The Necessity of Downtime

I’ve long known that even when I’m relaxing, reading, people watching or just day dreaming, I’m still in a strange way ‘writing.’ It’s a paradox. The writer needs to sit down and transfer those thoughts, feelings and imaginings on to paper, but if that is all they are doing, if all they do is work, eat and sleep, their writing will eventually suffer.


(Published in ROOM, Canada’s oldest feminist literary journal)

I used to feel guilty about my ‘chill time.’ But I no longer do.

What I write is filtered through my life experiences. Interactions with less than savoury characters, small talk with charming personalities, the unplanned trip to a garden centre, a long rest on a bench beside a river, unexpected laughter at a funeral, sudden heartbreak at a wedding, a favourite chair, graffiti on a wall, a funny cat … all these things take hold and root, then they are ‘reborn’ in our novels.


(Frankie, telling me “Gimme some attention. Now.”)


I don’t mean that authors actually use their books as a means to immortalize nasty ex-lovers, frenemies or in-laws who criticized us for decades. NO! What I mean is that what and who we observe–little details, random acts of kindness, discourtesy or arrogance, the hero who insists ‘I just did what anyone would do in the same situation,’ the misogynist bigoted jerk who reamed out an employee in front of sympathetic customers, the quivering old woman visiting her daughter’s grave, still, after forty years, peacemakers and warmongers, the magnificent painted rocks left by an unnamed artist, the cobwebs in a corner, countless strengths and weaknesses, vices and virtues… all these things? They are the driving force behind works-in-progress. They light a fire that refuses to be extinguished.

Writers must dedicate time to the craft of writing and GIVE ‘ER. But the stroll through the garden, the movie watched with loved ones, book browsing and petting one’s cat and actually taking a bath instead of the normal two-minute shower and rereading a favourite mystery? These, too, are essential for the creative process. Stories need to be nurtured, given air and light. Play can be work, too, 😉


(Close to home, a respite, a place to reflect….)


Cheers.

The Lure of Old Homes

One reason I love Gothic fiction is that I’m simply mad about mansions. I like how these larger settings provide both time and space for the main character to develop. As many of us have learned during lockdowns, seclusion can alter our emotions, perception, actions and (at times) even our spirituality. What does quietude do? How loud does a squeaking door sound when it has been dead silent for hours?



I enjoy researching older homes. I like how rooms once served a specific purpose, as if each were a little secluded island… libraries, parlours, dens, dressing rooms, butlers’ pantries. I do, however, dislike certain features like servants stairs and nursery rooms, the whole ‘keep them out of sight and mind’ classism/ageism apathy is not something I find in any way appealing.

I do not feel that the past should be overly romanticized, yet I can appreciate the beauty of historical architecture. I find transom windows, milk doors, built-in bookshelves, Victorian fireplaces, carved handrails, and crystal chandeliers to be undeniably book-worthy, and a delightful contrast to all that is vile, crass or immoral. I mean, there above the protagonist is a magnificent plaster angel while someone (or something) monstrous lies in wait behind a door.

As a reader, I love encountering that contrast, that tension. As a mystery author, it’s what I strive to capture with mere words: the dark hidden in the light, and the light hidden in the dark. Cheers.

Opulent Staircase at Castle Kilbride, in Baden, Ontario. This author has attended a ghost tour in said estate. She lives five minutes away from this lovely mansion.



I find the mix irresistible. Don’t you?

For those interested, here is an interesting video that shows some of those older home features.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CJfDtjir0IQ

City Girl, Small Town Life

The Nith River and North America’s Largest Operating Waterwheel

I was born and raised in Montreal, and our family moved to Ontario when I was fifteen. I lived for many years in the Greater Toronto Area, before my husband and I chose to relocate to Kitchener, Ontario. We lived in the city for over twenty years, and when our daughter turned four, we chose to live a simpler, quieter life west of the city.

Bench beside the New Hamburg Public Library


How much of my novel’s setting is based on an actual town? Well, New Hamburg is not my fictional Bliss River, though the Nith does snake through the town, and I will say that during a time of crisis, my community rallies around those who need help and support. Our volunteer firefighters are dedicated, real life heroes. Our library is wonderful, and the librarians are hardworking and so kind.

I enjoy how close I feel to nature, here. Each spring, a heron returns. Each summer, spider webs cover our metal bridge. Fishing is a popular sport, and our gas station offers live bait. We have a bowling alley that has been in business for decades. A rubber duck race (yes, I said Rubber Duck race) is held on Canada Day. The Wilmot Horticultural Society takes wonderful care of our town’s gardens. In the autumn, there is a Fall Fair, and come December, an annual tree lighting ceremony.

Great Blue Heron

New Hamburg is situated between Kitchener and Stratford, so I am close to malls, theatres, and cultural events. I am so thankful that we live where we do. It’s a perfect place for a writer– inspiration rises like mist from the river, nurtures my spirit and warms my heart.

Thank you, New Hamburg.

Creative Journaling

Though I’ve created a character who is an artist with a masters degree, I’m just a happy crafter with a college education. I enjoy sketching, painting, making collages and needlework. I’ve been following a few creative journaling vloggers, as I so enjoy what they do and how they do it. Frankly, I find even the concept of this type of self-expression to be calming, centering, wholesome.

I’ve decided my first journal will record family traditions and memories-in-the-making. I found the activity to be relaxing. I look forward to designing more pages and creating a memory book for my daughter.

As I work on my second novel, I’ll reward my progress with doing another layout. I’m shamelessly obsessed with pens and papers and stickers and stamps. If my husband wanted to make me disappear for a weekend, all he’d need to do is to drop me off at a stationary shop. I’d happily gab away for hours with fellow journaling enthusiasts.

Now, a few readers may wonder, will creative journaling appear in some way, in some form, in any of my novels? You’ll have to read my books to find out 🙂 Cheers – and Happy Saturday.

Place as Character

Revision involves a lot of math, I’ve learned. Sometimes, it’s about adding that one thing that was initially missing and then subtracting what isn’t necessary.  There is so much to calculate. Authors divide their stories into sections.  We strive to multiply emotional connections, to (groan now, go ahead) compound interest.    

And what of equations? (Okay, the metaphor ends now. Promise)  Well, there are six main elements to fiction:  character, setting, plot, conflict, point of view, and theme; how these elements entwine is dependent on the author’s style, the story’s voice and—to a certain degree—the book’s genre.

I write Gothic mysteries, so I strive to add a considerable amount of atmosphere to my work.   Place can be a presence, can set a mood and can alter how characters interact.  The setting itself can instill conflict and direct the plot.   Themes may be seeded carefully in a novel by being mindful of exactly where this story is set.  

Crooked Lane Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, will be publishing my mystery next spring.  My novel is set in Northeastern Ontario, and my husband jokingly said I should apply for a grant from ‘Destination Ontario’ for promoting our province in the way that I have.  My book is chockfull of all things CANADIAN, save for back bacon and beer stubbies.

What I’ve done is to use both the broader area and one location as characters. 

The woodlands that surround ‘Bliss River’ (my fictional town) play a large role in my story.  I describe not only the gorgeous landscape but also much of the flora and fauna in the region.   I felt that some readers would enjoy Northern scenery, some glimpses of forests and wildlife.  Again, however, this is about balance.  Too much IS too much.  (Albeit, I teetered on that fine line.)

The old parsonage where my story takes place is undergoing a renovation, but a stop-work-order was issued.  Things are half-finished.  Some rooms have barely been touched. 

My main character, Annora Garde, is an art conservator who is used to working in labs.  She is cleaning a moldy mural to help solve a sixty-year-old cold case.   The parsonage is in disarray, appears in some areas to be safe, hospitable and somewhat refined.  But other areas in the building hide toxicity.   Because even a building can keep a secret 😉  

My advice to new writers is to consider where your story takes place.  Alter your perspective whenever you can.   Pan out, if possible, and include that wider perspective, then zoom in close, closer, even closer.  Setting is three dimensional—so give your readers a map and let them explore. 

Cheers.

The Northern Lights

Feedback & Its Role in Publication

I thought I’d share my experiences with editorial feedback, constructive criticism, the art of revision and following one’s creative instincts. Newer writers tend to get defensive when it comes to feedback. Learning how to respond to feedback is an essential skill for writers. Eventually, some kind editor will provide some good advice and the writer’s job is to listen, decide if the advice is solid, and if it is, then revise accordingly.

Trying to change the editor’s view on why your work doesn’t need to be changed or that you know best will not only alienate the editor, it will most likely prevent you from getting traditionally published.

Should you decide to not revise your work and send it elsewhere, just as is, I recommend not getting surly with the editor. Simply thank him or her for their time and consideration. Ditto should you receive a rejection. Getting snippy at the publisher for not recognizing your artistic vision will get you nowhere fast and slamming her/him with a “obviously your publication is too mainstream for my cutting edge style” just proves that you are as far from a professional writer as street-meat is from a fillet mignon. You may think you’re Kafka, but opinions are allowed to vary, so keep all correspondence courteous and leave snip-snaps out of your tone.

I am somewhat fixated on the work of Edward Hopper, and this sketch…

evening-wind edward hopper

…Inspired this poem: 

Violation original

This poem was part of a submission to The Dalhousie Review, submitted January 2017. It can take close to a year to receive a reply from a literary journal. They receive thousands of submissions, and their acceptance rate is usually somewhere between 1 -12%. I was overjoyed when the editor let me know that one of my poems had received a ‘conditional acceptance.’ They requested that I revisit two lines. One word they felt needed to be changed, and another word was suggested to be removed.

I spent a full day sweating out that one word (Poets will understand this. Most novelists will chuckle, I think) The poem was eventually accepted with my minor revisions.

This is the revised version:

Violation revised and published

Now, I have yet to find online any poet sharing a request for revisions (edit notes) or their correspondence with a journal –perhaps in fear of a breach in confidentiality or maybe it’s an ego issue? I have removed the name of the editor, who is a kind soul and so encouraging. I am sharing this as a teaching tool so that those who are still seeking publication understand the process.

I’ve taken two screen shots of my poem—the original version and the revised and published version.

Also, I love reading through a journal and finding a stand-out piece. It’s wonderful to let other writers know how their work affected you, how you were moved. Social media is not only about touting your own work. Make sure to share what you’ve enjoyed as A READER.  I did so with this journal

My facebook post thanking TDR

Cheers,
Cyndi

About The Dalhousie Review:

The Dalhousie Review was founded in 1921 and has been in continuous operation ever since. During the early years it published scholarly essays by notable political thinkers, historians, literary scholars, poets and novelists, such as Archibald MacMechan, Sir Robert Borden, Eliza Ritchie, E.J. Pratt, Douglas Bush, Charles G.D. Roberts, Frederick Philip Grove, Hugh MacLennan, Hilda Neatby, Eugene Forsey, Thomas Raddall and Earle Birney. In the second half of the twentieth century TDR also began to publish short fiction and poetry, including the work of Norman Ward, George Woodcock, Mavor Moore, Owen Barfield, Miriam Waddington, Alden Nowlan, Malcolm Lowry, Chinua Achebe, Nadine Gordimer, Margaret Atwood and Guy Vanderhaeghe. TDR is thus one of the oldest and most prestigious literary journals in Atlantic Canada, and it has developed an international reputation for publishing consistently high-quality work by established and emerging writers in Canada and around the world.

From initial feedback to a published poem: a look at the process

 

Editor comments I received:
MacMillan, “Violation” (After Evening Wind by Edward Hopper) Acceptance with minor suggested changes:

In the liminal, sketched, ordinary-bent-sideways moves of this layered piece, two moves jumped out as not fitting the rest, both in the final stanza: might these 2 moves be pulled back a little – so the ending doesn’t land so heavy (at odds with the rest). Specifically:
line 11: “beast” – are there other possibilities here, that aren’t as blunt and overt and weighty? (hoping the “coiled as daybreak” is somehow kept, that fits)
line 12: “…, yet again” – does the poem need this? Consider cutting; or, if kept, pull back a little — the comma plus “again” feels plenty, can makes the same gesture with a slightly lighter hand (to fit the piece that’s led us here).

My Email response to the editor:

Dear xxxx;

I’ve made the recommended changes to “Violation.”

I agree with the editors that the word “beast” was too weighty; it has both biblical and mythical connotations which don’t serve a purpose in this particular poem. I had used the word because it appears as though Hopper intentionally rendered a sleeping dragon in the twisted sheets ( a kind of Rorschach test for the overly imaginative, I suppose) and I wanted to pay tribute to his artistic vision.

In order to surgically remove the word and to provide a proper setting for the new one, I also changed the first word “becomes.” I wanted to capture the original connotation of beast, lighten the line, but keep it wide. So, here is the new line.

“hounds a restlessness as coiled as daybreak.”

‘Hounds’ gives that predatory feel I wanted to invoke. Restlessness has an ambiguous quality that works well, I think. The word also is sibilant. The hiss plays off of “coil” while “hounds” has an almost onomatopoetic quality… a howl.

This being said, I am eager to work with the editors should they feel the change is too much (or misses the mark!)

Though I think the poem now works better, I am still open to any suggestions. I welcome further feedback … all the while hoping I’ve fine-tuned the poem to The Dalhousie Review’s recognized high standards.

Attached, please find my revised poem and the signed and dated author’s agreement.

Warm Regards,
Cyndi MacMillan

I look forward to hearing from you. Thank you, again, for this amazing opportunity to be published in your journal. I’m beyond thrilled.

PS- xxxx, I’ve also attach Hopper’s etching (and a close up of the balled sheet) with you and the editors to show why it “hounded” me so… snout, eye sockets, flattened ears… just thought I’d share the inspiration. The sketch is a poem in itself, I think… breathtaking….

Their response:

Dear Cyndi,

Thank you again for sending us your work as well as your revisions. The editors would like to proceed with the publication of “Violation.”

If you are still interested in publishing your work with The Dalhousie Review, please can you email me your assurances that the poem has been neither published nor accepted for publication elsewhere?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Take care,

xxxx

My happy reply!

Dear xxxx:

I am so glad the editors enjoyed the changes I made to “Violation”; the poem has not been published elsewhere nor has it been accepted by any other journal. I’m happy it has found a home with The Dalhousie Review!

Can you please let the editors know that I appreciate their consideration? I recognize there are thousands of poems they read and each has the potential to be published.

Thank you for making my day with this good news. I’d been out walking in the blowing snow, and I was rather numb from the cold. Your email warmed me right to my toes!

Will “Violation” be printed in the spring issue?

Gratefully,
Cyndi

Their reply:

Hi Cyndi,

Thanks for your quick response! I’ll certainly pass along your thanks to our editors.

I believe your poem will be included in our next issue, 97.3 (Winter). I’ll know more in the next few days, and will be sending along page proofs for your approval as soon as possible. (We expect that issue to be out before the end of January).

Stay warm!

xxxx

Further correspondence from the editor:

Dear Cyndi,

Please find attached page proofs for your work. Please let me know as soon as possible if you require any revisions.

Take care,
xxxx

… and my reply…

Looks great, xxxx!
No revisions required.
I’m looking forward to reading the journal in its entirety.

Cheers from Cyndi

So, What is Creativity?

i-dream-my-painting

Today, I’m thinking about creativity.

As a former Early Childhood Educator who has studied child development and curriculum, I recognize that creativity is a process, not a finished project. Creativity is about forming original ideas. Creativity gives full freedom to explore both environment and materials.  Creativity, at its core, is about observation, independent thinking, innovation and imagination.

There is nothing more detrimental to children’s creative process than being shown a finished piece so that they can strive to mimic it, if not in totality, then in some way.  You will paint King Tut.  You will ALL paint King Tut.

Currently, there are many so-called art classes for youngsters that are promoted as being creative when, in fact, the instructor hands the kids a stencil and selects the paint colours for them. Only the few finishing touches (like where the eyes are painted or if the cat has black fur or brown fur) somehow makes the piece unique and personal. Um. No.

Perhaps, the instructors feel that parents put more emphasis on the finished piece than on their children finding inspiration and developing self-realization. After all, the parents shelled out $100, $200 or $300, so perhaps the instructor feels compelled to show that those dollars produced what most would view as “art” to ensure the student (customer) returns.

Thankfully, I’ve found a course that will teach my daughter some techniques, but will not overshadow her creative process by telling her what she will create. She will be collaborating on a mural with other children her age. THEY will plan and design its layout and then work on completing the art. .

As someone who writes for children, it is imperative to me that my books encourage self-expression.   One of the books which I’ve written has my main character taking art classes, and I’ve been very careful to show that she isn’t told WHAT to paint.  My protagonist slowly develops her skills and is free to produce the art that SHE sees all around her.

As a former teacher, as a mother, as a children’s book writer, I must nurture the creative process in young children the best that I can.

Am I opinionated about this?  Absolutely.  I say, colour outside the lines, paint the sky gold if you want to and if everyone else is painting King Tut, then go on, paint your platypus as big and bold as you want.

And let art come from the heART.

 

 

 

 

Blowing Kisses to ROOM Magazine

room-39-4-cover-back-and-front

The editors of ROOM Magazine are delightfully energetic and generous with their encouragement. Chelene Knight, the Managing Editor of ROOM, https://cheleneknight.com/about-me/ , has sent the cover for the 39.4 issue to its contributors so they may share the artwork with friends and family via social media.   I am so excited!   Three of my poems will be included in this issue.  I’ve long enjoyed reading ROOM, as the poems and stories they choose target both heart and mind. https://www.facebook.com/roommagazine/  the issue will be available in bookstores across Canada in a few weeks.  To say that I’m deeply honoured to be one of its contributors is an understatement. They receive over 2,000 submissions a year and of which they are only able to publish 80-100. The magazine is in Vancouver and I’m much, much further east.  So, I’m blowing kisses to ROOM, THE literary magazine for women writers of Canada.  CANADA NEEDS YOU!  https://roommagazine.com/issues/bodys-map

 

 

 

 

 

TWO MORE POEMS ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION

aaa-snoopy-gets-mailThis week I received an envelope in the mail. Upon seeing it, I sighed.

Decades ago, a writer would not have been certain what the envelope contained . A rejection?  A request from an editor to revise work?   An acceptance?   A cheque?  Who knew.

Things have changed.   Most snail-mailed replies are rejections, in Canada.  Receiving a reply e-mail can mean either rejection or acceptance.  In the case of longer works (i.e. book submissions,) a phone call is the norm, if the work is accepted.  Why? Because  the acceptance signals the beginning of the editing process between author and publisher, heralds the start of a beautiful long-term relationship (hopefully. )

So, back to MY envelope. It was pudgy.  I smiled when I felt its weight.  I figured that the editor had been kind enough to send me a critique.  Every hard-working writer appreciates a hard-working editor who actually takes the time and care to send some feedback.

But the envelope didn’t contain a rejection or feedback.

I opened the envelope to find not only an acceptance letter, but proofs.

BAM, WHAT!

The Prairie Journal has accepted two of my poems (two!), and the literary editor sent me the proofs to show me how my poems had been formatted. HOLY COW.   The journal is ready to go to print!

It was the best of surprises.

I am just thrilled to be included in this wonderful journal that will feature more work by Barry Butson, a poet I very much admire.

I can’t wait to read the journal cover to cover! From the Writer’s Digest Writer’s Market, and in reference to The Prairie Journal: “The audience is literary, university, library, scholarly, and creative readers/writers.”

So, I’m in happy dance mode.

Thank you (big hugs) to all those who are happy dancing with me.

Truth in Fiction

1111111fryfogel-plaque

Soon after we moved from Waterloo, we discovered how much easier it was to shop in Stratford than dealing with the road construction that is KW.  The city has a lovely library, department stores a-plenty and a choice of affordable grocers.  The drive is scenic, too.  And best of all, each time we travel to Stratford, we pass the Fryfogel Tavern, a place that fascinates me to the point of near-obsession.

One day, we drove past an open house.  I insisted that my husband turn the car around. Thankfully, my seven year old daughter was up for the adventure.  I sighed with relief when I saw that the organizers had provided a craft corner for children, as well as a monarch butterfly release. This provided me with an hour to poke about.

aaaaaaaafryfogeltavernoutsideI learned that the Fryfogel Tavern was built in 1845 and had been a stagecoach stop.  It was an Inn where soon-to-be settlers could get a meal and stay for the night.  The Stratford Perth Historical Foundation is slowly restoring this old gem. The kitchen in the basement has been beautifully restored and refurnished.  Still, many rooms desperately need to be brought back to life.

During the tour I learned that the Tavern was owed and managed by  Sebastian and Mary Fryfogel.  And I was told their young son, Henry, drowned in a nearby creek at the age of five.

The mother-writer in me fixated on the tragedy.  I began to research the Fyfogels and learned they’d had twelve children.  They’d lost one boy as an infant and a year after that loss, Henry had been born.  More research showed that Henry died of an accidental poisoning.

And a story was born within me.  Mary Eby Fryfogel had to care for her surviving children and serve her guests while coping with a very private loss.  Her husband was a politician of sorts, a busy man and she often “manned the fort.”

Just yesterday, we pulled up to the old tavern, again. We’d come upon another open house just by chance. It was finishing-up. A historian was packing up his car, and I shamelessly pounced upon him with questions. I managed to learn that a story had been long circulating about Henry eating poisonous berries.  But there is no written document of what truly transpired. So even the historical accounts are filled with conjecture, lack fact. Death certificates were not yet being issued in Canada.

11111111-tombstone-fryfogel

I have not written this story yet; it bubbles within me as I devote myself to writing chapter books and early middle readers.  I have connected to Mary in a very real way.  Legally, I can pen anything about Mary and Sebastian and Henry without ramifications.  However, ethically, I feel I must tell their stories as accurately as I can.

There is a deeper truth to be told:  the history of women, the existence of parental grief  when so many children did not make it to adulthood, how the people of today are not so dissimilar to the people of the past…

In my research, I also learned author Jane Urquhart also was inspired by the tavern.  Her novel, Map of Glass, references the tavern’s two murals.  The two murals were revealed when wall paper was removed.  She allowed her imagination to run rampant.  The artist who painted these murals is unknown.  Map of Glass in itself is a work of art…

I will never know how Mary Fryfogel mourned.  I only know the truth within the fictional: mourn she surely did. And if my facts aren’t a hundred percent accurate, then I hope what is bang-on is my  characterization of a real-life woman whose pain I can only imagine.