Archives for category: Literature

How to choose books for your unique avatar

What would  you choose if you wanted to take a picture of  a few of your favorite books, not more than seven inches wide when stood together? The names of two websites I like,  ‘Books ‘R Us’ and ‘Books Tell Us Why’, gave me the seeds of this idea for a new avatar. It would be right for the task, less random and superficial than a mug shot.

My books are shelved up- and down-stairs all over the house so it was a good exercise. Digital,  thumbed-over, dog-eared, faded, curled, moldy, soiled, frayed, ripped, incomplete, taped, sagging, spineless specimens wouldn’t do. I needed color and titles that would be attractive. What photogenic line-up could be readily assembled ?

After I’d made my choices and taken the shot, there seemed to be some categories and sense to it all. If you want to show who you are  by presenting a few books, for an avatar or any other reason, here are my tips. You have to love them because they are all of these things:

  • Useful: An indispensable reference book for your favorite passion or hobby
  • Fun: An entertaining, exciting novel or fantasy book that carries you away to another world
  • Shocking: A nonfiction exposé that stimulates your curiosity and thirst to get at the truth about what really happened
  • For the mind and soul: A book that is a mentor and idol to give you an intellectual boost and spiritual understanding
  • For social identity: A biographical history of a person or group  who align with your  own career path, background and type of  companions
  • From your family: A history or autobiography written by you or a relative

My books in the photo above are, from left to right:

  1. A collection of recipes which reflect my childhood and perpetual delight in good food, especially when cooked by loving people and served at communal events like harvest suppers, strawberry socials and silver teas. Someone suggested to me that ‘Who Cooked the Last Supper?’ might have been a better title than ‘Eating at Church.’
  2. The Black Tulip by Alexander Dumas. Hundreds of others would have done but only this one had a red cover, gold lettering and the sentimental value of having been a gift from my son when he was a boy.
  3. The Pagan Christ. As a willful (but good) minister’s daughter, I was always interested in the pagan customs and natural images unsuccessfully squelched but peculiarly integrated into Christianity.
  4.  Northrop Frye Myth and Metaphor: Selected Essays 1974-88. My class notes of his lectures are included in those now appearing online for public access at http://www.fryeblog.blog.lib.mcmaster.ca/, Robert D. Denham library collection.
  5. Sweet Sixteen, the story of the 16 irrepressible woman journalists who formed the first Canadian Women’s Press Club while on a privileged train trip to the St. Louis World Fair in 1904. I  belong to their renamed club.
  6. A Book of Kells: Growing Up in an Ego Void (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00440DQNA), the 20th century family memoir I wrote about my parents and me.

Are you books? What favorites would win your book contest? We love to get comments and browsers so please make yourself at home!

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A fellow Scot will steal the limelight from Donald Trump on Jan. 25. Celebrations of the 259th birthday of beloved poet Robert Burns are set to take place worldwide. His Rights of Woman supported the first suffragettes. Abraham Lincoln, Bob Dylan and Michael Jackson were fans. Burns is extremely popular in China; his work resembles their traditional poetry. To A Mouse (below) and Auld Lang Syne are two of his most popular creations. 

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Piping in the Haggis on Burns Night                                                  BBC.CO.UK

To A Mouse
(Whilst ploughing on a November day, Burns ruined the nest of a field mouse. He ponders why the creature runs away in such terror)

Oh, tiny timorous forlorn beast,
Oh why the panic in your breast ?
You need not dart away in haste
To some corn-rick
I’d never run and chase thee,
With murdering stick.

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion
Has broken nature’s social union,
And justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor earth-born companion,
And fellow mortal.

I do not doubt you have to thieve;
What then? Poor beastie you must live;
One ear of corn that’s scarcely missed
Is small enough:
I’ll share with you all this year’s grist,
Without rebuff.

Thy wee bit housie too in ruin,
Its fragile walls the winds have strewn,
And you’ve nothing new to build a new one,
Of grasses green;
And bleak December winds ensuing,
Both cold and keen.

You saw the fields laid bare and waste,
And weary winter coming fast,
And cosy there beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash; the cruel ploughman crushed
Thy little cell.

Your wee bit heap of leaves and stubble,
Had cost thee many a weary nibble.
Now you’re turned out for all thy trouble
Of house and home
To bear the winter’s sleety drizzle,
And hoar frost cold.

But, mousie, thou art not alane,
In proving foresight may be in vain,
The best laid schemes of mice and men,
Go oft astray,
And leave us nought but grief and pain,
To rend our day.

Still thou art blessed, compared with me!
The present only touches thee,
But, oh, I backward cast my eye
On prospects drear,
And forward, though I cannot see,
I guess and fear.

(courtesy of Robert Burns Country)

Happy Reading & Writing from CozyBookBasics!

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Prospects for selling my book at the Byward Market in Ottawa when I arrived at 10 a.m. Wednesday looked as dim as the thunderstorm forecast. Still, I bet myself I could sell enough copies (five) in the next six hours to buy tickets for a big treat. I defied the skies to clear in time for a picnic with our granddaughters and their parents before watching the preview performance of theater under the stars on the banks of the Rideau River that night. mmarket.jpgWork crews carrying partitions, shopkeepers rushing with arms full to set up for the day, twosomes and threesomes speaking languages other than English brushed past. Where were my buyers?

  • The atmosphere enlivened at lunch time, with music and dancing in the adjacent square attracting a noisy, lively crowd. A quarrel between someone not quite in his right senses and a big truck disrupted the self improvement, creative atmosphere I was trying to inject.
  • A dreary-eyed, homeless man with his bundles and bags slouched up against the bricks, heritage plaque and sesquicentennial posters on the market building facing me. Where were my readers?

It was discouraging and my devoted hubby of 61 years decided I was crazy and he might as well abandon ship and go home.  While he hesitated, I was ready with my elevator pitch to summarize my book in two sentences.

  • Anyone drawn to the table for a closer look at my framed newspaper article headlined “Call of Love in the Wilderness” got it. An old toothless man mesmerized by a 1904 picture of my mother as a child in a sailor outfit stayed because he wanted to hear her full story.
  • With a cheery “Hi Margaret!” up strode author Stevie Szabad, eager to buy two of my books and pick up advice from someone she perceived as having accomplished things she wanted to do. We plotted to sell together at the Galeries Aylmer Christmas market. 

Hubby stayed when I reminded him I was there to get my parents’ exemplary story out, not just sell the product. A take-out lunch of chicken sandwiches and smoothies fortified us both. 

  • Then a ray of sunshine, a tourist from Vancouver, suddenly appeared. He wanted to know more about why I called my book “A Book of Kells” and gave me advice on genealogy. He bought a signed copy as a gift and souvenir of Canada’s 150th.
  • A particularly friendly face came to the table confidently and I was able to engage her in conversation. For the next twenty minutes Tom and I found we had much to share with her and vice versa. Gale O’Brien is a lovely, avid reader who lives in Britannia by the Ottawa river. She now owns one copy of A Book of Kells and one of  Kathleen’s Cariole Ride which I hope she will enjoy reading.
  • When Kelly Buell turned up because she had been following me online, Tom was getting the car because it was 4 p.m., time for us to pack up. Kelly and I chatted and hope to help each other in future as writers so often do.

When I first met the organizer of the Byward marketing team and showed her my book, she told me she is a ‘Kell’ on her mother’s side. I was able to inform lovely, competent Megan Sartori that we are second cousins twice removed. 

By the way, the outdoor performance in Strathcona Park was superb. My granddaughters, aged 10 to 16 were absolutely thrilled with The Amorous Servant by Carl Goldoni staged by Odyssey theater. Grandpa and Grandma enjoyed its humor and sensible advice for all ages, too.

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Happy Reading & Writing from Cozy Book Basics until We Meet Again!

A couple whose lasting love started because of an infernal war.

Here’s what I did in this bold enterprise of writing about my family. I  hope my experience may be helpful to you too.

To present my parents’ life story and my growing-up story I hit upon two ways. First, I could combine the stories of two generations — but only if I could find a beginning, middle and end for a structure around a unifying theme.

  • It couldn’t just be that they were born and died and did something fantastic as a climax near the end. I had important things to say about their effect on me as I grew up. I saw flaws in their relationship.
  • The central theme I wanted get at was one of ego. Altruism is without a doubt the greatest virtue. But babies need to suck in, see and exercise a healthy dose of ego joy in order to become competent, confident, caring adults.
  • My solution was to frame the book as a psychological detective story/family biography. I began by saying I was on a search for my parents’ lost egos. One question I wanted to figure out was why my mother denied my father one of her chocolates the week before he died, even though he begged for it.
  • That way I could keep the reader in suspense and also make the book an honest critique. That’s my way as a nonfiction writer.
  • The title was easy because our family name was KellThe Book of Kells is the famous ninth century manuscript that illuminates the gospels. I point out my parents and ancestors aimed to do that too, by the way they lived.41khlscocglSecond, I could write the book just as an inspiring love story — the quintessential Canadian romance. This approach might appeal more to a different group of readers. 
  • Like the first book, it contains excerpts from my parents’ love letters but the theme is a tribute to my mother’s courage and my parents’ idealism.
  • I tossed out the subtitle and included a dozen authentic pictures of my mother’s adventures instead.
  • The title comes from a hazardous five-day trek on a cariole toboggan made by my mother, my father and an aboriginal guide. The temperature dipped to 30-below-zero. If there was no one to take them in, they slept outside. She had to get to the hospital for her baby to be born.
  • Digital technology made it easy for me to do this. Both books are published under our V&V logo but printed on demand and distributed by CreateSpace (originally called BookSurge.)
  • Revisions are quick and simple to make. Then I order just the number of  books I think I can sell at bookstores, fairs, shopping malls, reunions, book clubs, seniors’ residences, libraries, book clubs, etc.
  • Most customers have a definite preference for which printed edition they want for themselves or as a gift.
  • I take my i-pad with me and can download an e-version of either book if that is what a customer prefers.

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shalottavatarA spark of transformation is making a connection between writing creative non-fiction and becoming more empathetic and socially responsible. These ideas come from writer and professor Camilla Gibb. This blog post is based on an interview with her.

Here’s Her View

  • Literature holds a mirror up to us, revealing something of our interior selves
  • It transports us to other worlds where we recognize the parallels in our very basic human struggles to create meaning and attachment in our lives
  • It reminds us of our common humanity across time & space
  • Fiction offers an immersive experience, not just intellectual, but a visceral and emotional point of contact, both with our own lives and the lives of others
  • Through imaginary leaps, we access another point of view. Is this an empathic act? Or can it cultivate greater empathy?

Here’s Why

  • Studies suggest reading literary fiction increases our understanding of the feelings of others
  • Neuroscientist Jamil Zaki’s recent study found that college students’ self-reported empathy  has declined since 1980, with an especially steep drop in the last 10 years
  • Greater social isolation seems one likely suspect. But so does the decline in reading
  • The number of American adults who read literature for pleasure has sunk below 50% for the first time ever
  • The decrease occurred most sharply among university-age adults
  • Zaki’s study conflicts with studies that suggest empthy is a fixed trait people are born with
  • If empathy is malleable, we should be able to encourage more of it

What Prof. Gibb Tells Her Creative Non-fiction Students

  • She insists her students read as much as they write
  • They look at making sense of their experiences largely by constructing a story of themselves
  • The narrative provides cohesion and meaning
  • The memory is subjective and selective but there’s probably social and psychological value in this
  • If we didn’t impose order on our experiences, we’d have difficulty finding any thematic continuity and cohesion
  • We’d struggle to communicate our experiences to others, a critical basis upon which relationships and community are built

How to Connect Your Writing with Social Justice

  • Trauma is the disruption of the narrative or our lives. We are the storytelling animal
  • Narrative plays a therapeutic role in reconstructing events in order to make sense out of them
  • A political role might be played when these reconstructions are shared
  • Witness literature, or testimonials are a way to begin uncomfortable conversations for purposes of redressing human rights abuses

What Prof. Gibb Tells Her Social Justice Students

  • She uses witness literature, testimonials and novels as a means of connecting them with events far removed in time and space from their own life experiences
  • She hopes to equip them with  history, framework and language for interpreting global conflicts that occur in their own lifetime.

Professor Camilla Gibb is the June Callwood Professor in Social Justice at Victoria College, University of Toronto. The above interview is based on an interview with her in Vic Report Winter 2016. She will be speaking on “When Fiction Fails a Novelist” on April 20. www.icu.utoronto.ca./alumni/VWA

This is #4 in my series on Writing Secrets from Reclusive Lady of Shalott.

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If you would like your novel to be classy and erudite, help is available at your fingers tips by searching Google and Amazon. The reclusive writer can stay put and, with an easy click or two, find out whatever she needs to know to give her novel exciting, accurate substance and details. These put your book in a higher category of enjoyment for your readers than you can on your own.

Examples of How Google Search Box Can Help You as It Did Me

  • tell you the name of a song or poem containing the one line you remember.
  • tell you who said a famous quote.
  • find an article that sums up what the characteristics of a given decade were.
  • take you to the scene of a famous battle, so you can describe it as if you had been there.
  • give the precise meaning of a word you’re considering using
  • check your spelling and foreign language words.
  • refresh your knowledge of any classic related to  your project. It has been digitized by the Gutenberg project and can be downloaded free from Google to  your computer in 30 seconds

The list can go on and on, endlessly. Older writers, like me, don’t cease to be amazed. We used to have to spend long hours in libraries consulting huge reference books to get such information and were not always successful. We still love and support libraries but don’t frequent them when in reclusion.

Examples of How Amazon Search Box Can Help You as It Did Me

  • compare yourself to your competition by looking in the Amazon ‘Books’ category under your book’s subject, such as ‘marriage.’
  • better yet, just ask for bestselling books on your subject.
  • click on a book cover. Every book has a description and author biography. You will get good ideas not only for what to say in  your book but what to say about it and  yourself.
  • most books have a ‘Look Inside’ feature. I used to assume there was nothing more to it than a sample chapter.
  • if you look closely, most also have a search box. If you want to know what the author has to say, for example, about Hurricane Hazel, you can put that name in and every mention of it in the book will be retrieved.

Writers like myself used to have to write indexes for our books. Due to the miracles of the Internet, the ‘Look Inside’ feature now fuflfills that function.

Tip: Don’t ignore the clicks at the tip of your fingers that will make the novel you are writing classy and erudite.

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Yesterday I nailed paragraphs one and two of chapter four of my novel by tidying up and inviting camels. It was the climax to days of hard work on my book about lovers whose marriage just keeps on going and going. I kept reading from the beginning of the book to pace myself and find the most exciting direction to take.
Here’s how I proceeded:

  • For the umpteenth time I tidied up, tossing out all the unnecessary or awkward words in the way.
  • It’s so important to grab my reader’s interest in the contents and characters at this point.
  • What is the crux of it all? Who are they? Can they really do this? Where are they heading?
  • In this chapter they write to each other for four months before making a public splash out of the most private event in their lives.
    I knew I had it right when I noticed:
  • The first paragraph is only 40 words long but sums up everything that happens in the letters.
  • It exaggerates a little to make it light, subtly humorous and satirical.
  • With a nod to pyramid-style journalism, it gives answers to ‘who, what, when, where and why’.
  • Paragraph two, made up of 162 words to fill in the heroine’s personality, came easily. I was on a roll from paragraph one.
  • It not only gives details about what makes Eve unique. It also relates her to the clichés of ‘almighty housewife’, ‘feminine mystique’ and ‘stay-at-home mom.’
  • What really thrills me is that, when I read it over, I found I had unintentionally written three sentences that bring camels to mind without using the word. I wonder how many readers will pick up on that?
  • I’m sure you are familiar with them. There’s the straw that broke the camel’s back, a quarrel over a trifle. Then the warning not to love money too much, because it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into the kingdom of heaven. Thirdly I used the word ‘hump’ for an obstacle (and you know who has one on his back.)
  • And did I say something about pyramid-style journalism?
  • Creative writing takes on a life of its own. This is why the Lady of Shalott has to be a recluse. I’ll be able to repeat the motif later in my book to add to its strength and unity.

Tip: If you can make your story universal it will be well loved and read. You will have crossed over the bar between ordinary prose and literature.

surefire shorteningTry these ten tips to make your novel writing compelling. Shortening your prose makes it more informative, intimate and readable. Begin every day back at chapter one and read it over carefully to get the flow. These samples are taken from the outline of a novel I’m writing about a fifties love affair that resulted in a 60-year marriage.

1. Be More Specific
Before: “immigrants are pouring in to revolutionize the social scene with excitement and new ideas”
After: “a flood of immigrants is rejuvenating the shops and society”

2. Don’t Strangle a Good 4-letter Noun with Big Adjectives
Before: “the monolithic, patriarchal grip of the church is looosening”
After: “the grip of patriarchy is loosening”

3. A One-word Verb does the Job of a Three-word One
Before: “women are turning into feminist activists”
After: “liberated women are agitating”

4. Examine Each Word to See What You Can Ax. Save Some Information for Later
Before: “He is a displaced person from Hungary who has been in Canada for just four years and is working on the Varsity to perfect his English.”
After: “He landed in Canada four years ago and is perfecting his English
on the Varsity.”

5. Delete Meaningless Words Like ‘Whole’ and “What”
Before: “we first go through the whole process of what it is like to be young …”
After: “we guide the reader through the process of being young”

6. Every Minus Word Equals a Plus for Pace
Before: “writing love letters when you are parted”
After: “writing love letters when apart”

7. It’s OK to Sneak in an Extra 3-Letter Word but Don’t Be Ostensible
Before: “The proposal, the pin, the diamond ring…are the ostensible plot line.”
After: “The proposal, the pin, sex, the diamond ring…are the plot line”

8. Delete Redundancy. Use Possessive Adjectives instead of Phrases
Before: “remains a mystery, not to be revealed until the suspenseful end of the book”
After: “remains a mystery until the book’s suspenseful end”

9. Toss Out Vacuous Phrases. Trade in a Long Word for a Short One
Before: “Eve, on the other hand, pushes back against her authoritarian, dominant preacher father and her psychologically crippling life as a minister’s daughter.”
After: “Eve has to push back against an authoritarian, dominant father who is responsible for her ego-crippling role of minister’s daughter.

10. Use Action Words so the Reader Can Go Faster, Identifying Rather than Having to Process

Before: Flash-forwards give the reader the story from the perspective of an elderly couple sitting in their arm chairs

After: Flash-forwards zoom the reader to the sitting-room of an elderly couple in arm chairs

Shortening your prose makes it more intimate and faster to read. We reporters for the Varsity in the fifties deleted every unnecessary word in order to save space and costs. We followed the New York Times‘ mantra of giving our readers “All the news that’s fit to print.” Even that carried a double-meaning — two for the space of one!

Next month writers across the world will take part in NaNoWriMo (national novel-writing month) with the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel in November. I guess that will make December NaEdReMo (national editing and revising month).

My way of writing is to begin every day at chapter one of the manuscript and read carefully to find mistakes, insert or develop new themes and information, juggle paragraphs around, make sure the pace doesn’t lag. This is the only way a book can have flawless unity, structure and choice of words.

Every day I find new ways of improving my prose by this technique and hope you will too.

Happy Reading from CozyBookBasics!

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This bouqet is a hug of appreciation to all who are mentioned or can insinuate themselves into the situations expressed in this blog.

This bouquet is for all who are mentioned or can insinuate themselves into the situations expressed in this blog.

Long-ago in the thirties, children were brought up differently from today. On Mother’s Day we wore a red carnation if our mother was alive and a white carnation if she was dead. My sisters and I looked around in church to see who wore white and tried to imagine the dread of being in their shoes.

  • We go to flowers for consolation or celebration. They always seem to know what emotions are in each person’s heart. Human beings aren’t so good at identifying with other’s feelings.
  • As an adult, I sent my mother flowers each Mother’s Day because I knew she loved to get them. For as long as they linger they bring happiness and you can preserve their beauty in photos.
  • My tangled relationship with my mother motivated me to start writing at age 69. At a very early age, my ego got hurt by the way she introduced me when we had company, and so I stopped letting her give me hugs. Instead, whenever she tried I just pushed her away without a word. She had no idea what, if anything, was wrong. Victorian reticence ruled mothers in those days and psychologists had not yet been invented (Who needed them? We had English literature instead.)
  • Mother thought my personality made me behave as I did but, nevertheless, she tried to improve the situation. She noticed that I liked to play with hair and that suited her because any kind of brushing and fiddling with her head soothed her migraine headaches. So, instead of an afternoon nap, she would relax with head back and eyes shut in the chesterfield chair (an old-fashioned couch set) while I went to work with an arsenal of combs, brushes, bobby pins, clips, rubber bands, barrettes, ribbons and rags.
  • During these spells we touched each other, at least, and she didn’t have to deal with an obstreperous child. I was in command and usefully occupied. I hated her grey, short, straight hair anchored with a big metal bobby pin. I wished I could turn her into a beauty, with long red hair and permanent waves, like the mothers in knitting magazines.
  • Flash forward to Spring, 2015. A comment from a new reader of the family memoir I wrote arrived from out of the blue on the “About” page on this blog. The comment says, “Memories are a nursery where children who are growing old play with their broken toys.” It really thrilled me — past the thrill that penetrates an author at any sign of attention. It made me understand what I had done, especially if you substitute ‘Memoirs’ for ‘Memories’ and look at ‘broken toys’ as a metaphor for the hairdressing game as therapy.
  • When I reached middle-age, I felt an urgency to make peace with my mother and get at the roots of what still made me cry in church. A dramatic moment which I record in A Book of Kells: Growing Up in an Ego Void finally happened when I was 47 and she was 80.
  • My new reader John W. Bienko went on to say, “Kells is an extraordinary book, presenting the extraordinary story of extraordinary people living in extraordinary times.”

I’m proud of my book for having earned this compliment all on its own and I thank Mr. Bienko for sending the message.

Thank you for dropping in. This blog for all lovers of life and language aims to be useful and entertaining. Topics vary from how to build a canoe to how my mom moved from “prince to preacher and fog to bog” as a war bride after world war one. Author’s tips are offered by word and writing advice by example.

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The scoop on editing with Amazon Publishing.