Sunday Interview #26 – Colleen Nelson

Today, I’d like to introduce you to fellow Great Plains author, Colleen Nelson. I reviewed her first YA novel, Tori By Design, in Friday’s post. Please put your hands together and welcome Colleen. (Clap, clap! Whoot, whoot!)

Colleen Nelson

Welcome to my blog, Colleen! Please tell my readers al little about yourself.

Thanks for the opportunity to be on your blog, Susan! It’s great to see other writers making an effort to reach readers and writers through social media. 

I am the mother of two boys, and the step-mom to three kids ages 19-25. I taught junior high for ten years before going on a very extended maternity leave and now I teach preschool and write. I spend a lot of my time doing volunteer work for my community centre (I am the president at Tuxedo Community Centre) and my son’s school. I love to travel, sew and read.

What made you realize you wanted to be a writer?

When I was on maternity leave with my first son, James, I decided to take a class through the Manitoba Writers Guild called ‘Writing for Children’ with Margaret Shaw-McKinnon. I need to keep my brain active, but was house-bound with my infant son. Writing became a great outlet to be creative and provided focus to my day. As soon as James went down for a nap, I found my way to the computer and spent a few blissful hours lost in my head with characters…instead of doing laundry or the dishes! I guess you could say, writing started as more of a hobby than a career.

Tori By Design

That’s kind of how it started for me, too…and who wants to do laundry or the dishes when you could be writing, right? 🙂

What gave you the idea for Tori By Design?

My husband’s work is based in New York, so we have an apartment in NYC and I’ve spent a lot of time living there. For a while, I took a leave from teaching to move out there. During that time, I volunteered at an Upper East Side private school. It was there that I started to wonder what a girl from Winnipeg would experience if she moved to NYC. 

I also love fashion, so I wrote Tori as a wanna-be fashion designer because NYC is the perfect place for a girl who loves clothes to live.

That is so cool! 🙂

How did you create the character of Tori?

Tori is a composite of two special girls in my life: my step-daughters, Sacha and Chloe, and a little bit of me. Watching my step-daughters go through their adolescence and teaching junior high school students, gave me different perspectives on what it is like to be a teenager these days. Tori has a lot of great characteristics, but she is also self-centered. Every character needs her flaw, right? My editor, Anita Daher, really helped to draw out Tori’s character arc and develop her into a well-rounded character.

Anita is such a great editor, isn’t she? She really knows how to bring out the best in our work. 🙂

Your descriptions of New York make your readers feel as if they are right there. I understand you lived there for a while. Please tell us about your experience in The Big Apple.

I absolutely LOVE NYC! It is my second home and I know the city very well. NYC has a pulse and pace that is unlike anywhere else I have ever been. Tokyo and London come close, but they don’t have the same aggression and forge-ahead attitude that you find in NYC. Living there, I worked as a docent at two museums, went to Broadway shows, lived in a tiny, crummy apartment, took the subway and discovered what makes the city so great. I love that each neighborhood has its own distinct character, from cobble stone streets in SOHO to the brownstones of the Upper West Side, no two areas are the same. The restaurants, shopping and access to cultural instituions means there is never ‘nothing to do’. The big buildings and sights get old fast and I always tell friends who visit to explore the neighborhoods to really get a sense of the city. Eat at a diner, shop at boutiques, visit the small museums and talk to people. New Yorkers are so friendly, helpful and proud of their city.

Sounds like a fantastic experience. You are very lucky! 🙂

I understand you are working on a new novel. Would you like to give my readers a sneak peek or are you superstitious about discussing a Work In Progress?

I have three in the works. “The Fall” is out in March and is about four boys and the tragic accident that shapes their lives. It is geared towards an older teen audience than ‘Tori by Design’ and is a gritty reflection of how boys deal with grief. I am very excited about it and can’t wait to have it launched!

The other two books, one is with a publisher as we speak, but I haven’t heard feedback yet, is about a small, conservative Manitoba town and the secrets that its townspeople have kept hidden for decades. As the main character and a boy from a nearby reserve begin to discover the truth, they realize that the secrets that have kept them apart, are the very things drawing them closer together.

I’ve only completed a first draft of the fourth book, but it is about a girl who seeks refuge at her aunt’s cottage after a troubled upbringing. It deals with the complex relationships women have with each other, mother to mother, mother to daughter, sister to sister. I’m looking forward to continuing to work on it this winter.

Wow! Sounds like you’ve been pretty busy – and will be busy for awhile! They all have great story lines and I can’t wait to read them! 🙂

Now, for something a little more fun – what is your favourite comfort food?

A steaming cup of strong coffee in my favouite mug is the most comforting! But chocolate is a close second! Especially chewy chocolate chip cookies!

Yum! Me, too! 🙂

What is your workspace like? (Feel free to include a photo, if you like)

I’m too embarrassed to include a photo of my messy, cramped work area. I don’t do well with an empty desk (empty desk-empty mind?) so I make sure there’s always a few piles of papers, hand lotion, a couple of library books, pens, pencils, my calendar and some photos strewn around me. Maybe it’s a chicken and egg thing: I work best when it’s cluttered, or it’s cluttered because I’m working…

That sounds very much like my workplace! lol

Who is your favourite Young Adult author?

Tough one. I read a lot but, I have to say, I have a lot of respect for William Bell because his books were able to draw in boys who weren’t inclined to read. I think that young adult male audience is the toughest one to crack. His books ‘Stones’ and ‘Blue Helmet’ were popular books with the boys when I taught.

You’re right about how difficult it is drawing the teen boys to reading. I’ll have to check out his books. 🙂

Are there any social media sites you’d like to share with us?

I have to admit, I am brutal at updating things. I have a blog at http://colleennelson.blogspot.com but it’s turned into an info site for people going to NYC, more than anything about my writing. For “The Fall”, I’ve started to put together  a blog with links to articles and forums about how teens deal with traumatic events. I will send you the link when I get it started.

I am also on Facebook at colleennelson547/

Do you have any last words before we close?

Thanks again for this opportunity. I know doing the blog takes time away from your own writing, but you are providing a great way for authors to connect with their audience. It’s been a pleasure!

Glad you enjoyed the experience. Thank you for taking the time to chat with me, Colleen, and may your book sales be many. 🙂

Sunday Interview #14

This week, I would like to introduce to you a prolific, award-winning Canadian author. Please welcome Elizabeth from Elizabeth Creith’s Scriptorium.

Hi, Elizabeth! I’m glad you could join us, today. Please begin by telling us a little bit about yourself.

Hmm. I’m a lifelong artist who just keeps switching media. I live in rural Northern Ontario with my husband and dog, and surrounded by mixed hardwood bush. In other places it would be called forest. I love the solitude of the rural life, and I’ve found it a wonderful place to work as an artist, both because of the quiet and relative lack of distraction, and also for the inspiration I draw from this piece of the world.

Erik the Viking Sheep

On your blog, you have a very impressive list of articles and stories that you have had published. You also have a children’s book, Eric the Viking Sheep, published by Scholastic, which is very impressive. This leads me to believe you have been writing for quite some time. How long have you been writing and what inspired you to start writing in the first place?

I’m fifty-eight, and have been writing most of my life. I suppose reading was the real inspiration. I can’t remember when I didn’t know how to read or a time when I didn’t draw, and I know that in kindergarten I wanted to grow up to be a writer and artist. I’ve written on and off for years, and wrote my obligatory bad novels when I was a teenager. I also wrote a lot of bad poetry – isn’t that part of being a teenager anyway? I always assumed I wasn’t really a writer, and that I was just fooling around, because almost everything I wrote was bad. I didn’t understand – as I think many people still don’t – that writing is a skill and can be learned and practised. I could understand being a bad painter and improving, but somehow I didn’t translate that to writing. If you could write well, you were a writer. If you couldn’t, you weren’t. I had that attitude until I was thirty-six and ran into my first editor, Alice Korach at Threads magazine. That was when the light went on.

You have written everything from journal articles, children’s fiction and poetry, but in which genre do prefer to write and why?

Pick a favourite, you mean? I suppose I’d have to say fiction, just from the sheer volume of what I’ve written. I love flash, and actually really began to hone my fiction skills on 55-word flash pieces in 2005 or 2006. I write well in the five-hundred-to-one-thousand-word span. Subject matter – fantasy is definitely my favourite, but I’m rigorous about it. I stick to the classic lore about creatures, whether they’re the Good Folk or zombies, and make my stories work within that frame. I like the young adult genre, both to read and to write, because YA requires a plot, and YA novels usually have a sense of justice. This doesn’t mean that good is always rewarded and evil punished, but there is certainly an overriding ethic that says it should be so. Right now I’m engrossed in a novel, on the fifth or sixth draft. A few years ago I wouldn’t have believed I could write something this long, and I’m completely enthralled with the story and the process. I do love to write instructional articles and humour pieces, and currently have three regular humour columns: Strata of Ephemera at Bibliobuffet, North by NorthEast at Pet Product News International, and Over the Ridge in the Sault Star.

Please tell us a little about your writing process. Is there a time of day at which you prefer to write? Are there any items you like to keep handy for inspiration?

I’m not sure what to tell you. Butt in the chair, pen on the paper (or fingers on the keyboard). I like to write in the morning – sometimes nine a.m.and sometimes one a.m. Right now my major fiction writing time is between 1:30 and 2:30 pm because I have a full-time job, afternoon shift, and write in the car while my husband drives. It’s a 75-minute commute. I write columns and articles at home, where I have notes, reference books and an internet connection, however slow (in my part of the country we don’t yet have high-speed or cell service). I write poetry wherever it occurs to me. I don’t have any particular item that I keep for inspiration, but I do have quotes pinned up on my wall, and when I get my new office, I’ll be writing things on the wall that help keep me focused and inspired. One of my favourites is from my friend Lucinda Kempe. “Life is tough, E, but it’s tougher for those poor souls who have no passion, yes?” Definitely yes. I also keep books on myth and folklore handy, and a lot of reference stuff about animals and biology.

What is your strategy with regards to editing? Do you rely on critique partners, beta readers, or writer’s group?

I don’t know what I’d do without my writers’ group! I’m a member of a wonderful, active group in Thessalon, close to where I live. We critique each others’ work for grant application and submission for publication. We’re very effective: four of us have won major provincial grants to support our fiction writing, and five or six of us have won smaller grants on a regular basis. I also have a group of readers whose judgement I trust who are not part of the writers’ group. I’ve been relying on them for critical reading of the YA novel. For a long time I worked on line in Zoetrope in the Flash Factory, which was my on line writers’ group, and that vastly improved my flash fiction. When I get back to full-time writing, the first thing I’m doing is going back to the Flash Factory and more flash stories.

It was so frustrating when I was first looking for critique, many years ago, to have people say, “Oh, this is fantastic!” because I knew it wasn’t, but I didn’t know what I was doing wrong. I felt a little bit like the abstract painter with a portrait, and he wanted to change the nose, but didn’t know where it was. I knew there were problems with my work, and by then I’d realized that they could be fixed, but first I had to be able to pinpoint the trouble, and I didn’t know how. I didn’t even know where to go for help, and was fumbling along, improving almost by accident. When I began writing for radio, the producers I worked with made many very gentle suggestions, and I gradually learned how to edit my own work for that medium. I now read a lot about writing; there’s always something new to learn.

Product Details

You have written a book, Shepherd In Residence. Would you like to tell us a little bit about it?

“Shepherd” is about my time keeping sheep in Wharncliffe, where I live; about the sheep, and the dogs, the fencing and lambing and everything that goes with shepherding. Some of it is humorous, and all of it is true. For about a year I wrote (and taped) a monthly letter about my flock for a CBC radio programme called “Richardson’s Roundup”. When that gig finished, I kept the pieces, with the idea in the back of my mind that it might be possible to make a book of them. That was about 2002. In 2010 I got them out again and decided that I would rewrite the fifteen pieces I had so that they were stories rather than letters and add stories that hadn’t been told on the original series. I applied for a grant through a programme where small publishers read the applications and award the grants. Laurence Steven of Scrivener Press in Sudbury saw my application for “Shepherd” and asked to see the manuscript when it was complete. He ultimately made me an offer to publish. He arranged everything, including an illustrator, and I approached some people about blurbs for the back cover. It happened at light speed – my original application was December 2010, the manuscript was completed in May 2011, and the book came out in April 2012. You can get “Shepherd” from Amazon or Chapters, or from Scrivener Press, or from my site. I autograph, of course.

Your latest project is a story called The Swan Harp. Please tell us a little bit about it, unless you are superstitious about revealing too much about a work in progress.

It’s not superstition so much as a conviction that you should write rather than talk about it. Since the writing is going well, I’ll tell you that I first got the idea for the story about twenty years ago from Loreena McKennitt’s song “The Bonny Swans“. I like story reversal, the idea that some critical facet of the story would change if it were told from another viewpoint, and that’s part of what I’ve done. I was also interested in what happened to the middle daughter, because the song begins “A farmer lived in the North Country. He had daughters, one, two, three,” but after that we hear only about the eldest and youngest daughter. The middle daughter has become my point-of-view character. Because there is a reference to a swan “looking very like a gentlewoman”, I thought of the swanfolk, mostly swan-maidens, who turn up in myth and folklore, and made my protagonist and her sisters the daughters of a human man and a swan woman. This has been absorbing to write – a lot of fun, and a lot of work, and the story has gone way beyond the original idea. I’ve drawn on my knowledge of biology, history, mediaeval combat, farming, shepherding, textiles, medicine and magic to write this story. I love winding all those threads into the original story and making something that reads – at least to me – like a workable, authentic world.

Oooo, that sounds fascinating! 🙂

On your blog, you present a lot of advice to writers. What is the most important thing a new writer should know as they embark on their road to publication?

Publication is an end, but it’s not the end. If you aren’t writing because you actually love the act of storytelling and the stories that you write, you have a recipe for frustration. Anyone who goes into the arts needs to love what they do, because it’s difficult to make a living on it. The odds are probably a little better than becoming a professional hockey player, but the pay isn’t nearly as good. Do it because you love it. That love translates into and shapes the work. I discovered when I was living on my pottery that the things I loved to make also sold well. And learn your technical stuff, because if you love making chairs, it’s easier to make a good chair when you understand things like saws and nails and “measure twice, cut once”. The technical aspects of writing, once mastered, let your story come through.

Good advice! 🙂

Do you have any hobbies that you’d like to share with us?

Most of what I do usually becomes business, because I’ve spent a lot of my life paying my bills with the work of my hands and imagination. At the moment I’d say that bookmaking and pop-ups are pretty much a hobby. I don’t usually sell the books or cards, but I love to make them. You can see some of them at http://northernpopups.wordpress.com. I’ve always loved messing around with paper. I know how to handle it, I understand its grain and what it will do, and I like to play with it. I do origami, too, which gives me a great deal of pleasure for minimal skill. I own five spinning wheels, and when I get the time, I love to spin, knit and weave.

I also love canoeing. We have lots of beaver ponds and things around home, and gliding around on the water, looking at the birds and rocks and plants, is a happy afternoon. I love rocks, and I pick fossils. If I’m driving along a highway and spot a limestone cut, I pull over and poke around. You can get some very cool fossils from pieces that have fallen off the limestone and are just lying on the ground. These are sites no paleontologist is ever going to get to, so I feel all right about fossil-picking there. One of my favourites is a fossilized cycad cone my husband found me in a rock cut.

What a fascinating life you lead – and your pop-ups are amazing! 🙂

Are there any social media to which you belong that you would like to share? (Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, etc)

I have a Facebook page, which I set up strictly to create part of my author profile. I enjoy it, but I spend minimal time there, mainly because I have little time to spend. I’m on Twitter as well, again with not a lot of time to spend there. It would be very easy to get sucked into it, because I see quite a few interesting tweets that I’d love to follow up on. I’ve just registered on Goodreads; where I think I’ll get the time is a mystery to me.

I know how you feel. There never seems to be enough time for all the connecting through social media that writers need to do these days. We’re too busy writing or researching that next great work! 🙂

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

It’s a surprise and a delight to me to see how many people like my work. I think that art is the best work in the world, and I know I’ve been lucky to be able to spend so much of my life doing it, and earning at least part of a living from it. I really wish that everybody could do work that they love. I love to get people excited about doing art – pottery, bookmaking, pop-ups, printmaking, knitting, spinning,writing. There’s a deep satisfaction to making something, bringing a sock or a story or anything into being that wasn’t there before you did it. I think everyone should have that.

I love that attitude and feel the same way. Thank-you, Elizabeth for taking the time to chat with us. 🙂

You are SO welcome!

I highly recommend dropping by to see what Elizabeth has to offer on her site, as well as her books, etc. All links are in red so you can find them easily. 🙂

I guess that’s it for now. To all my Canadian and American friends, I hope you are enjoying this lovely Labour Day weekend! 🙂