Alice Soon

My Literary Life & other obsessions…


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Tale #1: Developing a new obsessive hobby in your 30’s – ROCK CRAZY!

A strange thing happened to me almost exactly one year ago.

I went away to Austin, TX for a work convention & bought 2 innocuous rocks from an art gallery. Then, before I knew it, this spontaneous purchase had ballooned to a downright OBSESSION.

rocksBut wait a minute, did I just say rocks?

That’s right, you read correctly. I said R-O-C-K-S. I am obsessed with rocks. It’s not a euphemism for drugs or sugar or the latest tech gadget. It’s the stuff in the earth, beneath your feet.

So why is this a tale?? Or rather, it could also be entitled, Tale #1: Descension into Crystal Madness. I’m a grown woman in her thirties that has suddenly become enamoured with rocks. (Ostensibly, to avoid actually writing, I’ve somehow managed to replace it with a new hobby.)

But is there an age limit to developing a new ‘rock’ hobby?? Isn’t this something little kids are into when they are young, foolish, picking up dirt in their back yards, only to abandon it at a much more reasonable age? (Say, 12 or 13?) So why now? I’ve never even given rocks a SECOND thought until now.

Let-s-Go-Rock-Collecting-9780064451703

I cannot say. All I can say is perhaps the rocks found me; at the exact time I needed them and would be open to them. Maybe they had to wait until I was no longer writing day-after-day at my desk, inventing the next plot twist or belabouring over character development. They waited until I would have the time and space to explore the rocks further and get to know them. Who knows? #mysteriesoftheuniverse

What I do know is that since that time, I have read countless books, joined an “official” gem & mineral club in my area, blathered on & on about the uses & benefits of rocks & crystals to any friend, colleague or family member who will listen, spent thousands of dollars of rocks…And will now blog about it.

And for those who care or are interested, my next tale will be about how it all began… 🙂


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Is Writer’s Block a Real Thing or Just Laziness?

So…I’m at that stage in my writing journey where I have completed 2 novels and I’m waiting in bated breath to hear back about my 2nd book currently on submission to traditional publishers. Eeecckk! (That alone, requires oodles and oodles of endless patience, plus a thick hide to handle the rejection.)

So what now?

Write a 3rd book of course! I feel like I wrote my first two novels with relatively ease, I should be able to bounce back and start a third one no problem!  (I liken it to giving birth…it doesn’t seem so hard after it’s complete, yet I’ve totally forgotten how painful gestation was in the first place.)

Just do it

Everything starts off well. I already have a topic I want to write about: a literary mystery/thriller based loosely on the true story of the murder of a sea turtle conservationist in Costa Rica. (Don’t ask me how I come up with these ideas; it’s just trolling the Internet I guess, or whatever piques a writer’s imaginative interest.) I’ve even decided on the format: told through the eyes of multiple characters, à la AS I LAY DYING, or my favourite book of last year, A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS (not ambitious at all)…so I make a long list of at least a dozen characters I will create.

leatherback

Then, I actually start to write.

I write a catchy opening scene/prologue, detailing the actual attack. Then, even a backstory of the conservationist’s origins and his love for nature. And, even more pages as I dabble in three different character voices and write at least a page each of their stories, told through their perspectives…

And then, something strange happens.

I don’t want to write anymore. WTF???

Chalkboard-Writers-Block

No matter, I’ve been through this twice before. I’ve written TWO novels for goodness sakes!! Most people have never even written one. I know the discipline it takes to write, rewrite, edit, rewrite, edit and write until you never want to see your manuscript again. My office is filled with paper and file folders tall enough to eclipse and six foot man! So, what gives?

I go back to my desk and try to write some more. OK, let’s work more on the main female character. I think up the details of her life, what she’s doing now, how her life eventually intertwines with that of the sea turtle conservationist…How do they end up in Costa Rica, what type of story does she want to tell, etc…etc…

I write some gibberish. It’s bad, but no matter, I’ve been through this chartered territory before. I just need to tough it out, work through it and keep writing.

SuckItPricess_SilverPurple

Except I don’t want to. Something bizarre has happened that has never occurred to me during my 1st two novels: I feel like I’ve lost inspiration. MON DIEU! My muse has left me and I feel like I’m forcing the story.

Whomp, whomp, whomp…

So what I do now? Admonish myself to being a lazy ass and just suck it up? Force myself to keep writing? But I am, by nature, NOT LAZY – so what should I do???

I try to convince myself to stop being a whiner already and just write this damn story…the voices will come, the narrative will mesh together, if only I keep showing up at my desk, but for some strange reason, a very faint murmuring in my gut tells me to stop. It’s not the right time or it’s not the right story.

With my previous books, I felt like when I started writing, it was almost like I was possessed with my narrative. Yes, it required a Herculean amount of sheer effort to show up at my desk every day, but for some reason, it felt good and actually, not that hard. I was fascinated by the topics I had chosen and felt absolutely driven to tell those stories.

Except this time around, everything about the writing process feels different. So, am I merely LAZY or is that something more sinister here at play? Dare, I say it, WRITER’S BLOCK?? An affliction I have largely dismissed as a psychological excuse for lazy people?? How can a person have writer’s block??? There are so many interesting topics in the world; this condition is surely a lame justification for poor twiddling souls who just need an artful way of saying they just don’t want to do it anymore.

So, if it’s not laziness or writer’s block, what the F*** is it???

This is my current state of affairs. If I’m honest, I’ve been wrestling with this dilemma for the past six months or so and I’ve decided the ailment which possesses me is neither idleness nor artistic angst.

I think it’s an opportunity for me to explore. To learn more about who I am and what I want to give to the world. This might sound a tad altruistic or downright big-headed, but I’ve decided that for the next year or so, I will just follow my curiosity and see what it takes me.

I love to learn and cultivate my mind, so nothing’s really being lost here.

Already in the first six months of 2016, while NOT writing, I have exposed myself to countless new concepts that absolutely enrapture me. I’ve decided I will blog about it and try and be more disciplined about posting here. And I shall call it: MY YEAR OF CURIOSITY – Tales of a non-writing writer.

My hope is that at the end of this year (or two?), I will have gained clearer insight into who I am and what it is I want to write for my next novel.

So strap yourselves – you’re in for a bumpy (and hopefully somewhat captivating) ride! 🙂


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THE CASE FOR READING – Why everyone should read more (even CEO’s, business people and anyone who wants to communicate anything)

My co-worker made a joke last week about adding new letters to my title – C.E.O. – Chief Editing Officer. It turns about our actual CEO had written something that he wanted me to look over and fix. Why? I have no idea. Apparently being a fiction writer also makes me qualified to edit EVERYTHING.

And that’s when I realized – Every day, I read stuff in the corporate world by people who are highly educated & intelligent, but that makes me want to poke my eyes out. These emails, letters and articles are filled with run-on sentences (not the stream-of-consciousness kind you would find in Faulkner’s work*), commas in the wrong places, terrible slogans & marketing euphemisms.

They cannot write. They think that writing should be the way you speak. WRONG. Writing is about communication. It’s about crafting words specific to your audience (remember, overwriting is just as bad as poor grammar; it’s not a contest to show how smart you are) and about communicating a message.
i.e. How do I get these swirling ,complicated thoughts outta my head and onto the computer screen in a series of letters, words & paragraphs that make sense? (You would not believe the number of people I see staring at the cubicles every day, struggling to craft a simple email.)

Look, I’m no expert; I’m no William Shakespeare, but I have good taste – I know good writing when I see it. (See Ira Glass’s quote below) By default then, I also know BAD writing when I see it.
Ira Glass 2

In an age filled with BUZZFEED articles, Top Ten This and Best Tips for That, it’s no wonder we don’t know how to write anymore. Our gold standard for journalistic excellence is a one page article about “KimYe’s Post-Baby Body Tips”.
Books only

So then, what’s one to do? How can someone improve their writing? Well, there’s only one surefire way I know how: READING.

When you read something well-written, something strange & magical happens to you – somehow, those words & sentences manage permeate your brain, and against your will, your cranium expands. This is not a scientific answer, but the art of writing is not a scientific practice.

So I implore you – Students, youth, business people of the world – READ.
Pick up a book. (Audiobooks don’t count.) Preferably by someone who writes complex, meaningful themes that you can infuse into your own thoughts and into your own writing.

(So that one day, when you are CEO, a lowly manager will no longer have to spend half an hour on a Friday afternoon trying to edit your words & make it better.) 

Over & Out.

*If you don’t know who William Faulkner is, you’ve just proven my point. Please refer to the title of this article.


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Why You Shouldn’t Only Read Non-Fiction

All right, I’m deliberately calling out to you readers of so-called “NON-FICTION ONLY”.

How many times have I asked someone what they like to read (especially men), and their most common answer to me is: “I only read non-fiction.”

Like, really?

Sometimes I wonder if they are telling me that because they think reading non-fiction automatically makes them seem smarter, or they couldn’t bother with something so useless as fiction, because who wants to read stuff that is made up anyway?

Granted, I have tended to heavily skew my reading repertoire towards fiction for most of my life, but this year for some reason, I have been reading more NON-FICTION than ever.

And although I can always glean wondrous facts from all of these non-fiction works, be they biographies, business books, memoirs, academic texts, I still find I get a lot of out reading fiction.

This got me thinking about the difference between Fiction readers vs. Non-Fiction readers.  Of course, reading anything is better than reading nothing at all, but I will argue that all of you NF folks are really missing the boat.

Here’s 5 reasons why:

1) GET SOME IMAGINATION

Though it’s very important to learn about facts, sticking exclusively to non-fiction can make you seem very cut & dry.  Like you’re that stuffy, snobby guy in a silk jacket smoking a pipe, regurgitating scientific facts, but you can’t stretch your imagination to imagine a world with unicorns, wizards, magic, flying on hoverboards or a human colony on Mars. Remember, many of the best inventions and concepts the world has ever seen came from very imaginative people who thought outside of the realm of possibility and didn’t just allow their brains to be imprisoned by facts.  They daydreamed, they conjured up impossible theories and they changed the world.

Alice Soon Photo

Alice Soon Photo

2) IMPROVE YOUR CRITICAL THINKING SKILLS

When you are reading a piece of good fiction (and I’m talking about quality fiction here, not escapist literature), you are forced to THINK and analyze what it is you are actually reading. Exceptional fiction is always filled with multiple points of view, unreliable narrators, creative twists and turns, and conflicting themes.

So what’s a reader to do???

Make up your own mind, of course.

Employ your critical thinking skills, and examine why it is that you feel the way you feel.  And it is this act of thinking; this ability to clearly articulate your point of view, that makes someone a good communicator vs. a blathering moron.

Reading a good piece of fiction, even if you disagree with it, will always makes you THINK.

3) LEARN HOW TO WRITE BETTER

I think it’s pretty arguable that most fiction writers are just better writers in general.  (e.g. Michael Pollan recently admitted this on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday.)

What this means is not that they are better at grammar.  You can say the same thing in 10 different ways, using a variety of word choice, word order and punctuation, but NOT all sentences are created equally, even if the meaning is the same.

This difference is called STYLE.

When you read a wonderful piece of fiction, you are learning how the writer has used a creative metaphor to express a place or a feeling; filled the pages with images and symbols that make your head spin. In short, can express the most complex, deepest, truest feelings of a human being using 26 letters.

4) YOU CAN LEARN FACTS TOO

Many good fiction books employ hundreds of hours of meticulous research to fill their stories with believable characters, realistic settings and a sense of history. Many writers even spend months or years in a particular city or country where their story takes place or painstakingly interview countless people to get their facts right.

(e.g. THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON  or A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS).

As one 70-year old bookseller I met in New Orleans once told me: “I have learned more truths from reading fiction than from any non-fiction book.”

5) INCREASE EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE & EMPATHY

This is my favourite and final point.  Studies are beginning to show that readers of literary fiction actually score higher on emotional intelligence and empathy. One study by the New York School for Social Research (featured in THE WIRE), found that:

Readers of literary fiction must draw on more flexible interpretive resources to infer the feelings and thoughts of characters. That is, they must engage Theory of the Mind (ToM) processes. Contrary to literary fiction, popular fiction, which is more readerly, tends to portray the world and characters as internally consistent and predictable. Therefore, it may reaffirm readers’ expectations and so not promote ToM.

In other words, by forcing you to think, empathize, and assume instead of handing you prototype characters whose actions and personalities can be squarely understood, literary fiction is literally making you a more caring and emotionally intelligent person.”

Another study done by a trio of University of Toronto scholars led by psychologist Maja Djikic  (featured in SALON Magazine) reported that:

People who have just read a short story have less need for what psychologists call cognitive closure. Compared with peers who have just read an essay, they expressed more comfort with disorder and uncertainty—attitudes that allow for both sophisticated thinking and greater creativity.

Therefore, it requires people to become insightful about others and their perspectives.”

Alice Soon Photo

                          Alice Soon Photo

Check out studies here – http://www.thewire.com/entertainment/2013/10/now-we-have-proof-reading-literary-fiction-makes-you-better-person/70191/ and here – http://www.salon.com/2013/06/15/book_nerds_make_better_decisions_partner/

Not convinced having emotional intelligence is proven to be an essential skill of top leaders? Read this article in Harvard Business Review – https://hbr.org/2004/01/what-makes-a-leader

To summarize, I think my arguments are clear: Don’t relegate yourself to the realm of one-dimensional non-fiction. Open yourself to the delights & thrills of a great fiction novel and watch your mind reach new heights.

Your brain will thank you. 🙂


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AUTHOR INTERVIEW – EDDIE MARK

I’m pleased to feature an interview with a fellow author and Torontonian, Eddie Mark, as he discusses the process of writing his debut novel, THE GARDEN OF UNFORTUNATE SOULS.

But first, here is a brief synopsis:

In 1980s Buffalo, New York, the recession has transformed the city’s proudest African American neighborhood into a ghetto. Loretta Ford, an eccentric single mother and religious fanatic, survives for years by masquerading as the owner of a dead woman’s house. Her reclusive life is interrupted when an unlikely incident brings the mayor of Buffalo to her home in the middle of the night. Their secret meeting sets off a chain of events that will leave two families altered forever. With all the passion of a Shakespearean tragedy and a cast of characters never to be forgotten, The Garden of Unfortunate Souls vividly depicts the consequences of violence, sex, and gender conflict in African American communities.

Now, the fun part – THE INTERVIEW:

1) Where did you get the concept for this novel and what inspired you to write it?

For years, I taught in an inner city public school where I knew quite a few children who were being physically and emotionally scarred by their parents’ use of corporal punishment against them. Often I would hear parents speak of it as a necessary evil to protect their children from the greater dangers of the urban environment (gangs, drugs, police violence, etc.). I’ve always questioned that theory and wanted to write a novel that explored this issue from the perspectives of the children and their parents—sort of present both sides of the debate. And then I wanted to look at it through the eyes of two culturally different African American families.

As for the specific scenes and characters, all of those are completely imagined. Some writers construct their storylines from actual experience. I get most of my mine from daydreaming, although the scene with the young man crashing into the main character’s home was inspired by a real-life event back in the nineties when this actually happened at a house I was living in at the time.

2) You have developed many conflicted and interesting characters – How do you conceive and develop your characters and decide how they will interact with one another?

For me, the key is to take an interest in people. Developing convincing characters is less about what I do on paper and more about how I handle my interpersonal relationships with others. The more a writer understands the motivations and backstories of real-life human beings, the more authentic and interesting his or her characters will be when it’s time to write the story. All people interest me, regardless of their backgrounds. I’ll meet and have a conversation with a university professor just as easily I’ll have one with a homeless man on the street. It helps me understand people in the world better, which leads to more complex and convincing characters on paper.
Garden
3) You are originally from Buffalo, NY. How much of this contributed to the setting of your novel?

Well, naturally, I’ve always found it easier to be authentic when I write about a place I know well. But Buffalo is the kind of city I’d love to write about even if it weren’t my hometown. It has its challenges, but few cities have as much history and scenic beauty. And the people are genuine. I think all of that is reflected in my novel.

4) What do you want readers to take away from reading your novel?

I’d want them to consider the long-term consequences of corporal punishment. Because in many ways, the rampant violence in our urban streets is simply an outgrowth of the violence practiced in our homes. When children are whipped, slapped, pinched, grabbed, and beaten with weapons, we’re teaching them that the way to handle conflict is to somehow hurt the offending person. So we need to find alternatives to corporal punishment. Sure, society often condones and celebrates it. But if the exact same level of force were turned against an adult, it would be a criminal assault. Just because the victim is a minor doesn’t make it better or right.

5) What is your favourite part about writing? What is your least favourite part?

My favourite part is probably the revision process. I don’t write very good first drafts. So it’s fun to watch all that bad writing morph into something more presentable. It takes a long time, but it’s worth it. My least favourite part is the long, drawn-out process of actually trying to get stories into print. Not a lot of fun.

6) What books are you reading right now?

As far as non-academic literature, I’m currently reading Dear Life by Alice Munro. I’ve actually been reading a number of Canadian authors lately, which is fitting since my next novel will most likely be set in Canada.

7) What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Be patient. Writing something worthwhile and getting it published is not a quick process. Actually, it’s quite long and exhausting—full of rejections, revisions, and delays. But don’t give up. Good writing will get published eventually. Maybe not today. But eventually.

Thanks Eddie for your time!

Rosa Wang Photography (

Rosa Wang Photography


To purchase the book, visit:
http://www.amazon.ca/Garden-Unfortunate-Souls-Eddie-Mark-ebook/dp/B00WBXHLQ0


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How to Face Rejection as a Writer

This month, my literary agency asked its’ authors to feature a guest blog post on various topics and my assignment was “How do you continue to go on after you’ve been told NO?”

Here was my response:

How do I go on?

It’s simple: Either you find the strength to persist as a writer or you don’t.

So what happens if you don’t? Logically, nothing bad will actually happen to you – you will not dissolve in the sunlight, your life will not end, and you won’t turn into a pumpkin at midnight…But something far more insidious may happen to you: You become an empty shell.

If you are an artist and you are called to write, something whispers inside your head. Call it the Muse, call it Divine Inspiration, call it Crazy Voices…but most writers acknowledge this has always existed within them – the need to tell stories and the need to write. If you stop writing because someone has rejected you, the only person you will disappoint is yourself.

Something happens when you quit: You lower yourself, you diminish yourself to the banality of abject forces – You essentially give up on yourself. You become lesser of a person and you admit defeat.

Maybe it’s the Ram in me (my astrological sign is an Aries), but I don’t want that type of life for myself. I want to reach my maximum potential in this lifetime and beyond.

How do I go on?

It’s simple: I believe in myself and I don’t take things personally.

Yes, your manuscript is like your child – you have poured every ounce of what is good and imaginative and true into your book and no one wants it. It’s like a slap in the face; the utter rejection of everything you’ve worked hard for. It’s like saying your BABY IS UGLY or being dumped by the love of your life. NO ONE WANTS YOU.

But these are things you cannot control. You must remember that editors and publishers have subjective opinions – they are in the business of making money from publishing books and they are not always right.

So I keep working hard – I read books like my life depends on it and I constantly strive to improve my writing. I read about others who have succeeded even in the face of terrible adversity and this encourages me to go on.

If you look closely enough, the success stories are always there. The only difference between these writers and the rest of us is they decided not to quit.

• Eimear McBride’s, A GIRL IS A HALF-FORM THING, was widely rejected for nine years because it was “too difficult, too risky”, until a tiny, independent press picked it up. It has since won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Desmond Elliott prize, nominated for the Folio Prize and many others!

• Lionel Shriver had been a commercial failure for nearly 20 years when she wrote, WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN. Her own literary agent rejected it, 20 additional new agents she approached rejected it, until a small press decided to publish it. This book went on to win the Orange Prize and became an international best-seller.

• Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o, internationally renowned Kenyan writer & candidate for the Nobel Prize, wrote DEVIL ON THE CROSS while being imprisoned without a charge on toilet paper. If you think you have an excuse not to write (you’re too busy/you’re too stressed/you feel dejected/you have writer’s block, etc…), remember that writing while being thrown inside a prison cell scribbling on scraps of paper that people use to wipe themselves with, trumps ANY EXCUSE you will ever have.

So in summary:
Excuse

HAPPY WRITING! 🙂


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WRITERS WHO START EARLY

This month I had the privilege of visiting Austin, TX on business and I managed to make a stop @ BOOKPEOPLE- The largest independent book store in Texas!

While I was there, I could not resist buying 6 books (which I thankfully managed to fit into my suitcase after much wrestling and wrangling…), one of which was ODD TYPE WRITERS, by Celia Blue Johnson.
BookPeopleBook stash
In this book, Johnson chronicles the interesting and often odd habits of famous writers. I love reading books about other writers in order to get inspiration (AKA to stop being lazy and get off my ass!!).

Here is a very interesting list of authors who were keen early-birds. (Sufficed to say that although I LOVE Sylvia Plath, I will not be waking up at 4am to write!!!) 😛

I thought it might also inspire writers to stop making excuses and keep writing, because after all, true professionals punch-in each & every day to work:

4:00am – Sylvia Plath
5:00am – Jack London, Toni Morrison, Katherine Anne Porter
5:30am – Anthony Trollope, Kurt Vonnegut
6:00am – Edith Wharton, W.H. Auden, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Victor Hugo, Vladimir Nabokov
7:00am – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
8:00am – Flannery O’Connor, Wallace Stegner
9:00am – Virginia Woolf, Ray Bradbury, Thomas Mann, Leo Tolstoy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Gore Vidal
9:30am – Carson McCullers
10:00am – W. Somerset Maugham

Happy Writing everyone!