Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Leaving Fletchville Facebook Page

It's like putting a message in a bottle...

Someone out there, I believe in the USA, created a Leaving Fletchville facebook page and there are about 50 people who are following it, or contributing to it, or something. I'd never heard of it until today when I got a google alert about it. I can't access it because I don't have a facebook cell-phone with SMS - (whatever that is).

Here is the link. If anyone can get into it please tell these nice people I'm so glad they liked the book. They can contact me via

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Di Tri Berresse

Writing with an accent...

When I was in University getting my teaching qualifications one of the Profs handed out this story and asked if we could read it. We were pretty confused by it until someone pointed out it was the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears in an Italian-American accent. It's been in my file cabinet for thirty years, and like everything else interesting, it is also on the internet. If nothing else it is a good example of someone with a great ear. Cudos to the writer, whoever you are. By the way, the version I got back then was a sanitized version of what you see here...

DI TRI BERRESSE Wan suppona taim (once upon a time... you'll get the rest) was tri berresse: Mamma Berre, Pappa Berre, ena Bebi Berre liva inna contri nir foress. Naise aus. No muchegoaon. Wanna dei, Pappa Berre, Mamma en Bebi go byby, onie fughetta locche bacedor.
Bei enna bei commesse Guidelocchesse. Sci gadda notting tudu budde meichedetruble. Sci puche olladafud indamaude. No liva crome. Den sci goss oppesterres enna slips inna olladabeddse. Leise slobbe.
Bei enna bei commesse ohm di tri Berresse - Dei gaddano fud. Dei gaddano beddse. Ena wadda dei gonnado to Guidelocchesse? Tro erre aut inna strait? Culle pulissemens?
Fette cjense!
Dei wass Hitelien berresse, enna de nominda dei slippa onna floors. Guidelocchesse stei derre tri wics. Sci etam autta ausenohm. Den - guista bicose dei esccha erre tu meichedebeddse - sci sei: Gotuelle!
Ena rona ohm crainke tu erre Mamma, tellerre wat sanimabichese di tri berresse uer.
Waddaui gonnado? Go compleine Sitiolle?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Review of Dust, by Arthur Slade, We All Fall Down, by Eric Walters

The time I spend drumming my fingers waiting to hear back about a manuscript I've sent out is a great opportunity to catch up on my own reading. I am not as familiar with Canadian writers as I should be. DUST by Arthur Slade is an excellent book: a work of art. It won a Governor General's Literary Award in 2001. It is a short novel, better considered a novella, and the setting is in the gritty dust bowl of the 1930's. The opening chapter begins as a boy of seven takes his first unescorted walk to the prairie crossroads town near their farm. He is enticed into a truck by a 'friendly stranger'. Slade's writing is superb and everything about the situation and the stranger has just the right mood of creepy malevolence. The naive farm boy accepts the ride from the stranger who tells him, "I was never young. I was never, ever young.". Nobody witnesses the boy's disappearance but numerous other children disappear in the regions around. The story shifts to the older brother who has insights beyond that of most of the adults in town. A type of spell is cast by the stranger and the problems of bringing rain to the parched community seem to be solved by his magical machine. This is an excellent read and Slade's mastery of writing is superb. I would recommend it to anyone: young adult or adult.

One of Eric Walter's many books, We All Fall Down, is a disappointment. The setting is the World Trade Towers on the day of 9/11 and this fictional story is a well-meant tribute to those brave people who rescued others while escaping the burning towers. Many interesting facts about the towers are included and worked into the plot by a detail-obsessed father, as he speaks to his restless son. But any work done on a event of that magnitude should be done with utmost care. It wasn't. I found the dialogue flat with both main characters, father and son, speaking alike. The son's problems with the father's absences from home-life and his workaholic nature are supposed to be resolved by the end, but they take away from the life-and-death focus of the narrow escape they are making. For people who have read other books on 9/11 or want to increase their knowledge of the event, this might be a book to read, but for others... sorry.

The third book I read is Playing With Fire, by Theo Fleury and Kirstie McLellan Day. I wasn't sure what to expect but I was surprised at how well written it was.
The first and most important thing to note, this is not a book for kids. Fleury is a damaged man who was evilly abused by a man everyone trusted. His recall of his early years should be required reading for Children's Aid workers. Fleury's voice is genuine. He is rude, funny, insightful and descriptive. Kirstie Day does a marvelous job of organizing this angry and painful biography and keeping her own voice out of it. (I'm certain her voice isn't in it, because I've never heard a mother of five kids swear like that). From Fleury's stoned look on the book cover to his pranks, taunts, fearless challenges of bigger guys and his drug, alcohol, and gambling abuses, you are transported to a world most of us know little of. His unapologetic description of fellow NHL players and his blunt observations of professional hockey's management are similar to other hockey player biographies but are necessary to the book. Particularly telling is when he wonders aloud how the management of his team would be unaware of the sexual abuse of him and Sheldon Kennedy. All parents of elite hockey players should take note of this biography as well. Fleury's descriptions of the party scene are so vivid you can smell the beer-puke in the corners and see the folks in the dingy bathroom snorting lines of coke. His tryst with suicide is a 'cri de coeur' you will not forget reading. A balance throughout is the touching account of how a few stable friends and family members, people of faith, stick with him and help him find meaning and forgiveness in life. Again, this is not a book for the young and innocent.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Review of 'A Thief in the House of Memory" by Tim Wynne-Jones, and 'To Rule the Waves' by Arthur Herman

Reading is great.
Lately I've been able, finally, to make a dent in the list of books I've decided to read. Some of them are books by Y.A. authors. I just finished reading "A Thief in the House of Memory by Tim Wynne-Jones, who I knew years ago at York U. where he taught Visual Arts. I like his writing because there are so many layers of details the reader must gradually peel away. The main character, Declan, is haunted by images of his mother who had disappeared years before. He mistrusts his father and his step-mother and attempts to solve the mystery of his mother's disappearance. There is a beautiful, large, ornate, fully furnished house (Tim's books always have a strange house) which contains clues to most of the mystery. A good read for good readers.

A friend of mine, also a visual artist, told me about the next two books I am reading: Island of the Seven Cities by Paul Chiasson, is an almost believeable read about a supposed colony of Chinese explorers on Cape Breton Island sometime before the Spanish and British and French came to the area. Hmmm. Not a book kids could appreciate (and it is not meant to be) but their teachers may get into it.
The next one, a big fat history, is called To Rule the Waves by Arthur Herman, and it chronicles the growth and formation of the British Navy. I should have read this when I taught history because it gives some entertaining insights into the first explorers and the so-called 'heros' of early seafaring. Shipboard life on armed merchantmen is well described, as is the lives of the shaker & movers. I always enjoyed peppering my lessons about history with true tid-bits to hold the students' attention, such as the detail that Italian navigator de Verrazzano was mooned by North American natives as he sailed past what is now New England. Who knew?
I always showed Master and Commander to my classes because it shows such vivid ocean scenes. Descriptions in this book appeal in much the same way, without the fiction.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Writer's Union Woes & Copyright Law

Oh, you don't get me, I'm part of the Union,
You don't get me, I'm part of the Union,
You don't get me, I'm part of the Union,
Until the day I die.
Until the day I die. (John Ford & Richard Hudson - The Strawbs)

I am a member of the Writer's Union of Canada. This isn't the kind of union that has angry and violent placard-waving protests or gets into bloody confrontations in the street. Sorry.
But the Writer's Union is a strong voice for professional writers in Canada. I get many benefits from being a member. Lately the Writer's Union has been appealing to the federal government about a new bill, Bill C-32, The Copyright Modernization Act.

Suppose you wrote a book and a local high school bought one copy (and you got paid 10% of the cover cost, say $3.00 for a $30.00 text book) and photocopied 60 copies of your book to give to two classes of students. You should have earned $90. but you got only $3.00.
Or suppose you take many hours to write a story for a local newspaper. You may get paid a bit of money for your work. Fair enough. But suppose a national magazine editor reads your story and prints it in a national magazine. It is enjoyed from St. John's to Victoria. After the warm glow of success fades, you would be disturbed that this magazine did not pay you anything for your work. Copyright law prevents people from using your work without compensation. Photocopying, scanning, or digitizing is an easy way for people to do just that: use your work without paying. Musicians lose in the same way when people download songs or copy CD's instead of buying the original CD.

The Copyright Modernization Act, if passed, will change rules around photocopying and digitizing work by Canadian authors and artists. It will take away from us some of the small amount of income we now earn. Writers and artists are contacting our Members of Parliament to ask them to reconsider this bill.

So How Do Writers Get Paid From Photocopying? The way things are now, organizations like Access Copyright have been formed to charge school boards, universities and such a yearly fee for allowing them to copyright a limited amount of published material. This money collected is divided between creators and publishers based on how many books are written how many copies were published. I certainly appreciate getting a cheque from time to time. Selling books in Canada is a very poor way to make any extra income. The writers who have summer homes and wine cellars and fancy cars usually have another job.
Help the creative artists thrive in Canada by paying for what you use, be it music CD's, photographs, artwork, poetry or prose.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Some New Reads & Old Stories

It's been a busy week. I began writing on Monday at 8:00 AM and decided to keep going until I 'got stuck". Didn't happen. So I went on until 9:00 PM and only quit because I was starting to make too many mistakes. Tuesday was another good day and I spent about 2/3 of the waking hours in front of the computer. Wednesday and yesterday were also busy in a writerly sort of way.

The project is the mining murder story re-write. It is almost done and there have been some subtle changes here and there, but mostly it was raking the facts into place. I'm liking it more - but that is a dangerous feeling! - sometimes that hides goof-ups. My dear wife is busy proof-reading the manuscript for errors. Shirley is a very meticulous reader and while she's busy it puts a strain on our friendliness! (What do you mean you don't like that line?) Today I had to draw her a diagram. Meticulous...

Two Good Reads...

I read two fun Young Adult books lately; "More Bloody Horowitz" by Anthony Horowitz and "The Cardturner" by Louis Sachar.

Horowitz wrote an excellent series for boys called the Alex Ryder series. It's like James Bond for 14 year-olds. The More Bloody Horowitz book is a series of scary stories which are well-written and fast-paced, and not so terribly scary. Usually the victim is a fellow British writer, a rival of Horowitz, or a bratty kid. It's a fun read and the stories are of varied length and subject. Don't be put off by the cover.

The Sachar book proves that Louis Sachar (he wrote Holes) can write about almost anything and make it interesting. There is mystery and romance and past history revealed, as Sachar does so well. The subject is parallel bridge - please...a card game? - and a young man who holds and 'turns' the cards for a blind but brilliant card sharpie. The blind man is so smart that after being told his 13 cards just once, has them memorized for the rest of the game. I'm not smart enough for these types of card games, and don't care to read about them (I'd compare it to watching bowling on TV) but I liked the book and read it through in a few hours.

Monday, November 8, 2010

CANSCAIP seminar & SKYPE visit

An old dog learns new tricks...

On Saturday I spent a full day at writing seminars hosted by CANSCAIP*, an organisation of Canadian children's authors, illustrators and performers. Each of the three seminars were hosted by experts and I was eager to hear what they had to say about writing and sending manuscripts in to be published. Although I have had four books published, I still feel I need to know more about the process.

Nora McClintock and Paul Kropp were presenters I heard and I learned quite a bit from them about writing mysteries and high interest / low vocabulary books respectively. From them I learned why two of my most recent manuscripts were rejected - the oops! factor...

Nora McClintock simplified some of the planning behind writing a mystery novel (and I saw a step I had missed with the escape the mine story), and Paul Kropp, whose books I used very often when I first started teaching in Scarborough, pointed out some do's and don'ts about hi/lo books which I should have known, but didn't. An editor with 25 years' experience spoke about do's and don't of sending manuscripts out.
Now I can go back to the keyboard and write with more confidence than yesterday...

Today (Monday) I had a good SKYPE visit with one of Heather Yearwood's grade 6 classes in Stirling. They had some good observations which I can use to improve my writing of Dan, Time Boy.
Now all I need is to get to work writing... about a coffee...? or maybe a sandwich would go down really well right now...
the tiny computer camera doesn't make you look very intelligent, does it?
* About CANSCAIP. You have to have a book published professionally (and have $85 in your pocket) to join, sorry, but you can join as a 'Friend of CANSCAIP' FOR $45. You get to attend conferences like the one I was at on Saturday and learn from some excellent people in the field. Are you interested in writing? Do other people say you write well? Consider joining.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Going down, down, down

More rewriting...
These days I'm switching writing jobs like a rodeo rider switches horses. I go from one story to another story and then on to some business letters, this blog, and some stuff I am doing for our church. On the fiction menu, for this week, is a reworking of the 'Escape the Mine' story. It helps to look over some of the photos I took in Manitoba last June. The shots help create a mood and remind me of the smells, the cool the heat, the dampness...
The photo at right shows the type of 'sets', above a 'drift' (tunnel) where Kayla and Adrian are hiding when the miners walk by beneath them.

The photo on the left shows the type of manway the teens use to sneak into the mine.
But photos can't help me with plot!
So... do I add more to the supernatural ability of the main character, Adrian?
Do I leave in the undercover cop? Do I eliminate that character?

Shirley and I saw a great movie last night; Hereafter with Matt Damon. Go see it.
I especially like that the twin boy characters in one of the three stories closely resemble twin boys I taught a few years ago.

HEREAFTER deals with the supernatural in a realistic way (if that isn't an oxymoron for you) by showing someone who is gifted with supernatural insights who does not see it as an ability to be exploited, but rather as a curse he is reluctant to use. It doesn't matter at all whether you believe in the hocus-pocus or not, the treatment of the subject makes it believeable.
Do I believe in the stuff in the movie?
As a matter of fact I don't.
But I do believe in supernatural abilities of some people, and I still liked the movie quite a bit. Will I steal from it? No. Will I borrow from it? Maybe... we'll see.

Your truly while visiting a mine in Manitoba last June.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Learning from Students

The Test Drive
In the past my students taught me to be a better writer. Early in my career when I taught a grade 3 class as a year-end L.T.O. assignment, I came in with a poem I had written the night before. I was excited about it - thinking it had a nice rhythm to it and very strong images. "Night Riders" it was titled, about mysterious people riding on a bus. As soon as I told the students I was going to read a poem they wordlessly assembled on a carpet in front of a rocking chair the previous teacher had left for me.
And so I began reading. Soon the attentive postures slumped, scabs were sought out for picking, tickle-fingers reached for friends and the whispers of more important topics quickly added to my serious reading voice: clearly the poem was not for them. I smiled and learned...
Many times over the years I have had students 'test drive' a new story long before any editor gets a look. They taught me much!
Now I need to borrow someone else's students to test drive the manuscript for Dan Time-Boy.
At Stockdale Public School I asked my good friends Kathryn Corbett (see blogs in Oct. & Nov of 09) and Dave Loucks to pass the manuscript on to a few assorted readers. Heather Yearwood, who splits her teaching duties between Stirling Sr. P.S. and Sir Mackenzie Bowell P.S. in Belleville, will do the same. (see blog 3/30/10) Heather's students were insightful readers of Leaving Fletchville last year and had great questions. Charlotte Armstrong, a former student of mine who now teaches at Percy Centennial P.S. in Warkworth will also pass the manuscript around. Her class was also very well prepped before my visit last year. (See Nov. 2009)
Getting some intelligent feedback from some adult friends and family members always helps me find clumsy stuff and typos. But adults will put up with writing that kids cannot follow, so comments from students of various grades and reading abilities are essential for me.
In a few weeks I will have a better idea of what I might want to keep / change / or add to the finished story before daring to send it for publication.

Waiting on your Writing...
When students ask me if their work is good I always tell them: put it aside for a few months and then look at it again. If it has problems you'll see them clearly. You'll groan at goofy metaphors or chafe at characters who are one-dimensional, and clench your teeth at cliche expressions. However, if it is really good you will see that too.

I have produced my fair of bad pieces of writing but also I have a few pieces of writing in a desk drawer that I will some day finish.

Getting rejections makes me wary of sending off manuscripts too quickly. I always proof-read for errors, but even if I really really like something I've written, it may still have scenes or characters in there which should have been deleted or re-written months before.
Live and learn!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

White knuckle Research

Hey, I just call it research...
At right, a Cherokee 140 similar to the one I got to fly in

Today after a pleasant motorcycle ride on the beemer I searched out a small airfield near Belleville, and after several wrong turns, found it. Just looking around...
At first I was hoping to see a small Cessna aircraft close-up and see the instrument panel so I could learn the proper terminology in the Dan, Time-Boy story.

Some time in the future I was planning to negotiate a reasonable price for a brief flight. Why a Cessna? Dan in "Dan Time Boy' steals and flies a Cessna 172*
So at this airport, basically a big grassy field, two men were sitting and I got talking with them. One, Dave Watkins owns two aircraft there. Neither was a Cessna, but hey, who's fussy? I mentioned what I was researching and before long he'd agreed to take me up for a half-hour ride for the price of the fuel. I was given the choice of a home-built 'wing over' aircraft with a joystick and seating one behind the other, or a larger, 'wing under' Piper Cherokee 140. The Cherokee would allow me to sit beside Dave and see what he was doing. The home-built aircraft would allow me a really good view of the ground, (and of crash site if that was in the plans for me that day). The Cherokee's 'wing under' design would limit my view of the ground (and the crash site). So I opted for the Cherokee. Besides, I was hoping to get a chance to actually touch the yoke or rudder pedals - an experience I've never had in a plane.
It was surprisingly simple to check various things, unhook the ropes, take off the tarps and get the plane warmed up. The runway was grass and fairly smooth with a stuff wind blowing. Take-off was easy and smooth.
Turbulence began soon!
At about 500 feet Dave said, "go ahead and take the yoke, you can feel how you really need to push against the resistance..." I pushed all right, because the plane wanted to climb way too steeply for my comfort. I was plenty nervous, but trying not to show it (yes it's a guy-thing). We climbed higher, and Dave suggested I continue to use the controls. Pretty soon I realized how easily you can lose focus on one or other dimension when you have three to deal with. As soon as I concentrated on flying in a straight heading we'd be climbing or descending. When I concentrated on descending or climbing we'd go into an unexpected turn. Turbulence followed us like a friendly dog. Finally I got us heading more or less where Dave suggested and then found we'd climbed an extra 500 feet without me noticing it. We spent about 30 minutes going over Prince Edward County, Napanee, the 401 and then a return to Belleville. A pass over the airport showed us nobody was getting ready to take off , and we could see the wind-sock billowed out full. Yes it was plenty windy on the ground too. Amazing how quickly we got to the proper altitude with just a little reduction of the throttle. Before long we were gliding just above the grass and then Dave landed smoothly despite a strong diagonal wind blowing.
Research is very cool.
Considering the experience, maybe I'll have Dan steal a Piper Cherokee 140 instead of a Cessna...
below, the cockpit of a Cherokee 160

*The Cessna 172 is one of the aircraft featured in the flight training computer program called Flight Simulator 2002, which has realistic flight movement and all sorts of options such as high winds, poor visibility, night flying, failures to controls or instruments, and messy things like that. You can also crash using Flight Simulator and when you first start using it, that's generally what you do.
In the story Dan becomes highly adept at flying the simulated aircraft in all kinds of strange wind and weather conditions. He also gets lessons from an uncle, who is a pilot, and he successfully pilots a real plane during a time when all motion ceases, including wind.

Flying in an environment of no wind at all - something rare enough- should take some of the guess-work, fear, danger, and knuckle-whitening excitement out of flying. I imagine that flying with no wind might be like driving a car with no traffic or things to bump into - except that in flying, the landing can still kill you... I'll be talking to more people who know about such things... I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

'Dan, Time Boy'

I promised to let you know how the deadline went for writing Dan Time Boy. Just today, the last day of September, I finished the story, basically, from beginning to end. I'm glad to have it finished, basically, because now I can concentrate on a few other jobs around house.
Now comes the next process.
First Shirley reads it looking for typos, awkward stuff and a general read-through to see if she 'gets' what I'm trying to do.
Second, if I feel good about it, I may 'test-drive the story with some students of the age it is meant to appeal to. The trick is to find students who are critical thinkers and willing to give feedback beyond "I like it."
Third, (and ongoing) as I think of little bits and pieces to put into it, I will add them in. In this story, Dan will imagine amusing newspaper headlines as different events happen. I don't have them all in yet because I haven't thought of them all yet.
Fourth, and hopefully not prematurely, I will send an inquiry letter to the publishers I think may be interested. I don't want to create a bad impression so everything I send should be as complete as I can make it.
Here's another sample from Dan Time Boy;
After recess, things settled down in class. Miss B. played a Bill Nye the Science Guy video on the Smart Board to introduce a new science topic. The lights in the classroom were off and the room was quite dark, but Dan could see Axel and Wolfgang off to the side whispering and looking at Charlie.
Dan went to work again.
When he was finished there was a scream. Actually two screams.
“Aaaah!” Wolfgang shouted, “Somebody touched me!”
Miss B. sighed, paused the Smart Board, and turned on the classroom lights.
Everyone looked at the two boys who were out of their seats, staring at each other.
Axel growled, “You pervert, how come you’re wearing my shirt?”
“But you’re wearing MY shirt!” howled Wolfgang. Sure enough the two boys were suddenly and unexpectedly wearing each other’s shirts.
The rest of the class started tittering.
Dan had a special grin on his face as the; “I’m going crazy, and “this is too weird” comments from the boys died down.
Boys and girls alike grinned at the two bullies’ red faces.
“What were they doing in the dark?” whispered a girl.
“This place is haunted...” is all Wolfgang could say.
Finally, Miss B. sent them to the washroom to change.
Miss B. was looking like she needed a weekend already and it was only Monday.
Of course Dan had stopped time, wrestled them out of their shirts, switched them and buttoned the others’ shirts up again, and dragged them back into their desks in the same pose they had begun with. The effort took a long time but it was worth it.

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Life Well Lived

How short life is!
I am thinking deeply on these things since Wednesday. In the morning Shirley and I drove to Whitby to visit my in-laws. Shirley's dad Larry had invited us to help celebrate the 80th birthday of his wife of two years, June.
Larry had made the arrangements, ordered the flowers, ordered two cakes, invited the friends and enjoyed the morning celebration. He was talkative as always; enthusiastic about an upcoming hunting trip, a bit wary of his upcoming knee operation (for which his physical declared him to be in great shape), and looking forward to a bus trip this coming Monday.
Shirley and I left around noon. Within hours of returning home to Brighton, we got a tearful phone call that Larry had walked to the bank, suddenly felt ill, sat down and peacefully died.
The ambulance came and paramedics tried to revive him. At the hospital, where he worked many decades as chief engineer, they continued the battle to revive him but it was not to be.
It was his time.
We came to the hospital to find June devastated, surrounded by some of her children. Larry lay where he had died, still intubated and hooked up to I.V.'s. He face had a look of peace and surprise.
As a strong Christian he had no doubts about his destiny after this brief time on earth.
Enjoy the new adventure, Larry.
We'll meet you on the other side.
Larry Archibald Taylor 1928-2010

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Setting a Deadline

Trying to write three books at one time has its drawbacks... One of these is getting around to finishing just one of them; It's too easy to switch to another story when one of them 'gets stuck' and so lose the inertia.
I've gone back to Dan Time Boy and set a goal for myself to finish it (basically) by end of September. I hope that's a good idea. I'll let you know.

I'm enjoying the dialogue. Here's a sample;
(Dan, the main character, has just slowed down time with a magic timepiece he found. Everyone around him has slowed dramatically but he is moving at regular speed. Nobody knows he can do this.)

“O p e n i n g E x e r c i s e s, c l a s s. E v e r y b o d y s t a n d.
The class stood for the national anthem and Dan heard the notes of O’ Canada come slowly through the room. If he thought it was boring to stand so long before it was double that now since everyone was at half-speed...
O’ Canada, Our Home and Native Laaaaaand
True Patriot Love in all Thy Sons Commaaaaand
All around him his classmates shifted with elephantine sluggishness.
Dan watched Wolfgang reach a finger into his left nostril and pry out a little booger in there. He pretended to be wiping his nose but his fingers rolled the booger into a little ball and deftly flicked it down the aisle in front of him. Wolfgang must have thought he was moving with cunning swiftness but Dan watched every move with disgust.
Charlie noticed it too.
Charlie grinned, winked conspiratorially at Dan and then began leafing through his textbook with one hand while continuing to sing O’Canada in his off-key tenor. Miss Bentz was onto him. She watched him flipping through his book, but she didn’t say anything because O’ Canada was being sung.
After the opening exercises were over Miss Bentz’s words crawled through the morning air,
“Charlie please don’t read or study anatomy during O’Canada. It’s poor manners.”
“But Wolfgang was picking snot from his anterior nares in class and flicking it around the room,”
insisted Gary.
said Miss Bentz.
“Did not, but you’re dead anyway, putz,” threatened Wolfgang.
“Yeah? You and Axel don’t scare me.”
“…dead meat…,”
continued Wolfgang.
“Someday you two will be mopping out my surgery and calling me ‘Doctor’.”
“I’m going to call you an ambulance if you don't shut up,”
murmured Wolfgang.
“He’s going to need a hearse,” said Axel.
Miss Bentz had had enough. “One more word and I’ll see you all during lunch. Let’s try to get along, for once.”
Miss Bentz sighed and paused. Dan watched her face struggle to look cheerful and positive. He figured she’d feel a lot better if she took the yardstick off the chalk ledge and smacked a few kids with it.
It was time for him to freeze time and escape the classroom...

Monday, August 16, 2010

How Repairing a LaFlamme Window Is Theraputic

One of the many distracting things about owning a house is the ongoing need to fix something.
Fixing is all the more important when you are trying to sell this house, as Shirley and I are. Ergo the distractions of fixing are a frequent draw away from my 'other work', which my or may not be welcomed, depending on how well the writing is going.
Some distractions are always annoying. Some are necessary but brief. Some seem to lure you away from the computer with the siren call of 'this won't take a minute...' and you answer the enchantress at your peril.
That happened a few days ago. I was in Adrian's vacant room. Shirley wanted me to remove the screen and check out the windows, which I did. There was something wrong with his window, she said. I looked proudly at the LaFlamme wood frame double-glazed windows which we had ordered all the way from Quebec when the house was built 21 years ago.
I looked closer.
There was an insidious intruder - rot.
The bottom of the wood frame of the window had a significant darkening of the wood grain right at the join. When I cranked the window open, it separated slightly at the tongue-and-groove joint at the corner.
No problem! thought the former shop-teacher.
Tomorrow, maybe, I'll remove the window - to ensure a good job - and use some long robertson screws and outdoor grade carpenter's glue and firm up the window. I planned it in my head.
Back to the computer.
A few days later I looked at it again. No problemo. Within an hour I can remove it, have it glued, then I'll let it dry overnight and then BOFFO! I'll reinstall it in the morning.
I visualized the finished window and that gave me comfort as I went back to Top Ten, the latest adventures of Sydney Kowalski.
The next day I planned a two hour break to attack (wrong word, - solve) the window dilemma. But it was not to be. We removed the window and brought it down to the workbench and found the bottom edge of the window was so far gone it fell apart when I tried to work on it.

The rotted wood

That left two choices a) to order another window from LaFlamme in Quebec, hoping they are still in business, have the same size, match, style, wood mouldings, and a decent delivery cost
or b) I build a new bottom edge to the window.
Now I own a table saw, various saw blades, sanders, skill saw, portable jig saw, stationary scroll saw, a lathe, two routers, hand tools, lots of sandpaper, and many good steel rulers and squares. Even so it was tempting not to do the work myself.
I am not particularly patient at the best of times, and though I have been known to do careful work, I really have to try at it. And to do this job would require all my patience.
My two hour job was already more than two hours spent. I had to buy some straight-grain cedar, high quality stuff, and cut it about a dozen times in various places and angles to duplicate the rotted piece. I measured twice for every one cut, just like I taught the kids years ago. I measured to the nearest millimeter and cut to the very edge of the line. I even watched for parallax error! The result was actually surprising. A good fit. Four hours of disassembly, cutting, sanding and assembly, 2 hours staining and varathaning, 10 hours drying time...
But then, seeing the window actually look like it should, seeing the hardware track along in the way it should and feeling the finish of the wood frame being the same as the rest of the window was satisfying. Almost as satisfying as getting a positive letter from an editor.
(I'd better check that email account again!)

The finished product

Sunday, August 15, 2010

I'm such a Duh

I'm such a 'Duh' sometimes.
I've been working on this novel Top Ten, for what? months? over a year? And it's only when I'm this far into it that I realize what it has needed from the very beginning.

Here's a story about a kid who loves to sing. He sings everywhere he goes when he is a kid and later on in life his singing gets him recognition, fame, fortune (and trouble!). So I'm making it longer and now I finally realize that what it needs, and what will make it much more readable for kids, is song lyrics...

Of course! Song lyrics all the way through it - they will illustrate moods he is in, reveal through the words hidden fears and feelings, & they will add humour to the story which is otherwise fairly serious in places.
So it's about a kid who is very short. Somewhere early on he will hear the "Short People" song by Randy Newman and be really offended about it; until someone points out that it is a not-so-subtle attack on prejudice.

I mean, check out the lyrics:

Short people got no reason
Short people got no reason
Short people got no reason
To live

They got little hands
Little eyes
They walk around
Tellin' great big lies
They got little noses
And tiny little teeth
They wear platform shoes
On their nasty little feet
Well, I don't want no short people
Don't want no short people
Don't want no short people
`Round here
(copyright Randy Newman 1978)
or catch Randy doing his thing on Youtube.

Another song which came to mind to use at a critical heartbreaking point of the story was the R&B song 'Return of the Mack' by Mark Morrison. The Internet is great, because as I was searching for this song, the only part of it I could remember was the refrain "You lied to Me" repeated over and over. Typing that on the search engine got me my results in less than a second and I found out (after listening to the same song on Youtube to be sure it was the right one) that he keeps saying "Return of the Mack" when I always thought he said "Return unto me"

Now I defy anyone to listen to the song and hear him saying "Return of the Mack". Go ahead and try it. (I'll wait right here for you. Here's the link.)

Now do you agree with me?
Anyway the internet is SO GOOD at finding little bits of things like song lyrics. Instantly.
How cool is that?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Back to the Grindstone

Good news! The Canadian Children's Book Centre has nominated Leaving Fletchville as one of their Best Books for Kids and Teens for 2010. As well, I am now an official author/presenter on their website. Hoping this will lead to some more school visits through their website contacts.
The weather is hot and humid and just right for staying indoors and working away on some new projects. I have gone back to rewriting Top Ten (the novel about the small-sized 'National IDOL' contestant) and the story seems to be coming easier this time. At first I was writing it for a very small niche market: mature-interest level (high school and above) with a low reading ability, and about 15 000 words. When I sent it off the editors thought the story line was overly complex for readers of that level of ability. I had too much happening and the span of time was much longer than the typical stories of that type. Succcessful books for that age/reading ability, such as what Monique Polak has been writing, typically take place over a few hours or days.

The grindstone...

So I am re-writing this as a higher reading level novel, with the same maturity level (high school). It also has to become almost twice as long as it is now. Top Ten deals with the lure of personal ambition, sexual abuse, thoughts of suicide, with drug/alcohol excesses thrown in. This plot goes way beyond any problems I had growing up (I am thankful for a good home!) and I am travelling deep into the world of my imagination about other people's nightmares. Years spent driving a taxi, teaching school, listening and trying to understand people and the troubles they told me has given me a number of stories and situations which need writing out.
Typically our 'Republican' side cynically sees most unfortunates as victims of their own wrong choices. I often judge this way myself. But wait! There are genuine victims in this world. 'Sid', in this story is someone born in a very small body who never develops the way a 'regular' boy would. His social abuse is typical of the teasing and nasty treatment which happens to those who are different. His personality is modified into a 'survival' mode by these forces - he is initially suspicious of anyone wanting to be kind to him.
Luckily the ending is positive.
I like to write in such a way as to give somebody who is stuck in abusive relationships a way out.
And I hope I never tire of positive endings.

Monday, August 2, 2010

SERVE 2010

My church does something called SERVE every summer. High school age youth travel to distant places, meet other youth, camp out in a church or school and do service projects in the community. It gives me a lift because the kids who go on these trips are always so positive and likable and happy to help others. Every day there is also some from of worship as well as water fights, pranks, small groups study, more pranks and lots of food.
(That's me on the right side of the photo)

This year we went to upstate Michigan, to a small town called Howard City. Canadians were in the majority; being about two thirds of the population of 55 kids and adults. The church was friendly, with a large staff of volunteers providing food and snacks at all hours of the day. Our American hosts all seemed to be Republicans and there was much said against the 'Obama Health Care Plan' and it was assumed, I found out, that Canadians hate their national health care. Big surprise to us, but even the teens were quick to straighten them out on this.
Two of the SERVE team help a disabled child learn to ride a horse

The days began at 6:30 (for me) and usually lasted until 11:30 or midnight with nary a break in between. Needless to say no writing (or even thinking about writing) got done. Sleep was found in the brief intervals between the snores of one of our volunteers and the noise of the malevolent ice-making machine which the church people didn't want us to unplug. They use their ice a lot, I guess, and unplugging it got its timer all mixed up, but its grinding and crashing of newly hatched ice-cubes continued all day, all night, at 20 minute intervals. Every time the noise ended you would be lulled to sleep by the silence (if somebody wasn't snoring) and then as soon as you got into R.E.M. sleep the sudden cacophony yanked you out of your reverie like a snagged line pulls you out of a speeding motorboat. I needed more pots of coffee every day to make up for it.
The Youth Pastor finds his car Saran-Wrapped

By the last night we drivers slept in the church, which was better. The drive back to Ontario was eventful. Gladys failed me! Well, actually we failed each other... I was lead car in a 5 vehicle caravan and seriously sleep deprived, though I didn't know how bad until I missed a critical exit in Grand Rapids, then the next alternate exit was under construction and couldn't be used. The third led us downtown to a tight corner where the truck & trailer behind me couldn't turn off. If we stopped just anywhere, one of the five car caravan would have been sitting across an intersection... Head spinning, I rejected Gladys's suggestions, which were changing every few seconds, and chose to go ahead. Somewhere. Anywhere! Drive on! my mind screamed. Kids in the car shouted "Turn right!" "Gladys says go right!" Somehow the brain froze and it was all I could do to drive the vehicle. After a few blocks I pulled over and insisted someone else take the lead. Linda, bless her heart, listened to 'Serena', (her GPS) and gradually we got ourselves out of the fix I had created. Nasty end for the male ego! The rest of the drive had fewer delays and mistakes, but it was still a 12 hour drive time before we arrived home.
Safe and sound.
Sound asleep...

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Luray Caves and Gladys

Gladys leads us. We never get lost anymore because she is constantly guiding us from Roanoke to Hatteras or Gettysburg. Gladys has never been there herself but she knows the way. Even when she told me Gettysburg was 500 miles west of us, instead of 100 miles north, the mistake was mine, not hers, because I told her to find Gettysburg Ohio... my bad. Gladys is constantly in touch with anywhere from 10 to 15 unseen satellites, listening to their tiny signals beeping away from their geosynchronous locations scattered above us. When Gladys speaks we stop our conversations and listen to her instead. "When possible make a legal U turn" or "Prepare to remain on current road in 1/2 mile". She never gets testy when we make a wrong turn but simply says "recalculating route..." in the same patient tone. I can't believe what a difference Gladys has made in our travelling lives. Maps, folded to the current region, are looked at for a general reference and then ignored. We navigate heads-up through the unfamiliar streets of American towns, confidently making turns and negotiating streets like a born local.

At the end of a long driving day through the Virginia mountains and the Shenandoah National Park we have set our sights on Luray Caverns as in; Y'all lookin' for th' Loo-Ray Caverns? Neither of us have seen real-live caves before (the kind with stalactites and stalagmites) and this one seems to be the mother of all U.S. caverns. Although the admission is a hefty price we are not disappointed. The size of the formations give new meaning to the phrase - been there a long time...
What an amazing place! The larger of the formations are over 40 feet high and have been formed grain by grain for millenia before anyone ever saw them.
And yet... the tell-tale signs of diamond drill holes and careful blasting (but still, blasting) behind the formations to create wide level walkways, paved with bricks, show that under man's care the last hundred years or so of these magnificent formations have been a lot more destructive than creative... In the name of easy access, how many of these formations are missing? There are areas where formations seem to have been... removed? covered with levelling sand? changed? Anyway, what is left is pretty magnificent. If you can get a chance to see them, do so.

Shirley's Shirley Plantation

Shirley at her Plantation
Old southern plantations from the pre-Civil War era are scattered all over the South. We decided to visit the "Shirley Plantation", owned originally by relatives of Civil War general Robert E. Lee. "I guess you've heard of him?" asked a tour guide a little sarcastically when I told I was Canadian and ignorant of some American history. I was tempted to ask if she knew about Generals Wolff and Montcalm but thought better of it. The grounds were extremely tidy, very hot and dry. The fields are still farmed, but now with corn and not cotton.

The owner is a 13th generation descendant of the original family and offers tours, I suppose, as a way of keeping the place going. Lots of out-buildings were arranged geometrically around the grounds. The kitchen was a vast brick building larger than most houses.

Check it out.

The kitchen

The mansion house
I wondered how many slaves worked here and where they lived? I didn't see any slave homes or indication of their lifestyle pre-emancipation. Obviously there needed to be plenty of help to run a place like this.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Days (and a windy night) on Rodanthe

Shirley and I drove to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to look around. The plan was to camp, but we soon found out why the Wright Brothers loved this place so much! Try keeping a tent in place with steady 25 mph winds from the east! Extra long tent pegs and some 40 feet of rope were needed just to keep our nylon Coleman special from blowing into the Cape Hatteras lighthouse. Even then it looked like a melted ice-cream cone except that it kept changing shape every few seconds. In then end, coming back late from touring around, we saw flashes of lightning in the sky and decided against camping for the night. By the headlights of the car I untied the extra ropes and pulled out the extra long tent pegs and stuffed the whole business into the trunk of the car. Best Western never looked so good!

The Outer Banks is beautiful. Sand dunes and miles of beaches stretch out along the Atlantic coast for miles. Most of it is deserted. It was just the kind of wind-blown desolation that should inspire fiction writers to pen meaningful stories about talented and rich protagonists living in moody isolation... but all I was thinking was; 'who owns all this?' and, 'I wonder if the government of North Carolina would notice if I built a little shack along here somewhere between a couple of dunes..?

Shirley appreciated the fresh fish featured in every restaurant.

The ferry trip to the Ocracoke Island was worthwhile. Every 40 minutes a free ferry takes a casual load of tourists and locals past the crashing waves and shallow sand bars which separate these several long islands of sand. Ocracoke, being more inaccessible, is also more typical of an older time. There were some smaller hotels and tourist places, but also sagging century homes, old overgrown graveyards, houses with Boo Radley porch swings, seashell-paved back lanes and a lifestyle to be envied by busy city people. It had that casual look of an island where there are about six family names and everybody knows each others' secrets and nobody cares.
Just above Shirley's head in the picture on the right is a 'Live Oak' which isregistered with the Live Oak Society of the Louisiana Garden Club Federation as a
significant tree of the species. Click on the photo to see it better.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Internet Strife and Raleigh North Carolina

We are at Brad (Shirley's brother) and Heather, with kids Meghan and Braden. The excellent wireless internet connection was not so excellent all afternoon but now finally things are better again. We were taken out to a typical Southern restaurant for breakfast yesterday. Grits and gravy, biscuits and eggs (aigs) a-plenty. We saw the North Carolina state capital building and marvelled at a statue of George Washington depicted as a Roman Soldier (no kidding) complete with breast-plate, short skirt and Centurion's dagger. The sculpture was commissioned to an Italian sculptor who had never been to America or seen the first U.S. President. He used a real-life bust of George's face and a healthy dose of symbolism when asked to depict George as a 'leader'.
We had a free tour of the building and then ended up at an excellent natural history museum which had several full-size whale skeletons hanging from the ceiling. For some of us the greatest appeal was the air-conditioning inside the public buildings. North Carolina knows all about heat.
Here are more shots from Washington and N.Carolina.

Meghan Taylor tagging her uncle on Facebook.

The Vietnam Memorial

A model of the Bell X-15 in which Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier

The morning will bring an early start and a trip to the Outer Banks and the beautiful sandy beaches and sand dunes there. While we are there we will visit Kitty Hawk, which was the closest postal address to where Wilbur and Orville Wright made their first powered flights and helped begin an amazing century of manned flight. There are more replicas of their first 'flyer' like you see in the photo below from the Smithsonian. The interesting thing is that at the time scientists were so convinced powered flight was impossible, or unmanageable, that what the Wright brothers did wasn't taken seriously. The U.S. government did not think it had much practical benefit, and the brothers went on to France to work with some aviation pioneers there. Similarly Alexander Graham Bell's work in testing Canada's first flying machine at Baddeck Nova Scotia was also considered foolishness at the time.

A replica Wright Flyer at the Smithsonian

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Visit to Washington D.C.

Our friends (& family) Allison & John hosted us at their house outside Washington D.C. on Thursday and Friday. John is a US Navy Commander and took a day off to show me around the Washington Mall, White House and Smithsonian Museums, while Shirley visited with Allison, Jake and Lilyanne. John and I left early to beat the traffic and we took the METRO train to the city centre. Everything is much bigger than what I imagined. The "Mall" which I always assumed was a few city blocks long, was probably a half mile. The Washington monument is gigantic and John pointed out the different shade of stones used in construction, as it was built in different stages. Only the reflecting pool was a disappointment because, being muddy, didn't reflect. The capital building was way off in the distance, looking small even though it too is huge.
John pointed out the new WW-2 memorial, which was just built in 2004 during George W. Bush's presidency. Considering the cost and size of the war it was long overdue. The Vietnam Monument had engraved on it the names of all the soldiers who were killed or missing in action, in the order they were lost. There are names of students I went to High School in Illinois with on that wall somewhere, and it doesn't seem all that long ago that 'the draft' was a topic of conversation with all of us nearly 18 year olds. The Korean War memorial included life-size sculptures of soldiers on patrol. Despite the heat of the day (100 degrees F.) you could almost feel the damp misery of the men in ponchos marching. John pointed out that the media often forgets that soldiers choose to go into conflict, know what the risks are, and are willing to take these risks for the principles involved. Closer to noon we went indoors into the air-conditioned comfort of the Smithsonian Museum of Aviation. It had real and replica displays of some of the most famous aircraft, space craft & astronauts involved in the last century's aviation history. I wonder if there was any other time when 100 years made such a profound change in technology - man went from primitive and unpredictable powered flight to heavy-lift aircraft and space travel. Leaving in good time to beat the rush hour, which in Washington is legendary, we were a few hundred yards from the last subway station when some lunatic decided to walk off the platform onto the subway tracks. The train halted, retreated, and dropped us back 5 miles and the delay getting back to the car landed us smack into unforgiving D.C. traffic. Imagine everybody going the same direction and there is absolutely only one way to get there; no short-cuts, not round-abouts, no alternative routes, just gridlock for miles and miles and miles.
We left at 3:00 AM to continue to Shirley's brother's place near Raleigh North Carolina. More about that later.