Tag Archives: writer challenges

Who am I? (No, Not 24601)

While re-reading and editing the Book, I have come to a discovery that I have found to be rather amusing. As was the case when I was writing these pieces for the first time, I am – once again – allowing myself to become lost in the characters that make up their fictional world.

Julie Campbell author character developmentI’ve always considered this ability to be a very positive one, as it helps me to remain truer to who the characters are, and better gauge what they would think about various circumstances and how they would react to the situations that they must face.  It’s like a form of “method acting” as a writer. It is important, because it stops me from forcing my own personal reactions onto the character.

This practice, as useful as it may be, also appears to have quite an unexpected side. I have found it rather entertaining to note that when I’ve been disturbed from writing a cute character or a kind one, my reaction to the interruption is often similar to the one that the character would have, while in his or her “current” mental state (in the place that I am editing in the “Book”). What isn’t quite as fun are the times in which I am writing and editing someone unpleasant or downright villainous. Those reactions to the distraction aren’t quite as warm – to say the least.

It has made me think back to the early days of the Book, over a decade ago, when Amanda and I were originally talking on the phone and writing the first pages together. I can quite distinctly remember snapping at my sister on more than one occasion, just because she came to my bedroom door to tell me that dinner was ready or to ask me if I’d like anything.  It wasn’t her fault, but she interrupted the wrong character!

The influence that writing characters can have on one’s own behaviours is quite a shocking one, if you’re anything like me. While it is an experience that I thoroughly enjoy, it makes me think about the nature of a real individual’s personality. As much as we may form strong characters for ourselves throughout our lives, it really doesn’t take much to change our reactions and behaviours to ones that are completely outside of what we believe our nature to be.

For me, simply imagining what it is like to be someone else is enough for me to temporarily behave as they would. Naturally, it isn’t a lasting impact, and I don’t suffer from a multiple personality disorder (nor do I).  At the same time, even though this change in myself is one that continues for only a split second, it is still quite notable that who I am can be that fragile under the right circumstances.

I’m not exactly sure what to make all of this, quite yet, but it is something that I will be mulling over for a while. After all, this may be an important thing to understand when it comes to making certain that my characters in the Book are reacting in a genuine and realistic way. A person’s actions aren’t always a matter of doing what a list of character traits prescribes. Sometimes, they can surprise you.

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The Karenina Effect

Earlier this year, a heartbreaking event had one of those astounding “everything happens for a reason” impacts on me. The situation was awful, but at the same time, it managed to reconnect me with a friend with whom I had lost contact. It had been about 15 years since I’d spoken with her, and then suddenly we became better friends than we ever were, “back in the day”.

Julie Campbell - Karenina EffectAt some point during our regular, mile-long (or kilometre-long, for those of us who use metric) emails, my old-new friend mentioned that she had downloaded an e-copy of “Anna Karenina” and that she was starting to read it. I had always had an irrational fear of that book, after having heard it mentioned incessantly by the characters in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, which I read when I was in high school. I had assumed that it was a story that would be far too complex for me to understand.

After some encouragement, I downloaded my own copy. Alright, in truth, I downloaded several copies. As much as it may be free and easy to find because it is public domain, there are an awful lot of bad translations out there!

As I first started reading it, I was surprised to see that my friend was right about “Anna Karenina”. It is far more accessible than I had expected it to be. However, as it turns out, accessibility isn’t everything.

When I read for enjoyment, I read to wind down at the end of the day, immediately before I go to sleep at night. It’s the only time I have. Unfortunately, a barely-conscious state is not at all compatible with this story. Tolstoy did love his descriptions and slow-moving dialogue, but my ability to remain awake does not. While I’m certain that the description and dialog create a foundation upon which a glorious story is finally built, I haven’t been able to make it past the first quarter of the book, to see it for myself.

The book has what I am now calling “The Karenina Effect”. Despite the fact that there may be a story buried within it that approaches genius, I will likely never know about it because it has a similar impact on me to a large mug of chamomile tea and the sound of steady rain. Zzzzzz….

Could Tolstoy have known that he was creating the ideal non-prescription Ambien alternative for someone like me? But more importantly (at least, to me it’s more important, and this is my blog post, so there!), will I know it if my own descriptions will have a similar impact on you, Reader, once I finish editing the Book?

A book is a very personal thing. The Book that I’m writing with Amanda is easily one of my favourite parts of my life. I think it’s good. Very good. And I’m working hard to make it better. At the same time, when the day comes for it to be published, is there any way to know for certain that it won’t need a complementary energy drink coupon sold along with it?

Reader, if my blog posts are your best method for combating insomnia, you’d tell me, right?

Note – WordPress has just informed me that as I am using this platform for free, they will occasionally place an add below the posts on this blog.  I just wanted to take this opportunity to say that those are added automatically by WordPress and that none of the ads were selected by either Amanda or myself and neither of us endorse any of the products or services being advertised. 

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The Problem with Then and Now

The last time I looked at the rough draft of the Book (not including the last week) was April 2010, but as I have resumed reading it over, some of the mistakes that I made in the past have come rushing back to me.  Frustrating mistakes.  Some of them are tucked neatly in among the words and are harder to spot. There is one, however, that continues to leap off the page and that feels like a slap in the face, despite my previous efforts to bury it away forever.

Julie Campbell writer mistakesThis mistake was as follows: the book was originally written in the past tense. Then came about the stroke of “genius” that caused the tense to be changed. I’m not laying blame on either Amanda or myself because, frankly, I don’t remember where the idea originated. One day, as we were editing the rough draft (possibly for the grant application of which we will never speak again), we decided to go back over the entire thing and rewrite it in the present tense.

The point was that the present tense would, as the name suggests, give the feeling that the story is happening right now. We hoped that this would help to build more of an emotional connection between the reader and the characters. In theory, the story’s events would have a greater sense of urgency because they were being told as they were happening, instead of being expressed as an event that had previously occurred.

It made sense, at the time.  After all, if I write a scene with a character that you’ve been following for 150 pages and that you’ve come to love, if that character suddenly finds herself in a dead end, facing a giant, terrifying monster that looks like Alien and Bella Swan had a love-child, it seems more spine chilling to say “It’s right in front of me! There’s nowhere for me to go!”, than to say “It was right in front of me! There was nowhere for me to go!”. At least, that was my belief at the time.

Turns out, I can be wrong. No, really!

I can’t stand writing in the present tense when it comes to creative fiction writing. I didn’t realize how strongly I felt that way until I tried to recreate all of my carefully constructed descriptions (which, by the way, were written with far greater skill than the above example). The task took forever to complete.  It took years off my life!  It was careful, meticulous, mind-numbing work and, when the work was complete, (drum roll please) I liked the past tense better. More years off my life.

I have read wonderful books that have been written in the present tense. When done well, this technique can, indeed, build that sense of urgency and emotional connection with the characters. However, that was not the case with the Book. Emotional connection and urgency aren’t exclusively a matter of the verb tense, they are developed through the quality of writing and storytelling! And so began the long and arduous process of rewriting the draft of the Book in the past tense, once more. I now have a life insurance policy.

As I have retaken the task of editing – even after many, many revisions that followed the tense blunder – I am still discovering the occasional word that is written inappropriately in the present tense. Perhaps my subconscious left them in because they knew I’d return to the Book’s editing, one day,  and felt that I needed something to remind me never to make that kind of mistake again. Gee, thanks, subconscious! I was hoping to relive all of that!

From now, until the end of my days (which are much closer, thanks to that tense-switching task), I will follow my creative writing instincts and produce my work in the tense that I know to be right. If I feel that there is a lack of emotional connection or urgency in any part of the story, then I will describe the scenes more effectively. Lesson learned. Did you hear that, subconscious?!

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Nothing has Changed but Something is Different

If I ever tell you that I don’t care what people think about me, then please feel welcome (and justified) to tell me that I’m a liar. A big, bald-faced (what does that even mean?), dirty-rotten liar.

When I started writing on this blog, I told myself – and I may even have told Amanda – that I didn’t care if people read it. I just wanted to be able to express my thoughts and keep myself motivated to get back to the Book’s first draft. I intended to use it like a kind of journal.  Today, not even a week later, I know that either this has changed dramatically, or I was lying to myself (and my bestest friend, for that matter).

Julie Campbell writer feeling great!In my efforts to become a bigger person (in character. only. Physically, I’d rather be a smaller person), I will admit that every time I post another blog, I visit it every few hours so that I can scroll down to the bottom of the text and check how many other bloggers have “liked” it; how many times it has been posted on Facebook; and how many times it has been Tweeted (less important than Facebook, because I still have no idea how Twitter works, despite the fact that I post there regularly). Then I repeat my feeling of frustration at the Google+ button for not giving me a total, dang it!

Clearly, the fact that other people are paying attention to what I have to say means quite a lot to me. As someone who has spent my whole life trying to remain as far from the spotlight as possible, praying that the teacher wouldn’t pick me in class (even if I knew the answer), and loathing any recognition that I received in the workplace for any exceptional achievement (I really am a very driven worker) because it means that someone will talk to me, I seem to be quite the attention-slut when it comes to blogging!

I’ve mentioned, briefly, in one of my earlier posts that I have a social anxiety disorder. After having been called “very shy” my entire young life, my sister happened to hear a radio show about social anxiety disorders and agoraphobia and immediately pointed out to my mother that the former of those conditions sounded exactly like me. I was in my very early 20s at the time.

My mother’s very sharp and exceptionally logical brain suddenly kicked into high gear and filed all of my “unique” behaviors into lists of symptoms, instead of quirks. Suddenly, that day that I came home completely hysterical and sobbing because the transit bus had been crowded and the window was stuck shut – and decades of similar behaviours – made a lot more sense.

I have come a long way, since then, and while I have shared my struggles and my victories with my closest friends and many of my family members, this is the first time that I am discussing my social anxiety and panic disorder openly. Over the years – and a number of different treatments (including 9 years of various medications – Zoloft, Paxil, Ativan, some kind of beta-blocker to slow my heart rate, etc, etc – that I am very grateful to have been rid of for several years now) – I have stopped being embarrassed about it. It’s not something I’m doing wrong. I’m not just shy. But at the same time I have  been continuing to try very hard to keep it hidden. So even if I know you, I likely haven’t told you about it.  Panic attacks aren’t exactly something that make me feel proud, but unless you know me very well, you’d never recognize that I was panicking. It’s much easier to hide the dizziness, pounding heart, nausea, loss of feeling in my hands, chest pain, and likely two to three sleepless nights to follow as I relive the situation and torture myself about it.

Intermission
Wow, this has become a very long post! Please take this opportunity to rest your eyes!

Over the last couple of years, mental health awareness days and the willingness of many well respected public figures to share their own struggles with issues such as depression, social anxiety, panic disorder, bipolar disorder, and others, have made me want to “come out” about my own mental health challenges. As much as it may not be taboo anymore, it still doesn’t feel entirely socially acceptable, either. Many people don’t “get it”, and the thought of being judged is very painful.

But it’s time to share, and it’s time to stop hiding. I am a good person, a friendly person, I’m good at my job, and I try very hard to help other people. I also happen to find it very hard to be seen by others and after something as simple as a conversation, I will replay everything that I did and said – and everything that the other person did and said – until I convince myself that I have offended the other person and embarrassed myself irreparably. It’s not nearly as tough as it used to be. The panic attacks are few and far between now (at my worst, I was having 40+ per day). Still, anything from going shopping to meeting a group of friends, or from family gatherings to saying hello to someone as I take the garbage out can be enough to cause another round of symptoms, self-torture and sleepless nights. Nevertheless, none of this makes me bad, stupid, or crazy.

Why am I going on and on about this? No, I’m not a celebrity and I don’t think that telling people about this will make a big difference to their abilities to cope with their own mental illness struggles.

Julie Campbell writer thank you!The point is that this blog has allowed me to enjoy having people’s attention directed at me, without the typical consequences.  If I hadn’t shared all of this with you, it would be impossible to relay how profoundly important it is to me that, for the first time, I am finding that I want to be seen! It is giving me an entirely new reason to adore writing.  The more I find that people are watching what I write, the happier I seem to be! I am thrilled when I discover that people are liking what I write enough to share my words with their friends on social networks. The one thing I feel most passionate about in life is now being seen by other people, and I’m actually delighted about being in the spotlight!

For this, I’d like to take a brief moment to thank you, Reader. You mean the world to me!

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I Have a Back-To-School Monster in My Head!

For the first twenty-something years of my life, I loathed the Labour Day weekend. It meant that I’d be back in class and have to return to studying after taking a comfortable, mushy-brain break for the previous couple of months.

Julie Campbell writer Scooter the back to school monsterI detested school. That isn’t to say that I hated learning. I’ve always enjoyed that – still do. Unfortunately, only a small fraction of the school experience is actually about learning. A great deal of it has to do with finding out what teachers you have – invariably a mix of great, good, terrible, and terrifying individuals – discovering which people whose last names started with B or C would be forced to sit next to me, and measuring how long the days would feel for the next 10 months (not to mention having had to subject myself, yet again, to boredom, bullying, and the never-ending torture that was public transit).

I don’t think that my school experience was tremendously different from that of anyone else growing up in a similar part of Canada. However, since my graduation, my experience has changed.  I wonder if others out there are going through the same thing, but don’t admit it as openly as I do.

Every year, to an ever-increasing degree, a feeling builds within me at the start of September. It isn’t just mean. It’s a monster inside my head. The year after I graduated, it was an odd sensation – a baby monster – in which I felt as though something dramatic should be “happening” in my life, but nothing did. Instead, I just kept working at the same job that I’d had throughout the summer. With each following September, that feeling has evolved, warped, and darkened. The monster (I’ve been toying with the name “Scooter” for him) has matured. Every year, I glory in the fact that I don’t have to go back to school, but other people still do! As much as I hated going to school, back in the day, I now adore the knowledge that I don’t have to, but other people do! But it’s not my fault! It’s the monster!

What do I have against these students? I have no idea! I’ve never met the vast majority of them. It’s not as though I have children of my own.  I’m not one of those parents who pops the cork on a bottle of bubbly when the school bus pulls away for the first time. I just have a nasty monster inside me that loves the fact that school’s back in, and I’m not going.

Typically, I also feel a demented sense of pride in the despicable back-to-school monster that lives inside me. I usually tell people about it with a wicked grin on my face.

This year, I’ve decided to take a new tack. Instead of embracing the monster, I am arming myself against him and am heading in to battle. As students start hitting the books, I am, too; at least, one specific Book. Now that school is back in again, I am channelling my energy toward more practical purposes. By the end of this week, at least one new page of manuscript will be created from the rough draft. Not a huge goal, but it feels that way at the moment (isn’t that always how it feels at the start of a school year?).

From then on, I’ll be assigning myself weekly homework and I will make progress toward a completed book. This may not be a school year for me, but it is certainly going to be a time of learning, dedication, and hard work, and I’m going to love it. Scooter, you’re going down!

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Writing is Work, But I Still Love it!

If there is one thing that I have learned from the infinite wisdom of cartoons and sitcoms (the primary educators of the children who grew up in the 80’s), it is that being prepared is key to any successful venture. How often did we see our favourite characters losing out because they didn’t bother to make the extra effort?

Julie Campbell writer working hardWhat those episodes, in all their wisdom, didn’t teach was that there is such thing as trying too hard. We’re all told to try hard in life. “Try hard and you’ll succeed”, they say. “Anything worth having is worth fighting for,” is another good one, although that one belonged to Thomas Jefferson and not just “they”. For that matter, Jefferson also said that “I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.”

Although I wouldn’t say that I always trust what “they” say, and I’m not exactly an expert on Thomas Jefferson, either*, it is exactly those attitudes that have been central to any of my efforts to be successful. When I think about any of the people who have made any kind of notable achievement – be it the founding of a company that is now worth a billion dollars or the creation of a successful fundraiser, raising a healthy child or training an aggressive dog – I know that an exceptional amount of blood, sweat, and tears were shed along the way.

I rarely hear about people who have become successful in a project or in their lives (I’m not going to take the time to debate the meaning of “success” at the moment, so just go with this, please) who would say that it wasn’t any effort at all or that it didn’t take any work. Isn’t why the majority of us steer clear of get-rich-quick schemes, as tempting as some may seem?  Because it isn’t possible to achieve great things without work. It just isn’t possible to plant some money trees in the yard (or, in my case, on the balcony next to my obscenely tall tomato plant) and expect to be able to enjoy a bountiful harvest of cash.

And so, with this wisdom planted firmly in my mind, I have tried to attack the rewriting of the manuscript for the Book with a massive level of zeal and fervour; only to feel completely overwhelmed! My mind has been spinning since I started. I am normally a writer who dives forward into a piece, pounding loudly on the keyboard keys, until it is complete, à-la William Forrester from “Finding Forrester”** I don’t think. I don’t obsess. I don’t plan. I just do it. I write.

That makes the editing of the Book a very unique undertaking for me. It’s huge and daunting, and it needs to work with the style, story, and design of my co-author’s contributions (the exceptionally talented and strikingly stunning Amanda Giasson, of course). I can’t just dive in, head first, and type. I need to work hard.

I am certainly trying, but I’m starting to see that my problem appears to be that I have misunderstood the concept of “working hard” as it applies to the Book.  The word “work” has a lot of negative association surrounding it, so when I tell myself to work hard at a task, it usually means that I’m forcing myself to do something unpleasant, but to do it with a maximum amount of thought and effort. In this case, I need to realize that this Book is one of the passions in my life that is the most important to me.  Work doesn’t have to be a pain.  It shouldn’t be!  This is what I love.  I need to get it through my thick skull that work is fun.

Here, working hard means that I need to sit down and read what has been written, love it, digest it, and criticise it. Then, I need to go back over it and change it, then read it again, love it more, and digest some more (is it just me or does it sound like this editing work is going to cause weight gain?). Then, I need to do it again. Then, one day, it will be done. To get there, all I need to do is do it. It’s not just about the goal, it’s about actually taking the steps toward it.

I was just about to leave that last paragraph as the closer, when I glanced up at the wall in front of me. What was looking back? A poster – a gift from Amanda from a few years back – that says “There is no way to happiness – Happiness is the way.” A quote from the Buddha. It looks like my co-author had the answer to my struggle, all along. Waddaya know.

* Thomas Jefferson – I can admit that I have now reached the point that grade 10 history class was so long ago that I remember Jefferson nearly exclusively as “the Louisiana Purchase guy”.

** Finding Forrester – A relatively entertaining movie that I adore, not necessarily because the film was exceptionally clever or unique, but because I feel a strong connection with the Forrester character.  I’m going to be a grouchy shut-in when I “grow up”. I’ve already got the social anxiety and the love of writing. Now all I need to do is start obsessing about the birds I can see through my window, and to wear my socks inside out. What can I say, I aim high.

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