Fictional Emotions

A friend of mine was surprised to read my last enty, in which I confessed to being deeply moved by a song about a lost cat. She has known me for years and never seen me cry. That’s because I don’t cry, except at the odd movie or song. Don’t get me wrong: I like to cry. It’s relaxing and good for the eyes. But tears either come or they don’t, and at this point in my fortunate life, they just don’t. My friend asked, “If you can’t cry about your life, how can you cry about a fictional cat’s life?”

For that, I have three answers. First, my life is a lot happier than that lost cat’s. Second, there are reasons to pull myself together to face life’s challenges, but there’s nothing I can do for fictional characters, so I might as well fall to pieces over their fate. And third, it’s not the cat I cried over, it’s the story and the sorrow-filled universe the story is played out in. It’s  every sad feeling everyone ever felt.  

But still, that’s not enough to explain it. Why would I cry over a fictional lost cat and not cry over real cats subjected to fates worse than death? Why would I cry over a tragic love story in a movie and not cry over a friend’s divorce?

I’d like to learn more about the connections between fiction and emotion in our strange species. 

Take love in its infinite variety of fictions. How can you feel intimately connected to a character in a book? Who hasn’t felt love for a character in a movie? Some people feel a stronger love for celebrities than for the real people in their lives, but even the most grounded of us fall in love with fictions. Think of that first encounter when you hit it off with someone.  Aren’t the emotions awfully sharp then, when love is mostly fictional?

Think of hatred, the kind that entire groups of people feel for other groups. You can’t get that kind of hatred without a good dose of fiction, can you? Fear, too. The stories we tell ourselves about what might happen feed our fears. For all I know, there aren`t any emotions that don`t have a story at their source.

I`m not a believer in catharsis. Anger builds anger, fear builds fear, and hatred builds hatred, just as love builds love and joy builds joy. You can’t release your fear by wallowing in it. Ask any hypochondriac. Venting anger just makes me angrier. And laughing makes me happy. I don’t watch a comedy and laugh with friends, then go home feeling sad, having vented all my joy. Emotions snowball. (That’s how the fictional lost cat got to me.)

I’m glad that my first children’s novel is full of humor, despite its dead mother and breaking hearts. Humour in the face of sorrow and adversity is something I’d like to snowball among 12-year-olds. Come to think of it, I’d like a little more of it in my own life. So should I stop listening to sad songs and reread my book? Nah. But I might listen to the Gypsy Kings for a while and see what happens.

Words and Music

I wrote Walking Backward  to the Weakerthans. Something opened in my heart while listening to their song, “Virtue the Cat Explains her Disappearance.” I have no idea why, but something in the song connected to my story in a way I don’t understand. (The song is about a lost cat, which doesn’t factor into my dead-mother novel.) If I wanted sad from the Weakerthans, surely Hospital Vespers would have better done the trick? No. That damned lost cat song just about killed me.

When I was in the drafting stage (which is short-lived, thankfully, since I rarely bathe and barely eat during that stage), I’d put my kids on the schoolbus and head straight to the computer. I’d write until lunch, ignoring the phone, email, and the 5-year report I was contracted to write at the time. Then I’d force a bowl of cereal down my throat while listening to Virtue the cat tell her sad story. I’d ball my eyes out and head back to the computer to write until the schoolbus arrived at 3:00. 

As I shifted from intense drafting to revising (a significantly longer stage, in which I maintain good hygiene and get my weight back up), I expanded my lunchtime listening to several of the Weakerthans’ albums (Reunion Tour, Reconstruction Site, Left and Leaving). I’d grown superstitious: the writing was going so well I didn’t want to mess with the soundtrack. 

Eventually, as revising turned to editing and polishing, I added the Walkmen to my playlist, then a couple tunes from the Wallflowers and the Weepies, until finally I ventured beyond the Ws and the book was done.

That was over a year ago and it’s still a mystery to me how the music inspired my words. I’ve thought of sending the Weakerthans a copy of Walking Backward with my thanks, but I can’t explain how or why the book  connects to them. “Your cat song made me cry and I wrote this book,” is just too weird. I’ll keep it to myself and the three people who might read this blog.

Today I’m putting together a mixed CD to play in the background of my book launch party. I’ll include a Weakerthans tune, but not Virtue the Cat. It’s not that I’m sick of it. It’s that the last line still kills me.

Walking into Ideas

Pooh Bear was onto something when he went on his think-walks.

It never fails: no matter what mood I’m in, no matter how tired or headachy, no matter how preoccupied with other concerns, taking my dog for a good long walk always clears my mind and gets me thinking of writing. It takes about fifteen minutes for a peaceful feeling to creep through me. Then follows a spark of excitement that leads my mind where it needs to go.

It doesn’t matter if we walk on the streets or in the woods. There’s just something about fresh air and movement that opens my mind to stories. Some days I work out a problem or plotline in a novel, while other days I get the premise for a new picture book. There are times I have to run to the computer when I get back home, to write down the exact words I wrote in my head between stooping and scooping. 

So when I’m stuck in my writing, or in a self-defeating mood, do I purposefully head out with the dog? No. I wallow and grow more frustrated and only eventually walk the dog because it’s on my list of chores. Then my head clears and I think, “Wow. This happens every time I walk the dog.” Duh. Life may teach me the same lessons over and over, but I never seem to learn them.

But I have learnt the “write it down right away” lesson. (At last.) I can’t count how many times I’ve had an idea for a story, while in some inconvenient place, and thought, “I’ll never forget that idea. I’ll write it down tomorrow when I work on my book. It’ll be great.” Then the next day all I have to write is, “I had a great idea yesterday but I’ve forgotten it.” I now keep a writing journal, where I jot down ideas as soon as I’m able. And I carry a notebook in my purse just in case I’m inspired at the playground or wherever I happen to be. 

Ideas are not usually the problem, though. As most writers know, life offers up ideas all the time. I have dozens of folders of ideas sparked while reading, listening, watching. Expanding those ideas into stories (aka daydreaming) and sitting in a chair for hours and hours writing and revising them — that’s the tough part. (Of course, it’s easier if the idea is a really good one.)

Working out a good idea into a full-bloomed story that’s ready to be written is where the think-walk comes in. 

Maybe I could use one now. My dog looks like she agrees. So off we go.

Book Release

My first book, Walking Backward, is being released today from Orca Book Publishers. This is a good day for me.

Not that I know what to do about it, promotions-wise. I feel like there’s a world of networking possibilities out there beyond me. (Many thanks to Terry Lynn Johnson, whom I met at an Agents Day conference hosted by SCBWI Canada, for pointing me in the right direction.)

I have arranged a book launch for November 1st. I told most of my friends and colleagues about the book. I’m in touch with the (tiny) local bookstore, and I contacted the (tiny) local newspaper. But I have to admit that networking is not my thing. I will do my best to get the hang of it, but I suspect that it’s never going to be my thing.

So… I’m going to have a great day without even thinking about book promotion.  Instead, I’m thinking about something a friend said to me this summer. When Orca first sent me their catalogue for Fall 2009, listing my book, I took a copy to my night class (in child development–though my kids are 14 and 7, it’s never too late to learn what I’ve done wrong). I showed the catalogue to two dear classmates, Coral and Mary Ann. They were so excited for me! (I hadn’t before mentioned that I was a writer. Again, it’s the suck-at-networking part of my personality.) 

Mary Ann’s eyes were so alight! She told me that she has always loved the written word and she would like to write books, too. Coral smiled and told me that when she was a girl she wanted to be a writer. (This happens all the time, people confessing to a desire to write. It’s a testament to the power of books. Every person who wants to write has been deeply moved by someone else’s writing.) Coral said, “There are so many obstacles in life, you really have to celebrate an achievement like this.” Those words have stuck with me, and they’re what I’m thinking about today instead of promotions.

There are so many obstacles to stop you from writing or finishing a book. Self-doubt, lack of free time, the pull of easier pleasures. It is so easy to spend years and years doing something other than writing. Not that writing is a better thing to do than, say, exercising, cooking dinner, walking the dog, helping the kids with homework, having a conversation with your spouse. Writing a book isn’t any more important than running a business or paying a mortgage or raising a family or exploring the world.

But if you really want to write, if you really have something to say that won’t let you rest until it’s on paper or screen, then you have to get over or around an awful lot of obstacles and take the time, every day or every week or whenever you can, to finish saying it. Then to revise and rewrite it for a reader instead of just for yourself. Then to market it–overcoming rejection, criticism, and absolute indifference–until you find an editor who falls in love with your story. Lots of obstacles. And a real achievement to celebrate.

So today I am celebrating. It’s my day to volunteer in the library of the local elementary school, and that’s an activity I love. Of course, I like helping the kids and talking to them about their book choices. But I also love shelving books and cataloguing new books and repairing books. It’s tedious and dusty and dull, but I genuinely enjoy it. Just being around children’s books is fun. I should have been a librarian. (But that might take the fun out of it.)

Then tonight, I’ll have take-out and wine with my family, help the kids with homework, walk the dog, and take the time to write.

Cliff Hangers and Letting Go

Last night I cuddled up with my 7-year-old and read a few chapters from the Deltora Shadowlands series by Emily Rodda. It’s our habit to read three chapters a night. With Rodda’s books, storytime usually ends with a cliffhanger and a whining plea for more (which I never give in to unless I’m dying to know what happens next). Last night my son pleaded, “But I can’t survive without hearing the next chapter!” Wow. That’s some compliment to Emily Rodda.

My 14-year-old son adored her books in his younger days, too. While I’m reading them to his brother, I sometimes catch him hovering nearby. In part, he’s nostalgiac, but in part he’s still genuinely interested in the tales. He no longer reads much fantasy (it’s not my preferred genre either), but it’s hard to close the cover on a likeable hero facing a hideous beast with near-impossible odds of surviving, especially when a kingdom’s fate rests on the outcome.

I love rediscovering favourite or forgotten children’s books that I once read with my oldest son. I’m lucky to have the pleasure of reading them all over again, seven years later. Sure, I could read them anytime, but reading out loud to your child is a whole different experience than reading on your own. Many books I’d never consider reading for my own pleasure are great with kids who love them.

The first time I read Captain Underpants (to my younger son), we read the whole novel in one evening, giggling in bed. When I closed the cover, he smiled and said, “That was awesome,” with a faraway look in his eyes, like he’d just experienced something amazing. And he had–he’d never thought a book could be like that.

My oldest son missed that series. But he did catch Harry Potter, Cirque du Freak, and a zillion other books I might never have read if it weren’t for storytime with him. Even now, we’ll sometimes read the same book (Feed, Probably Still Nick Swanson, America), although we don’t read it out loud together.

Recently my younger son has lost interest in picture books. He’s happy to have one in the afternoon, but at bedtime he wants a novel. And not an early reader, which he likes to read on his own. That means I don’t get to read Frog and Toad out loud to anyone anymore. But I get to hear them read aloud to me, and that’s a welcome sound.

Everything changes, so they say. No use clinging to the past, or hurrying the future. I miss reading picture books at storytime. And I miss reading to my oldest son. But I can’t complain. Because tonight I get to read three more chapters of Deltora to a captive audience. (Or maybe four, if he can’t survive without knowing how it ends.)

Self-searching online

When a friend told me that she pre-ordered my novel, Walking Backward, from Amazon.ca, I got all excited to think that was even possible. I visited the site, found my book ranked 135,629th, and felt happy to be there at all.

On a whim, I plugged my name into the various search engines to see what came up…

What came up was Jane. Jane Austen herself, Jane’s neice Catherine Hubback (a writer of ten novels, none of which I’ve read), Jane’s character Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice, and Jane’s character Catherine in Northanger Abbey (“in which Catherine is twice plagued by terribly tragic timing.”)  I have always felt pleased to have the same last name as Jane, but honestly, how many pages of her listings can a person take? 

The search was not entirely fruitless, though. I learned of a new book: Pride and Prejudice and zombies: the classic Regency romance–now with ultraviolent zombie mayhem, by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith. (I do not think Jane was aware of the cooperative effort.) I put that one on hold at the local library. There’s a long waiting list — it was a best-seller — but I’m sure it’s worth it.

Searching my name on Bing introduced me to the work of an Argentinian photographer on Flickr. He is a man, possibly named Frederico, who for some reason streams his portraits under the same name as mine. The search also uncovered my first blog entry, which states,”I’m totally confused.” That’s the only bit of the real me out in cyberspace.

My name search on Google had better luck. Peppered among the gazillion Jane Austen listings was evidence of my book, listed at several bookstores and Orca Book Publishers. This search introduced me to a Londoner who shares my name and has a Facebook page featuring herself on horseback, and a mover and shaker named Catherine Austin Fitts who has many listings under her second-rate spelling. Again, the only listing of the real me was the “totally confused” bit. (More applicable now than ever.)

My name search on Yahoo called up more than my total confusion. It listed CM Magazine‘s review of Walking Backward and, surprisingly, several reports on draft bills for Canadian endangered species legislation, which I wrote back in the 1990s when I was immersed in that field of work. That was a fun trip down memory lane. (Unfortunately it didn’t bring back my former knowledge of HTML coding so that I can make a decent website that’ll actually appear when I search for myself.)

A search for Walking Backward brought up even less of the real me. But I discovered that walking backward sharpens the thought process, according to a Dutch study. When in doubt about what to do, backing away slowly seems to be the best course of action.

This morning my book ranks 139,650th on the Amazon site. Somehow 4,000 books have rushed ahead of mine in sales in just 12 hours! (Possibly because mine is not actually released yet, but I suspect other reasons, too.) 

Online self-searching is starting to bring me down. I have to put myself out there more. I should register my website with search engines and beg friends to shop online. I’ll get out books on web design — right after I read the zombie novel — and make a website everyone will want to visit.

Or maybe I should just take a step back, then go write another good book.

Being Read by Total Strangers

I stumbled onto my first book review a week ago (in CM Magazine). What a strangely thrilling experience. It’s what prompted me to start a blog and web page (http://www.catherineausten.com/ — built from a template and about as gripping as this blog). It is just slightly possible that a total stranger might like my book and want to know more about my writing.

Right now, strangers do know more than friends about my first children’s novel, Walking Backward (to be released next month by Orca Book Publishers). My teenage son proofread the manuscript before I sent it to the publishing house. He is so far the only person I know personally who has read it. (My writing group heard the first chapter only; I usually bring picture book texts to our monthly meetings.) 

I don’t share much unpublished work outside my writing group, and what I do share doesn’t get far beyond my husband and children. It’s not that I don’t feel supported by my friends and family — I do. They pick me up when I’m down. They tell me wonderful things about myself. And they always say it’s great that I’m writing. But they usually have no idea what exactly I am writing about. I don’t ask them to read 40,000-word manuscripts, or even 400-word manuscripts. Maybe that’s why they’re so supportive of me.

Many of my acquaintances don’t even know that I write fiction. This has made it awkward to build a guest list for my upcoming launch party. I’ve been approaching people I’ve known for years with a hesitant, “Um, so, I wrote this book….” They are always surprised to hear it, and they are without exception supportive. (Having a book published is undeniably cool. Sadly, so different from having a book unpublished.)

The best thing about friends, relations, and acquaintances reading a book only after it’s published is that it’s too late for their advice, and we both know it. Loved it? I’m so pleased. Hated it? Might as well keep it to yourself. Friends don’t have to drum up constructive criticism and I don’t have to pretend their suggestions help me with my craft. I like that give and take with writers and editors (or at least I like it after my hurt feelings subside and I think clearly about their suggestions) but friends don’t need that burden. Friends just need me to sign their copy with something heartfelt. 

Fortunately, my first book review was awesome. It was thorough and praising, and ended with those beautiful words, “Highly recommended.” 

So now that I’ve had that experience, I’m not going to read any more.

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