephen King, "if your work is salable, you will have only a moderate amount of trouble finding [an agent]. You'll probably be able to find one even if your work isn't salable, as long as it shows promise."

UGH! Reading about Frank makes it tempting to put my Netbook on Craig's List. I repeatedly told myself that King's perspective, in addition to being unrepresentative of most struggling writers, is dated. The publishing industry has changed drastically in the past decade. Advances are smaller and agents and editors have been pared down. Professional courtesy has been compromised as agents and editors have busier workloads. Most don't even want an SASE. They only reply if there's a shred of interest.

But trying to put King's words into context doesn't erase what I've read. (Isn't it the same when we try to dismiss Aunt Bertha's comment that a new shirt makes us look "chunky"?) Am I delusional? What business do I have even reading a book about writing, much less thinking I can be the next Frank on my way to being the next Stephen?

For me at least, Stephen King's On Writing instills more fear in me than Carrie, Christine and Cujo combined. I'm returning it to the library today. I think it's time to reread Oh, the Places You'll Go! by Dr. Seuss. Maybe in a few days I'll be ready to submit a few more agent queries.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


As if I don't face enough rejection during the submission process, I can't stick to the 140-character limit on Twitter. Nine items below have character violations. Egad! I only sent two tweets during the 2010 SCBWI Summer Conference, but had I been more concise—and had I turned my Netbook on—, here are the messages I would have sent. (Remaining characters are shown in brackets.)

  1. 1200 attendees. It's sunny, the palms are beautiful in a wispy sort of way and we're all in a hotel ballroom 2 levels below ground. This must be good. [-11]
  2. Jennifer Hunt, editor Little Brown Books for Young Readers: skip trends, go for universals. (Think Judy Blume, John Hughes movies.) [8]
  3. Jennifer Hunt: Be open-minded as you write. Let character's voice come thru & let go of adult judgments. [35]
  4. Loren Long, author/illustrator (Mr. Peabody's Apples; Otis): With picture books, find the "emotional hit". The book becomes the child's friend. [-3]
  5. Gordon Korman-The ultimate school praise was when the teacher wanted to laminate his story. [49]
  6. LGBTQ Panel re. MG/YA content—Not a crowded field. It will stand out among submissions. [52]
  7. E.B. Lewis, extraordinary illustrator! Bought The Other Side, a story about a black and a white girl divided by a fence. Check out the use of the book spine as a divider as well. [-39]
  8. Josh Adams, agent: Out of 6,000 submissions/yr, happy if find 6 to represent. Yikes! [54]
  9. Josh Adams: Timeless books will always be timely. [90]
  10. Gail Carson Levine, author (Ella Enchanted)-Don't always have to have conflict/tension, but a "growth of experience". [23]
  11. Carolyn Mackler, author (The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things), citing Judy Blume: It's not just the books that are banned. It's the books that will never be written. [-36]
  12. Marion Dane Bauer, author (On My Honor)-It's the preschool picture books that sell. Less than 400 words. Strive for simplicity & compression. [-2]
  13. Jon Scieszka: We don't have enough books that reflect the emotional reality of boys. [55]
  14. Gennifer Choldenko, author (Al Capone Does My Shirts): Take care of your "writer" self. ID what that self needs & figure out how to nurture/honour it. [-11]
  15. Rachel Vail, author (Justin Case: School, Drool and Other Daily Disasters): "Do we ever look at a book the way we do when we're ten years old?" [-4]
  16. Rachel Vail: Recall an adult who listened & took you seriously as a child. We have to listen in that way to our characters. [16]
  17. Paul Fleischman, author (Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices): When writing a novel, ride the wave, see where it takes you...but it helps to have a surfboard (i.e., outline, aforethought) underneath you. [-63]
  18. Justin Chanda, publisher: ebooks will help readers access stories in which the cover might make them feel embarrassed (Think adults reading YA, struggling readers...) [-27]
  19. Francesco Sedita, publisher: If you're not making mistakes, you're not taking risks. [55]
  20. Why doesn't Vancouver have a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf (ice blended mocha!)? Maybe if the writing doesn't work out... [26]

Gregory Walters' first middle grade novel, Fouling Out, was published by Orca Book Publishers in 2008. He's a twit when it comes to Twitter, but feel free to follow him.

Saturday, June 26, 2010


I began a screenplay in April as part of Script Frenzy, an online writing motivator that challenges participants to crank out a one-hundred page script in a month. As part of my writing, I booked a weekend in Mount Vernon, Washington, the setting for my comedy. But midway through that excursion, doubts crept in. Inspiration ran dry. I tried to tell myself it was merely a consequence of sleep deprivation. (When I booked on the Internet, there had been no mention of my hotel being beside the railroad tracks and the heavy train traffic that chugged by all night long.)

Back home, the project remained stalled. I still liked my characters and the story’s premise, but there was a mismatch. The characters weren’t right for the story. Page forty-eight in, I knew I had to start over. I abandoned the script and pulled out of the virtual writing club. If I’d attempt an overhaul then and there, I would have been unsuccessful. Too much frustration, too disheartened. Instead, I shifted gears and focused on two other projects. With two months’ space from the original aborted mission, I am ready to FADE IN once more, with two new main characters thrust in the predicament that is worth keeping.

Without an artificial deadline, I’ve frontloaded the planning this time. I’ve created detailed character profiles, helping solidify my understanding of their backgrounds and motivations. I’ve also written a detailed outline, offering a breakdown of every scene. No more letting the characters guide me to an unknown destination, as I’ve been so fond of doing with previous writing endeavours. In the past, I rationalized that too much pre-writing would generate a stagnant script. Hogwash. As with any form of writing, the outline is open to revision. The screenplay can take a different turn, perhaps even change course altogether. Still, I have more confidence that the advance prep will lead to a finished script, with the first draft hammered out faster than usual. Thus, with renewed energy and excitement, I begin. Again.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


Just returned from my regular Sunday swim. As I’ve been having shoulder problems, I decided to cool down in the hot tub...if that makes any sense. During that time, I chatted with a lifeguard and another pool regular.

“How far do you swim?” the lifeguard asked.

“5K on Sundays. 3K whenever I get myself to the pool on weekdays.” Somehow the conversation shifted to me talking about my writing. Midway through an explanation, the other swimmer interrupted.

“Wow. You’re so disciplined.”

Who me?

I grew up feeling like one of the least disciplined people on the planet. I was always misplacing library books and failing to return them before the due date. My room had shelves and a cupboard, a chest of drawers and a closet, but I preferred a clutter sprawl extending across my desk, spilling onto the floor and oozing under the bed. Efforts to organize my mess were always sidetracked by a fascinating piece of paper or toy that surfaced as I sifted through the first hodgepodge pile. (And, really, any piece of paper magically became fascinating when faced with the daunting task of a major cleanup.)

In high school, I was the one stuck reading Watership Down or Jane Eyre on the final weekend despite having three or four weeks to ”enjoy” the assigned novel. Projects were completed at the last minute. I told myself that I thrived under pressure.

Same experience in university, only the cram sessions became all-nighters as the neglected readings and assignments were exponentially greater. (My pages to read before midterms always exceeded a thousand. For some reason, I wasn’t sensible enough to stop registering for history classes. All that pressure,...a good thing.)

As I started teaching, it seemed to take me twice as long to prepare lessens, five times as long to mark papers. If only I were more organized, more disciplined.

Something clicked while I was working on my master’s. Despite having lived my life as a procrastinator extraordinaire, I started signing up to be first with class presentations, frontloading the work for my courses. I did my readings so far in advance that I’d have to thoroughly review them again before class, which I realized was a great way to solidify my understanding rather than an exercise in redundancy. I performed as well, if not better, and I enjoyed my studies instead of experiencing a radical shift from lackadaisical to frantic each semester. My fingernails survived key deadlines, my facial complexion cleared up and my caffeine intake...well, some things really can’t be changed.

Apparently I’m not an “old dog” just yet. Human beings can evolve and, remarkably, I have grown into being a disciplined individual. This year of writing could have been a loosey-goosey joke. I could have developed an online addiction with Pac-Man and juggled Scrabble games via email with people around the world. I could have reconnected with Oprah and tried to figure out the reason for the existence of “The View”. And I could have made a dent in the shelves of reading material I keep meaning to get to...some day.

I’d agree with the lady at the pool. I am disciplined. Thankfully, I am as fully accountable for my time writing as for my workouts. I’ve logged my writing on a calendar and documented my time spent writing each day. If I let the dogs out or answer the phone, the clock stops. It may seem obvious that breaks are not actual writing time, but without my newfound discipline, I could have easily deceived myself. Rationalization comes easily. I set writing priorities at the beginning of each week and hold myself to six days of writing. Whenever I come up short on a particular day, I fit in more writing on other days to recover the missed writing time.

I’d always thought being disciplined led to being stuffy and rule-oriented. Artists, after all, are supposed to be free and spontaneous, exploring their craft when the mood is right. Yet I’ve become more driven as a writer as a result of my discipline. If anything, there is more flow to my creativity. Yes, being disciplined as a writer can indeed be an asset. Go figure.