Monday, July 30, 2007

Laughter Reviews, #1

There are a 1001 places on the web dedicated to comments on books and movies. The Apprentice Writer figures that number is probably adequate.

To offer something a little bit different, Apprentice Writer will attempt to look specifically at whether material is funny.

A huge undertaking, you say? Indubitably.

Showing an inflated opinion of one's comedic authority, you say?

Well, yes. Isn't the entire premise of the blogosphere that one's opinions are so valuable that they cannot be withheld from the general and defenceless public?

Impossible, you say, due to the extremely subjective nature of what is laugh-worthy and what isn't?

Yes and no. It is true that everyone's perspective on funny is to some degree unique. But it's also true that people generally gravitate towards reviewers with whose opinions they tend , for the most part, to agree. The Apprentice Writer, for example, likes to check out the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books site, and the Toronto Star's movie critics' summaries. Not because she agrees with them all the time (far from it) - but because she agrees often enough that if they very strongly like or dislike something, she will take note. Plus, they are often amusing.

So here we go. First edition of the laughter reviews, coming up. Be forewarned: Apprentice Writer is hard to please. For movies or books to be listed as "Keepers" is the bookshelf /DVD case equivalent of a blue moon.

SLEEPING WITH THE FISHES by Mary Janice Davidson

Non-stereotypical mermaid investigates aquatic mystery while fending off admirers.

What works:
Fred is an utterly original heroine, engaging the reader despite her near-perpetual crankiness, and an opening scene meant to play hilariously off every child's most squirmingly embarrassing encounter and which instead is just clumsy. The two males who pursue her are both compelling enough to make the question of whom she will choose interesting. Also, good title.

What doesn't:
The writing isn't especially elegant or skillful. Given Fred's straight-forward, ultra non-girly persona and the concentrated aggravation that comes her way, a certain amount of angry cursing makes sense. But the amount of feces that gets flung about in this text, as a plotpoint, exclamation, process, adjective, etc. etc. is so over the top that it lifted AW right out of the story and into high-school lectures about Freud and the perils of excessive toilet-training.

A secondary character who has loved one of Fred's colleagues from afar for six years chooses to start wooing her by insulting her ex in extremely unoriginal, crude terms. Really? This was his idea of the best way to attract a reserved, PhD educated woman? It made so little sense that it took away from the commendable younger man/older woman romance concept.

In other places, eye color is described as 'liquid emeralds' and hair color as 'crushed rubies'. AW is all for playing with words and poetic licence. But this made her stop reading to contemplate when anyone, ever, would have had an opportunity to see gemstones in such condition, and if they did: wouldn't it just bring green Koolaid and aquarium gravel to mind? (On second thought, maybe the latter makes sense.)

In the 'glaring absence' department - one of the most intriguing scenes is at the beginning when Fred swims in the main tank of the New England Aquarium, partly to feed the creatures and partly to gather information. She does so by telepathy with the marine animals, who are said to be on a hunger strike and communicate in a fascinating, clipped, one-track-minded kind of way. Why they are striking, why they like certain music, why they keep talking about pounding were all things that seemed to hint at the mystery subplot to come - yet no follow-up scene to pursue these points ever came up. Neither did any aquatic animals play a role during Fred's forays out into the open bay. This failure to work the animals more into the story (what do they think of merpeople? Captivity? The co-swimmers who want to eat them and the ones they want to eat?) was a huge disappointment.

This novel signalled too strongly that it was first in a series, not only with dangling plot threads (which could be forgiven) but what felt like a rushed ending (the mystery, its solution, and villain depiction especially are thin to the point of anorexia) and neglect of what makes the ocean fascinating - it's creatures (which could not). This is a shame, given the strong wish for the novel to be satisfying which the reader initially develops on the strength of Fred's unusual heroine qualities. In the foreword, the author describes in some detail about writing obstacles which pushed back the original publication timeline. Although it was a nice touch that this was wrapped in a salute to her agent, AW suspects the author did herself no favours by pointing out how pressed for time and preoccupied she was during the book's birth.

But does it make you laugh? YES

Not as much as the author intended, perhaps, but Fred is definitely worth a look regardless of the novel's other weaknesses. To list comic examples would stray too close to spoiler territory - so just take it on faith: Fred is one funny fishgirl. Let's hope her further adventures don't just show whether she gets her man, but whether she gets her dolphin, clam, octopus, guppy....

New Word Dares

It's Monday - time to showcase some new words for your creative pleasure. This week we have two candidates:

1. FLUGAH: noun - the feeling when one first sits down after being run off one's arse for many a day.
Wordsmith: Amy Ruttan (learn about Amy's new book release at her site)

I'll let Amy provide an example of application in the comments, if she likes.

2. DARK-THIRTY: noun - half an hour after sunset
Wordsmith: unknown Source:

Here's my stab at it: "Ella felt it was very daring of her to stay out till dark-thirty to watch the fireworks, given how often her mother invoked the urban legend of children who mistook rocks for balls in the twilight and broke their feet."

Thursday, July 26, 2007


How do people decide what to start collecting?

I suppose it's a mix of things that appeal and things that one can afford - financially, space-wise, and in terms of acceptance by anyone the person happens to live with.

China with hard-to-find patterns and teapots with impossible-to-pour-from shapes seem to be desired by many, according to ebay. Others scour garage sales for antique potato mashers or yard-long wooden measuring sticks (I kid you not). Just to make things confusing, both movie heros and movie villains lust for sports cars. Chick-lit authors risk arrest by the genre police if their heroines don't collect shoes, hopeless boyfriends, and odious bosses. Hollywood starlets prefer small, mobility-impaired dogs who have to be carried everywhere. Bookworms hold ferocious debates about the reads they most *heart*, evah.


In an ideal world, I could indulge my fondness for large abstract art, with a climate-controlled room holding all the extra canvasses in between tri-annual painting rotations on the perfectly spot-lit walls.

Sadly, my real life art collection never got properly off the ground because it failed the affordability and space tests. The house-sharer test, also, due to my junior apprentice writers' opinions that their Lego / Harry Potter / Thomas Train collections take precedence.

Happily, I turned to the ideal collectible for apprentice writers:


Think about it:
1. They're free.
2. They don't need to be dusted, pooper-scooped, or have their oil changed.
3. They don't break during shipping or impromptu frisbee games.
4. They take no space in the garage.
5. They are biodegradable and can be endlessly recycled.
And most important,
6. They are great for placing at the beginning of novel chapters, to give a hint about story to come, and to avoid the pesky mental effort involved in coming up with catchy chapter titles.

Out of a sense of duty to share my collection with others rather than keeping it selfishly under lock and key ("The Thomas Crown Affair", anyone?), I will use this space to display some of my favorites. To kick thngs off, a pair from Woody Allen that have special meaning for authors:

"I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying."

"Eighty percent of success is showing up."

In other words - go ahead and send that sample of your work in, already! The worst that can happen is indifference. The best that can happen is that you turn into Woody Allen.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Word Dares

I am a word geek.

It delights me to encounter unknown ones, try to figure out root meanings, dabble in different ways of applying regular ones. J.K.Rowling is brilliant at this kind of tweaking; who didn't immediately understand evocative terms like Dementor (demented + tormentor + demon), Pensieve (a sieve for one's thoughts when one had too many in one's brain [pensive=thoughtful]), or Kreecher (creature + creep + screach [the sneaky, ill-tempered house elf ]), to name but a few.

I'm especially fascinated by how completely new words are born. To me, this is the beauty of language; it is not a static or dead, but a dynamic, ever-growing organism. The ultimate successful evolutionary species, one could say, perfectly capable of adapting to changing circumstances to stay alive.

Also, it's democratic. Anyone can invent a new word and toss it into the public vocabulary pool. Whether it will sink or swim into general usage depends on many things, not least of which is exposure. Who first invented the word groovy? Bombastic? Fog? I don't know, but they captured the imagination of enough people to stand the test of time.

I think part of the role of writers is not just to use established words well, but to demonstrate how to play with them, and, yes, be bold in creating new ones. It can be our equivalent of artists who develop another style of painting, musicians who play a new sound, dancers who work out a different form of expressive movement.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying writers shouldn't take the time to learn about traditional writing vocabulary. I just think that there should be room for both - the well-known and also the avant garde.

My fellow writers - in the spirit of public service, let's be adventurous! Let's build new words and include cool creations of others in our work, without fear that our readers won't understand. Readers are smart. Chances are, they'll not only understand but enjoy a little something different. (Note: 'a little something'. Small doses are probably best.)

In a salute to the genius of word inventors everywhere,

I'm going to promote new word survival by regularly highlighting an example here,

and daring my gentle readers to share how they might use it in a sentence - even better, if it showcases the genre in which they write.

I'll kick things off with:

noun- the coattail, dress hem, or seat belt that hangs out the door of moving vehicles
(Wordsmith: Mallory Burton
Source: 'Wanted Words: Language Gaps Found and Fixed', Jane Farrow (Ed.)

And here's my contribution:
"Ella felt calm and confident in her choice of party-wear, oblivious to the fact that her undercarment was destined to drip slush equally on the venue floor and her reputation as a fashionista."

Go ahead. Thrill me with your contributions.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

When Good Author Habits Turn Bad

GOOD: Sitting down at the computer every single day.
BAD: Using that computer time to surf the net instead of continuing manuscript.

GOOD: Seeking out peers who are working towards the same goal.
BAD: Chatting with those peers about everything other than writing.

GOOD: Collecting reference works to polish manuscript.
BAD: Using reading time to devour paperback novels while reference works grow dusty.

GOOD: Submitting work to critique partners for fresh insights.
BAD: Spending double the time it took to write the excerpt trying to
convince critique partners why their constructive criticism comments are incorrect.

GOOD: Submitting work to writing contests.
BAD: Feeling 100% vindicated or 100% persecuted by comments of individual judges, rather than seeing them as small elements in a larger picture.

GOOD: Attending regular real-time writing group meetings.
BAD: Focusing more on windowshopping/snack consumption after the meeeting rather than on speaker content during.

GOOD: Creating a landing pad in the blogosphere to promote writing work.
BAD: Being surprised that an eon has passed by in the time one has spent 'researching' other blogs.

GOOD: Subscribing to a newspaper so as to increase chances of igniting one's muse.
BAD: Solving the sudoku puzzle and then placing paper in recycling box.

GOOD: Having the goal to attend a writers convention once work is ready to be pitched.
BAD: Spending the same amount of time studying recommendations about convention footwear as recommendations about how to pitch.

The Gentle Reader will have gathered that Apprentice Writer is guilty of all these bad habits and more. Apprentice Writer very much hopes that insight is the first step towards correction....

Monday, July 16, 2007

How it all Began, III

There I was, a year into my new adventure. I had one story with a beginning and one with a beginning and an end but no middle.

How to avoid the author's dreaded sagging middle?
Have no middle at all!)

Now what?

I met Lani Diane Rich on the message boards at the NaNoWriMo site (see: previous post), the poster child for dreamy pre-published writers. She participated in the month-long novel writing extravaganza one year, wrote the first draft of her first novel


pitched it to an agent, and promptly received a book contract. She now enjoys a flourishing full-time writing career and multi-layered online presence.

When I asked for her single most effective piece of advice, she recommended joining a writing group. Figuring she knew what she was talking about, I attended a monthly meeting of the Toronto Romance Writers - even though I don't write romance.

To those who are tempted to pooh-pooh this genre, let me say: You think it's easy to write and be published in romance? Try it sometime. Your respect for such authors will rise astronomically, even if heaving bosoms and flexing biceps (or was that flexing bosoms and heaving biceps?) aren't your thing.

The writers in the Toronto group, both women and men, are a lively, witty, intelligent bunch, and the meetings a wealth of publishing industry information. A budding writer of any type could do worse than pay attention to the multi-published, New York Times bestseller list-making authors who generously spend time sharing their experiences.

So I did.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

How it all Began, II

There I was, with an entertaining concept that morphed into a couple of scenes. And so it remained for a long time. Turns out I'm no Sylvester Stallone, who famously wrote his Oscar-winning storyline for 'Rocky' in a matter of days, nor Mary Balogh, who even more famously wrote out a chapter per night at her kitchen table after daily chores were done (in pencil! in longhand! - ok, I'm not 100% certain of the last two bits, but they make the story sound better), sent the finished product to the first publisher she found in the phone book, and was promptly offered a contract.

It took me the better part of a year to commit to systematically pursuing the story till it was done. Having figured out that it would take forever for me to finish on my own, I started surfing the web for help. Among all the questionable sites on the web designed to lure starry-eyed neophyte writers, I found a gem:

National Novel Writing Month takes place every November, with thousands of participants determined to write 50,000 words from scratch. So with an unfinished novel languishing in my harddrive, I of course did the logical thing and started another.

Cupid and a Suitcase was born.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

How it all Began

When someone asks me why I write, the short answer is "Because I can't paint, sing, dance, or play an instrument."

The long answer is "Because different elements collided at the right moment in time."

Element 1: Two years ago, I was staring a significant birthday in the face, foreseeing the very real risk of turning into one of those women who spend their time nagging their grown children about how seldom they call if I didn' t develop some un-child-related interests of my own, pronto.

Element 2: I always got the best feedback about those parts of school, and later, work, that involved writing. I am a word geek, tend to remember how to spell things, and collect funny quotes. Some readers might think this would naturally have inspired me to want to write on my own. They would be wrong. Didn't occur to me for a long time.

Element 3: I've been a voracious reader since I forced my mom to teach me before Grade 1 because she wouldn't read to me as often as I liked. Despite (or, because of) the volume of reading material I go through I'm quite hard to please. It's rare that I'll be completely convinced by a book, and even more rare that I'll feel strongly enough torecommend one to others.

Element 4: After more than a decade of listening to my repeated rant, "This book is terrible. I could do better", my husband astonished me by calling my bluff.

Element 5: We tend to watch a lot of HGTV (for the uninitiated - Home & Garden Television), HGTV being a fairly safe channel when underage eyes and ears are present (unless the British chefs are on the loose, but that's a whole other story). One night, I dreamt I was on one of those D.I.Y. home improvement shows, and the designer, inexplicably, was Vin Diesel (again, for the uninitiated - all you need to know about this actor is contained in his last name) .
I don't even like Vin Diesel (as an actor - I'm sure that as a person, Mr. Diesel is lovely). Yet somehow, from that nocturnal image, the seed for Cupid and a Toolbelt was born. And the rest, as they say, is history - or will be, once the manuscript is finally done!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Ready, Set, Go!

Learning that society has reached the stage where family pets have their own websites, I have decided that it really won't do for Fifi, Tweetee, et al. to generate more literary output than I. So I bowed to the pressure to join the new millenium - and created a blog.

Here it is - my virgin post.

What do I hope to accomplish in this online space?

Keeping a record, of sorts, of my path on the road to being a self-directed writer (as opposed to writing for other people who dictate the content but don't trust their own language/grammar skills. )

Spinning a web of like-minded friends and contacts.

Polishing craft.

And giving myself a kick in the pants in the form of dates to prove how time marches on when I indulge in my well-developed skill of procrastination. In other words, learning the ABC's (Apply Butt to Chair) all over again......

So: Tomorrow, the grim task of taking a good, hard look at the path taken so far.