Today sees the much anticipated paperback publication of the Chinese Whispering collections, The Red Book and The Yin and Yang Book. Both volumes of interlinked short fiction from the the best emerging writers around the globe have been previously available in digital format. Long time readers of this blog will be aware that I was lucky enough to be one of twenty writers selected to be part of The Yin and Yang Book. My story, This Be The Verse, was written in tandem with Claudia Osmond and you can read about my experience writing collaboratively with Claudia and some of the other writers of Y&Y. As part of the print publication celebrations I am very pleased to welcome Claudia onto this blog to share her thoughts on writing, reading, Chinese Whisperings and her exciting YA novel Smudge’s Mark and the process of writing its sequel. Ladies and gents, please put your hands together for Claudia Osmond:
Was there a specific moment you remember deciding you were a writer? What sparked your initial interest in writing fiction?
Short answer: No, and it was an accident.
Complete answer: I’m not sure I ever did decide that I’m a writer. But in retrospect I can see how it may have come to be: As a child I was obsessed with Dr. Seuss books; reading them, drawing them, coveting them, memorizing them, tape-recording myself performing them. I think all those early years of inhaling those books permanently intoxicated me with a love of the fantastical. Then, as an older child and teen I was always writing something, anything, really. But my writing back then was rooted in pure aestheticism; I loved pencils and coloured pens, markers and paper, notebooks and journals, and so I was constantly writing, not for the purpose of creating meaningful content, but simply because I loved the look of words on a page. Those words eventually took on more shape in the forms of script writing and poetry, and I filled many journals and notebooks as well. Sadly, and to my utter dismay now as an adult, the high school I went to never did teach writing skills. I remember the only essay I ever wrote during those years (I think it was grade 9) was handwritten in pencil on lined paper! And the teacher didn’t say boo about it. Shame. I literally did not know how to write an essay until I went to college, and needless to say I failed miserably at it. I’ve always been a very creative person, but I decided then that writing was not going to be part of my creative expression. It was definitely not my thing; it was just something to be done to get a passing grade.
So how did I become a writer? Quite by accident, I think. And not until I was an adult: It was 1998 and we had just moved to a new city. We had one son in grade two, one in kindergarten, and my daughter was still home with me. My husband’s office had been moved to our basement (so close to the washer and dryer that you couldn’t open the dryer door without it banging into the desk!) and it was the first time we ever had a computer in the house. (Sounds like I lived in a cave up until then!) I’d never actually even used a computer before, so I decided to teach myself. The first program I opened and was able to figure out without too much trouble was Microsoft Word. Ah! So many fonts and colours and formats! My childhood love of aesthetic writing all came rushing back. I was in word heaven! So, after messing around a bit with the wonders of this new-found technology, I decided to actually write something. Something real. So I pounded away with the same one-finger typing that got me through college on my typewriter. (I have since learned to type properly and life is so much easier ) Since I was now working on something that was being birthed of my own creativity, and something that (I thought) no one would ever see, it exploded onto the screen. Slowly. If slow explosions are at all possible. It took me over six years to complete that book.
What is your favourite book and why?
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. So many reasons why: the premise, the narrator, the writing style, the characters. And it was the first book that I’d ever read that reduced me to a sobbing mess and even then, after the last tear was shed, wouldn’t let me go.
What was your favourite part of your writing a story for Chinese Whisperings – The Yin Book? Was there anything you didn’t enjoy?
One of my favourite parts was discovering my main character, Mildred. I loved her the moment I saw her in Emma’s story. More on that in the next question. Another favourite part was working with you. I’d never written collaboratively before and found it both challenging and very fulfilling to intertwine stories and characters and seeing how my character’s actions affect another writer’s characters, and vice versa. There was nothing for me that was not enjoyable. I’m only sorry it was over so soon.
I fell for Mildred, the main character of your CW story ‘The Other Side of Limbo,’ while reading the first draft and it was lovely to read the final, polished story recently for my short story challenge. What was your inspiration for Mildred? Did she arrive fully formed or develop from a single idea or image?
I do believe my soft spot for the aging generation was my inspiration for Mildred. I currently work in a nursing home and am fascinated every day by the residents and the stories of their past that are hidden inside of them. Especially the residents who suffer from dementia; discovering the brilliant individuals they truly are is very humbling and enlightening. Sadly, these people are often cast by the wayside and forgotten about by the general population. But there is so much to be learned from them and I know that my life has most definitely been made richer from having the privilege of working with them.
That being said, I’d only met my own grandparents a few times before they passed on, and so grew up without their influence in my life. But, based on the very limited contact I’d had with them, I would often imagine who they were as individuals, the lives they lead, and what they’d have told me if I’d had the chance to spend time with them. When I first spotted Mildred in Emma Newman’s story, she came to me fully formed, but not in any image of the real grandparents I’d had. In my imaginings, they were all strong individuals, both in body and mind; firm to the very end, unlike Mildred. What they did share with Mildred, though, was that they all had a difficult story to tell. The difference was that there was something about Mildred’s story that veered off a bit. But I am certain she was a fantastically sharp-witted grandma at one point in her life.
Your novel ‘Smudge’s Mark’ is a fantasy targeted at the 9+ age range which both my eldest son and I greatly enjoyed when we read it together earlier this year. How would you describe it to someone hearing about it for the first time?
This is always the hardest question of all. Here’s the elevator pitch: Simon is a 14-year-old boy who has no memory of who he is or where he came from. One night he has a dream in which he’s given half of a key. He wakes in the morning to find that same key in his pajama pocket. Little does he know that the key not only holds the secrets of his past, but finding the other half will also unlock his future.
Are you working on anything new?
Yes, the sequel to Smudge’s Mark is finished and awaiting its journey to publication. The working title is Gil’s Tattoo and is told from the perspective of Gil, Smudge’s best buddy. It tells a bit about why Gil went missing in Smudge’s Mark and the consequences of that situation. Let’s just say Sorgol has become quite a bit more powerful and, well, Gil has a long difficult journey ahead of him, should he decide to try to turn things around.
I’ve also got a few other projects on the go, including a middle-grade novel about a mortician’s daughter. I’ve fallen in love with this story and the characters so it will be the next one I finish.
How does writing a sequel differ from writing the first book in the series?
When I wrote SMUDGE’S MARK, there was no pressure. I mean, none. At. All. I wish I knew how good I had it back then, when no one was expecting anything of me and I could just take all the time I wanted. The story had the freedom to go wherever it wanted, too – the possibilities were wide open; no pressing gaps to fill in, no unanswered questions demanding closure. Heck, I’ll deal with those later, when I write the follow-up book, I thought. Well, now it’s later and let’s just say I no longer think that I was so clever back then, leaving questions unanswered and characters’ lives in limbo. Sheesh. Whenever I’m asked for advice by an aspiring author, my first response is always, “Whatever you do, don’t write a ‘first’. Write a stand-alone.” Unless, of course, they’re hardcore plotters and have their entire 7-book series figured out. Then I say, “Go you!”
Tell us a little about your particular road to publication.
It’s a rather odd story. As I mentioned before, I’d never intended for anyone to ever see this book I was writing. It was my little secret. Believe it or not, my husband didn’t even know, and that was because publication never even crossed my mind: I was just loving writing for writing’s sake and did it whenever I had the chance. Well, by the time my husband got a new computer and the beast from the basement became mine, I had become serious about finishing this thing; it was going really well. I was surprising myself! Virginia Woolf once said, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Well, the money part was a problem, but I did decide that I could definitely have a room of my own. So I literally stuffed a desk into an extra closet we had and I’d slide the door open and closed as needed. Perfect! Now I could really write incognito! Well, I slipped up one day, a few years into it. I mentioned to a good friend, in passing, that I was writing something. Well, so much for my covert operation. She wouldn’t let it go, insisting that I finish it and then try to get it published. Published? Was she crazy? She didn’t think so. Well, it’s pretty obvious now that her madness eventually rubbed off on me. I started thinking it might not be such a bad idea. After all, I’d spent literal years crafting my story, why not at least try? So as I finished up the book (well, in all honesty, I ended up finishing all but the last chapter, not quite knowing how to end it) I also spent that year researching how to get a book published. I thought I’d give it a go without an agent (a decision I’m now regretting) and query publishers directly. I spent a good deal of time crafting my query letter and then sent out about twenty-five publisher-specific query packages. To my utter amazement and horror I got two requests for partials and one request for a full within a month. Horror, you ask? Yes! Remember, I had no ending for my book yet! This is what they all say is a big no-no, so I was in big ka-ka! But all of my research told me that I had at least a six-month wait before I’d hear anything from anyone, and when I did, they’d all be rejections. (I did get rejections, too, by the way. By the time I received all my SASEs back, all but five had delivered, “Thanks, but no,” notices.) Anyway, I spent about three weeks writing an ending (which did NOT stick!) and placed my baby into the arms of complete strangers. Clicking “send” was the most difficult, nerve-wracking moment of my life. I got a call and was offered a contract within the next couple of weeks. Needless to say, I was totally floored, once again.
As a stay at home dad myself, I am very interested in how you balance being a wife and mother with the demands (often self-imposed) of being a writer. Any tips to share?
I feel like you’re waiting for something profound. I’m afraid I haven’t got anything. I can’t say I’ve ever really been good at finding a balance. It’s a daily challenge for me. I tend to be extreme in anything I do; I’m either ON or NOT. My writing either plunges me into long periods of obsessive creation, or periods of nothingness when I need to recharge. Understanding this, my husband has become a person who rolls up his sleeves and gets involved in whatever needs to be done around the house. We had three young children when it became necessary for me to start working full-time, which happened to be the exact same time I realized my love and passion for writing! So we began approaching the tasks of our home and family life as a pure 100/100 give and take – understanding that sometimes I’ll need to pitch in more, sometimes he will. And we’ve usually been pretty good at figuring it out. But if it comes right down to it, dishes, laundry, vacuuming, etc … those are the things that we can afford to let slide; it’s not going to kill us if they don’t get done right away. But as far as finding balance in the home as it relates to our relationships, that’s what we can’t afford to let slide. The best thing I’ve learned that I can do is to make a point to be fully present when I am with my family. This is hard sometimes, especially when I’m in the middle of a project, as I find it nearly impossible to shut off my brain (my husband is the same way, so that’s why I think we ‘get’ each other). But we’ve realized, especially as the kids have gotten older and are becoming more interested in their own lives, that it’s the quality of time spent together that matters more than the quantity. Spending good quality time really talking to and listening to each other fosters the trust, support, and feeling of balance that we’ll need in the crazy hectic times. And we have lots of those! We’ve all given each other the permission and the space to fully engage in following our dreams, but we also understand that nurturing our relationships with one another is still the highest priority. For what does it matter if you achieve your dreams but there’s no one there to truly celebrate with you?
Finally, what’s the best piece of writing advice you have ever received?
The best piece of writing advice I’ve ever received, as far as the nuts and bolts of the actual act of putting words on paper, came from Stephen King via his book, ON WRITING:
“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
Since reading those words, and the brilliant context surrounding them, adverbs have become my enemy. You know, I can’t stand my sons’ violent Xbox games, but I would fully endorse a Call of Duty Black Ops: Adverb Edition in which snipers take out evil zombie adverbs as they try to claw their way into authors’ minds. No mercy. They must die.
Claudia is an only child, wife, and mother who loves caramel apples, hates snakes, stands for social justice, sits at the feet of her Muse, accepts the fact that she’s getting older, denies the idea that her best years are behind her, reads voraciously, writes passionately, sings only when no one’s listening, and admits that she wrote her very first novel in a closet ~ both literally and figuratively speaking (see http://www.themagazine.ca/2011/06/20/smudges-mark). She can be found blogging at Where the (not-so)Wild Things Are.