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Friday, March 17, 2006

OH, THE LIFE OF A TRAVEL WRITER!

"I travel light; as light,
That is, as a (woman) can travel who will
Still carry (her) body around because
Of its sentimental value."
Christopher Fry 1907 - "The Lady's Not for Burning." 1950 Act 1

I started writing travel stories back in 1980 when I realized that to get a major work published, such as a novel, I would need some publsihing experience. I'd had a background in journalism -- my first job after high school was as a copy-runner in the editorial department of The Vancouver Sun newspaper. I wanted to be a crime reporter. The City Editor would't hear of an eighteen year old preacher's daughter sitting on the News Desk. So I ended up being a news librarian, honing my research skills, in charge of the crime files which proved to be a fascinating career move!

I sent out my very first travel article in 1982 to a travel trade magazine and voila! it was published and I got paid good money for it. Shortly after that I went to live in Greece, and began sending travel stories about my new home to The Globe and Mail newspaper (Canada's national newspaper). Everything I submitted was published. And that began my career as a travel journalist. Since then, I've had many articles published in a number of newsapeprs and magazines. Unfortunately I'm not as agressive a marketer as I should be, and I'm also focused on my major work, The Great Unfinished Novel, besides other writing projects I have on the go and the lessons I teach. Travel journalism might sound like an appealing and romantic 'career' but to tell the truth, these days it's getting more difficult to find publishers, in particular ones who want to pay you any kind of real money. Newspapers tend to use their own staff writers or their news services for stories and very few freelancers. Magazines also have staff writers. So you have to be constantly on the look-out for new markets, ones that will pay!

That's why I turned to teaching travel writing (and other writing courses)in order to support my writing habit and not have to work at a 'real' job. And finally, after all these years, I seem to have found the fine balance. As well, I have been lucky enough to glean a huge reward: I won a trip to Malaysia which was the door prize at a gala held by the B.C. Association of Travel Writers of which I'm a member. www.bctravelwriters.com (I have a little spot on there with my photo and a couple of my published articles under my real name W. Ruth Kozak)
This trip is a kind of 'reward' for all those stories that I got very little money (or nothing!) for.

I still can't believe this is true. Two more sleeps and I'm on the plane bound for Kuala Lumpur!
My fellow travel writer's from the Association are thrilled and pleased for me. Three of the women have been to Malaysia before on assignment trips, and they assure me I will be treated royally! The trip is fully paid for, five-star hotels, and other perks thrown in. Of course it is a kind of 'assignment' trip because I will definitely be writing some travel stories although the Malaysian tourism didn't specifically request this. It's a matter of saying 'thank's, a courtesy, and after all think of the fantastic sights I'm going to see!

One special tour that has been arranged (at my request) is a visit to the 14 acre estate of Rimbun Dahan which is the home of an architect and also the Center for Developing Traditional and Contemporary Art Forms. This idyllic tropical garden also hosts resident writers as well as artists. I've been in touch with the architect's wife (she writes for The Malaysian Naturalist and takes tours around the botanical gardens.) So, armed with my hand-held tape recorder and note book I hope to get a good interview and lots of excellent photos to illustrate the story I intend to write. You can see Rimbun Dahan for yourself on this web site:
http://www.rimbundahan.org/about

So for the next two weeks, blogger friends, you can find out all about Malaysia and my travels by logging onto my travel blog: http://travelthroughhistory.blogspot.com
I've already posted some preliminary blogs about Malaysia (pre-research for my trip) and it will give you an idea about where I will be visiting and some background about this fascinating country.

On Sunday, my friend and I are leaving on a jet plane (you can sing that line) from L.A. It's going to be a rather gruelling day's journey, leaving Vancouver at 3.15 pm., landing in L.A. two and a half hours later, then hanging around LAX for five hours before we board Malaysian Airlines for Kuala Lumpur, a 20 hr. 40 min. flight!!! (yikes!) with a brief stop-over in Taipei to change planes. (I wish the long lay-overs coming and going were in Taipei instead. That would be so much more exotic than L.A. But we did get an extra night in Kuala Lumpur (K.L.)
because of flight changes which is a bonus! )

My travel companion is an old friend, my namesake, who became my first girlfriend in Vancouver when my family moved here when I was 12. We don't see each other often now because she lives up-country, so this will a time for us to renew our long-time friendship.

Don't forget to blog onto my travel blog so you, too, can share in our amazing travel adventures! As they say in Malay: Selamat Jolan...goodbye! Have a good trip!

"For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go.
I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move."
Robert Louis Stevenson 1850-1894 "Travels with a Donkey" 1878




Thursday, March 09, 2006

EDITING & REVISIONS: HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH BEFORE YOU MOVE ON?

"The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it."
Edward FitzGerald 1809-1883 "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam" st. 17

Editing and Revisions. How much is enough? It seems, sometimes to be endless. So, when to stop? Being in a writer's critique group has helped me a lot when it comes to the revisions and additions needed to improve my novel. Because of this what I have already written, although the actual writing of it has taken a long time, is pretty well ready for 'final draft'. Of course I know I have to do a lot of cutting but I've already marked those passages that can easily be eliminated (though some will be difficult to cast out, I know they will simply have to go!)
Editing (such as line editing) can take such a long time and perhaps it's easiest to have a fresh eye look over the manuscript -- even if you have to pay to have it done. Otherwise, so much time is taken up while you meticulously search for errors like the proverbial 'needle in a haystack'.

That internal editor can be downright annoying, nit-picking, undermining your creativity by making you think your work isn't good enough. As Natalie Goldberg suggests in Writing Down the Bones, "The more clearly you know the editor, the better you can ignore it. After a while, like the jabbering of an old drunk fool, it becomes just prattle in the background... Meanwhile, you will continue to write."

Of course, the goal mustn't be simply to get the writing done, but to make the writing as good as it can be. This often means a lot of rewriting and revisions. There's different ways of doing this. Some writers plough right through to the end before doing a second, more perfected draft.
I prefer 'block editing' for my novel. That is, revising and editing in chapters or chapter segments. I do several drafts, then workshop, then revise and edit again, then move on. When I get writer's block, I'll go back over the last few chapters, do more revisions or editing and that gets me back into the cadence of the prose again so I can continue with the new chapter. That way I'm not leaving too much of a mess behind me which I'll just have to untangle and sort out later. For my shorter works, such a travel articles, I do several drafts, workshop, revise and edit and then they are usually ready to send off to market. Luckily most every article I've had published has had no further editing and is published word-for-word as I've submitted it.

I happen to like editing and do a lot of it for my classes. It doesn't take me long. Sometimes the revisions on my novel take longer (especially transitions, which I find sticky). But I've always got something on the go so that even when I have a 'block' with the novel I am still writing. Heaven knows I have a backlog of material for travel stories, but at the moment I am trying to focus only on the novel to get as much of it finished as possible before I get stuck again.

The question is, how much editing and revising is necessary before a writer should be satisfied and get on with something new? Hemingway admitted to revising a section of a novel thirty-seven times "to get the words right". Good writers take the time to recreate, revise, edit and proofread. This is all part of the writing process, and often the hardest work, because you must make sure that what you send off to an agent/publisher is as near-perfect as you can get it. Sloppy, amateurish work will quickly be delegated to the trash pile. But when to stop?

It's interesting to read some of the blogs of other writers and get their points of view on this and other writing subjects. These days writers (novelists, in particular) are expected to be working on other projects or at least have something else on the back-burner. Publishers like to know there's more than one novel in you. Book publishing is a money-making production these days so you have to be willing and able to produce if you want to become part of a publisher's 'stable' of writers. There are writers who seem content to endlessly edit and revise their work without ever starting anything new. "Send it out! Send it out!" they are urged, but they never do. Is it because they are afraid of turning their 'baby' out into the big competitive world? Are they afraid of rejection? (If you are afraid of rejection, you're in the wrong business because it's all part of being a writer.) Or perhaps they keep on editing because they don't want to start something new?

For me, editing and revisions are not such a chore except when I writing myself into a tangle like I probably did yesterday. I've avoided, since then, looking at what I'd written because I'm sure I'm going to have to start over. I tried revising a chapter by cut-and-paste and adding new ingrediants. I fear I have, in my zeal to get it finished, overdone it. Well, at least I can workshop it at my next critique group meeting and will be sure to get some practical advice on how to make it better. I know the editing and revisions are necessary, but I'm just so anxious to finish this novel (which has been taking me far too long to write) and get on with my other projects: another half-finished novel, a half-finished 2-act play, and a long list of travel articles yet to be written! Oh yes, and I do have an idea for a third novel as well which I'd very much like to get started on! Time to move on!

"Remember: good books aren't written; they are rewritten. Revision is a key phase of your novel writing. With short fiction pieces, it's advisable to put them aside and let them 'cool' for awhile. Only then can you go back to your own work with a fresh and somewhat objective eye and catch a few of your mistakes, though you'll never see them all. Fortunately, with a novel, when you've written your way through the last chapter, enough time will have passed so that you can return to the beginning with more objectivity, but even then you can't be entirely objective...
During revision you must become the critic. In the first writing, you give your story life; in the second, you get it right."

Phyllis A. Whitney, author, writing instructor
from an article Revisions and Rewrites: A Checklist" in The Writer magazine.



Friday, March 03, 2006

MAMWLAD FY NHAD: LAND OF MY FATHERS. AN ODE TO WALES ON ST. DAVID'S DAY

To be born Welsh
Is to be born privileged.
Not with a silver spoon
in your mouth
But music in your blood
And poetry in your soul.

On Wednesday morning this week, I woke up hearing Welsh music on the radio. It was St. David's Day, patron Saint of Wales. The songs I heard broadcast took me back in time because they were the songs I grew up hearing my Dad sing: All Through the Night; Myfanwy and
most particularly Guide me Oh Thou Great Jehovah. On the bookshelf by my bed is the picture of my father, looking handsome and proud in his Chaplain's uniform, showing the six medals he was awarded for service during W.W. II, which include the M.B.E. for bravery and compassion in the line of duty. Dad was a Chaplain in an army field hospital in Holland.

Before he emigrated to Canada in the early 30's, he had been a coal miner in the Rhymny Valley of South Wales. All the men in his family were miners and he worked down in the pits of the Bedwas Navigational Collieries from the time he was 14. When the mining troubles began in 1930 he lost his mining card because he was active in trying to improve conditions for the miners. So he left Caerphilly, his home, and came to Canada as a farm laborer. But soon after, he made himself known as an expert orator. He had often spoken in the mining chapels of Wales and his ability to preach got him an invitation to the McMaster University School of Theology even though he'd had no formal schooling past the age of 14. He became a Baptist minister and was sent to the troubled mining communities of the South Saskachewan to work alongside another young Baptist preacher from Scotland by the name of Tommy Douglas who later became the Premier of Saskatchewan for 16 years and the head of North America's first Socialist government.

As I listened to the Welsh music, many memories came back to me of my childhood. My Dad always sang wherever he went and often would burst into song in the midst of a serman at Church. He had a lovely tenor voice and he sang right up to the time of his death at age 89, back in 1991. The Welsh are known for their gift of song and poetry. The miners always sang to keep up their spirits. I grew up hearing Dad's mining stories and the tales of his childhood in Wales, and listening to the songs of my Dad's homeland.

When I started to write my w.i.p. Dragons in the Sky: A Celtic Tale I heard the Welsh intonation of a girl's voice telling me her story. Her name is Olwen. When I showed my Dad the early manuscript to see if he could hear the Welsh cadence in the prose, he commented about a Celtic holy place I have mentioned in my novel. Senghenydd. He ask me if I knew that Senghenydd was the name of the town where my great-grandfather and several of his uncles had been killed in a mining disaster back in 1904 just before he was born. I didn't know that. I had just read in my research about this Druid holy place in the south part of Wales.

A couple of years ago my cousin and I went to Senghenydd and saw the remains of the mine where our great-grandfather died, and we were even directed to his house. I have very deep roots in Wales and feel spiritually connected with the land and people. I have visited there often as some of my family (children of my father's brothers) live in Caerphilly. I have even visited the house where Dad was born while two of his younger brothers were still living there.

While I listened to the St. David's day tribute to Wales, the announcer mentioned a song that had been requested. It was titled The Dream of Olwen by Charles Smith. Much to my surprise, when the tune was played I recognized it as one that took me back to my grandpa's house in Stratford Ontario. I used to hear that song played as a theme song for a radio program my mother watched. I've always wanted to know the title of it and until Wednesday I had no idea that it was The Dream of Olwen. Olwen, the young protagonist of my novel! Strange how that unfinished w.i.p. has been so much on my mind lately, then suddenly they should play a familiar tune that had her name. Perhaps the Muse is trying to tell me something? Yet I cannot stop my work on my current novel at this point and return to the old manuscript. However lately I have had the yearning to visit Olwen's world again. So here is an excerpt from the first chapter of Dragons in the Sky. And hopefully, not too much longer and I'll be able to pick up from where I left off with her fantastic adventures. The story begins at an Iron Age hillfort on the Salisbury Plain near Stonehenge and her adventures, when kidnapped by a renegade Chieftain's son, lead her eventually to meet a remarkable young Prince, Alexander, who has just inherited the throne of his father in Macedonia where her captor has come to trade Celtic iron-wares.

(Note: some of the chapters of Dragons are written in Bardic verse. Others are a first-person narrative in Olwen's voice.)
* * *
The God speaks and says:
Blood red is the snow; as
blood red as the ragged
leaves of the elder trees.
In Ruis, the Elder month, we made sacrifcies to the Sun God at the winter solstice. The Druid slaughtered a white roebuck and divined the omens in the blood splattered snow. But the gods were not appeased, and Boreas, the North Wind, blew down freezing blizzards across the Plain, burying our village in drifts that reached higher than the edges of the roof thatch.
We huddled in our huts around peat fires, wrapped in furs like hibernating animals, until finally some of us tunneled out through the drifts to snare winter hares and track white stag in the forest.
Supplies of smoked meat and fish dwindled with each passing storm, and rafters that had been heavy with drying fruit and roots were bare. While we counted out the last of the bundles of food and herbs, we muttered oaths ot the gods. It seemed that year we were not in their favour.
My guardian, Essylt, was a medicine woman and high priestess of our cult. She was small and bright-eyed, lively as a sparrow; but that winter seemed to tire her, and she began to look grey and care-worn. As the wind howled outside our wattled hut she brooded and I saw her watching the flames of the hearth fire, staring silently as though her thoughts had drifted off to other worlds. She kept me busy taking votive offerings to the woodland shrine. The snow was too deep on the trail for her to struggle through, but I made a child's game of it, and kept the pathway trampled clear, carrying offerings of things like dried berries, cups of grain and sometimes a sprig of mistletoe.
The winter's cold took its toll. Almost every day Essylt went out to administer medicines, or to say some words of enchantment agains the Raven of Death. We could not wait for the spring thaw to lay our dead in their barrows, so the bodies were burned on pyres outside the palisade. Most of the victims of the raw weather were the old ones, but once a little child wandered out into a storm and froze, buried in a snowbank. I saw them carrying him home, like a stiff little pup, wrapped in a wolfskin. It grieved me for days, and in spite of the wind and the drifts that reached above my knees, I struggled to the woodland shrine, bringing the last sprigs of vervain to make a supplication to the Mother Goddess.
It was my thirteenth year with the Druids. I had learned all the incantations of magic before I was ten years old. Essylt, being a sorceress and diviner of the auguries, was both my guardian and my teacher. I called her modryb, Auntie, because she had nursed me in my infancy as though she were my natural mother. The Druid said my real mother died in childbirth. I would have been exposed for the wolves if someone had not brought me to the Great Stone Circle on the Plain.
Listen to my song: I am
an honoured child. I am
Olwen, daughter of the Earth Mother,
Child of the Raven.
I will be the pinecone
clinging to the branch.
The wind will not dislodge me.
I will be the coral
on the sea reef.
The waves will not displace me.
I will be the stone dolman
of the sacred Henge.
Neither time nor elements will distrub me.
I will be the willow
bending in the wind.
I will be the wave
uncurling on the sea.
I will be the mountain
my pinnacle crowned with sun.
Steadfast I will stand.