Thursday, June 18, 2009

My Writing Journey - the abbreviated version.

Six years ago, in 2003, I'd finished my journey from South Africa to England in a Beach Buggy. I'd heard the same line over and over again from friends and family members. "Why don't you write a book?"

It's one of those things, I was either going to write a book or I wasn't, and at that point in time I hadn't made the decision yet. Yet similar to many decisions in my life, the idea was planted, mulled over, and suddenly acted upon.

In response, I bought a second-hand laptop in Holland and headed down to France. The plan was to find a flat, take French courses, and start writing the book.

I stopped in Bordeaux. It was October. It was cold and wet and miserable. I couldn't find a cheap flat, anywhere.

A friend advised me to try Morocco. It made perfect sense. It was a former French colony. It was cheaper than France. The weather was better. I could maintain my Arabic studies.

So I went. Bus, train, ferry, another train. Three days later I was in Rabat. Within a week I had a flat and had signed up for French courses.

I wrote, and wrote, and wrote. In less than three months I had an almost full length manuscript. It needed a bit of editing, though, or so I thought.

It was around this point where construction started in the apartment below me. From eight in the morning to six at night, a constant pounding, like someone is taking a sledgehammer to the wall right next to you.

It was supposed to last two weeks. After three weeks, with completely stalled progress on my book, and still the incessant pounding, I decided to move out.

I moved in with a friend, a woman with two kids who needed the money. She was neurotic, depressed from a bad marriage and confused about an on-and-off relationship with a local man. Her mood swings kept me steadily in my room working on the book.

It wasn't the best environment to write. There were many distractions. My productivity wasn't the same as it had been in the apartment.

I met a girl, Siham, at a weekend running club. My productivity diminished further.

I needed to get away. After seven months in Morocco, I flew to England. I spent six months locked away in a flat in Bolton. During this time, I sought feedback on my novel, and with that in mind, I stumbled upon a website called Critique Circle.

The feedback wasn't flattering. My characters were static, the scenes lacked description. I was telling, telling, telling, and not showing, showing, showing. My character was arrogant and didn't connect with readers. I tried to be funny, but came across as stupid and irritating. My punctuation was awful.

It was bad.

I took the feedback and rewrote the chapters. Each week I submitted a different chapter to the writing and critiquing circle. In that six months, my writing progressed immensely, and at the end of it, my writing was on the verge of being good.

During my stay in England, I talked to Siham almost every day. We had a rendezvous in Spain half way through my stay. I was scheduled to go back to Canada in December, but I wanted to see her one last time. I'd come to one of those decisions that gets mulled over, and finally acted upon.

I proposed to Siham in the Costa del Sol, southern Spain just before returning to Canada. She said yes.

I came back to Canada and continued to write fairly intensely.

My writing was interrupted by my move back to Morocco three months later. As we got married, and for the next four months, I got very little done. I gradually got back into it, but married life isn't nearly as productive as bachelor life, and I made slow progress on the book while honing the craft more and more.

It was 2005 now, approaching two years into my writing endeavor. 2006 came, and the writing was picking up again. I was getting close to having a finished project.

I had to work a lot on the ending.

I had to work a lot on the beginning.

The middle wasn't bad. It only needed a little work.

Then Siham was pregnant. My work spiralled downwards, from a rush to get it done, to being stuck on a chapter I just couldn't get right.

That chapter, Egypt, took over a year. For the last three months of the pregnancy, and the first nine months of my son Zack's life, I just couldn't concentrate on it. Every rewrite made it worse. Finally, I decided I needed to finish it, even if it was bad.

With Zack approaching the one year mark, I got back into writing. I found a groove. Not a fast groove, not an ideal one, but one where productive improvements were coming out. I was setting realistic goals and meeting them.

Then, one day, I had the complete manuscript. I printed it off and headed away for a week of solitary bliss in Spain where I could edit it without distraction. I did most of the editing on the trains and ferries, and for the first time, read over the manuscript in its entirety.

Half the chapters needed work. The beginning sucked, and so did the ending. The beginning got completely redone. The ending got tweaked.

We moved back to Canada in 2008.

I continued to edit. I joined a writing group and edited a few pages a week, which helped me to finally get the beginning right. In the meantime, on my own, I gradually worked through the entire manuscript, again and again. Each time, I picked chapters and scenes that needed work. Then, there wasn't any more work to do. I had something before me that was as good as I could get it on my own.

Now, six years into my writing journey, the manuscript is with an editor and I'm seeking publication.

The endeavor continues.

Confidence Boost

There are times when I feel nothing is going right, and recently, it has been like that. A strange mix of bad luck, poor decision making, and a frustrating inability to combine my life's pleasures with my personal responsibilities.

What I needed was a confidence boost, and I got it.

My novel is pretty much as good as I can get it. It's also at the stage where I don't want to look at it constantly, day in and day out, anymore. I just want to get it published.

It's taken me six years to get to this point. Six years of learning the craft of story telling and all the tricks of the trade. Six years of rewriting chapters, scenes, adding, deleting, tweaking, critiquing, and trying to get it all right.

Having been rejected by countless agents. In fact rejection is a good word, it means I was actually acknowledged, the majority of agents simply ignored my queries and didn't bother to respond.
The problem was, this was the query letter stage. I couldn't even get my foot in the door to have them look at my first chapter!

A few weeks ago, I sought the advice and expertise of an editor. I contacted a relevant and highly recommended website, and was put in touch with several very qualified editors.

The one I chose works from California. We started with the first couple chapters, mainly because I didn't want to pay him a huge sum for the entire book right away, especially if he thought my work was crap.

He really liked it. He described it as a joy to edit and a real page turner. He was excited to be moving on with the story and said that I had learned the craft of writing much more aptly than the majority of writers who approached him. He went on to say there was definitely a publisher somewhere who would be interested in my work. It needed tweaking here and there, and aside from a few commas and reworded sentences, there were only two minor reworking suggestions in the first 10,000 words he looked at.

So there it is. My confidence boost. I'm now researching and contacting publishers instead of agents.
According to many books I've read, this might be a mistake. It's this frustrating catch 22 situation. Agents want authors who've been published. Publishers want authors with agents. What's a guy with a good manuscript and no credentials supposed to do?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

An excerpt, and NO GO ZONES

I've been in war torn countries and violent regions. I've been held at gun point, shot at, threatened with death. I've had my campsite stormed by military. I've been mugged at knife point.

I would go back to these countries. In fact, there are few countries in the world which I would not hesitate to visit. I might hesitate visiting Iraq, and would perhaps only go after researching the region, dangers, and issues involved.

There is only one country in the world where I will definitely not go, not without a significant military presence guarding me anyway. That country is Somalia. If you are a Western journalist or an aid person, basically, if you are white, don't go there for a visit or a story. It's unstable. There is no functional government. The people are xenophobic, and those who aren't, may see you as a meal ticket for kidnapping and ransom, if your lucky. If your unlucky, they'll scalp you, rape you, chop your head off and drag your broken body down the street.

Here is an excerpt from my book, leading up to a particularly dangerous section of my journey to a region bordering Somalia.

The ten-storey brick building housing the Canadian consulate seemed typical of downtown Nairobi; poorly kept and blackened from pollution. Inside and on the third floor lay the standard, uninspiring Canadian Public Service office with grey carpets, glass barriers, and a rack of relevant pamphlets. On my only previous visit, I’d asked about what party festivities were taking place for Canada Day on July 1st. Within minutes, I’d managed to get the entire Kenyan staff worked into an angered frenzy. They thought that their unappreciative bosses had forgotten to invite them. In the end, a woman from the embassy, located elsewhere in the city, shouted at me over the telephone. “There is no Canada Day Party!”
Now, more than a month later, I returned to the consulate. Based on the advice of a fellow traveller, I went to inform them of my imminent travels to the north.
A frizzy-haired Kenyan woman sitting in her cubicle looked up at me as I approached. “I remember you.” She narrowed her eyes. “Have you come back to cause more trouble?”
I took a hesitant step toward the window and greeted her with my warmest smile. “That’s a lovely blouse.”
She unfolded her arms and her face softened as she glanced down over her frilly cream-coloured blouse. “How can I help you today?”
“I’m driving to Ethiopia. Someone told me I should consult with the embassy first.”
Her expression changed into one of confusion and she began shuffling through papers on her desk. “You shouldn’t drive there. The Canadian Embassy doesn’t recommend it.” She found the correct stapled stack of papers and picked the phone up to call someone. A few moments later, a white woman came through the door. Her sour expression and pressed suit made her seem like a staunch feminist who scared male co-workers into submission. They talked in Swahili, discussing the Canada Day incident before switching over to my travel plans. The Canadian woman finished with something to the tune of, “Stupid tourist,” after which they both laughed and she turned toward me. Her pale blue eyes were cold and penetrating. “We recommend that people avoid travelling north of Mount Kenya.”
“Why is that?”
“Because it’s a UN level three zone,” she said with conviction, as though it was something so obvious any idiot would understand.
“I’m sorry, what’s a UN level three zone?” I asked.
“It means it’s dangerous.” She put her hands on her hips and pursed her lips.
There was a silence. I hadn’t expected a red carpet welcome, but didn’t think I’d get called a stupid tourist either. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s discuss my other options to get to Egypt. I hear in Somalia they chop Westerners heads off and drag them through the streets. Then there’s Sudan: where the south is run by rebels fighting a government who are trying to ethnically cleanse them. Functional roads in the war-torn Congo don’t exist, however rape and heroine-addicted child soldiers do. Which do you recommend?” I doubted she could even name the surrounding African countries.
Her eyes narrowed into angry slits. She waved her finger at me. “Northern Kenya is so dangerous,” she began, “It’s so dangerous that no insurance company will cover you there.”
“That’s okay, I don’t have insurance.”
The secretary handed her the document and the woman held it up to the window. “This is a travel advisory warning Canadians not to travel to northern Kenya. I suggest you read through it and rethink your plans.” She handed it back to the secretary who slid it through a tray under the window. “Is there anything else?” she asked bitterly.
I responded in Swahili. “No thank you. I’ll read this and then drive to Ethiopia.”
We locked eyes for several seconds before she gulped and looked away. Her mouth opened, but for the first time nothing came out. She remained that way as I winked at the gaping secretary, turned and left.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

It it too late to stop climate change?

CO2 in the atmosphere is widely regarded to be the primary cause of climate change.

Thus far, the international focus has been on trying to reduce CO2 emissions. I've never been convinced that this is the right strategy.

I'd be curious to know how much more humanity adds to the CO2 equation vs how much it takes away from CO2 recycling through deforestation?

How much less CO2 would the normal cycle of the earth emit if humans didn't exist at all? I don't think it's very much.

Now before you get angry at me and call me a Republican, or worse, let me clarify my position. I think the more important factor in the CO2 equations is deforestation. Specifically, how much CO2 recycling ability are we taking out of the atmosphere when we cut down a billion trees a year?

The lungs of the world are being purged, like a cancer, and no matter how green we get with our mechanical, solar, wind powered, and battery technologies, the real key might just lie in replacing the earth's lungs - our forests.

What is the most efficient CO2 absorbing plant? I don't know! But, if we could figure this out and plant it on a mass scale, we might have a better chance at balancing the CO2 equation.

Furthermore, the answer might lie in finding as many viable replacements for wood as we can. Metal, concrete, hemp for paper, bricks. Do we need to use a lot of wood to frame a house? I don't think so.

Deforestation has been brought up time and time again, but it now seems overshadowed by our carbon footprints. If we take the total human carbon footprint out of the equation while keeping the deforestation problem, I think we're still on a crash course to disaster.

What do you think?

Monday, June 08, 2009

Bail out bitterness

While GM and Chrysler find themselves rewarded for years of mismanagement, overspending, and generally poor decision making, Ford are the biggest losers in the bail out bonanza.

Ford's Mazda takeover gave them what the other two never had, a strong presence in the small car market. This is a key reason behind Ford's survival. Unfortunately, they are still teetering with debt and other high costs. The difference between Ford and the two bankruptcy protected US automakers is Ford are managing their costs and surviving, or at the very least not bleeding profusely.

So what do they get for their successful business model? Nothing. While GM and Chrysler offload debt via bankruptcy and have a fifteen billion dollar infusion, Ford continues to exist under their heavy burdens because they can.

The problem is, GM and Chrysler now have a competitive advantage.

Look at it this way. Take two identical businesses, relieve the debt of one and give them money while doing nothing for the second.

Flush with cash and not paying off any debts, the first business can cut costs, lower prices, and squeeze the second business out of the market.

Instead of bailout, Canada should have attracted other car manufacturers, (VW, Subaru, Nissan, Fiat, etc) to North America with loan guarantees and fire sale of the factories GM and Chrysler left behind. They would have saved fifteen billion dollars, recovered some of the losses of GM and Chrysler rather than providing bad businesses with a competitive advantage.

Was it pride that made us do it? Pride in North America's long auto manufacturing history? Or was it keeping up with the Jones'? The US gave em cash, we should too.

Moving onto US protectionism measures, buy American, and subsidizing.

Economics 101 says protectionism bad, open market good. In fact, isn't protectionism a small step toward Communism? Government intervention, etc, etc...

Whether its Obama or the pressure he's receiving I don't know, but protectionism fails in the long run. I think in many ways he's a model president, particularly for the international healing, but his economic policies have been lukewarm at best.

Protectionism can have an upside, but only if other countries are too daft to catch on and prevent getting dumped on by subsidized goods.

For instance, the US is subsidizing the pulp and paper industry. For every $500 the industry takes in in revenue, the US government gives them about $200.

In the long run, this could ruin other countries business models while dumping cheap lumber internationally. Once we're addicted, and the US has total control over the industry, then they can change from subsidizing lumber to taxing it heavily and raking in the money.

So what could Canada, and other countries do to ease the pain?

We could offer similar subsidies. That would keep our industry going, although at a heavy cost to the taxpayer.

The better option would be to form an international agreement with all other countries to charges tarrifs that double the subsidized amount from the offending country, not only on the raw materials, but on any and all products related to the pulp and paper industry.

Such an act would kick off a trade war and everyone would lose in the short term. But, losing in the short term is better than getting your ass kicked in the long term by the US. The longer term goal being to strong arm the US back into non-subsidizing behaviour.

Some say that in the 1920s, when the recession hit and the stock market nosedived, that a protectionist response led into the great depression. Are we on the same road once again?