A Book in the Hand is Worth … A Blog Post

My novel has been “out” for over a month. We had two launches–one at the college where I teach and one at the Blue Met Literary Festival. Small presses don’t have much of a budget for marketing so there have been no steps taken to thrust the book into the spotlight–either by subtle or bold methods. I don’t even think my press sends out review copies. So the book’s reputation is going to have be propelled by word-of-mouth/finger/thumbs.

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There have been no published reviews yet, but I have received kind notes from a few professors who work at my college, as well as a writer friend who is halfway through the book.

I’m not sure I’m particularly eager to have the novel reviewed. I guess it depends on the review–not whether the review is glowing or critical–but whether it is superficial or serious. Thoughtful reactions to art give the art some identity. At the moment the books is floating–like a newcomer arriving at a party, wondering what role it will play in the gathering.

My own feelings about the novel are probably fairly typical: they vacillate. Some days I think it is a poor effort and that the time I spent on it was wasted; other days I’m satisfied that I hit the mark that I was aiming for; ocassionally I read a few pages and think, “If someone else wrote this I would be impressed and wish that I could write like this.” (I know this last sentiment is a little vain, but I can assure you that I experience it very rarely.)

It’s a concise, third-person novel about a family living in present-day Montreal. The focus is mostly on the main character, Will, a project manager at a plastics company who receives a poor performance evaluation at the beginning of the story. He spends the rest of the novel coping with the challenges of fatherhood while attempting to redeem himself in the eyes of his boss. Along the way there are temptations and conflicts.

After one of the readings I gave, an audience member, who happened to be a poet, said that there was something mystical in the scene I’d read. I was glad to hear this reaction. I’m not sure “mystical” would be the word that I would use, but I think I know what he was referring to. I mention this because, to me, the story is about more than career challenges in the twenty-first century. It’s also about, or it’s supposed to be, courage, forgiveness, salvation, beauty, self-awareness and empathy–to invoke a few hefty themes.

I tried to create beautiful, honest music with a few, simple, quiet instruments. I hope there are a least a few pages in this short novel on which I was half-successful.

The novel should be available through the usual online mega-retailers, or you could go straight to the publisher’s website.

If you’d like to stay tuned for writing-related news from me, you can of course read this blog, or you can follow me on Facebook or Goodreads.

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A Book in the Hand is Worth … A Blog Post

On Flashbacks

There’s a movie in which Chevy Chase plays a wannabe writer. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen the entire movie, but there is a scene at the beginning that I will always remember. Chase’s character has given his wife his novel to read. When he asks her what she thinks, she starts to cry and says that it is terrible. She says something like, “In the first five pages there are three flashbacks, two flash forwards and I think there’s even a flash sideways.” Ouch.

I imagine that most writers can sympathize with this scene insofar as handling time can be tricky and we all get ourselves into trouble sometimes. Hopefully, we tidy up the narrative before publication, though.

How tidy should the narrative be, though, in a novel? My own novel currently relies on flashbacks (for lack of a better word). It’s hard for me to keep track of them at this stage of writing, when I still haven’t settled on what exactly my story is, and I have been very tempted lately to restructure the novel to avoid the flashbacks. I would just start it in the past and tell everything in chronological order. That would keep it simpler for me and the reader.

But there are arguments against this approach. First of all, there may be important backstory that doesn’t really fit into the dramatic structure. A character’s childhood is important, but every hero’s story doesn’t have to begin at birth (or before). Sometimes it is better to focus on the main action and use a flashback to fill in a detail as needed.

At first this argument struck me as the most important, but I actually think there is an even better defence of flashbacks. At any moment we are influenced and propelled by something that happened before. Our pasts are alive within us. When a character walks around in this moment, she is also carrying the past inside of her. Backstory is always present and the past and present speak to one another. This I think is why using flashbacks (and again there is no doubt a better term) seems to suit my novel. My character has in some ways re-started his life but his old life hasn’t left him. The challenges that he faces in this phase of his life are heightened because of the significance of his past.

The flashback, looked at in this way, is I suppose related to stream of consciousness. The novel, way more than the film, can capture inner life. One way to evoke this inner life is through stream of consciousness; another is by using clearly demarcated flashbacks. Flashbacks are a little more methodical, but overall, they have the effect of charging the narrative with the significance of the past.

Or so I am hoping, though I am doing my best to avoid flashing sideways.

On Flashbacks

Rubber to Paper

My novel will be launched in a couple of weeks and I still haven’t entirely committed to a new project. Last summer I wrote about eighty pages of a new novel, but this past semester and a half I’ve been too busy to work on it. That kind of time away from a project is, for me at least, deadly. I’m having a hard time imagining myself picking up the thread in a few weeks when school is finished. I find myself getting more excited about fresh ideas instead, perhaps even a nonfiction project. One crazy idea that I’ve been mulling over for a couple of weeks is to take a year to drive around North America following the bicycle racing season and then write a book about it. It’s the kind of book I’d enjoy reading, I think. It might start something like this:

The car is loaded. My wife and kids come out of the house to say goodbye. I’m about to commence my year as a full-time non-professional middle-aged bicycle racer. I will race my way from Montreal to New England, down the east coast, over to Colorado, then Nevada, California, up the west coast, dipping back through the midwest, then wending my way back up to Canada and across Ontario to Montreal. I will race on asphalt, gravel, dirt and sand. I will train between races in some of the most popular cycling areas. I’ll sleep in hotels and campgrounds and perhaps, if I’m lucky, on a few couches. I’ll try to become a stronger cyclist, learn everything I can about racing and life, and have as many adventures as possible.

I feel selfish and sad as I hug my wife, daughter and son goodbye. But they’ve told me repeatedly that I should do this trip. We’ll talk a lot, and if everything goes according to plan, I may be able to fly home around Christmas time.

Something like that, maybe. But I wouldn’t head off for a year and leave the family. I’d need to keep my home base here and just drive to the races as they came up. Perhaps in the winter I would go down south for a month or more. The family could join me at Christmas and maybe March break … in Florida or California, during the cyclocross season. Hm … Now I just need to find a publisher that will give me a nice advance so I can afford to take a year off work.

Oh, well, it’s nice to think about.

Rubber to Paper

An Essay About Nothing

Marking is probably the most tedious part of teaching, especially if you teach English. Reading essays that were written under duress by the average teenager can be aggravating. One of the the types of essays that makes me wince is the essay that can be boiled down to one sentence or less. If it’s a 750-word essay, 20 words will express a meagre idea and the rest of the words introduce, repeat, re-state, reintroduce and conclude that one, little, often misinformed idea. Sometimes these essays even look competent at first glance, and sometimes the students even think they’ve written a good essay, even though there are no signs of constructive thinking.

Teachers are partly to blame. There are a lot of English teachers who teach essay writing as if it were a matter of filling in a template. In reality the message they are sending is that it is possible to write an essay without really thinking. I understand why teachers do it: they want to help, and perhaps it is helpful at a certain stage of learning. But I hope the teachers are also pointing out that it is an extremely limited approach to essay writing that students should aim to leave behind, like training wheels.

Today, after having read an number of these empty vessel essays, I decided to write one myself to show my students how it is possible to say nothing even if you sort of follow the typical five-paragraph essay template (pox on the teacher who first decided this was a good form to follow). I wrote my essay about something concrete–ants–to make it easy for them to notice the flaws. Since they are novices at discussing literature, most of them can’t really tell the difference between nonsense and insight in an interpretation, but ants and colour are concrete and hopefully they’ll see what I’m getting at … if I show it to them. I haven’t decided yet if my lesson verges on cruel. Humour can cause collateral damage. I also wonder if some of them might absorb the negative qualities of the essay and put them into practice. I don’t know. What do you think? Here’s the essay:

Brad Eksample
Prof. Darwin
Entomology 101
February 9, 2017
                                           Essay #1: an analysis of the carpenter ant
            There are countless insects in this world and a wide array of colours. Therefore, strictly speaking there are many possible colours for an insect to be. The average person has their opinion, as do scientists and there are even many pictures. When speaking of the ant, it is important to say which sub-species. In this case, it is the carpenter ant. As this paper will discuss, the carpenter ant has a colour, the colour black, and that is the best colour for it to be.
            Firstly, the carpenter ant has a colour. If the carpenter ant had no colour that would be truly strange. However, having said that, there are some ants that are nearly invisible, but that is partly because of their size: they’re small. The carpenter ant on the other hand is pretty big, for an ant. Most of us have seen at least one or two crawling about, maybe inside your house or maybe just outside. Hopefully, not the former. Overall, because it’s pretty big most people can see the carpenter ant and see that it has a colour.
            Secondly, the carpenter does indeed have a colour and that colour is black. There are some people, many actually, who would say that black is not a colour, but for the purposes of this paper we will avoid philosophical discussions about what is colour, especially since the Webster’s dictionary’s first definition of the word colour is “of the color black ” (Webster’s Dictionary). The Webster’s Dictionary spells the word colour without a ‘u’ because that is the American spelling, but they mean “colour” and the meaning is the same. For the purposes of this essay, I caught twelve carpenter ants and each and every one was black, meaning 100%. Therefore, carpenter ants are black.
         Thirdly, black is certainly the best colour for a carpenter ant. There could be many reasons for this, but at the end of the day the question to ask is why? Why be any other colour? Being black suits the carpenter ant just fine, and has since back in the day. There remains no question then that as far as colour goes carpenter ants should be black.
            In conclusion, as demonstrated there are a lot of ants in this world and a lot of colours too. Our concern today is the carpenter ant and as has been proven, the carpenter ant is the colour that is commonly known as black. As further proven, this is a suitable colour for such a species. There are many species, as we all know, and they have all adapted in their own way, the carpenter ant being one of them.

An Essay About Nothing

Getting Back in Shape

I could call a lot of entries, “Getting Back in Shape.”

Just back from Europe with the family. Three weeks of no riding. Just two runs.

The first two rides, right after I got back, I felt fresh and was pretty optimistic that I hadn’t lost much. On the third day we went for a hard ride and then I felt it. I stuck on the slowest wheel and hung on, hoping not to get dropped. I’m usually waiting for that rider. That day he brought me home in his back pocket.

I should have learned from that, but instead I tried a long race the following weekend, just a few days ago. 100km. I was dropped early. Rode with 2 other guys, then 1, then I was dropped with about 15km to go. Finished, though.

It was a tough day. Rained off and on. A gravel section was nasty when you tried to draft. Got a spigot of gravel water in the face. Glasses were covered. Had to peer out over the tops to see.

It wasn’t a great performance, but it was good training I suppose. Had a sore throat that morning. Maybe that was a factor. Still have it.

Two weeks to cross. Hope I can do the first one. It’s not part of the Quebec series. It’s a Tuesday night race. Looks fun. The site says it’s a 6k course. That’ll be different. Three laps maybe and then it’s over, maybe only two if it’s tough.

Just got new wheels. Eager to push them, eager to see how they fare and how I fare.

Okay, enough crossing. I’m supposed to be editing the novel. Final, final touches. My editor, a former colleague, says the publisher wants it this month. Hard to let it go, but they’re tearing it out of my hands. Not quite. But it’s good. Time to get back to the next one. I’m 50 pages in, trying to be more audacious. And that’s a fair final note.

Getting Back in Shape