Novelist And Creative Writing Professor Angie Abdou On Where Ideas Happen, What “Good Writing” Means, And The Only Reason To Be A Writer

Who: Angie Abdou

Claim To Fame: Angie Abdou is the author of seven books, including The Bone Cage, which was a finalist for CBC’s Canada Reads 2011 and the 2012 MacEwan Book of the Year. Chatelaine magazine named Angie’s most recent novel, In Case I Go, one of the most-riveting mysteries of 2017, and The Vancouver Sun called it a “spectacularly successful” novel. Her latest, Home Ice: Reflections of a Reluctant Hockey Momis her first book of nonfiction. Angie is also an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Athabasca University.

Where To Find Angie: Her WebsiteAmazonTwitter

Praise For Angie: In Case I Go is the gorgeous and shattering triumph of a writer at the very height of her powers. Each page pulls the reader through to the next — compelling, heartbreaking, and convincing, this book demands to be lived.” — Kevin Patterson


When and where do you like to write?  Are you regimented about your writing routine?

Yes, I’m pretty regimented. I come to writing as an athlete, and I’ve transferred the discipline, routine, and work ethic I used in swimming to writing. That’s the only way I know how to do it. When I’m working on a book project, I work every day. The momentum that builds from that (obsessive?) attachment to the work is key to my process. Ideas only arrive – and the story only comes to life – when I commit to daily time with the manuscript. I prefer to write first thing in the morning, then go for a run (where the most creative stuff happens), and then come back to the page for another hour or so.

With family and work commitments, I cannot always clear the morning so I have, in recent decades, learned to be flexible about the when, as long as I can find a few hours every day.

The where – I’m less consistent about that. I do have a great office at home, but sometimes I need to get out of the house to avoid the temptation to clean the fridge (or whatever other tasks suddenly seem so appealing in comparison with the deep work of writing).  I like the background noise of coffee shops and have a few favourites. If I want silence, there’s a quiet room in the Fernie Library that’s been lucky for me.

Do you have any pre-writing rituals or habits before you sit down to write?

No, for me, the mid-writing ritual is the most important. After I’ve put in my time at the computer, I must go for a run (or at least a long solo walk).  That’s where all the ideas – the new scene, the perfect bit of dialogue, the poetic line, the crucial insight – come. I suppose the trick is not trying so hard and leaving the subconscious mind alone to do its thing, and that works best when I’m in movement and distracted by physical effort. I’ve learned not to question the how or why too much. That’s my best advice to writers: figure out what process works for you and stick to it. Trust your process.

What do you do when the writing isn’t coming easy? Do you struggle at all with that dreaded enemy of writing: writer’s block?

I believe Michael Ondaatje said you have to show up at your desk for all the bad days to earn the one good day. I think of that a lot. I have bad days for sure, but I remind myself that when I commit to my process, the story eventually comes. So on the bad days, I put in a couple hours at the computer, then I go for a run, and then I put in another hour at the computer. Exactly the same as on the good days.

What is your process for research like?How does your approach to novel research differ from your approach to academic research?

That’s a good question. Once at a festival, a novelist was speaking about her novel set in the 1970s (before she was born) and an older author from the audience asked “What research did you do to make sure that you got the 70s’ writing scene right? How did you ensure that your representation of that era feels true and authentic?” The author answered: “I don’t really like to get too bogged down in the research.” I might have gasped, and I’m sure the author-in-the-audience was appalled. Maybe the answer was meant to be provocative. Still, when I feel myself getting pulled too far toward the academic route, I think of that line, give my head a shake, and announce “I don’t like to get too bogged down in the research.” I aim to strike a balance between the appalled author-in-the-audience and the nonchalant author with her glib reply. It’s true that writers could spend their whole lives researching and never get to the novel. It’s also true that you want to leave room for the characters and story to come alive and if you’re too anchored to the research that creative energy will be elusive. In academic writing, I have a very organized process: research, outline, finish research, write. In creative writing, the research comes woven into the process. I research enough to see if my idea will work and then I start writing. I research other details as needed to make sure the story will work. I don’t want to put readers off by having them realize the story would never actually happen in the time it’s set or that I’ve gotten some major detail wrong about the group that I’m writing about. I have a novel called The Bone Cage about Olympic swimmers and wrestlers for example, and I wanted to make sure I did enough research that the story rang true for Olympic swimmers and wrestlers. Even though they’re likely a very small portion of my readers, I don’t want to be discredited by the very people I’m writing about. That’s the kind of research I do as I go: what kind of time would an elite swimmer do for 100 free in 2000? How many meters do Olympic-bound swimmers do per practice? What are the main Olympic weight classes in wrestling? How much weight does a typical wrestler cut to compete?  Those questions come up in the writing and I research them as needed.

Deciding on an idea to pursue writing about can be the most challenging aspect for a writer. How do you come to find the stories and lives that become the subjects of your books? Are there habits or daily practices you use to think about book ideas?

Ohhhhhh. This is driving me crazy. I’m at that stage now, looking for a new book idea, and it’s all I can think and talk about. It’s driving my family crazy too.  An idea will eventually land on me. Novel ideas grow out of obsessions. The main idea has to be something I want to think about every day for a year or two years or more. Once an idea does land, I commit to it. Otherwise, I would eventually quit on every single idea because at so many points I decide: “This will never work.” Once I put pen to paper, I don’t give myself the backing-out option. Oddly, usually that initial “I think I have an idea!” excitement also comes during a long walk or a run. I hear showers work well for some writers too. I take solace in that – if my Achilles ever goes, I can still think-write in the shower.

You are also a professor of Creative Writing. How does teaching the craft help you in your own writing career? What are some common mistakes you see aspiring writers make?

Teaching writing to others teaches me so much. Being in that guiding role forces me to articulate what works in a story and what doesn’t, thereby clarifying the form (short story, novel, creative nonfiction essay, memoir) for me. I read differently as a teacher – to see what a writer can and can’t do, what does and doesn’t work on the page.  Then, as a benefit beyond teaching, I apply those lessons to my own work. To be clear, it’s not as if I figure out how writing works and then voila I’m done. My idea of what strategies can be effective on the page always evolve – through my reading and teaching. That evolution changes what I try to write.

As a teacher, I’m a bit obsessed with writing at the level of sentence. A lot of aspiring writers forget that when we refer to “good writing” we often mean at that most basic level. Readers will not get engaged in the story if they find writing cluttered with weak verbs, passive voice, predicable phrasing, tired images, dead metaphors, unnecessary wordiness, redundancy, and awkward phrasing. I tell aspiring writers: edit those sentences until they sing. Read your work aloud. You will find yourself tripping over the weak sentences.  Edit and re-read until you don’t trip.

Great writers tend to be voracious readers. What does your reading habit look like? Can you recommend some of your favorite writers and books?

I read every day, not only because I love books or because I read to learn as a writer, but also because I want to support other writers and the book community. I have a monthly column on CBC where I recommend books by Alberta writers. I interview writers at festivals. I post on Twitter and Facebook about books I admire and enjoy. I review books for journals. If we want to keep the book industry afloat, we all have to work to support each other’s books.

I read, also, to remind myself of the reason I’m in this profession: because I love books. My favourite writers and books change. I loved this year’s Booker winner Girl, Woman, Other. I’m also loving the kind of books currently popular with so many readers: Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Conversation with Friends, Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation and Weather, and the auto-fiction trilogy by Rachel Cusk. I like the way these writers capture the current zeitgeist, in all its complexity and anxiety, while focusing on personal/domestic stories and getting the readers right in the heads of the characters. I also admire their stylistic originality and the way that style speaks to the times and feels so now.

I also recently loved a book by John Gould called the end of me. It’s a collection of very short stories (two to six pages) about death, but it’s funny. Funny stories about death. Also profound. I like that collection from a place of pure admiration. I could never do what he does. I don’t know how he brings a whole world to life in three pages.

Oh – Five Wives by Joan Thomas. That novel is a master class in empathy. Thomas never judges a character. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book where the author feels so absent – and the characters come to life fully formed, free of authorial judgement. The story (about misguided missionaries) would easily lend itself to satire or even caricature. She resists that temptation. I learned a lot from that book.

I could go on all day about books I love.

What is your advice to aspiring writers?

I’m going to quote from my recent book Home Ice: Reflections of a Reluctant Hockey Mom to answer this question: “Fame and fortune are exactly the wrong reasons to write. I tell my students: only be a writer if you really can’t help it, if you love writing. I’m talking about the same kind of Aristotelian love that I hope draws Ollie to hockey. If you’re drawn to writing like an apple is drawn to the ground — if writing’s gravitational pull on you is irresistible — then write.”

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The post Novelist And Creative Writing Professor Angie Abdou On Where Ideas Happen, What “Good Writing” Means, And The Only Reason To Be A Writer appeared first on Writing Routines.

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

The post A Plague of Giants appeared first on Elitist Book Reviews.

The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

The post The Art Of Gary Choo appeared first on Halcyon Realms – Art Book Reviews – Anime, Manga, Film, Photography.

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