Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Full Scoop

Last Friday morning found me in the back seat of a Kangoo, my feet straddling the hump, on my way to the south of France. I was about to participate in a weekend workshop on character development and lacked the one essential ingredient -- a character. My mind was not a blank, but rather an indiscernable mix of expectations, responsibilities and laryngitis. I tried to tell myself that it wouldn't matter if I came home empty handed. The food would be good and the company, outstanding. What more could I ask for? A novel?

We arrived in Argeles by late afternoon, checked into our hotel, then set out to explore the village and maybe even steal a glimpse of the sea. We trawled the narrow streets of the old town, pointing out our favourite buildings, the old men congregated on park benches, and the places we'd shopped the year before. We tried to find the sea, but failed. At seven o'clock, we headed to the studio--our creative space for the next two days-- and shared an aperitif on the rooftop terrace before heading out for dinner. Our workshop was officially underway.

At 8 a.m. Saturday morning, the group, now six, headed back to the studio where a beautiful spread of breads, pastries, ham, cheese, and fruit awaited us. My mind had begun to clear despite not having found the sea. Perhaps it was the gambas? In any case, when we set down to work, a character sat down with me and dared me to write him down.

So I did.

Over the next two days, D-L Nelson guided us through ten different exercises to better understand our characters. We role played, wrote dialogue, staged artificial scenes, and even killed our characters off, all in the name of good fiction. It was a weekend that exceeded all expectations: the food was amazing, the company, fantastic. And the sea? A bit cool but who's complaining. As for a second novel? It's too soon to tell.


Monday, September 29, 2008

We worked hard... honest!

My sincerest thanks to everyone for a truly memorable experience.
Until next year!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Never Say Die

The rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated.

Book Review: Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

In the opening pages of her memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert is in her mid-thirties living in the suburbs of New York. She has a successful writing career, but is unhappily married and suffering from depression. What follows is an account of Ms. Gilbert's year as a newly divorced woman, traveling through Italy, India, and Bali in search of pleasure, spiritual fulfillment, and, ultimately, balance.

I expected to love this book. I really wanted to like it. What's not to love. Food? Mmm. Spirituality? Amen. And balance? That's the key to everything, isn't it? You can imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself often apathetic to her journey.

It wasn't because of the writing. Ms. Gilbert is more then well equipped in the language department to relate her experiences. At times I felt the narrative could have been tighter but, for the most part, it was an excellent read.( In fact, some of her lines are downright bladder busters. I won't spoil them for you by sharing them here.) What was lacking was tension. To recap: it is the story of a successful, divorced woman with no kids, being paid to travel the world to write a book about her experiences. Yes, she had inner demons, but I felt most were tamed by the time she left India and that a real lesson in balance would have been to go back her normal life (complete with deadlines and an ex-husband) and achieve it there. The story ends, however, after a leisurely, yet culturally enlightening stay in Bally. Nice, peaceful, but climactic, it is not.

That's the thing with memoir: it needs to be true. There is no tweaking the truth for tension. It is what it is. As this book is a New York Times bestseller, there are plenty of readers who would disagree with me. I, for one, would love a post-script. How did the balance go one year later, Liz?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Irresistable Ammo

There are 18 horse chestnut trees on the grounds of the girls' school, all currently bearing fruit. The city planners either had no insight into the nature of children with projectiles or a really twisted sense of humour.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Shave Me Bald and Call Me Waldo

The Captain made dinner and it wasn't spaghetti!

The menu:
oven roasted lamb racks with a rosemary and garlic rub
olive oil mashed potatoes
steamed carrots
2001 Merlo Rosso from Villa LaSelva, Toscana

Moelleux au chocolat

Bravo and, by all means, encore!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

It's Mighty Mom's First Blog-iversary

A year ago I started this blog with the sole intent of getting "my sorry butt back in the chair." It had been a long, hot summer of nearly full-time parenting. Complete sentences were a vague memory, fragmented into near oblivion by the incessant responsibilities, interruptions and joys of normal, every day motherhood. Emma the Brave was back at school, only this time with Mighty Mouse in tow. Suddenly I had time to write and seemingly nothing to say. My own faulty logic led me to Blogger and the rest, as they say, is in the archive.

I honestly believed no one would read what I wrote. I was 4,490 visitors wrong. The single most popular post is the one of me sexing the hamster pups. (I can't help but wonder what people are expecting to see when their Google search leads them here.) The next most popular entries are my book reviews, particularly the non-fiction titles on dyslexia. But what is most surprising is the number of people who just keep reading regardless of what I'm babbling on about. To all of you, I want to say thanks. With print publication so elusive, this writer appreciates every last page load.

So what new adventures will the coming year bring? I haven't a clue. I can assure you there will be no more hamster havoc. As much as I came to love Peanut, it is my definitive opinion that hamsters were never meant to be pets. Friendly wild creatures, yes. Our apple seed days have ended, too, with the last seedling going to the great orchard in the sky this week. As for Life à la Suisse, it will continue, though I fear our fondue days are numbered. And where will the great corporate merry-go-round take us next? Good question. One thing for certain is that life will keep dishing out more blog fodder than I know what to do with and I'll be serving it up here, one post at a time.

Wishing you all a blog-worthy day,

Melissa Miller
aka Mighty Mom

Thursday, September 11, 2008


In only a matter of days the fields will be stripped bare of this year's spoils.

Part of me will miss them.
The other part is getting hungry.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Kids These Days

It's Tuesday, September 2, and I'm helping out in Mrs. Hugo's level 2 (grade 1) class. The kids are busy making clay models of themselves for a display on the United Nations Charter of Rights for Children.

Six-year-old Leo is putting the finishing touches on his still headless torso when he looks up at me and asks, "Who are you going to vote for in the US presidential election?"

I can't help but smile, but successfully smother a laugh. "I'm Canadian, Leo. Canadians don't get to vote."

"Me neither," he says, shaking his head in all seriousness. "But if you could, who would you vote for?"

I don't hesitate. "Obama."

Leo punches a fist into the air, "Yeah! Obama rocks." He then reaches for his clay head and sticks it on top of his torso. Would you believe he puts it on perfectly straight?

Monday, September 8, 2008

Happy Monday

Rest assured, no seed was harmed in the making of this photo
--at least not by me!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Seeking 007

It's no secret that I've spent the last two weeks agent hunting. It has been both an enlightening and frustrating process. It takes an inordinate amount of time to learn about an individual agent, amassing such details as their literary preferences, their needs and expectations, and the working relationship they have with their authors. You can therefore imagine how bloody discouraging it is to reach the conclusion that one's work and said agent are not a good fit. Tick that one off the list and it's back to square one.

The truth is this: it's simply no good for anyone to spew manuscripts aimlessly into the world. Agents and publishers end up with unwieldy slush piles and authors end up with carbon copy rejections that inevitably dent their self-esteem. At the very least, I hope my current process yields some constructive criticism. Just to share, here is my current check list for agent suitability:
  1. What genres do they represent and what are their current needs? If the answer to this question isn't clear from the agent's blog or website, I send a brief email to inquire. I don't send a query because they take too long to write well. Agents can smell form letters like my dog can smell horse dung.
  2. What books inspire them? Did they grow up reading the same books I loved? What are their current favourites? Who do they currently represent? If they grew up hiding comic books in their math book and despised Blubber, there's a good chance they won't like my book.
  3. How do they write? In the past year I've come to love a good blog. Because of the more casual nature of blogs, you can get a real sense of a person. Are they respectful? Do they have a sense of humour? How do they negotiate on behalf of their clients? What is their involvement in the revision process? I've come to respect the advice of many agents whose blogs I follow though may never submit to.
So how do you get the ball rolling and get to know an agent? The best way I've found is by attending writing conferences where agents are on the faculty. Short of that, here are a few sites that can also help:

Agent Query
Publishers Marketplace
The Association of Authors' Representatives
The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators

I've also discovered Cynsations, a wonderful blog by fellow SCBWI member, Cynthia Leitich Smith who has interviewed countless agents and authors in the children's book industry. Great work, Cynthia!

So that's it, my advice, for what it's worth. Care to share any of your own?

Thursday, September 4, 2008

For the Record

Days of school so far this year: 7
Birthday party invitations received to date: 5

September 11, 2008
Party count: 6

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Book Review: Double Lives edited by Shannon Cowan et al.

Double Lives is an anthology of essays on writing and motherhood published this year by McGill-Queen's University Press. It is not Chicken Soup for the Writer-Mother's Soul, nor is it solely a lament on the mental thicket that is motherhood. Double Lives lies somewhere in between. The contributing authors are all highly successful and include wed, unwed, and divorced mothers, lesbian mothers, adoptive mothers, and mothers of children with special needs. All, save one, were writers before motherhood. I suppose I was, too, if you count what I wrote in high school--but I don't.

It was interesting for me to read about the universal impact children have on a creative life that requires so much unencumbered internal reflection. Before I had children, I didn't write. Or rather, I wrote like this:
Dear Dr. Bones,
Thank you for referring Mr. Lumbago to our clinic for assessment of his chronic low back pain.
On subjective exam, Mr. Lumbago reported....
You get the idea.

It never occurred to me to write for pleasure. As I said, I wrote in high school--required writing, and not a word more. My English teachers did their utmost to encourage me, but I was hell bent on becoming a doctor which, as far as I could tell, required little literary prowess. On that point alone, I was correct.

It was motherhood and my own turbulent beginnings in the role that led me back to the page and as such, I've never known what it is to write and not mother. The two have only ever co-existed and, truth be told, without motherhood I might still be writing to Dr. Bones. If anything, Double Lives bolstered my hope that one day it will get easier, that one day the mental freedom I once had (and wasted on advance physics) will return--but by then I'll be missing my girls.