Steph VanderMeulen

copy editor / writer

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Writer Tag Blog Hop

smartIf you’re anything like me, trying to keep up in the book world, you’re probably overwhelmed by how massive it is. If you’re a writer, one of your thoughts is likely, “I made this! Er, now who’s going to see it and read it and like it and spread it around? There are a gazillion writers out there, and everyone’s following everyone and we just move on so quickly!” We might all be a little like poor Lisa Simpson. I admit it: I am.

I don’t know, maybe this is why a bunch of writers decided to do a blog hop, to share writers they know and admire, as well as their own work and their creative process. Any post, on FB, Twitter, or on a blog, is a crap shoot, but on a blog, if you have subscribers, you have a better chance of reaching people.

I’m grateful that Brent van Staalduinen, who tagged me, includes me in his idea of what constitutes a writer. I have far less published than most of the people who’ve participated in this writers game of tag. Still, I said yes. C’mon. I want to belong.

I’ve known Brent since university. We did some work together on the school paper. We wrote stuff. One night, while we were walking back to our respective dorms through the parking lot we called Siberia, Brent shared something with me that only family members and very close friends do. We laughed our heads off, and I was torn between feeling flattered and too much like one of the guys. Since then, and since reading his stories he’s sent me or that have been published, I’ve gained more, serious respect for the man. We’d lost touch for years, but then found ourselves in the same circles online. Reading his work again, it seemed he came from nowhere: suddenly he had all this true talent and a shit-ton of really good material. Left me in the dust. But I know he works hard, too. Look at this ridiculously great news page he’s got on his site.

He was tagged by Liz Windhorst Harmer. Brent said, “Liz is the kind of writer you stop watching at your peril: if you think you’ve been hearing rumbles in the Canadian literary scene, it was probably her, writing razor-sharp pieces, winning awards, and changing lives with her cut-right-through-you insights.” And Liz was tagged by Amanda Leduc, a dear friend of mine who then came out with this great novel that I got to copy edit. The Miracles of Ordinary Men blew me away, especially at the end. It’s brave and beautiful and fierce and original and you should read it, because it deserves a greater readership, and because there are two more books she’s written that are loosely connected to it.

Now to the questions.

1. What are you working on?

I just finished the first draft of a short story called “Find Me in Fiction.” It was inspired by a text I sent to my sister. That’s often how it happens: I start writing to someone and it feels like the first line or  title of or inspiration for a story. This time, we were in Chapters and I was telling her where to meet me when she was done work at Starbucks. This story’s a short one, under 1500 words (for now), and it’s not like anything I’ve written before. It started out as magic realism but became something else.

I’ve also been working on several short stories for a collection called Nothing Ever Happens Here. That title was also something I wrote to someone, in an email on a particularly crappy day. The first story I finished for it was born of a line I wrote in an email after a tragic event occurred that oddly no one in town seemed to give a shit about, except me. I had so many questions, and for three years I set out to answer them in my own way. “Everything Good” is being published at Found Press in October. The other stories, about six, are all in various stages of draft or revision.

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?

It doesn’t, really. I mean, first I don’t consider my stories belonging to any one genre. It’s just short fiction. And in that category, people write about everything. My works fits somewhere in there.

3. Why do I write what I do?

20140722_233556Because it interests me. In real life, the dark underbelly of society makes me quake. But in fiction, that’s what I’m attracted to—the underdogs, the low-lifes, people with emotional issues that cause them to be destructive, the terrible things that happen or that human beings suffer through or are capable of. These things resonate with me in some deep way, and I try to get to the heart of them, to answer the questions that arise from them.

I’m have no idea why, but almost all of my stories are written from the perspective of men or boys. It just turns out that I start with a male voice. It might be because when I write from this perspective, the style, especially, feels truer. When I write from a woman’s perspective, it typically comes out all Carol Shieldsy, whom I love by the way (I’ve read all her stuff). But it’s not really me. I always get stuck and lose interest. I’m guess I’m fascinated by menfolk and their mannerisms, and like to explore all that.

That’s not to say I read only men for influence. I read what appeals to me—about loneliness, tragedy, outcasts, regret, nasty doings—no matter who wrote it. I don’t care to genderize any of this, really. Aside from Daniel Woodrell and the like, Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers and Dorothy Allison are among my favourites. My girls, were I to start writing them, would like be like Harper Lee’s Scout, the name I always wanted.

4. How does my writing process work?

My process is more about working through drafts for as long as it takes to get what I think might be a good result. In this alone do I have patience, but otherwise I’m not one for process or routine. I work from home so I get to schedule my day however I want. And that means I don’t schedule it at all. I don’t wake up at a certain time, I don’t plan a certain number of words or pages, I don’t allot a particular time of day. To me, that would all feel like work. I don’t really have a problem writing anymore, because I really enjoy it (even when it’s sheer crap I’m putting out), so I don’t have to make sure I pencil it in. But let me tell you, it took years to get to this mental state. So much I wish I’d known earlier.

As a freelancer, there’s not much you can budget by, whether time or money. So I do what I have to do for pay, and then spend time with my writing group, or writing or reading or just thinking. For me, writing involves reading a lot of short stories by people who influence me and then at some point sitting down to create whenever I get the notion or can, which is thankfully almost often these days. My ideas come from being observant and receptive, from thinking about the ordinary in a creative way. So I’m inspired by others’ writing but also by single words or something someone tells me or a news story or daydreaming. When an idea hits, I write it down and take it as far as I can at that time. I try to write as freely as possible and I don’t allow myself any revision. I write till I’m finished for that session. Sometimes it’s a half hour, sometimes it’s an afternoon, sometimes it’s a couple of minutes. Once the first draft is finished, then I can edit or add.

And now, I get to tag a couple of others, too. Except that all the people I thought of either don’t have a blog, have done this already, or said no because they had to devote their time to writing. Respect. 

Instead, then, I’ll link to writers featured on two of my favourite sites, the somewhat lesser-known ones than the Malahat or Dalhousie or Prairie Fire or Antigonish or Descant or Fiddlehead or Grain or TNQ or Prism, etc.—great mags, but where everyone goes. These two are online journals, and they publish stories regardless of who wrote them and based only on the quality of the story. This way, you get to read good stories and find new or more established writers to follow. Also, stories from these mags get considered for the Journey Prize, too. If you’re a writer, consider submitting!

Without further ado:

Found Press: founded by Cormorant’s Bryan Jay Ibeas. Some great stories here are: “The Gamechanger,” by Andrew Forbes; “Mike Mike Mike Mike,” by Grace O’Connell; “The Lesson,” by Jessica Westhead; and “Glass Houses,” by Andrew Wilmot.

Little Fiction: founded by Troy Palmer. Great stories here are: “We Gotta Save the Leg,” by Kevin Hardcastle; “Satin Lives!” by Andrew F. Sullivan; “Asking for Change,” by Amanda Leduc; and “Rescue on the Atlantic,” by Amy Jones.

One more thing:

If you’re having trouble writing or need help developing your story, check out the rest of my site, and contact me! I can help you.

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Write What You Want

Write what you want, not what you think others want you to write or want to read or will publish. Write dark if you want. Write your opinions. Write fantasy. Write whatever you feel wants to come out. This isn’t about others. Get out of your way. Be worthy.

Give yourself permission to be you.

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Where Story Ideas Come From

One of the most common blocks to writing is the lack of an idea. Trying to find one can feel to some people like trying to fall asleep. But the truth is, the universe is full of stories. You are full of stories.

Ann Lamott famously said that you own everything that’s happened to you: tell your stories. She was talking about the fear of writing badly about someone, about memoir writing, but in general, mining your memory or simply paying attention to what’s going on around you is one good way to find story ideas.

In my first post, about what I’ve learned so far about writing in order to change my practice, I mentioned that I hadn’t written a story in 15 years. That’s true: I wrote stories from the time I could form the alphabet until I graduated from university. Then, nothing. I just couldn’t. How does one stop doing what one loves, just like that? I was as though I no longer knew how. Also, I thought I had nothing to write about. Probably there are many reasons. It doesn’t matter now. What does matter is that I was able to get started again.

If you love to write but are having a very difficult time doing it, or getting started (again), this may help you. I hope it does, because there are few things less frustrating than someone telling you what worked for them and then when you try, nothing happens.

First, though, you have to be open. You have to be ready for the idea. Don’t look or wait for inspiration. Be open to it.

This isn’t about forcing anything. This is about paying attention.

My first piece of creative writing after 15 years was pure hell to write. I was determined to get started again, to put myself out of my misery of wanting to write and feeling guilty about not doing it. I started a story with the ending. I wrote a couple of pages over several months. I didn’t enjoy a minute of it, and I haven’t touched it since…I don’t even remember when. It’s not even close to finished. It was about a woman who leaves her husband, and I thought I could write it because my first husband left me years before, and maybe turning the tide would help me exorcise the residual feelings. Write what you know, they say. (For the record, I say bah, humbug to that.)

But it was all Carol Shields-y, kind of like my stories in university. I adore Shields. I’ve read all her books. But this story I was writing, just, ugh. I wasn’t feeling it. And I realized it was because my voice isn’t really like that of Carol Shields. Also, I didn’t give a shit about writing a story about a woman leaving her husband.

That last sentence is a clue

Cut to April 2011. A violent event happened in my town less than ten minutes from where I live. I couldn’t get it out of my head. I looked up all the news on it. I had a million questions, because there wasn’t any news, really: just a measly paragraph scant on details. The event made me feel terrible and curious and depressed and I thought about it for months. I started writing a friend about it in an email. And the first sentence sounded like the beginning of a story. I ditched the email and started writing.

At first, as I said in my initial post, that “story” about the event was two paragraphs long and I thought it was finished. I really did. Of course, I was mistaken. I’m no Lydia Davis, after all. The problem at that point was that I didn’t recognize yet what had happened to get me writing freely, and what had to keep happening in order for me to keep writing.

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “Follow your bliss.” For writers, I want to tweak that a bit. In order to keep writing, in order to find your wellspring of inspiration (never mind the external, fickle muse)—in order to be able to start and finish a story, you need to follow your tugs.

In other words, what are you curious about? What do you think about all the time? What makes you have a lot of questions or feel passionate about it? What causes an emotional reaction in you?

I’ve noticed that there’s a fenced-in car lot at the end of a nearby street that always attracts my attention. I’ve wanted to sneak into it for years. I wonder about the cars left there. I sense its mysterious atmosphere, the Alsatian guard dog. Before, I used to drive by it and notice it. Now I’m conscious of the way I notice it. That’s why I’m going to write about it.

This is what I mean by paying attention to yourself. For me, the event that happened here hasn’t left my mind even still. I worked on that new story for three years, still curious about what had happened and why. That’s what kept me going. And I finished it. The first story I’d finished in almost 20 years, and which is going to be published in a couple of months. I still have questions about what really happened, but writing the story to answer them in my own way, in one of the many possible ways, alleviated the obsessive feeling, led me to the mine of personal memories I can write from, and also created ideas for other, loosely connected stories.

So your tugs are things that pique your curiosity or stick around like an earworm. They can stem from news articles, photographs, text messages, single words, conversations you overhear, things your friends talk about, events that have happened to you, other stories you read. They carry the ideas, and if you’re open and in a creative frame of mind, you’ll find them. You can write by constantly asking “what if” when entertaining these ideas, and answering the questions you have.

Become conscious of your thoughts and interests, of reoccurring dreams and images and memories. You follow these, you’ll have story ideas and motivation forever. It’s all in you. It all comes from you. As I was once told, you already have the story. You just have to meet it halfway.

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The Interplay of Reading and Editing: What You Do Determines What I Do

Hello all! 

Sarah Lingley is a copy editor and writer I got to know through networking. We professionals have to stick together! Today I have Sarah as my guest to tell you about the relationship between reading and writing, how you can become a better writer, and how, ultimately, you can save money when hiring one of us! 

Take it away, Sarah:

One of my earliest childhood memories is packing into the family van each Friday afternoon and heading to the library. While my friends and peers were keeping up with the latest shows on television or playing their newest Gameboys, I was reading. On the couch, in my tree fort, under my bed. When I was very young, it was picture books and easy readers, and then as I got older it was mini-series and novels, academic books and articles. On rainy days, my older brother and I would bring a stack of encyclopedias to the closet, wrap in a blanket, and read our way through each and every page.

I wrote my first short story, per the prompting of my author-grandma, around the age of eight. By the time I entered high school, I was a slave to words and sentences and paragraphs. Spelling them, memorizing them, manipulating them, and arranging them.

I began writing and submitting short stories and essays to contests and publications, and later researched, wrote, and self-published my great-grandparents’ immigrant biography. In college, I studied Communication, with a concentration in editing and proofreading; I had no future at all if it did not center on words.

Today, years after those Friday afternoon visits to the library, I sit in my home office and dedicate many hours a week to reading words, correcting words, adjusting words. Generally speaking, my job as an editor is based on the writing of others; specifically speaking, my job as an editor is based on the level of exposure my clients have had and do have to reading.

tumblr_m3px0wcb2K1qdsldwo1_r2_1280When people ask what I do for a living, many do not initially associate editing with reading, but ultimately, a client’s writing tells me a lot about their reading.

Within the first paragraph of a fresh document, it is usually very clear to me how well read my client is, what their experience is with writing (their own and that of others), and the depth of their knowledge of the English language.

Of the hundreds upon hundreds of documents I have edited over the years, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to find writers who are also readers. I blame society.

It is more than just the way I was raised that makes me want to bash the social trends that have thrown good books out the window.

It is the simple truth that, more often than not in this day and age, individuals just don’t know the true value of a good read. These factors result in disadvantages on multiple levels: imaginations are limited, social development is stunted, and individual achievements are restricted.

Society has replaced reading with mindless television shows, time-wasting video games, and unproductive media venues, all of which cause the mind to wane and become lax. While reading and other media are all forms of entertainment, the argument now lies between profitless distraction and productive distraction.

We all need something to take our minds off the weight of the world; choosing an activity that stretches, prods, and stimulates the intellect, rather than one which weakens and deadens it, creates a higher production of invention, contemplation, and insight.

Watching a meaningless show about vampires or throwing cartoon birds at objects on your phone does nothing for your imagination, while engrossing yourself alongside complex characters within a thick plotted novel forces you to envision, hope, and consider. Imagine how different our society would be if people actually knew how to dream and think rather than plug their ears and zone out in a cyber-reality!

With weak psyches, writing becomes much more difficult a task to complete and thought-provoking material is harder to generate. This, in turn, makes my job as an editor more time-consuming, and costs the client more money.

I have heard many people say that they read too many boring documents at work all day to be able to do anything other than switch on the television when they get home; their brain is fried and they want to zone out. While I completely understand, and can relate to an extent, reading has been misunderstood if it is viewed as work.

Yes, pleasure reading uses the brain more than checking out in front of the big screen does, yet if more people could train themselves to use pleasure reading as a means to relieve stress and relax, we’d all be better off.

Pleasure reading is meant to be just that, pleasure. While academic or work-related reading is draining and un-fun for some, reading in and of itself doesn’t have to be. I have heard some people say that books are not nearly as interesting as television shows.

Yet if one walks into a bookstore they will find almost every subject matter available to mankind. Drama, check. Horror, check. Thriller, check. Self-help, check. Okay, yes, you might not find Judge Judy, specifically, but you will find biographical or fictional books about legal drama and catastrophe, or NCIS-style cop dramas, or National Geographic documentaries.

There is no benefit to anyone who wishes to sit back and pass the buck on to society. Yes, society has pounded it into our minds that reading is boring work, but society is wrong. As a general rule, it seems society doesn’t want us to think, doesn’t want us to better ourselves, and doesn’t want us to benefit from expanding and growing our minds.

So it’s up to you, the internet surfer, to start reading. It’s up to you, the reader, to learn from what you read and to let those lessons mold you into a talented and gifted writer.

After all, as a good writer, you’ll pay less money out of pocket to editors like me, and, to boot, be able to pat yourself on the back for authoring a piece of well-written literature. Go expand your mind, and take pride in that as you start tapping away on the keyboard.

Sarah Williams is the owner and editor in chief of Lingley Editing Services, LLC. She holds a BA in Communication from Salem College. When not editing and proofreading, she enjoys the outdoors with her husband in hot and sunny Arizona. Visit her website, Facebook, and LinkedIn page to read more.

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How to Write Better: What I’ve Learned

When I was a kid, I wrote stories all the time. I wrote about anything that came to mind, like an alien named Pookie, and headhunters in Borneo. I also wrote 20-page letters to school friends I saw every day. And I kept diaries. I have 22 filled notebooks, some even in French, from when I lived a year in France and found it easier to think in French. I wrote when I couldn’t find the words to say aloud. I wrote because I had so much inside me that talking didn’t fulfill my need to express myself. I wrote unapologetically and honestly and without fear. All that mattered to me was that I loved to write.

In high school I wrote stories and plays, one of which was produced for a variety show. In university, I took creative writing and kept writing stories and started entering them into contests.

And then I hit a giant wall. Something happened after university that caused me to stop doing creative things. I stopped singing, being involved in theatre, and writing stories. I stopped keeping a diary. I felt as though I’d lost all inspiration and fear took over. For years, I agonized over this and felt my identity slipping. I began to have panic attacks and my world became smaller and smaller. I wanted to write, but when I sat down to do it, nothing came. As time progressed, I became increasingly fearful that I had nothing to write and that what I wrote would suck terribly and be mortifying.

Instead, I took up copy editing. It was much easier to help improve others’ writing than work on creating my own stuff.

The more I read, too, the more I feared I’d never write well, or at least as well as those I admired. But the more I read, the more I felt guilty and miserable about not writing.

Feeling more and more with each job I took that I was moving further away from the real me, I decided to start a book blog, someplace I could write about the things I loved most, in order to bring some relevance into my life. That blog is Bella’s Bookshelves. I wrote about book events and news and reviewed books I read. Suddenly, books started arriving at my door for review, and a prominent Canadian magazine asked me to review for them.

I was finding my strength again and realizing that writing was something I did well. I wrote about the elements of story, but I still wasn’t creating stories of my own.

227033d9d4633e32133a871630fc088aThen I met Sarah Selecky. I’d read her Giller-nominated collection This Cake is for the Party, and recognized in the pieces her passion for getting to the heart of life, of people, of what it means to be human. I witnessed her carefulness and her love of words. Her writing demonstrated what I value in literature: characters who make me feel for them even if I can’t relate to them, carefully chosen words, sharp editing, and love of the craft.

At first, she intimidated the hell out of me, because of my fears of inadequacy. But talking to her, I found that she knew exactly what it was like to suffer the way I had been, not writing. She understood the anxiety and depression around it, the fears of failure and judgement, the agony of wanting to write but feeling unable to or blocked from making the craft a habit I could revel in every day. She understood resistance. Everything she said to me (particularly, “It’s all already there. You just have to meet it halfway”) resonated deeply, and everything she wrote in her course Story is a State of Mind spoke to me as though she’d written it with me in mind.

With her guidance and generosity, and through one of her excellent TAs, I learned how to think differently about writing. Basically, I learned how to write better. I learned that my writing needs to come from a place of love, not anxiety or stress or guilt or pressure. I learned that patience is necessary and that a good story counts more than getting published. I learned the perils of editing while writing, and that the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. Revision takes as long as it takes, and nothing is permanent, so I could write what I wanted. I learned how to freewrite, deal with my inner critic, appreciate my own voice and that no one else could write like me, where to find my wellspring of ideas, and how to go deep with details and compassion and empathy and fearlessness. I learned how better to observe people, how to write good dialogue, and most of all, how to see writing as something intrinsic, not apart from me.

At the same time, I started therapy. Here is where I learned how to be kind to myself, how to allow myself to have flaws and make mistakes, to love my inner child, the creative being in me. I discovered the joy of letting go of others’ expectations and judgements, and of just what process, rather than impatience, can reap. I learned that shame is useless and vulnerability is a strength.

Of course, all of this was hard. I cried a lot. I was frustrated and angry. I edited the crap out of the first story I wrote, which was only two paragraphs, and I honestly thought it was finished. I was very resistant to much of what I was learning, because I was set in my ways, and I don’t mean determined but stuck. So I also learned how to become open, how to view my need for change as something that needs to go hand in hand with willingness to change.

Don’t get me wrong. This is a lifelong process. I’m still learning. But what I’ve caught on to is something I want to share.

When I sent those two paragraphs to a writer friend of mine, he said, “But..who ARE these people? I like what you’ve written, but I want to know more!” It was so difficult to get past those two paragraphs, that sense of having finished, that it took me weeks to open that file and start writing again. But I began to ask the same questions he had of my characters and the story, and found that in answering them I was actually creating something good.

I got excited. You know that Crayola ad where the kids sing, “We celebrate ’cause we’re free to create”? Yeah, that. I wrote from real experiences but did what I wanted with those experiences. I “followed my tugs”—which is to say, I wrote about what interested me enough that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I felt what it was like again to love what I was writing, to feel the thrill and beauty of the magic happening, what I was thinking, the sitting down and creating. It was fun. Not easy, but enjoyable. Because of my different approach, the difficult stuff became more like figuring out a mystery. And I began to understand what this creating stories business is all about. The closest thing I can think of to describe it is what you feel when you fall in love. There is so much more I can share with you on this.

Now I’ve got a story accepted for publication, that first story I started after 15 long years. I have six others on the go. I think about stories, I do writing exercises, I talk to authors, I listen to music, I colour in a colouring book, I read short stories for influence, I troll through old photos and talk to family and friends about our past, I’m part of an exceptional writing group, I coach others for Sarah’s course and also on my own—I do all sorts of things to keep myself in a creative frame of mind, which means paying attention to past and present and what piques my interest, and seeing that I’m surrounded by stories all the time.

Writing and making a habit of it is all about changing our thinking and our feelings toward writing. It’s not just something we do, it’s part of who we are. We are human. We write about what it means to be human. To do that well, we need to be free of inhibition.

Everyone has different ways of practising. But the one thing that is the same with all good writers is that they understand it’s about WHERE our writing comes from, not how much you write or how often.

All this stuff I’ve said, this is what I mean about having shining eyes when you write. This is what I mean by learning how to write better. When it comes from the right place, your very spirit will be showing.

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