The next big thing

My author L was recently tagged in an interview series called “The Next Big Thing.”  It’s also called “The Blog Tour That Runs Itself.” Writers answer eight questions about a work in progress, and then they tag other writers to do the same. Among the questions: Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? and What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Sean JL will work out her answers over the next couple of weeks. Eventually, she’ll post those answers on this blog. Meanwhile, you can visit Sean Johnston, the author who tagged L for the interview series, and read his answers to the eight questions. The working title of his project is “Listen All You Bullets.” That should pique your interest.

For L and me, this interview exercise will demand yet another close examination of my story, and I suppose that’s one reason she agreed to do it. Examination — sounds like going to the doctor for a physical. Sometimes the doctor finds a serious problem. Sometimes surgery is required. This could be painful — for author, character, novel as a whole. Regular readers of this blog will know that I like to avoid the knife. I am trying to remind myself that surgery can be restorative. The patient comes out healthier than she’s been in years.

Mentioned in this post: Sean Johnston

Always Under Revision is a series of posts in the voice of Kate Mueller, the protagonist of a novel-in-progress by Leona Theis. Kate is also narrator of the first and last stories in Leona’s first published book, Sightlines.

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CBC longlist. Thank you.

Back in October, my author L sliced an excerpt out of the novel she’s writing about me and entered it into competition for the CBC Short Story Prize. I’m happy to announce that this little piece of my life made the longlist, announced this morning.

DSC_0029_2I offer my congratulations to the other fictional characters whose lives also appear on the longlist. I offer my congratulations, because I know what some of those characters have been through. In my case, let me tell you, it was hell. The competition has a strict word limit of 15oo words, and the excerpt L began with numbered about 2100, which meant she had to boil things down until what remained was the most spare of stories. I lost about 600 words’ worth of my life. They were words I liked a lot. L has done this before, this relentless reduction so as to slide in under a word limit. She’s done it with stories about other characters and even with stories about herself, and she tells me it’s a salutary exercise in getting at the essentials. Salutary. Tearing a rotator cuff, there’s another thing that might be salutary, but I wouldn’t choose to do it.

We were engaged in a classic battle between author and character: I wanted all of me on the page; she called me self-indulgent and kept on slicing parts of me away. I got myself worked into a state, watching her do this. Don’t take that out! No, not that, I like that.

Hush, she said. I’m not taking it out of the novel for real, I’m just taking it out of this piece I’m sending to CBC. You can have some of it back later.

But now she’s reconsidering her promise. Now she’s saying this merciless approach makes for pretty lean and muscular prose. Now she’s threatening to go through the whole manuscript with a similar approach. She’s proposing a 25 percent reduction!

I can’t be expected to stand by and watch as so much of what I say and think and do falls into the trash. If she feels she has to take a stand-alone part of my life and call it a story and reduce it to essentials, fine, but that’s a short story. I don’t live in a short story. I live in a novel.

Mentioned in this post: Leona Theis, CBC Short Story Prize, Killing your darlings

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Adventures in Kindling

We built small blazes at first. Built them for the smell of fire nibbling at straw, for the thrill of the sudden flare. And for the drama of the miniature world we imagined down in the grass, burning up. The fires were tragic for the tiny people who lived there. Now they must run from their minute homes and travel for a day to set up camp four feet away in a fresh forest of unscorched grass.

CoverforpromoThat’s the opening to the first story I ever featured in as a fictional character. It’s the beginning of “Powers of Sight,” the story that opens Sightlines, the first book my author L published, back in 2000. Long before I became the protagonist of her current novel in progress, I was narrator of the first and last stories in Sightlines. Taken together, the thirteen stories in the book make a portrait of the fictional town of Flat Hill, where I grew up. (Not to be confused with Bredenbury, where L grew up.) After a good twelve-year run, the traditional, paper edition is out of print. I’m proud and happy to say, though, that Flat Hill lives on as an ebook. You can read it on your Kindle, you can read it on your iPad or your Mac or your PC. You can “look inside the book” to read the remainder of that first story at Amazon.com (the “look inside” feature doesn’t seem to be turned on at Amazon.ca).  L didn’t have the rights to use the original cover art, lovely as it was, and so she designed a new cover, which was fun, she says, but took her many, many hours. Many, many, many. So we sure hope you like it. She began with a detail of a photo her cousin took at a family reunion in the fifties. That elbow you see is the elbow of L’s Dad.

In earlier drafts, “Powers of Sight” did not begin with the paragraph you see at the top of this post. It began with something else, something necessary to the story but not quite so engaging. The astute Elizabeth Harvor was writer in residence at Saskatoon Public Library at one stage in the development of Sightlines, and she read a draft of the opening story – neither she nor L knew at that time that it would be the opening story – to give L some editing suggestions. Her main suggestion went something like this: You’ve buried your beginning a third of the way in. And she circled that paragraph, on page three I think it was, and she set it in front of L and she said, “This is where the story begins.” I was a little shaken up. It was the first time I’d been edited by a pro. Elizabeth was right, though, and I’m glad my author listened.

Sightlines was originally published by Coteau Books. It will appear in other ebook formats – Sony, Kobo etc. – in  spring 2013.)

Expert photographer Margaret Phillips, helped L prepare the cover photo, removing  a utility pole that appeared in the original. The original photograph was taken by Leonard Anderson. It’s L’s favourite picture of her dad. Here it is:

Leona Theis Father pic

“Leona Theis writes of the accidents of small rebellion, courage and kindness that have the power to change who we are. With a spareness, clarity and elegance of style, Leona Theis knows what wants to be large and small. Like the name of the town, Flat Hill, these stories are a study of opposites, mature and intelligent observations that show us ourselves, and our own points of departure.” 

—  Sandra Birdsell, author of The Russlander, Waiting for Joe, and other wonderful works

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Overheard in cafes

I don’t want you to be unduly nervous if, next time you’re sitting in a café having a nice conversation with friends, you see my author L at a nearby table, working. As I said, I don’t want you to be unduly nervous, but there’s something you should know about her: She writes things down. Once in a while – not all that often, but occasionally – she’ll hear a conversational fragment so irresistible she’s compelled to jot it in her notebook.

Bucket o BricksFor example, one day she’s sitting at an outdoor café enjoying a cappuccino, and a discussion about weightlifting starts up at the next table. This guy is telling his friends he’s got a new body-building regime. “You take a bucket,” he says. “First day, you put two bricks in the bucket. You put that bucket on the floor in front of you, and you tense your core muscles, and you lean down and grab the handle of that bucket, and you lift. Bucket o′ Bricks, I call it. You do, say, ten reps, and you do, say, four sets.”

“Yeah?”

“That’s right. Couple days later,” he says, “you put three bricks in that bucket, you do the same. Bucket o′ Bricks.”

Then there was the guy who had practical tips for sleeping in the cemetery. This was another day, another café. What made L prick up her ears was that she heard a man’s voice say, “The thing you need to remember, if you’re going to sleep in the cemetery….”

Now, just about anyone who heard those words would stop what they were doing and listen for the rest of the thought, but a writer will pay special attention. Here’s what L transcribed into her notebook: “The thing you need to remember, if you’re going to sleep in the cemetery, is to make sure you’ve checked which way you’re facing before you lie down. If you’re not paying attention, and you fall asleep facing east, you could have the sun in your eyes by five in the morning.” This gem has found its way into the novel L is  writing about me. I hope I can keep it, but given the way she’s editing these days – cutting paragraphs, cutting episodes in their entirety – I wouldn’t be surprised if this bit of advice for roughing it in the graveyard disappears. If it does, I’m sure it’ll find a home eventually in some other character’s story.

Mentioned in this post: weightlifting

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