BIG featured in BC Bookworld

Well hello there! I don’t know about you, but I blinked and missed spring, summer and most of September. It’s proper fall now with chillier mornings – although there’s been no indulging in pumpkin spice everything… yet.

It feels like decades ago that BIG: Stories about Life in Plus-Sized Bodies was released by Caitlin Press. An essay I wrote was published in that book, and it has been a pleasure to see it create waves in the publishing industry.

It has now been featured by BC Bookworld, one of the most venerable periodicals to profile and review books in the province. Editor Christina Myers makes for a stunning cover model, don’t you think?

Black lives matter: Decolonizing my book shelf

I have been quiet these last months, not due just to the pandemic. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery felt like a gut punch. The violence perpetrated on these people, and so many others, is overwhelming – and kick-started some deep self-reflection.

The reality of racism is now being live-streamed to everyone’s homes. The tragically prophetic words from Will Smith, shared on the Late Show in 2016 and circling yet again, have been haunting me for months: “Racism is not getting worse; it is getting filmed.”

We are shown these images of police violence against Black people, but why do the stories stop there? Where is the everyday life of BIPOC people – the artists, entrepreneurs, financiers, volunteers and family members? It doesn’t take much scrutiny to see how film, television and books falls short of truly representing the diverse world of humans around us – a key component of mutual understanding and respect.

I see this in my home, as well. Looking at my bookcase, it’s painfully clear what an undergraduate education in English literature will yield: hundreds of books by old white dudes.

I studied “the canon” in university: Chaucer, Dickens and Hardy. Shakespeare’s early work prior to 1601, and then plays onward. One class devoted the entire semester to Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen – the longest poem in the English language at 1,053 pages. I somehow escaped the Hemingway trap, thank heavens.

The studies upheld European male writers, predominantly British, as the standard to which all others must be compared. They were “classics.”

Were all texts exclusively by white males? No, but the proportion of texts by female, Black, Indigenous, Métis, Inuit, people of colour, and LGBTQ2IA writers is far less. This is not acceptable.

Perusing current course offerings at my alma mater, it appears this is starting to change. Indigenous authors are among the study options now, although as an elective. There are some studies of modern works, which touch on racism – but, as is too often the case, focused on the American context and the civil rights movement in particular.

In the last few years, I have intentionally purchased writing by diverse authors, and intend to buy even more in the future. Each writer provides me greater insight into families, cultures and perspectives that, as a white person, I have not been privy to. By expanding my literary horizons, I have read more about racism in Canada during contemporary times in neighbourhoods like my own. Bias, violence, discriminatory legislation and wilful neglect of our duty of care: stories by diverse authors put a human face to systemic racism.

Children’s author Mo Willems once wrote that, “If you ever find yourself in the wrong story, leave.” I offer this list of recommended books for white readers to leave the traditional English canon behind, and begin the process of decolonizing their bookshelves.

This is not an anti-racist reading list; these are not books by academic researchers designed to unlearn racism. As a white, middle-class woman, I don’t profess to be an expert in this field and I’m not suggesting the following is part of a “new canon” of BIPOC literature nor the only authors to read (I honestly struggled with limiting this list). These are stories – fictional and non-fiction accounts of human beings affected by the racist and colonial systems we find ourselves in today. I have an admitted bias toward Canadian authors (I will always love you #canlit). These are merely titles that diversified my reading, introduced new BIPOC voices and helped me understand complex struggles that marginalized characters face.

Polished Hoe book coverThe Polished Hoe, Austin Clarke

This 2002 Scotiabank Giller Prize winning story is a literary masterpiece. They say writing an entire novel of dialogue is impossible, until the unforgettable Austin Clarke proves the declaration wrong. This story is heart-rending, and the tension between Mary-Mathilda and the police is tangible from the very first pages.

The Break by Katherena Vermette book coverThe Break, Katherena Vermette

Trauma touches generations like a drop in water: the ripples spread far and wide. Katherena Vermette’s novel follows a multigenerational Métis-Anishinaabe family dealing with the fallout of a shocking crime. The writing is also incredibly crafted, which has earned Vermette several awards.

Book cover of Brother by David ChariandyBrother, David Chariandy

Teenaged brothers navigate a world fraught with prejudice and poverty in suburban Ontario. This story of a new Canadian family is haunting in its tragic loss echoing, sadly, current events. David Chariandy claimed the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for this novel.

Book cover of Keeper N' Me by Richard WagameseKeeper N’ Me, Richard Wagamese

What is our identity without our people? Richard Wagamese’s novel follows Garnet Raven’s experience of being apprehended by social workers at the age of three and growing up in the foster care system. He finds relatives as a young adult, uncovering his family’s rich traditions and community. This lovely tale is shaped with two points of view, adding to the mysticism and relational connection.

Book cover of Seven Fallen Feathers by Tanya TalagaSeven Fallen Feathers, Tanya Talaga

Sometimes truth is more horrifying than fiction. Tanya Talaga’s research is a scathing indictment on society’s blatant disregard for human life and human rights. Children from First Nations communities are having to travel hundreds of kilometres from home to access education, only to be denigrated, abused and, in some cases, killed when they arrive in the host communities. Talaga’s book covers 2000 to 2011, when seven Indigenous high school children died in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Prepare to be chilled by the system’s response.

Roots, Alex Haley

Book cover of Roots by Alex HaleyIt has been made into a movie, mini-series, audiobook and a quandary for genealogists and historians. I read Roots: The Saga of an American Family at the age of 16, and I vividly remember wanting to rip my skin off as guilty penance for the sins of my ancestors. There has been much critique of Alex Haley’s research for the foundation of his book. But if you consider it historical fiction, the “could-be” story of how one person came to be in America, Roots unpacks a lot of baggage of what the characters’ ancestors may have endured.

And if you have gotten this far: consider purchasing a copy or two of these books and passing it along to friends. (All book cover images link to a national online book seller.) Buying books by BIPOC writers supports their work and encourages publishers to keep diverse stories coming.

Red pens are your friends: how different types of editing can help

Ever stared at a painting so long that the lines seem to move? This is what happens with words after you have written 60,000 of them and spent a few weeks rearranging them on the page. The lines blur, and then you can’t see the details in the story for the colourful canvas you have created. 

When I worked in journalism, I had an editor who said that the newspaper was the only type of business that involved making a mistake, printing 50,000 copies and sending them to your closest friends. There was even a retired English teacher in town who loved to pass his hours by marking up our work with red ink over errant punctuation or grammar, and mailing newsprint sheets back to us.

When your writing is scrutinized by that degree, you and the editorial team develop a lot of systems to avoid making mistakes in the first place. Editing happened at every stage of our publication process: writing, revising, fact-checking, copy editing, proofreading. If you had to change the story because of a late development, you returned to the beginning and ran through the stages again.

Editing isn’t just about catching mistakes, though. Yes, programs like Grammarly can help you craft an easy-to read email with fewer spelling mistakes. A real-life editor has the tools to chip away at all the extraneous bits in a story, whittling everything down to its essence to expose the story so much that a reader cannot look away.

Author and former publishing house executive Arthur Plotnik once explained the value of editing to be that, “You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside of you, and we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.”

What kinds of editing are there? There are four main types of editing, which depend largely on what stage you are in the writing process. 

Substantive Edit

This is the type of edit needed once you have emerged triumphantly from finishing the first draft of your manuscript and used that momentum to clean up glaring errors. You don’t know if the manuscript “works,” quite yet. In fact, you’re sure that some weird strand has woven its way through the pages, but you can’t see it and don’t know how to yank it out of your story.

If you are like many writers, the happy veneer of finishing a first draft has worn off, and you can barely glance at the work again without wincing.

I like to call the substantive edit the “ugly duckling phase,” when you can see the beginnings of something really special if you look past all those feathers and honking noises, but it is going to take a lot of time and work to get it looking swan-like.

Substantive editing picks apart the structure of a story: exposition of plot/information, order of events, form, character development and thematic elements. If this stage of editing were a jigsaw puzzle, you would be flipping paragraphs and chapters around, figuring out where they best fit — and how the transitions work between patches of colour. It honestly is where the big picture of the narrative puzzle comes together.

Deletion is an important part of this stage, and can be difficult for many people. William Faulkner is famously quoted as having said that writers have to kill their darlings. Those characters, plot events, descriptions and formats we love? Yes, those are your darlings. The substantive edit phase is a great time to give those the axe – and having someone else put them under the blade is the best way to strengthen your story.

Stylistic Edit

You have a solid second or third draft of a manuscript which has been rewritten and revised into the order you know is right for your story. It’s a good draft, but you want to make it great.

Stylistic editing (also known as a line edit) makes the writing an enjoyable read: establishing the necessary voice and tone, clarifying meaning, refining language and diction. I tend to add some copy editing into this phase as well, depending on the client.

At this stage, I spend time asking “Does this make sense?” or “Would this character use those words, or say it another way?” A good editor is able to read the work completely immersed in not just the story, but the reader’s experience and expectations of the story.

Copy Edit

Your manuscript is now at the third-draft stage, having been read by someone else and extensively revised and refined. You’re actually starting to get sick of this project a little.

Copy editing covers accuracy, consistency and quality: grammar, spelling, punctuation, stylistic consistency, correcting information and asking questions to check accuracy.

Call it nit-picking if you like, but the devil’s in the details. Do you want the reader to stay in your story, or stumble on your missteps? Nothing pulls them out more than incorrect geographical references, spelling mistakes and misuse of punctuation. Having professionally trained eyes read your work at this stage is critical. This is often the work that corporations, large companies and organizations will hire editors to do, because they know polishing their written material makes a huge difference in the end product.

Proofread

Your manuscript has been designed is ready for publishing, but you need one final read-through to make sure it is absolutely perfect. I can say from experience that spellcheck will only take you so far, my friend.

Proofreading examines the material after layout (once a graphic designer has put together its final format) to correct any errors in textual and visual elements. Design consistency, minor mechanical errors, page numbering, etc., are reviewed at this stage. It’s the final polish to getting your manuscript shining like a new coin.

Beyond the red pen

You can have a professional help you with one or all of these phases in the publishing process. Depending on your writing experience, it might be more valuable to have an editor work with you at the beginning, helping craft the piece into the shape you need it to take on. Or if you have a fact-based story and have been fastidious about revisions, maybe you engage someone for copy editing and proofreading.

But a huge added value that many editors offer is moral support. Writing is a maddeningly complicated art form, fraught with all sorts of traps and hang-ups. Having someone who can talk you through the low valleys and celebrate ascending those heights validates the emotional journey of writing. Sharing the trip makes it that much more enjoyable.

Creativity under attack: surviving quarantine as an artist

I see you.

The creative soul who usually spends days head down in a journal. Maybe elbow deep in paint or fingers dusty with smudged charcoal. Perhaps you prefer quick shutter speeds and wide lenses. The resonance of a guitar string strummed softly. Or rhythm moving through your body expressing pain past and present, like a warm song crying out in a cold night.

I see you.

This bizarre and tumultuous moment in history is supposedly ours, when artists have the time and space to create. The world has slowed to a crawl and actually begs us to stay in, be in our homes and keep each other safe. Remove distraction from the outside world and there should be ample room for art.

But I see you struggling. You feel this too intensely. The fear has snuck in so close you feel it like knotted twine wrapped around your chest.

You know at the heart of this threat is a microscopic enemy, a small viral protein packed with enough power to take away the things you treasure most: your parents, spouse, children, family and friends.

You may have already lost a job, or a business. Maybe even a home. But you barter with this invisible enemy that you would give up all those things three times over if only it would spare the ones you love.

You watched civilization fold like a musty army tent ordered to clear out. As the tent poles fell, you felt the air being sucked out of you, too.

This, all of this is the price one pays for seeing the world through artist’s eyes.

The creatives are trapped in the dark with monsters under our beds, even if they all are dressed differently. If the thread of human existence has taught us anything, it is that life will press on — the monsters will make way for artistry when daylight breaks.

So don’t worry about the dusty manuscript on your desk, the overdue rehearsal, the canvas devoid of colour. Your creative spark has not snuffed out – it’s merely waiting for dawn to reignite.

For now, feel as you must: lost, scared, anxious, timid, bewildered and discouraged.

But please promise me you will never feel alone.

Because I see you – and I’m there, too.

Resources if you need help

BIG hits the shelves in Canada

What a whirlwind week! I arrived home on Wednesday to find my pre-order copies of BIG: Stories About Life in Plus-Sized Bodies had arrived.

Even the Table of Contents is pretty!

Opening the box was surreal. Packs of five books were each plastic-wrapped together, preserving that fresh book smell. The cover is silky smooth and the vibrant colours pop off the page. It is simply a thing o’ beauty.

Caitlin Press Editor Christina Myers has amassed some incredible essays that lay bare the experience of living large in a society obsessed with small.

These stories offer a closer look at what it means to navigate a world designed to fit bodies of a certain size (sometimes literally) and, in turn, invite readers to ask questions about — and ultimately reconsider — our collective and individual obsession with women’s bodies.

There’s promotions planned in the near future, and I know I have more to say on this topic, but let’s cut to the chase on what really matters.

Get your copy now

My husband was just as excited as I was to see this on Page 16.

Today is the official release date for the anthology. Purchase a copy from one of the Okanagan’s best independent bookstores, Mosaic Books.

I’m also a fan of Wendel’s in Langley. They have some copies and you can also order online.

Or you can order it directly from Caitlin Press themselves.

Do you live in the U.S.? Order a copy from Powell’s. Have you ever been? If you’re ever in Portland, GO. It was a spiritual experience.

I’m a fan of supporting independents, but I get that sometimes you gotta go big to get BIG. Here’s some links to pave the way:

Have questions or wondering about readings? Feel free to hit me up.

Finding Your Cape released and now a bestseller

Happy crowd of Mareathoners at Saturday’s book launch celebration.

All that work, reading, revising, mental energy, worry, tears, contemplation just emerged into the world as an incredible book that people are buying and reading.

Mare McHale is the best-selling author of Finding Your Cape.
Me and best-selling author, Mare McHale.

It was an honour to help Mare McHale edit Finding Your Cape: How to Course Correct and Achieve Greatness When Things Don’t Go As Planned. I know the book will help so many people – it features honesty that we don’t see much of in the world. But this makes such a strong argument for being authentic and staying true to yourself.

I’m still amazed at Mare’s strength, resiliency and vulnerability, enduring so much and also recognizing how her struggles can, and will, help others.

The book launch was packed – and the vibe in the room was so positive and celebratory. The early reviews are in (from media like News 1130, AM 1150, Castanet and Penticton Herald), and her publication was also ranked #1 in new releases, grief, mental health, happiness and textbooks on Amazon over the weekend.

There is a lot more to come from Mare on this topic and more. Looking forward to seeing this newly minted author fly to incredible heights.

If you would like to purchase a copy (and highly recommend you do!), visit the link on Amazon.

When a book editor works with a YouTuber

The thing about being a freelance editor is you can’t see the all the reactions your writer has during the highs and lows of the editing process.

I always try to be kind. You can be a ruthless editor without making someone feel like they’ve been run down by a speeding pickup with studded tires. I do my best to FaceTime or Skype my clients during the “low points” of the process, so that all my words are delivered sensitively. I can see their reaction, anticipate their concern or frustration, and try to alleviate their fears. When you’re in the weeds of the editing process, it can be a dark time for a writer — the moment they want to throw the work in a bin and light a match. Not one single writer needs fuel for those flames of self-doubt.

I spend a lot of time hand-holding through the low valleys, but usually we are done before they reach the very peak of the mountain — when they read positive feedback and are floating above the ground with happiness. Or most importantly, that last 10% of the climb they must face alone.

Gotta love that post-delivery glow

That experience has been true for me, until I worked with Mare McHale. She records the entire moment with her video camera — including when FedEx comes to her front door with four very heavy boxes holding no less than 200 books.

You get to hear the squeals of excitement. You see the sparkle in her eyes. That’s when the editor gets to climb the mountain peak too… I actually fell off my chair laughing so hard at her reaction, there was so. much. joy.

Then she unpacks all those lovely books in preparation for mailing out the pre-orders she received. Taking in the magnitude of her achievement, she starts crying in her kitchen and thanking people for believing in her, championing her on, and supporting her on the journey. And then you start crying, too.

Her book will be released on Jan. 23, and she has a special book launch celebration set for Jan. 25. (Tickets can be purchased here. Don’t wait – tickets are going quickly) In the meantime, she has several media interviews scheduled, as interest in the subject of mental health and the woman whose light is helping others find their way out of darkness grows.

I cannot wait for the celebration, when I can offer a toast to her achievement and soak in her joy — all in person.

A heavy load

Being a service member is not easy — those men and women shoulder an incredible load.

But how do you tell that story in a compelling way that resonates with civilians? How do you make annual Remembrance Day stories real to those who will never see the realities of military service?  The Royal British Legion put together this brilliant video for #ArmedForcesDay. Such a simple concept, and beautifully executed.

Each civilian is introduced by name and profession, personalizing them and making the individual relatable. The viewer walks through the civilian experience of loading the bag and trying to lift it.

How telling stories makes us human

As this story by Jeffrey Kluger explains in Time Magazine, stories are part of who we are and the communities we live in. Sharing good stories can positively impact people’s perceptions and interactions with you.

Odds are, you’ve never heard the story of the wild pig and the seacow — but if you’d heard it, you’d be unlikely to forget it. The wild pig and seacow were best friends who enjoyed racing each other for sport. One day, however, the seacow hurt his legs and could run no more. So the wild pig carried him down to the sea, where they could race forever, side by side, one in the water, one on the land.You can learn a lot from a tale like that — about friendship, cooperation, empathy and an aversion to inequality. And if you were a child in the Agta community — a hunter-gatherer population in The Philippines’ Isabela Province — you’d have grown up on the story, and on many others that teach similar lessons. The Agta are hardly the only peoples who practice storytelling; the custom has been ubiquitous in all cultures over all eras in all parts of the world. Now, a new study in Nature Communications, helps explain why: storytelling is a powerful means of fostering social cooperation and teaching social norms, and it pays valuable dividends to the storytellers themselves, improving their chances of being chosen as social partners, receiving community support and even having healthy offspring. Read the full story: http://time.com/5043166/storytelling-evolution/

Stories have been part of human history since the beginning — and research has shown that storytellers can benefit from sharing tales.