Harry Potter and the Half-Witted Parent

I swear I even Googled it. “When can my child read Harry Potter?”

Admittedly, I was a little selective with the search results. Like when you Google “How bad is yelling at your kids, really?” and scroll until you find an article titled, “I yelled at my kids and they turned out fine!” By Dina Lohan.

Some search results suggested that yes, indeed, my seven-year-old daughter might be old enough to read Harry Potter. She had been asking me all year to delve into his world, having heard about Harry Potter from some (possibly older?) school mates.

I was tempted too. I was an avid reader when I was young, and I just couldn’t wait for my daughter to experience getting lost inside a world within a book. She was already reading some chapter books that I thought were pretty poorly written. Maybe it was time for some first rate material? What’s the harm? So at the beginning of the summer, I ordered a gorgeously illustrated version of The Philosopher’s Stone and settled in to re-live the magic with my willing, wide-eyed daughter.

Of course I’d read the books before. But somehow the scarier, murder-y details of the story had since escaped me. Dead parents? Abusive caregivers? Attempted infanticide? All within the first chapter? I started getting nervous. I became uncomfortably and acutely aware of every age-inappropriate paragraph and passage as we read deeper into the story. But I did my best to make it sunny. Raindrops and roses and whiskers on kittens… We forged on to the fun stuff, and soon enough she was hooked. It was literally magical.

We read a chapter as often as we could, and she was just. so. into. it. I was impressed at how much she was able to retain, and when my husband would pop his head in the room to ask if it was any good, I would chuff at him in my best (still bad) Hagrid voice, “NEVER-INSULT-ALBUS-DUMBLEDORE-IN-FRONT-OF-ME!”

Because it was good. It was very good. Until it wasn’t. I’m not sure at what point the image of He Who Shall Not Be Named seeped into her head, but it did and it stayed there. When we finally reached the end, she was simultaneously smitten by the wizarding world of Harry Potter, and irreversibly, inconsolably terrified. Not exactly the result I had been hoping for, but probably one I could have predicted.

On a particularly bad night, I peeked over at my husband as our oldest daughter lay shaking between us, and I whispered, “I think I goofed.”

He said, “Don’ look at me, it was yer daft plan.” (His Hagrid voice is better than mine, which is surprising since he’s never read the books.)

Since then, things have improved. Luckily, as with most dark arts, my daughters love for the story has overpowered her fear. She’s hooked, and even hopes to be Hermione for Halloween. (Note to self, order costume early this year.)

I made it clear from the beginning that we would have to wait before we read the next book in the series. Harry Potter is a process. A wonderful process, a sometimes scary process, and one that we will be returning to soon. When the time is right.

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#LiveActionSlush rush

I don’t like to be brave. I don’t even like pretending to be brave.

When I was kayaking with my kids this summer, an army of earwigs invaded the crowded hull of our tiny, tipsy vessel. I didn’t notice until we were far from shore, and my daughter didn’t notice at all. I calmly picked them off her lifejacket, one by one, successfully avoiding her screams and our eventual death-by-earwig. That was me pretending to be brave in a life-threatening situation. But when my life isn’t threatened by earwigs, I don’t like to be brave.

So it was a bit out of character for me to submit the first page of my work-in-progress for a Live Action Slush. This weekend I attended an amazing local writing conference, When Words Collide, and some of the must-attend sessions were the Live Action Slushes. During these sessions, writers (anonymously) offer their first page to a panel of authors, who read the submissions aloud to the entire room and then critique them. The idea is to learn how well (or not well) your first page would do in an editor’s slush pile. The panel gives their feedback after each page is read. Since the submissions are anonymous, the writers in the audience don’t have to identify themselves. (Some do, because they’re masochists.)

Sounds fine, you say? What’s the big deal? Well, what if that panel of experienced, empathic authors was actually a panel of 9-15 year-olds, who were much less empathic, much less patient and much more particular with their tastes. Kids know what they like, and what they don’t. Also, imagine that this panel of young, discerning readers had been instructed to raise their hands during each anonymous reading if they’d completely lost interest.

Yeah. That’s the panel I chose for my very first Live Action Slush. I entered the conference room, placed the first page of my Middle Grade novel on the anonymous pile of papers, and took a seat to await my fate.

These kids weren’t messing around. Hands were raised, plots were questioned, and when the 13-year-old on the end said, “I like the writer’s use of exposition in the opening paragraphs,” I knew I was in way over my head. Had my body not been numb with fear, I would have crawled up the aisle towards the table and slipped my page out of the slush pile. But then, I heard the opening line of my story being read for the next round of judgement, and I knew it was too late.

I won’t bore you with the details of my immediate, physical reaction to hearing my page being read to a panel of kids in a room full of writers. Let’s just say it was akin to sitting in a kayak full of earwigs. What I really wanted to do was scream, but I sat there silently, calmly, practically motionless. (Any person in the room could have guessed that I was the author, though, since I didn’t exhale for three and a half minutes. Luckily, blue is my colour.) When my page was finally read, the kids had their fun.

The good news is, none of the young panelists raised their hands to signal that they didn’t like it. In fact, they did like it. They said so! Their feedback was articulate and positive and useful and once I saw them smile, things didn’t seem so scary after all.

In fact, it was kind of fun. And not just the kind of fun that people say is fun, but is not actually fun, like kayaking, but a real, honest-to-goodness thrill.

I may even do it again next year. Actually, I can’t wait.

*I do like kayaking, a lot, but only the earwig-less kind.

Momentum, mo problems

If I had to choose a theme for my life in the last five years, it would probably be “keeping up.” Keeping up with my kids, keeping up with our hectic lifestyle, and keeping up with my expectations as a partner, a parent and (one day, again, hopefully) a professional writer.

I wouldn’t choose the theme “balance,” because that would imply I’ve found some. I wouldn’t choose the theme of “failing miserably,” even though I feel that way sometimes, because despite the many delays and mistakes and missteps, I’m enormously proud of how life has unfolded. Also, my husband hates it when I say I’m failing. (I’m sorry.) But he loves it when I mention him on the blog. (You’re welcome.)

Five years ago, I joined a creative writing class while working full-time at the university. It was a rewarding return to writing after a hiatus from my journalism career. Since then, I’ve kept writing, attended some workshops and conferences and, most recently, was selected for the mentorship program with the Alberta Writers’ Guild.

The momentum has been slow, much like the excruciating pace of my four-year-old fastening her seatbelt while I rev my minivan’s V6 because we’re late AGAIN, but at least it has been building. With momentum comes more opportunity, and with opportunity comes more pressure.

I’m working furiously on my apprenticeship project in the short time I have left with the WGA. I’m writing and editing and (soon) submitting and (likely) getting rejected but at least I’m doing it. And there is so much more I want to do.

I want to revamp my website. Like, a total overhaul. I’m so excited about it. I also want to blog more, with structured themes, services and features.

I want to finish my works-in-progress. I want to make the most of the amazing writing community right at my fingertips. I want to do a lot of things.

What I don’t want to do is to give up. Sometimes I feel like I’m already operating at full capacity, like there’s no way I could do all the things I want to do, in the time I want to do them, and do them well. But what I really, really don’t want to do is grieve a dream without ever really going for it.

So I won’t.

Plotters, pantsers, pokers, poppers

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Yet another thing J.K. Rowling and I have in common.

In the writing world, there is often only one p-word that matters: published. But to get there, you actually have to write something. From beginning to end. Sometimes in that order! And while the path to published can have many different bumps, brusies and (hopefully) breakthroughs, the approach you take to getting there falls neatly into one of two camps: pantsers or plotters.

Writers who are pantsers fly by the seat of their pants. They start with an idea, nothing more, and just write until eventually, hopefully, miraculously, it turns into a fully realized story or novel. Margaret Atwood is considered a pantser. (As a writer. I’m not sure if Margaret Atwood has, you know, pantsed someone. But who can be sure.)

Plotters, on the other hand, work with an outline. They have plot structure, characters sketches, and perhaps even a planned novel ahead of time. I think of complex works when I think of plotters (like J.K. Rowling), but I’ve heard many writers of every genre tote the merits of plotting, just as I’ve heard many authors swear only by pantsing.

I first heard these terms debated at a writing conference in Edmonton last May. I was attending a session on structure, and the accomplished panel of authors began by outting themselves as pantsers or plotters. I immediately identified my free-flowing style of writing as pantsing. Then I considered the pages and pages of outlines, character sketches and plot structure I had developed for my manuscript, and I thought, “No, I’m a plotter.” Then I realized the session had ended and I was sitting alone in a hotel conference room talking to myself.

(Of course, because everyone loves making up words, even writers, there are indeed plantsers. Those who both write by the seat of their pants and follow some sort of writing plan.)

It’s now a year later, I’m still working on that same manuscript, and I’m no longer sure what type of writer I am. Flying by the seat of your pants seems to imply some sort of accelerated motion forward, as if you’re writing at great speeds. That’s not me. That’s definitely not me. And sure, I plot (usually against people who have wronged me). But plotting doesn’t seem to increase my word count where it matters. Instead I’m spending time revising my very detailed sketch of a tertiary character. (This may actually be called procrastination.)

I think I’m a picker. I slowly pick away at writing. Or a poker. My story just pokes along. Or maybe I’m a potter. I plant a great idea, fail to find the time to water it and hope to the high heavens that it will eventually grow on its own. If there were a magic pill I could take to finish writing this book, I would be a popper. (Oh how I wished for this while writing my masters thesis.) Maybe I’m a prayer-er. As in, when it comes to finishing this novel, I haven’t got one.

Who knows. I’m starting to realize that how I write isn’t as important as what I write. And you’ll never get to the what if you don’t make time for the when. It seems simple so I will treat it as such, and just keep writing. Eventually, I’ll get there.

At least I’m not pessimistic.*

*It’s quite possible that I am also pessimistic.

Blockhead

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Hoping for a triple word score.

I like to read about writing. (I even blogged about it.) And while I enjoy reading about writing for the simple sake of reading about writing, most often I’m reading about writing because I’m having trouble writing about… anything. That sounds like writer’s block, you say? Yes, I’m familiar with the term.

During a recent writing rut, I came across some interesting advice that compared writing a shitty first draft to running a marathon. Of course my first thought was, I have never actually completed a marathon so this comparison is completely useless. My second thought was, I have never actually completed a first draft of book-length proportions, so any and all advice will do. Also, I’ve tried running and I’ve tried writing and attempting to do too much of either almost always ends in me collapsing on the floor. So in the midst of my writer’s blah (when you’re writing, but it’s all very blah) I decided to give it a try.

The gist was this: you run a marathon from start to finish (I’m told). Considering this, you wouldn’t turn around and re-run sections of the race if your pace wasn’t perfect, now would you? (Would you? I dunno.) So, when writing your shitty first draft, write from start to finish. Don’t stop, turn around and re-write certain sections of your work. Perfection is not the point when it comes to finishing your first draft. Head down, forward motion and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. (Can you hydrate during a marathon with red wine? Again, I dunno.)

This made sense. And a few wavering edits notwithstanding, this is what I’ve attempted to do. The funny thing is, it’s starting to work! The further I ramble on into my story, the easier it is to keep writing. (This is not my experience with running long distances, however, where the further I ramble on, the harder it is not to die.)

I still stumble, stop, and sometimes fall. I often have to force myself to keep going, no matter how slow the going is. Much like running, I find the anticipation of a scheduled writing hour or two much more anxiety inducing than the act of writing itself. But now that my ideas are flowing more freely, I’ve started to look forward to each new run at this writing thing.

Who knows what this means for me. Maybe I’ve found a solution to my writer’s block? Maybe I can finally finish this first draft? Maybe I should run a marathon? I don’t know, but I’m excited.

(Actually, I do know, and the answers are maybe, hopefully and not bloody likely.)