If we want to be inspired as a writer – look up. As writers, we paint pictures with words and oh what a show Mother Nature puts on in the sky.
My favourite sky event is early morning. I’ve yet to see one that wasn’t breathtaking, in every season. It is a masterpiece of nature, whether menacing clouds foretell a storm, or simply the surreal beauty of pre-sunrise splendor in streaks of lavender, peach, powder pink and dove grey. It is always worth much more than just a passing glance. It is a magnificent heralding of dawn, be it foul or fair, that tells the story in its own wonderful way.
Just as irresistible is a brilliant sun playing hide and seek with billowing clouds, or gunmetal grey layers ripe with rain that have temporarily banished the sun. The heavens that skirt the horizon are like a dazzling upside down bowl of ever-changing surprises.
Is a sunset ever just a sunset? Never! It is an exhilarating wildfire of violet, crimson, coral, gold, apricot and tangerine flung across the sky in a magical farewell dash before the sun subsides and dusk is full upon us with its smoky shadows. That anticipatory hush before the curtain rises dramatically for the final act, an ocean of ebony velvet studded with countless glittering diamonds, and a shimmering splash of stardust along the Milky Way.
Is there a full moon? A harvest moon? A half moon or even a tiny sliver casting the world around us in an eerie altered glow? A night of promises, wishes and stolen kisses; endless hauntings and otherworldly possibilities that draw us closer to the crackling warmth and security of fireside.
A sky is never humdrum – I’ve never seen one anyway. It is a sumptuous, enchanting setting for whatever story we want to tell. It is centre stage in our cast of colourful characters – a willing accomplice in our writing adventures. It is there for the taking, whatever its mood, a side show of unraveling vapour trails or fascinating cloud families floating in endless shades of blue. From the gorgeous cerulean of summer, to the rich imperial sapphire of a chilly autumn day, it is a spectacle so delicious it’s impossible not to gaze at it in awe.
As with all nature, how we see the sky as a writer, whether shivering under a pallid moon or reaching for rainbows, is a truly wonderful gift to us – how we describe it for our readers is our gift to them.
AUTHOR READINGS - THE PERFORMANCE
So, you’re going to do a reading? Fantastic! Reading from your book, sharing with an audience of potential buyers what it took you so many hours to create, is a golden opportunity. Readers are fans and they’ve come to hear you, so make it a great one. This is your book; these are your words, given voice, your voice, as you make what you’ve written come alive. No one can sell a book better than the author. You are the star of that performance, because that’s exactly what a reading is – a performance. It is your moment to shine – don’t squander it! It’s all part of building a following.
No one knows your book better than you do, understands it better, so when you are given the stage, take every advantage of that opportunity to make the reading memorable - for the right reasons. Smile! Have fun! Speak slowly – don’t race for the finish line, eager to have it over. Remember to breathe. Pace yourself. Keep your reading short and bright. Read with purpose and enthusiasm. Approach readings as an actor does a role – get excited about your story.
Print your chosen passage in larger font for easy reading, you don’t necessarily have to read from the book (unless you want to showcase artwork, as in a children’s book) but do let the audience see your book – and practice until you can read it with ease. Practice in front of a mirror – time yourself so that you can keep to the time designated by your host. For many readings the mike is simply shut off once the allotted time is up, so be ready to end on cue and at the right moment to put your book in its best light.
Rehearsal is key. Don’t ever leave preparation to the last minute, it’s simply too important. Practice until you can lift your eyes to engage your audience - don’t ever forget your audience. An author reading is a wonderful opportunity to give your book the best chance it can have to stand out. Smile. Make eye contact with your audience. Make everyone want to buy your book. Sell it like nobody else can. Make people glad they listened to you.
Read a short section with dialogue and action, and it’s always best to include two characters - more than two characters can confuse people. Show conflict. Choose a passage that best represents the book – don’t give the key parts away, and ideally leave your listeners on a cliffhanger. Give listeners a reason to buy the book. Make them want more. For a children’s picture book, the reading would logically include the entire book. Make your characters real. Make your subject matter real - relatable.
Why sell your book short with a ho hum reading, one that the audience is anxious to have end because it is painful to listen to. In a word, boring. If you the author don’t seem interested enough to do a standout reading, no one else will be interested either. If you’re nervous, and most everyone is, don’t share that with your audience. Keep it to yourself. A nervous presenter makes for a nervous audience. Not good. Fake confidence and it will come. You may insist that you’re just not good at readings. Maybe not, right now, but you can get good at them if you try, because it is arguably one of the most important selling tools you will ever have in your arsenal as an author. Learn by watching others – both what they do wrong and what they do right. Public readings are all part of the author journey. Take every opportunity you have to do readings and you’ll get rid of those butterflies and continue to improve. I promise.
Brief your audience about the story if you’re not starting at the beginning and end professionally, don’t just hurry back to your seat relieved that it’s over. Take questions if you’ve been given the OK to do so, but even if it’s just the reading, save enough time to let the audience know where book is available and remember to thank your host – onstage. Publicize the event ahead of time; find out what the set-up will be prior to the event. Will you be standing at a podium? Will there be a microphone? How much time is allotted per reading?
Above all, get excited about your reading. If you’re excited and enthusiastic about your book, that excitement and enthusiasm will be contagious. Light a fire! Stand out from the crowd! Get used to the spotlight – for most authors not an entirely comfortable place to be, but rise above that. Put simply, just be the very best you can be. Isn’t your book worth it? Yes, it is!
A writer’s journey is never so fascinating than when fuelled by imagination. For writers of
fiction it is perhaps our most important asset – next to skill, and hard work.
Bringing to life what you as a writer can imagine, capturing those flights of fantasy and
sharing boundless whimsies that dance, tumble and shout for attention in our creative
souls, demanding to be shared in words. Give your imagination voice in books, plays,
poetry, short stories or in any number of other inspired expressions, conventional or as
yet unimagined, for the enjoyment of others.
Writing is an amazing gift, an enormous privilege, guided by imagination. Let it roar, let it
soar! Create a world of pink trees, purple skies, vermillion rainbows and a candy-apple-
red sea. Give your imagination full rein, never limit it. Write what you can imagine, what
you see in the private little world of your mind.
As you allow your imagination sail skyward, say what if, tell the story as you alone know
it can be told. Writing is an individual quest, a kaleidoscope of unique artistry that the
world is waiting eagerly to embrace.
Never limit yourself by following in the steps of what someone else has created, light
your own fires, create your own world – write your own original masterpiece. Have fun
and dare to be different. Please dare to be different! Readers are craving to be taken on
the adventure of a lifetime.
If you see red squirrels dancing in the moonlight and singing opera instead of what the
rest of the world has experienced – write that story, create new magic and share the gift
of your very own unparalleled imagination. Let tree frogs smile; take lovers to the moon
and back, give fear new depth, forgiveness new meaning, make laughter taste sweeter
on the tongue. Create potatoes that peel themselves, dishes that march single file to the
sink, roses that never stop blooming. Like the universe, your imagination is limitless and
inexhaustible. It’s all there for the taking, just imagine….
I wrote my first short story at the age of eight - Eskimos on the Moon - and the critics were kind. Unfortunately it was written on yellow foolscap paper with a dull pencil, so that story has long ago been lost to the ravages of time. And the critics? My parents of course, and my third-grade teacher, Miss McManus, who wrote at the top of the page, “shows imagination.”
So armed with said imagination and visions of authorship dancing in my head I moved forward – OK it percolated for 20 years or so – but eventually I got a typewriter and started a book. I’d written plenty of other stuff, but a book! I’ve always been an avid reader and have had an ongoing love affair with libraries since the bookmobile made monthly visits to our one-room schoolhouse, so why not?
So out came the lovely new black electric typewriter, in went the paper, and my imagination was given a green light as I produced the first three chapters and sent it off to a prospective publisher. Yes, you could actually do that in those days, but just as I had the freedom to send it to a publisher for consideration – they felt equally free to say no thanks – only in a more creatively polite way. No? Really? Oh! So I tried again and again and again – well, you get the picture.
I had almost finished papering the east wing with rejection letters when I heard about a creative writing class given at the local university by a lady by the name of Joan Hovey. I signed up immediately and on the appointed evening found an empty chair in the crowded classroom – and listened.
One thing I remember well during that first class was Joan asking – “How many here have been told that they have talent?” Hands shot into the air – mine included. She said that was a great starting point, but it’s hard work that will get you there – or something to that effect. Over the weeks that followed she brought in several guest presenters representing a variety of genres. I was genuinely awestruck.
One of those speakers was the great romance novelist, Flora Kidd, who at the time already had several dozen books to her credit. And then when she finished I received a most welcome surprise as Joan asked Mrs. Kidd if she would take one of my manuscripts home and critique it. I was on cloud nine. Mrs. Kidd did just that, and although the negatives outweighed the positives at that point, she provided valuable insights and it was thrilling just to have had her eyes on my work. It wasn’t just about the when anymore, it was about the how.
Moving ahead to present day, Joan Hall Hovey is now Canada’s Mistress of Suspense, and she has become not only a dear friend and mentor, but also my champion whose opinion I continue to hold in the highest regard. A fearless, accomplished woman, she awakened in me a brave new voice all those years ago and provided the necessary encouragement to believe that yes, perhaps I too have something entertaining to say. Thank you Joan.
It was a late September day, sunny but refreshingly cool, a most welcome relief from the baking heat of a country August – a day of coral, crimson and honey-gold trees aflame against a cloudless sapphire sky. It was a day filled with wonderful possibilities and promise – ideas inspired by a glorious autumn in full bloom. It was a great day to write.
As the vagaries of imagination go, I chose a most unusual but inviting retreat to start writing a novel – the hushed sanctuary of a haymow, ripe with sweet-smelling summer hay. So up I went with my faded black camp chair, notebook and pen, and settled in. But I wasn’t alone, because besides one very persistent house/barn fly that kept everything real, Spring kittens, now gangly patchwork teenagers, watched warily from atop nearby bales.
They didn’t come near, that privilege was reserved only for mealtimes, but they rarely looked away from the intruder in their midst. An author. In their haymow. Eventually they became bored, tucked limbs and napped, periodically peering suspiciously through fuzzy eye slits to make sure I hadn’t decided to come any closer while they dozed. I hadn’t, because one sudden move and they’d scatter like crows.
While they slept, I swatted ineffectually at the fly and wrote the first chapter of a novel, a requirement for a distance-ed course I was taking. Later I stored the manuscript away in the proverbial hatbox. Several years would pass before I revisited it and refined it, and the result is Dare To Inherit – for sale online and in bookstores now. And the cats? Much older and wiser with children of their own, they’re still dozing in the haymow.
Beautiful, exotic Kenya - an inspiration for the author in anyone .
But first to get there. A six-hour delay in Toronto meant a mad dash at Heathrow to catch our flight to Nairobi, already in the final boarding stage. So off we went at a dead gallop. I was determined to be on that plane, and despite a heavy backpack I outran people 30 years my junior. I also outran my luggage which didn’t arrive in Nairobi until late the next day. So in my rumpled travelling clothes I joined the others the following morning for Sunday service – the only time I’ve ever had to stand in line to attend church.
And then on to the Mully Children’s Family (MCF) Eldoret location, on behalf of Careforce International. I volunteered in the optical clinic there with the help of a translator because my Swahili was limited to hello, good-bye and hakuna matata from the Lion King which means: no worries. I also spent a good portion of my time working in the bean fields, pulling out old plants and hoping not to encounter the gigantic hissing fan tailed centipede or a scorpion. Fortunately, I escaped both. The frozen bottle of water we each took with us was as hot as a hot water bottle within a couple of hours and tasted about the same - I imagine. As we laboured under a cloudless sunny sky one day I looked up to see a fellow volunteer towering over me. “So journalist,” he declared in his thick Polish accent, “what you think now!”
“Loving it!” I said.
I asked Tom our overseer why there were large holes dug in a straight line across the bean field. He said those are hippo tracks. Oh.
Of course the highlight at MCF were the throngs of happy, enthusiastic children with heart-warming smiles. Some were not well, victims of the AIDs epidemic, and their faces will forever be in my memory. I can still hear the children of all ages, their voices raised in natural harmony - their animated laughter as it danced in my ears. Our love for them was immediate and never forgotten, especially one young girl, Jackline, who ran after the bus as we were leaving, calling my name. Yes, there were tears – both hers and mine.
They were full, meaningful, inspirational days that ended all too quickly. Literally. The sunsets were amazing – but being so close to the equator, very brief. And the nights were pretty interesting too, beginning with avoiding the dreaded mosquitos….
We each brought our own mosquito net that we attached to a hook in the ceiling and draped over the bed. When I sat up I was wearing mine. All that was missing was the bouquet. I looked like a bride in the world’s largest veil - the mosquitos humming menacingly outside the wedding finery. As I sat there jotting notes for the poem that follows, I looked like a bride making last-minute adjustments to her guest list.
Oh those memorable nights……
AFRICAN NIGHT IN ELDORET
As children by the hundreds sleep
in peaceful innocence regained,
it’s only foreign ears alert
to every sound the night contains.
The light of day now long extinguished,
the warmth since given cool relief,
while the Sosiani River hippo
is thundering danger with belief.
More fractures in dark‘s solitude
- and by the pack they’re numerous:
quarrelling bush babies shriek and spring,
night monkeys not so humorous.
And the constant risk with steady hum,
net-frustrated mosquitos swarm.
Their tiny size belies their threat,
malaria is their weapon form.
Sleep does finally come at last,
ruptured by half-wild dogs on prowl
- on guard to protect these orphaned lives,
their outrage songs of bark and howl
Too soon it seems the morning waits
for our hard labor in Rift Valley,
that mocks the sun’s relentless climb
- off to do our willing rally.
The setting sun is brief then gone,
a nightfall one can’t soon forget
as we gratefully claim our netted beds,
another night in Eldoret.
The vast Maasai Mara under an African sky at sunrise - a hushed cathedral of inspiration. These great lush plains, 1,510 square kilometres of national reserve, punctuated at intervals by spiny balanites trees, are home to thundering herds of wildebeest and zebras, towering giraffes, the majesty of lions, leopards and cheetahs, prowling hyenas, plodding elephants, cavorting bands of monkeys and baboons, strutting ostrich and much more, and if someone wanted to write a letter home about this final leg of our journey, there were even stylishly-plumed secretary birds (they have yet to be renamed administrative assistant birds).
We were on safari, the realization of a long-held dream, but to even be in East Africa required us to have several vaccinations and medications. You must also bring antibiotics with you – which, as it turned out, came in handy because some of our party had been to Mombasa and picked up a bug. Can we say Montezuma’s revenge? Yes, several days worth, kept in check with said antibiotics. Our daily expeditions into this magnificent wilderness, with grass so tall it sometimes blocked our view from the van window, were undertaken with the threat of the dreaded tummy rumble – and knowing that we could not exit the vehicle to answer the call of nature as we could potentially be lunch for a hungry carnivore. So it was with fingers crossed that we embarked onto the Savannah each day from the beautiful Maaisi Mara Sopa Lodge, located high in the slopes of the Oloolaimutia Hills.
We also visited the Maaisi. Known as the lion jumpers – they are one of the world’s last great warrior cultures, resplendent in a symphony of bright colours in both garment and beadwork – crimson, emerald, deep sapphire, tangerine and sunshine yellow. The women wear the rainbow, well, and the men are dazzling in their red shukas believing that colour scares lions away. They are a fascinating indigenous people, and I received an invitation from the chief to stay. I asked him for how long. He said forever, I want you to be my wife. He told me that Maasai chiefs can take up to seven wives. Apparently there was a vacancy. I thanked him politely but explained that we had to get back to the lodge for lunch. Western women are popular there, and consequently marriage proposals were very easy to come by.
Capturing the magic of the tribal warriors seen in this image was a fun challenge – one a young man, the other middle-aged - an elder as of the Olng’eshere ceremony. Both carried the traditional cattle herding sticks of the Maasai herdsman. Tall, pencil-thin and able to jump as much as 31 inches off the ground in their adamu (jumping) dance, they struck an accommodating pose against the backdrop of the far-flung Maasai Mara – perhaps thinking of a different world that sent this latest batch of perennially curious, mismatched North American tourists to their village. Celebrating their pastoral way of life, they are content and at perfect peace with the land.