Fairy Godmouse

At times I feel daunted by the task of writing book number two. Hours can go by where I force myself to stay seated to write mountains of words that I’ll have to wade through later, searching for a nugget of ‘good’.

In fact, I haven’t written a blog post in ages because I felt like there was nothing positive to report from my writing lair.

But, at the worst times, when my mind is trying desperately to run away, the loveliest idea will land like a fairy mouse on my shoulder.

A moment like that is worth a month of struggle.

fairy mouse Melody Lealamb

Artwork by Melody Lea Lamb. Check out her fabulous miniature animal paintings on Etsy!

Happy Birthday, Rory! (An interview with the mouse in my heart)

One year already since the publication of my first novel, The Stowaways, starring you, Rory Stowaway!
How does it feel?

It was an exciting year. But tough! You put me through a lot of new experiences. Getting lost, finding a way out, losing our home…

Do you think it was worth it?

Yes! I got to do a lot of things I never thought I’d do. And I found out how courageous a mouse can be!

Would you do it all over again?

Um, why?

Because I’m writing you into a new adventure and you sort of have no choice about it. Unless you really, really don’t want to go…

No, I want to! We need to find a new home. Where are we going?

Well, so far you don’t know entirely where you are — just that there are strange new creatures to contend with, and some things that make you very uncomfortable — things you can’t explain. And you know how you love knowing the answer to everything… But one thing you will know is that your little sister Bimble is pushing to the front of the line, and you don’t like it.

But she’s only a pup!

Not anymore. She’s growing up fast.

Will she go on adventures with me?

Only if you let her.

Maybe…. She’s probably easy to travel with — she sure doesn’t say much.

We’ll see about that.

(whiskers twitching)

Do you have anything else to say? It’s your birthday celebration!

Are you ever going to eat those mouse cookies from the book launch — the ones in the freezer? ‘Cause if you’re not going to… I’ll take them!

You’d eat an image of yourself?

Yessss!

Okay (laughs). We’ll share them. You take the heads and I’ll take the tails.

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Thanks to everyone at Pajama Press for supporting me and my first novel this whole year, with such warm belief in a tiny mouse with big ambition. And also to my friends and family, near and far, who have become my mini book agents all over the planet.
Here’s to many more birthdays with The Stowaways!

Embracing Stress & Anxiety

When I was a child, I HATED Sunday nights. My stomach churned over the week ahead. No, I wasn’t bullied at school; I was just dreadfully afraid of people. I’d like to say I got over this, but I’m not sure it’s the kind of thing you get over. You’re either born an extrovert who feels energized by the presence of others, or you’re not.

When I started writing, I thought – this is the career for me! I’m going to work in isolation, with only my thoughts! Oh happy day!

BUT

Then came the invitations to make presentations at schools, read my work on the radio, present at booksellers conventions, participate in festival readings… What the heck was I thinking, becoming an author??

I’m uncomfortable in public. I hate dressing up (i.e. not wearing pajamas). I am exhausted after small talk — I absorb everyone’s emotions, and feel ineffective if I can’t engage with everyone I meet in a meaningful way. In short, I put a lot of pressure on myself to make a good impression, because I always feel as if I’m making a bad one if I’m the quiet, mousey girl I really am inside.

But, I believe in a little adversity in order to grow. Uncomfortable situations can force us to re-define who we are, and step out of the pre-conceived notions we have about ourselves.

Recently I was invited to take part as a presenter at the Labrador Creative Arts Festival. It’s a wonderful opportunity to contribute to the education of children who have less access to working artists than Children in big cities. I’m honoured to be able to participate. Though it’s two months away, my stomach is already churning and my thoughts already preoccupied. Will I be able to be social for an entire week, with hardly any time to decompress on my own?

The anxiety isn’t necessarily a negative feeling, but it isn’t the sort of excited feeling I imagine a lot of extroverts get when they are given the opportunity to speak in public. But, after each event like this, I do feel as though I’ve challenged myself by taking another step toward being comfortable in public. It may never happen fully, but life is a process — I’d rather quake at the front of a classroom, then never challenge myself at all.

Here’s me eating the microphone at The Word on the Street in Halifax last week – still getting used to this public reading thing 🙂
WOTS reading

To celebrate International Literacy Day, I will…

When I turned 40 recently, I realized, with a bitter twinge in my brow, that my eye doctor had been right:

40 is the magic age when your vision immediately begins to deteriorate, and reading becomes problematic. I scrunch my forehead, doing that see-saw action between me and the pill bottle, wondering whose big (or rather, small) idea it was to print such tiny directions to the aged population who are likely to be reading said pill bottle…….Grrrr.

I haven’t had to deal with a vision problem since before I had laser eye surgery ten years ago. What a miracle that was! To wake up, able to see the alarm clock clearly, as if I’d fallen asleep with my contact lenses in. It was the most fantastic feeling in the world – losing a disability with the snap of a finger.

I liken my vision problem to the hindrance I must have felt at age 4, with my finger on the page, trying to decipher what those symbols meant. It is not a pleasant feeling, and I thank technology that I can merely put on a pair of glasses to understand those symbols again.

I salute those who are, right now, struggling to learn how to read, and those who know how to read but are struggling to pay the bills and cannot afford to buy a book for themselves or their children. Wouldn't it be wonderful to snap our fingers and eradicate illiteracy and lack of access, with the same speed we can put on a pair of glasses to 'see'?

The Province of Nova Scotia has donated 3000 new books to Literacy Nova Scotia to distribute with their partner, Feed Nova Scotia, through food banks across the province this week. I will donate 5 copies of The Stowaways to add to the pile. If you are an author, and you have some copies of your books to sign and donate, I hope you can find a literacy organization in your area to do the same this week, or any week. You’ve probably already done it, and in that case… YAY!

Happy reading, everybody!!!
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Milestones and Millstones

Yes, I’m back! No, I was not away on a fabulous journey or meditating at a mountainside monastery. I just got tired of life for a while, and the endless grind of worries that I seem ever capable of procuring. That does not a good blog make.

However, a few milestones passed that I wish I had shared with you in the moment:

#1 – First Royalty Check!
I was in the middle of de-cluttering my house for sale, when my partner brought me the mail. And there it was, my first book money!! I had earned out my advance and then some. That was a special moment – evidence that I could earn money by doing something I truly love!!

#2 – First Book Award Gala!
I was nominated for the Ann Connor Brimer award for children’s literature for The Stowaways, an honour I got to share with friend Jill MacLean (Nix Minus One) and Jan Coates (The Power of Harmony) at the Atlantic Book Awards in May. I wore a corsage and learned how to lose with a smile 🙂 (Jan won!)

#3 – First Full-page Advertisement!
(Canadian Children’s Book News) This might be a weird milestone to mention, but it gave me extreme joy to think my publisher likes my book enough to promote it so much! She also put a full-pager in School Library Journal, an even larger mag.

#4 – First Celebrity Endorsement!
Actor Jonathan Torrens (Trailer Park Boys, Mr.D) chose my book as one of his summertime reads in his Atlantic Books Today interview – there’s nothing like a handsome, hilarious blonde with brains on your side! (Thanks, Jonathan!!)

So what were the millstones? Well, you know how I mentioned selling my house… that has been the millstone — the grinding, heavy worry in my life for the past few months. In a way it’s a milestone and a millstone, because I decided to sell my home so that I could release myself from mortgage monotony to follow my dreams. I’ve finally made the choice to make writing my priority, and all else, I mean ALL else, has to come second, at least for a few years. You know where I got the strength to make this choice? Donna Morrisey (Kit’s Law). She did the same thing, years ago…

Well, you know what they say — with every millstone comes a milestone and every milestone, a millstone.

(If that wasn’t already a saying, then I just made it up. :))

I’m back into writing again, and loving the choice I’ve made, but it’s hard to leave my garden, my neighbours, my community. It’s always a risk to follow your dreams, but if you don’t, what you’ve held onto in fear will always be marred by the wonder inside you.

What might have happened if I’d let it all go?…

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Me (left) at the Atlantic Book Awards Gala reception with writers Janet Cameron, Jan Coates and Jill MacLean

A Tiny Furball of Hope

I’ve had a tough season, as we all have, trying to stiff-upper-lip the winter blues. Last weekend, I cracked. I just couldn’t take another cold, colourless dawn.

But then the tiniest thing happened to brighten my spirits.

I mean, really tiny.

My partner Brian discovered a mouse chewing at the floor under our hallway radiator. In his excitement, he scared the poor little thing and it ran into the living room and hid behind a tile leaning against the wall. Brian took out a flashlight and found him, curled up in the corner, with his nose tucked into his belly — stiff with fright that we were going to hurt him.

But of course we wouldn’t. I write about mice, so how can I possibly hurt one? Even Brian finds the idea of mouse traps deplorable, after reading The Stowaways “What if that’s Rory, on a mission of survival?” asks Brian.

“Much like us,” I say.

Oh, how I would have loved to scoop up that little mouse in my hand, and whisper to him how safe he is in our home.

This winter has been a sick combination of cold, grey, angst, and pressures that have all but torn us to shreds. But we bonded over our little mouse. His plight of survival is as one with our own. As we root for our house mouse, we root for ourselves.

And that’s a tiny but positive thing among winter’s rubble.

Mouse_in_cage_by_Fenster.

(Image from Fenster)

First Award Nomination!

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I’ve been shortlisted for the Canadian Library Association’s Book of the Year for Children Award, for The Stowaways!!!

This is my first novel, so I never expected anything like this to happen. I looked back over the list of past authors who’ve won since 1947 and was excited to see Dennis Lee and Mordecai Richler on the list — they won for three of my all time favourite children’s books: Garbage Delight, Alligator Pie, and Jacob Two-Two Meets The Hooded Fang — books that I read over and over and over again when I was a wee little girl.

I am honoured, to say the least!!

Sometimes the Universe Won’t Take “I Quit” for an Answer

Okay. So that was a disaster.

Three weeks of isolation and high hopes for writing Book 2 rapidly declined into weeping on the couch while watching Olympic figure skating, with crumbs of popcorn and pita chips ground into my big ugly sweater I hadn’t washed in ages.

In short: I gave up.

My back-up plan was to go into Wolfville, as I explained in my last blog, hoping to write in a beautiful public place instead of cottage isolation, but Mother Nature had other plans. It snowed every darn day, and since the drive between the cottage and town was a half hour on the highway, I chose safety over glory. (Although, the Canadian Olympic Team provided some excellent vicarious glory!)

So what then?

Well, that’s when the Universe stepped in. As soon as I got back to the city, I got a letter in the mail that one could liken to a gift from the god of your choice. I got a big grant from Arts Nova Scotia to write Book 2 of The Stowaways! (So no excuses now. I have a DEADLINE.)

But could I muster a smile? Barely. So the universe said. Okay, that’s not enough of a sign for you? How about this? And then I got news regarding a lovely recognition that I can’t tell you about because it’s top secret til April 3rd.

And could I smile then? Almost.

So the Universe said, okay, money and recognition aren’t enough to wrench you out of depression, so here’s what I’m gonna do: You’re going to spend an hour and half at your old elementary school with thirty-five grade 3/4 students. They’re going to remind you of who you are.

And that seemed to work much better.

Yup! I did my first reading today at the Halifax Independent School, the school I went to as a child. It felt like a safe place to begin, where I knew at least they would want to meet an alumna who had become a published author, even if they knew nothing of my book. It was meaningful, returning there with a proud offering in my hand, a book that was inspired in part by my time there thirty years ago.

When preparing for the reading last night, I remembered that I still had a lot of the illustrated books I’d made at that school as a child, so I fished them out from my parent’s storage room and brought them with me on my visit. I was so glad I did! The students loved these early stories as much as The Stowaways, I think because it showed them the possibility of becoming an author themselves. After all, I was once a student there, making up silly stories, too. One kid yelled “I feel inspired!” And another yelled out an entire story and then drew out all the pictures for it in ten minutes flat! (If only I could write that easily, now!)

Here’s a page from one of my early books, The Big Fat Worm, which I painted when I was 10:
The students loved laughing like the worm. (heh heh heh!)

Reading through my early books and visiting my elementary school was the boost that I needed. I didn’t need to write in isolation. Distraction wasn’t my problem – it was lack of belief in myself. I needed to be surrounded by the rawness of youth. And now I remember, I was meant to tell stories — that’s how I spent every waking minute of my childhood — on my bedroom floor, with blank paper, scissors, coloured pencils and my imagination.

That’s all.

Week 2 of Writing Isolation: Clearly, it Ain’t for Me

If you read my last blog, you’ll know I’m experimenting with writing in isolation. I was having trouble getting started on the dreaded second novel (because whose second novel was the big winner, right?!), so decided to try a new method to trap my muse.

I’m staying at my friend’s cottage in the outback of the Nova Scotian Valley for three weeks. Well, when I say ‘outback’, I mean cottage country overlooking a man-made lake — though it is definitely isolated this time of year. In the last week, I’ve seen a squirrel, a woodpecker, three crows and four cars. The most talking I’ve heard all week is by the lake itself — apparently lakes fart, gurgle and burp in winter. (Very amusing to someone who hasn’t conversed in a while). Oh, and I saw some rabbit tracks – which was also very exciting!! Life does exist here, but in hibernation.

So far, I can’t recommend deep isolation. Yes, I got some writing done in my first week since there are zero distractions here, but week two has been a complete failure.

I’m not lonely, as my friends keep in touch via email and send me all their support and news, so that’s not been an issue.

It’s the lack of energy, movement and sound that is boring my muse to death.

So today I drove into Wolfville, a nearby university town on the Harvest Highway; it’s Nova Scotia’s Tuscany, if you need a comparison. Hilly vineyards covered in snow, farmland swept by cold winds and eagles, all overlooking the beautiful Minas Basin. It’s stunning.

My first stop was the local bookshop, Box of Delights. I wanted to make sure they had The Stowaways on the shelf. That was a nice reminder that I am indeed a writer — they knew my book and had sold out of it. Yay! Then I walked to the public library to flog my book there — because who doesn’t want their book in every library possible?

And then, sweet world, I went to one of my favourite places in Nova Scotia: the Garden Room at Acadia University. Having purchased a great book called Osbert The Avenger, a middle grade novel written by Australian Christopher William Hill, I tore off my hat and gloves and threw myself gladly into a chair in the sun. Here was the energy I was lacking!

Garden Room

All this to say that I think we writers often dream of isolation, but in actual fact it doesn’t work for very long. I need to feel the energy of movement around me.

Which brings me to my next writing experiment: writing in public. I’ve never tried this before, and since I’m in the valley for another ten days, I am going to drive to Wolfville every day and write in the grand Garden Room by the fountain, where water drips from copper maple leaves near the grand piano that sits waiting to serve at a concert every night… well, you get it. I’m going to write in a place full of movement and potential, to see if that re-inspires me.

Life is a constant adaptation, is it not?

A Tolerable Isolation

The wish I hear most often from fellow writers is for a secret lair where the only legal entrant is themselves. The most wistful of these wishes I heard from a Scottish tweeter who wanted a hidden door behind a bookshelf that led up to a secret attic room. Does that not conjure up some wonderful thoughts?

Aah… smell that steaming hot chocolate warming your hand as you skip that last creaking stair on the way up to your hideaway. Victory! Nobody knows where you’ve gone and they’ll never find you. You cosy up in your cloud-like chair by the porthole window, overlooking acres of wild, unpeopled landscapes. Your favourite snacks and pens line the drawers of your desk. You may never leave — save for that darn doctor’s appointment in the middle of the day. ARGH!

So I find myself now faced with an incredible offer to write, for the first three weeks of February, in a small cottage overlooking a lake in the hilly lands of the Nova Scotian valley. The only thing is, I’m beginning to doubt whether this is actually a tolerable isolation.

Do we actually want complete isolation? For three whole weeks?

I suspect that what we really want is for those in our lives to give us space, time and the control we need over our own brains – to create that secret lair metaphorically. We need to be able to enter and exit as we choose, to be fed and watered and pampered for a few minutes and then wander back off to Neverland to see what happens next.

For most writers, this is a pure fantasy and perhaps why so many of us dream of isolation. So that nobody CAN get in the way. And we don’t have to feel guilty when we say to our loved ones:
“Ever hear of knocking?”
“I’m sure your sock will turn up.”
“It’s there, on the bottom shelf. Just LOOK, would you?”
“Okay, enough already. I am not here. I do not want to hear that you are here either. Do not breathe.”
Or simply: “Please go away…”

I wonder, though – in my second week of isolation, will I wish someone would knock on the door with a sweet little paw, whispering:

“Do you want some soup?”
“How’s it going?”
“You look tired, why don’t you take a break?”
Or simply: “I love you.”

Anyway, it will be an experiment of sorts. I will report back with Tales from the Valley of Isolation. I may surprise myself and never want to leave, but I suspect I’ll be looking out the window, not always at the one overlooking unpeopled landscapes, but the one overlooking the driveway, wishing my sweetheart would turn up, uninvited.

We shall see!
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