5 Things I Learned From MG Vassanji

I have been reading THE BOOK OF SECRETS and last night went to a reading by the author, MG Vassanji . To a packed room he read the title story from his book of short stories called WHEN SHE WAS QUEEN. I listened attentively as a writer and here are some of the things I learned.

1. Open a novel or memoir with a family mystery and the questions surrounding it; this can lead into your back story. In the story Vassanji read, the role of ‘gambling’ is revealed in the opening line; then the story unravels into back story, characters and plot.

2. The importance of linkages: “I recall a man….” leads to description of his father; “how trivial events can change your life” leads to another story. Then from India, he switches into the present: “as I walk with my mother along Don Mills Road” and talks about his mother who, in turn, reveals more bits about his father.

3. A particular setting e.g. The Rose Hotel in India offers a great opportunity to describe all the interesting characters who were regulars there.

4. Advice to writers: start with a little piece of your story: a character, a setting, whatever you have and write. Then, revise, revise, revise!

5. His first novel was based on memories; in THE BOOK OF SECRETS he used a diary as a device to tell the story. Each of his books is different, non-fiction harder than fiction. It’s hard for the author to remember how he wrote them; he just moves on to his next project. As an established and two time Giller winning author, even Vassanji worries about losing his gift for writing.

Tips from Tish

I almost finished this post a few days ago on the Blog Direct gadget on my iGoogle page, but something happened, and I lost it all. I may have I touched the wrong key or it just refreshed and disappeared.

Not sure if I can even recall what it was about. Something about what Tish Cohen said the other night about selling one of her books ‘direct to film’. I just about fell off my chair when she said that. I had never thought about a film for my book except as a remote possibility in a book contract long after the book came out. But the reverse order got me thinking. What would it take for a book to sell directly to Hollywood?

Tish herself revealed one feature that could be your ticket to Hollywood: a unique voice. Voice trumps everything, she said. Even if your plot is weak or your characters sketchy, you can still hit a home run with a fresh voice that grabs the reader. Once you’ve found your voice, she suggests going so far as to incorporate a hint of it into your query letter. Clearly she’s a risk taker. I would calculate my risk here and choose my words and style with care. The point is don’t make your query letter too business- like.

The other way a writer could hedge her bets on Hollywood is to focus on the scenes, making them as vivid and cinematic as possible with a lot of sensual detail. What do you see? What can you smell? What sounds do you hear? How do things feel ? How do things taste? And the 6th sense? Emotional awareness. How does it make you feel? I recently reviewed a novel by Canadian filmmaker Shandi Mitchell, UNDER THIS UNBROKEN SKY. The reader comes away with so many images, vivid scenes begging to be transposed to the big screen. With her background, this may be what Shandi intended.

What’s a Fragmoir, Logline, Six-Word Memoir or an Elevator Speech?

In this age of short attention spans and shameless self-promotion, writers have to be prepared to sell themselves in short sound bites whenever someone asks: So, what are you writing?

Memoirs Ink invite writers on their blog to try compression with a Fragmoir contest; Fragmoir is defined as a short (as in a 144 character Tweet) description of your life. An example: I swore I'd not kill myself if she stayed. She told me not killing myself was, frankly, not helpful. It’s kind of a cross between a status update and a summary of your life. Mine submitted for today would be: Aspiring writer spends all her time on social media to sell the book she hasn’t yet written.

I only heard the word 'logline' for the first time 2 days ago listening to Tish Cohen at the Richmond Hill library. A logline is a concise 1 or 2 sentence description of a film, screenplay or book which must include:
• Who is the main protagonist, described with a well-chosen adjective?
• What is their goal?
• What stands in their way – the antagonist?
• And sometimes a brief set up of the story

It’s the blurb you read in a movie guide that helps you decide which film to watch, e.g. A young man and woman from different social classes fall in love aboard an ill-fated voyage at sea. (Titanic) It's the grabber, the powerful hook to draw the reader, agent, publisher, or producer to your story. I wonder what my logline would be?

Smith Magazine started a contest a few years ago based on the concept of a Six-Word Memoir, life stories distilled into 6 words. The idea took off like a wildfire and they have now published several books since the first, NOT QUITE WHAT I WAS PLANNING. The idea came from Hemingway: For sale: baby shoes, never worn. That line makes me shudder every time I read it. What a story we could all write. The challenge is to condense our own story into 6 well-chosen words that have as much depth. Can I do it? Can you?

The last compression challenge is the 'elevator speech', coined in the pre-digital era. A writer might meet someone in an elevator and have just enough time before the doors opened to utter 1 short sentence in reply to: What’s your book about? How do you squish 80,000+ words into 1 line? Find the key words. Focus on the protagonist. Ignore side plots. Make it under 25 words. I’m working on mine. Are you?

Post Direct

Blogger has a new way to post directly to your blog from your iGoogle page. I'm trying it out. Sounds like an easy way to blog more frequently without cutting and pasting. We'll see.

Just tried to post direct and as I was finishing, lost the whole thing! Arrrrgggg!

Getting Published

Yesterday I received a package containing a copy of Grandmothers’ Necklace where two of my poems appear: one about each of my grandmothers.

I tear the padded bag open and am unprepared for the thrill. OMG, as the kids say in text-speak; my chest fills with pride as I search for my entries. There’s one of them on the first page! Knowing You © Ruth Zaryski Jackson 2009. I exhale, read quickly through it and glance at the photo of my paternal grandmother, my Baba. Very nice, though the quality of the photo I sent was poor. Still, the first entry. Good start.

Next, I look for my other one. There it is on page 38 but whoops, my name is misspelled: Zarysky instead of Zaryski. Flash of anger. That was careless of somebody. The editor, the publisher; who to blame? Gradually I relax. I talk to myself. It’s ok, Ruth. It’s correct in the first entry. Maybe they can correct it in future print runs. Just chill.

I forget about the error and focus on the poem. Wash Day © Ruth Zaryski Jackson 2009. Looks fine, though not as prominent on the left side of the book. The old photos of my grandmother and my mother at age 6 are not bad. I read the poem and smile. Not too bad at all.

I’d arranged to meet a couple of old university friends in Toronto last night at the former Park Plaza Hotel Roof Top Lounge, so I tuck a copy of the book in my bag. When I show it to them, they’re impressed. I smile with pride. I’m a writer now and here’s proof.

By the time I roll into bed, after reading a few more pieces in the book, I yawn and expect to be out in a flash. No. The excitement is still bubbling. I enjoy the reruns of the day for several more hours.

Valentine's Memories

My brother Jim was born on Valentine’s Day 65 years ago. I still remember staring out the front window of our house on Charles Street at the snow and lights,wondering where my parents had gone. I was the firstborn, almost four, and my life was changing. Since then, Valentine’s Day in our family was always about Jim’s birthday.


We did exchange valentines at school. Secret valentines to our crushes and others to our friends. How many did you get? Were you as popular as me? Did you have any secret admirers? It was all about friendship and love and popularity. I didn’t mind the first two, but I hated competing with others for votes. It cheapened the sincerity of friendship for me.

In high school there were Valentine’s Day dances or sock hops. Were they the same as Sadie Hawkins Dances where the girls could ask the boys out? That was a big deal in the 1950s. You were supposed to wait for the boys to ask you. They had the responsibility of walking up to you in hall at school or phoning you to ask for a date. Girls were supposed to be passive and wait for a call. But that social rule was reversed for Sadie Hawkins, and girls could ask the boys. The pressure was excruciating; I may have screwed up my courage a few times to ask someone. Being rejected didn’t make it any easier, even if it made us more empathic.

In 1976 I got married on Valentine’s Day, so now the day is associated with the day my husband and I took our vows. It was a beautiful wedding at our home with all our friends and family. The room was filled with daffodils, love and laughter. When I look back, I remember my na├»ve hope that it would last; and it has. Not without bumps, sometimes big ones. The memories make Valentines’ Day a very special one for me.

Memoir or Fiction?

On Sunday I attended an inspiring Books and Brunch session sponsored by a local independent book store, Blue Heron Books. Featured speakers were Kim Echlin and Marina Nemat. Despite the fact I hadn’t read either of their most recent books, The Disappeared and Prisoner of Tehran, both speakers moved me deeply and got me thinking.

Kim Echlin’s novel is a love story, a story of loss and longing set amidst the Cambodian genocide of the Pol Pot regime. Admired by the judges for her sensual details and spare prose, it t was shortlisted for the Giller prize in 2009. She spoke to the group of choosing to bear witness to the Cambodian horrors and family impacts of the killings by making it the backdrop for her fictional characters. A choice to write fiction.

Marina Nemat’s shocking memoir is a true tale of her imprisonment at the age of 16 by the Khomeini regime in Iran. She was tortured, beaten, forced to marry her torturer. She suffered beyond belief, yet survived to tell the story. I was almost in tears as she spoke. But, I wondered, when she had to steel herself psychologically in order to survive, how much of the detail can she honestly remember? I know she writes a disclaimer that she’s done her best. The rules for memoir now include using dialogue and other techniques of fiction writing. I was so moved by her story and determination to speak out against oppression wherever it occurs. Still I wondered about choosing to write a memoir. Did she ever consider writing it as fiction?

As I think about my own story, I wonder about the difference between fiction and memoir, and how do you choose the best form for your story? Do you write a healing memoir as Marina has done, remembering as best you can after a traumatic experience and adding dialogue to make the story interesting? Or do you write your story as fiction, still telling the story you intended to tell, but without the constraints of a memoir format?