Tag Archives: research

Just Before the Muddy Middle

The path to completion is never easy…

Approaching the muddy middle… never a fun place to be. Photo by Holger Link on Unsplash

There’s a stage in every writing project where the first draft seems unfinishable. For me, that point is usually somewhere between the 50–75% mark. By then, I’m usually frustrated by how slowly things are going, feel like I’m never going to finish the first draft, hate most of what I’ve written, feel that either I’ll never have enough to say to finish a whole book or that there will be no possible way to wade through all the resources and rough notes to and whittle them down to a reasonable number of words that will fit within the target word count. By that point, I’m usually feeling bogged down by all the reading I’ve done and physically am buried under stacks of printed out articles and teetering piles of library books. The number of tabs open in several different browsers are slowing my poor laptop down to prehistoric speeds.

It’s all rainbows and unicorns around here at the moment. I wish I could hang onto this feeling of lightness and optimism as I approach the book-writing equivalent of the doldrums. Photo by Austin Schmid on Unsplash

But just before I get to that dreadful muddly middle where it seems there is no realistic chance I will ever finish writing the first draft, there’s a lovely stage of enthusiasm and ease that lasts up until about the first third is done. I’m nearing the end of that blissful stage in That Deforestation Book and I thought I’d take a moment to pause, reflect, and enjoy the fact that things are going well.

There are loads of resources out there and I’ve sunk my teeth into several (though finished reading none). I’m finding my research is actually fitting quite nicely into the fairly detailed outline I set up in Scrivener. I’ve been told by my editor to be careful because Scrivener and Word (which is how I’ll eventually need to export the draft before it goes off to the editor) don’t always play nicely together. For the moment, I’ve decided not to worry about that too much because I’m finding Scrivener to be quite helpful and a good fit for the chaotic way in which I write. I jump all over the place in a manuscript when I’m starting out and only later go back and get all methodical and chronological about the material. That’s when I realize just how big the gaps are that I’ve left to deal with later…

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For now, though, I am merrily inserting ‘look at this later’ comments to myself when I discover I don’t know as much as I thought I did about specific details (like the percentage of forests in BC that are clearcut each year and how that number has changed over the past 50 years). On the other side, I’m finding resources like the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN) document, Global Forests Resource Assessment 2015 which is available as a free Kindle download and which provides an interesting overview of global deforestation (and replanting) numbers over the past 25 years.

Basically, I’m still feeling optimistic and happy about how things are going. I’m approaching the 30% mark in terms of word count and am easily finding material to slot into the various sections. What I also know is that this feeling of ‘I’ve got this’ is about to turn into ‘What the hell was I thinking?’ as I approach the halfway mark and the beginning of the muddy middle.

Wish me luck!

Also reading: Breakfast of Biodiversity: the Political Ecology of Rain Forest Destruction by John Vandermeer and Ivette Perfecto [and various other titles procured from the library — love my library!]

Word Count (cumulative): Just shy of 3000 words

Suggestions? How do you deal with that terrible place in the middle of a first draft where things slooooooow right down and it seems like you’ll never reach the end?

Haven’t bought the last book yet? Here’s the link to Christmas: From Solstice to Santa

Repost: Coppice vs Pollard – What’s Happening with That Deforestation Book

Wherein a book is nurtured… and willow twigs are bent into all manner of odd shapes… Photo by Nynne Schrøderon Unsplash

If you are following along over on Medium and my author blog (yes, I know, too many blogs…) you’ll likely recognize this as another in the accountability blog post series. That Deforestation Book, as I’ve been calling it, is coming along slowly but surely. Today’s research dug into the differences between coppicing and pollarding. Both involve lopping a tree off at its knees (or ankles) and then waiting to see what happens. In the case of most evergreen species, not much, but if you try this trick with something like a willow or a maple tree it’s more like, ‘holy crap! shouldn’t that thing be dead?’ because after a relatively short time the tree stump sprouts a bunch of fresh sprouts that rapidly grow into usable sticks, poles, and, left for a few years, fence posts. 

So, What’s the Difference between Pollarding and Coppicing?

The difference between the two ancient practices (according to this BBC article, there are coppiced trees in France that have been coming and going, so to speak, for six centuries!) is that one cuts a coppiced tree right to the ground, whereas a pollarded specimen has been cut a bit higher up. In both cases, the new growth is quick, vigorous, and eminently useful.

Furniture of various kinds made from young, flexible twigs… Photo by Isaac Benhesedon Unsplash

Thin, pliable, young shoots may be used for basket or furniture-making, but if you leave your fresh growth to mature for a bit, it’s possible to produce quite a large amount of usable wood in a relatively short amount of time. In addition to the basic concept, I’ve added some new vocabulary (stool, copse, lop, poll) and found a few decent photos, so that whole section is looking reasonable.

Back in my farm and gardening days, I made good use of my coppiced/pollarded bounty to build gates, trellises, structures for supporting beans, peas, cucumbers… Here, my niece is on an Easter egg hunt, oblivious to the magic of coppiced sticks to her left… 

One of the interesting challenges of writing a book in the Orca Footprints series is that the authors must all have some sort of personal connection to the subject at hand. At first glance little old me, a tree lover, might not have an obvious hand in global deforestation (other than the vast number of sheets of paper I print out in the course of writing a book… ), but I’m finding that the connections, in this case, are plentiful. Take coppicing. 

Have I Ever Coppiced a Tree? Why, Yes I Have!

The first time I coppiced a tree was after a wild blizzard on Vancouver Island. A lovely old, but fragile, plum tree split in half and basically disintegrated under the weight of a huge amount of wet, west coast snow. The sprawling wreckage that emerged when the snow melted was heartbreaking, but the debris was also affecting other trees in our orchard as one half of the plum had fallen across a young cherry tree we had planted and the other half had crashed into one of our favourite apple trees. So, we cut the plum tree down thinking that was that. Lo and behold, when spring came a virtual forest of plum tree stalks shot up from the stump. We left the spindly young ones alone for a few years and they put on quite the show of blossoms each spring. Because the original fruiting part of the tree would have been grafted onto rootstock, we never did get any more edible fruit, but the amount of regrowth was truly inspiring and I used quite a few of the new sticks to build some rustic gates and other farm and garden structures.

That was my introduction to the concept of coppicing which, as my father enlightened me at the time, was a common practice back in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. In terms of That Deforestation Book, my fond memories of lopping and chopping have been recycled quite nicely into a sidebar in the pollarding section…

Word count: Running total 2663 (though, that’s a bit inflated because it includes my growing list of references which won’t be included in the final total…Using Scrivener, I’m not quite sure how to exclude a section when doing my word count. If you are a Scrivener expert, do tell…)

W is for Weary, Work, and the Wonders of the Web

 

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April by Martiros Sarian, 1947 Oh, April – what a speedy month you have been! In, out and yikes! May is just arond the corner!

 

Wow. What a month! It looks like I might just make it to the end having made my goal of a post a day, but sheesh – it’s been touch and go! I suppose I should have known better than to try to combine a big book deadline with much of anything else, never mind a daily blogging challenge and a trip or two!

 

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Woman at Her Writing Desk, by Lesser Ury, 1898 Yep. That’s pretty much where I’ve spent the month of April. 

 

I can’t really complain. I’m so lucky to be able to do the work I love and even more lucky to be able to do it from pretty much anywhere in the world, as long as there’s an internet connection available. I don’t know where I’d be without being plugged into the web, I must say.

This book I’m working on now, for example. It’s about medically-assisted dying (euthanasia, assisted suicide, mercy killing, murder) and all the many medical, ethical, legal, moral, and personal considerations that lie behind the decision to live or die. The Internet has proven to be a rich source of raw material. From documentaries and news clips to lengthy articles in mainstream newspapers to scholarly dissertations in all manner of obscure academic journals, as well books and audiobooks, I’ve been kept busy plowing through more sources than one could hope for in terms of finding lots of background on the subject.

 

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Death and Wife, by Albrecht Durer, 1510 In a strange way, Death has been my companion for the past many month and thousands of words… 

 

I’ve also been talking to people online – through texts and emails but also through online ‘phonecalls’. I’ve been able to use an online transcription service to record and then transcribe some of those conversations. Even ten years ago, such a wealth of information would have been much more difficult (impossible?) to access. I’ve been working on this book for 18 months or so, reading, researching, thinking, listening, watching and learning in Paris, Spain, the Rocky Mountains, the Caribbean, and on the west coast. I’ve downloaded books and articles onto my phone so I can read while I’m standing in the lineup at the grocery store or while trapped in waiting rooms or getting from here to there and back on planes, trains, and automobiles. I’ve dreamt about death. Thought about it pretty much every day since I took this project on.

 

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Birmingham Reference Library, the Reading Room by Edward R. Taylor, 1881 I bet this library had a card catalogue. I must be among the last humans on the planet to have been taught how to use a card catalog. Computers were creeping in everywhere when I was at university, but to find a book at the library, one still had to thumb through the soft-with-use cards.  

 

The problem isn’t really ‘can I find the information’? it’s, how on earth do I distill all this, organize it well, and then shoehorn it into what is actually quite a limited word count, considering the vast quantity of information I’m starting with?

Whenever I think, impossible! I need to expand the manuscript! I need more words! I think of something my mother once told me. She said that you don’t really understand a subject properly until you can explain it to your grandmother from another country. By which, I think, she meant that if you really know your stuff you should be able to explain anything, even the most complex of topics, clearly and succinctly to someone who has absolutely no background or understanding of the subject.

 

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Scissors and Lemon by Richard Diebenkorn Cut. Cut. Cut. That’s what I’m doing next. Which seems a bit odd since what I’ve been doing for months is add. Add. Add. Write. Write. Write. 

 

The other lesson I learned early (in my capacity as a copywriter at a radio station) is that you should be able to convey a complicated idea (in that case, usually about a business, product or event) in very few words. A thirty-second spot can’t last 35 seconds. Concise. Precise. Economical. Those were buzz words back then, and that early training has made me aware that cutting and paring are more fun if treated like a puzzle and a game. Just how many words can you take away and still tell your story?

 

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Death of the Countess by Alexandre Benois, 1910. This might just as well be named, Death of the Writer as this is a pretty accurate likeness of me at the moment. 

 

With that in mind, I’m going to embrace my next couple of days of slicing, dicing, chopping, and cutting as I whittle away at what is currently a too-long draft. I have 72-hours before the deadline. I can do this. I can.

O is for Opportunity, Outlines, Opening and Getting Organized

 

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Typewriter Eraser, Scale X  (collaboration with van Bruggen) by Claes Oldenburg (1999)
This is one of my favourite sculptures in Seattle. A huge typewriter eraser, it brings back memories of the bad old days when I had to retype whole pages when faced with more than two mistakes. Those erasers chewed holes in the page if you weren’t careful!

 

OK. Whether or not I get this post done will be in the hands of the blog gods… because, yeah – I’m not as organized as I probably should have been today. Both of my writing groups meet today – one in the afternoon and one in the evening and, of course, I’m scrambling to polish the opening of the assisted dying book to whip it into reasonable shape so I can get some feedback. That’s how it goes, sometimes. Often, if I’m honest. The deadline looms and suddenly I am a writing machine.

Which is not to say I haven’t been working on the book for the last… oh, I don’t know – 18 months or so. I have been steadily busy – reading, researching, making notes – organizing my thoughts, writing outlines, writing sections and then – making more notes, re-organizing everything, adding more stuff, finding better ways to express complicated ideas.

But there’s something about knowing the editor needs the manuscript on her desk on May 1 that sends terror into my heart, lights a fire under my backside, and sends words flying across the keyboard (or, fingers flying across the keyboard and words scrolling across the screen).

 

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Sometimes it’s a real challenge to follow my thoughts as they zig-zag all over the place during the revision process…  

 

It’s coming along. I will get the draft done on time. But wow – this has been a tough project to wrangle into shape. That said, when I had the opportunity to explore a topic as interesting and relevant as this one, there was no way I was going to let it slip away. In that way, I am a ‘yes’ person through and through. I’ve never been one to walk away from a challenge. That’s not to say I’ve always been successful with every project I’ve attempted: failures have taught me as much (more?) than my triumphs. But neither (successes or flops) would have been possible without trying.

 

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Edouard Manet: Young Woman With a Book (1875) It’s sooooo much more fun to relax and read a good book than it is to pull out your hair trying to write one… 

 

And that, my friends, is all I’ve got today. Here’s hoping things will be a bit better balanced tomorrow and I won’t be writing this with one eye on the clock and my heart beating just a bit too fast than is probably good for me.

 

 

D is for Dying (#atozchallenge2018)

 

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Édouard Manet’s Dead Eagle Owl, 1881  Transforming death into art… 

 

The theme of this month’s blogging challenge is Transitions, Travel and Transformation. Dying could be said to be all three.

This past year I’ve read more about death (more precisely, the process of dying) than I would have thought possible. And, no – I have not developed a morbid obsession with the subject and no, I am not ill and no, nobody in the family has been stricken with a terminal illness. But I am writing a book for a new Orca Books series about the subject of medically assisted dying. What a rich and complex topic this has turned out to be!

 

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Pyramid of Skulls by Paul Cézanne, 1901

 

I remember my mother once telling me she had a terminal disease. I was, of course, horrified. She was quick to add, “well, so do you. So does everyone.” I was perhaps 11 and still didn’t quite get what point she was trying to make. Sensing my confusion she asked, “You do know what terminal means, don’t you?”

“You’re going to die?”

She nodded and laughed. “Aren’t you?”

The fact I still remember this exchange so many years later is indicative of how rattled I was at the time. I knew, in some theoretical way, that one day my parents would die. And, I suppose, I knew that we all have to go at some point, but it all seemed so removed from reality. So unlikely. I had not experienced death at that point. Had no idea what I was in for.

 

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Paul Cezanne’s Young Man with a Skull

 

As a result of my reading and I research I asked my father (now in his early 80’s) if I could interview him for the book, you know, have a chat about death. He was a bit offended, I think, and replied that he wasn’t planning to go anywhere anytime soon.

 

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Gustav Klimt – Death and Life, 1915

 

This pair of conversations with my parents pretty much sums up our North American discomfort with the inevitable. Yes, we sort of know it’s coming – but later and to someone else first.

 

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The Three Ages of Man and Death by Hans Baldung – 1541-ish

 

As a result, few of us have had proper discussions with loved ones about our wishes for end of life care. Even when we’ve carefully written out medical directives, the system (medical, legal) doesn’t always know quite what to do with them. It’s very hard to write a directive that will cover all circumstances. And, when the time comes, people sometimes change their minds and families are notorious for not wanting to let go.

I’m writing this post in the airport while waiting for my flight back to Canada from France. Assuming nothing goes dreadfully wrong, I’ll be back at home in about 20 hours from now. Given all the thinking and reading and ruminating I’ve been doing about the subject over the past many months, getting my thoughts and intentions regarding what I do and don’t want done with my dying body has now moved up on my To-Do list.

 

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Found Drowned by George Frederick Watts, 1850

 

What about you? Do you have an end-of-life directive? Do your loved ones know what it is? Have you had a conversation (or several) with those who may have to make those decisions on your behalf when the time comes? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below… See you tomorrow on the other side of the pond!

You know, you don’t need to wait until you are dead to consider how best to share your wealth around… If you find yourself in a contemplative (and generous) mood, consider becoming a patron to support the creation of these blog posts, photo essays, and short videos. In return, you’ll have my undying appreciation, but you’ll also get access to Patron-only content, advance peeks at works in progress, and more – all for as little as a buck a month! It’s easy – head on over to Patreon to have a look at how it all works. One of the things Patrons will find out about me in a private post is the location of my grave. I’m not in it yet, obviously, but we do have a family plot and I have staked my claim!

 

 

Do You Hygge? (reposted from nikkitate.com)

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Sometimes it feels like everything I do, read, think about is research. Case in point, this kalenderlys, which I found on Flickr (thank you, Sakena Ali!). Dani and I are putting the finishing touches on Christmas: From Solstice to Santa and we are at the stage where we are working with the designer to finalize the last few images. You might think I came across the tradition of the Danish advent candle (each evening in December you burn your kalenderlys until you reach the next of 24 lines inscribed on the side of said candle) by googling something like candles at Christmas or something logical like that. But no, I arrived at the kalenderlys via a dating app for professionals.

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I moved to Alberta not that long ago and don’t know many people in writing and publishing, so I thought I’d give Shapr a try. The app is intended for professionals looking to make business connections and works a lot like Tinder – swipe one way for someone who looks interesting and relevant, the other for those who seem to be selling financial management products. Not to say that I couldn’t benefit from some financial management consulting, but my interests tend to run in other directions.

Anyway, one of the matches that popped up was a blogger called Angela Davis who lives in St. Albert, Alberta. Angela has a blog called Hedonism and Hygge (subtitle: Live with Pleasure). So, most of the words I knew… hedonism… pleasure – yes, fine. But hygge? Before clicking on the link in Angela’s profile I googled hygge (what can I say, hedonism and pleasure could have taken me to a very different kind of website to the delightful one that Angela authors) only to discover a whole, huge world of hygge that I had no idea existed!

Hygge, it turns out, is a Danish thing that can be loosely translated as ‘cosy togetherness’ or ‘taking pleasure in soothing things’ or ‘enjoying the company of friends by candlelight’. There’s a whole hygge movement and a stack of books available from the local library system. I know because I immediately requested several of them.

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No sooner had I opened one published by the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen than I was reading about how Danes use more candles (over six kilos of candle wax per Dane per annum!!!!!) than anyone else in Europe. They also love their kalenderlys’s! (or whatever the correct plural would be in Danish).

Who knew? I love candles, personally, but almost never burn them. The principles of hygge encourage candle-burning, especially during the long wintery nights that lie ahead. It’s probably too late to order my own kalenderlys for this year, but next year… look out! Meanwhile, with any luck, we will be able to add an image to the chapter in the book about light and celebrating Christmas around the world.

What is your favourite tradition to celebrate the days leading up to Christmas?