Inspired to Write

Recently, I was interviewed about my writing. One of the questions focused on my writing environment and when and where I was inspired to write.

When I was much younger, I forced myself to write. That’s right. Forced. I’d take out a piece of paper and pen and lay them out on a desk in front of me, or I’d sit perched over my typewriter, waiting for an idea to come to me. Sometimes, I waited a long time. Usually, I’d come up with nothing.

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I did this because I had read about famous writers saying, “You must write everyday!” or that if you just started doodling or writing random thoughts, a great idea would emerge from this.

Every time I forced myself to write, the writing would resemble exactly that: forced. Lacking imagination; one-dimensional.

I’m not against other writers forcing themselves to write. It just doesn’t work for me.

As I got older, I let the ideas come to me. As all writers know (As all artists know, for that matter), an inspiration might come in the middle of the night or in a restaurant or on an airplane.

One of the interview questions asked where I write best and I said, “Outdoors in a foreign country.” However, now when I sit down to write (Always in pen first, then on a laptop), I have already formulated the idea for the short story or poem or novel. I still have to sit at times, perplexed, but not because I have no idea for my theme. It is usually because I have to think of my characters’ traits or how to make a sentence stand out.

I never do start writing until the idea has been fixed in my brain.

On a side note, I recently had an interview for a grade 6 teaching position. One of the last comments asked of me was, “Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself?”

I mentioned that I had self-published a children’s book, probably aimed at children at the grade 6 level. I said I would never promote it in class: this would be unprofessional. But it would be good for the students to know that I was on their level when it comes to writing rough drafts and then revising. It’s a long, at times, tedious cycle.

I thought I did excellently in the interview but, alas, did not get the job.

Perhaps I was too ebullient about my writing. And to get some kind of ebullience from me takes awhile.

Shame.

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Good Reviews, Bad Reviews

As a self-published author, I paid a sum of money to have three prestigious companies review my two novels. These American companies that critiqued my books are blueink Review, Clarion Book Review, and Kirkus Reviews.

The books of mine reviewed are More Precious Than Rubies: The Return of the Norse Gods which follows the adventures of a 7th-grade student as he battles an evil Norse God who is embodied in the school’s new principal, and The Monarchs, about a man battling cancer and trying to find some meaning in his life as he makes various journeys to Mexico with his wife.

The reviews were uplifting at times and disappointing at times, giving me the true sense of being an author. The most beneficial part of the whole exercise was that it made me contemplate the value of my work and how to make it better next time. Most people would say this is a good lesson; yet, I totally understand how critics can cause people to consider turning away from their craft.

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After some brief bouts of depression when I read negative references to my novels, I convinced myself that some reviewers will like one’s output as an author and some will not. Then, their opinions may switch for one’s following novel. I also considered all of those established authors out there whose books have been turned down by publishers countless times. And did they give up?

I will give some examples of the reviewers’ comments regarding my first self-published book, the children’s fantasy entitled More Precious Than Rubies.

Blueink Review had mostly negative things to say about the book: “…there’s very little action in the plot, and the most critical scenes – including the story’s climax – happen entirely offstage.” Also, “…this story requires major revisions to reach the standards of quality, excitement, and expanded mythology that are already available in the traditional marketplace.”

Clarion Book Review, on the other hand, had mostly positive things to say about the book: “Coates, an elementary school teacher, captures the characters of Paul and Chad perfectly, with the budding independence and maturity appropriate to their age, as well as the uncertainty that accompanies a lack of experience.” Also: More Precious Than Rubies is an enjoyable, self-contained tale that will entertain young readers and bring an ancient myth to life.”

Kirkus Reviews, as a balance, provided mixed comments. Contained in the critique is: “The initial mysteries surrounding the new school principal set the stage for a page-turning story and will pique readers’ interest.” But then it goes on to: “An intriguing tale, but one hampered by uneven characterization and a disappointing ending.”

Concerning my second self-published novel, The Monarchs, blueink Review held mixed reactions, indicating that I offer “a raw and sometimes painfully realistic look at how one paired-for-life couple handles their final years, months, and days together.” But there was also this: “One or two such scenes showing us the way cancer has made Robert’s life almost unlivable would be enough, but Coates revisits this theme so frequently and intensely that it overshadows the charming relationship between curmudgeonly Robert and his loyal, if frequently sarcastic, wife.”

Clarion Book Review is mostly positive: “Coates flawlessly combines their spoken and unspoken reflections and points of view, and what begins in jest…gradually takes on a deeper meaning.”

However, there is this, too: ”The Monarchs could benefit from a thorough review by a translator to clean up these portions, as there appear to be many errors, including a lack of italicization.” This type of criticism I do not mind so much: the problem is easier to clean up than one involving theme or action.

Meanwhile, Kirkus Reviews hits the book hard: “Additionally, Robert and Sharon’s ideologies are jammed into the narrative at perplexing intervals simply to make what come across as half-baked points. Rants about George W. Bush, religion, and cultural differences between Mexico and Canada are unfocused and distracting.”

My final analysis about seeking reviews for my novels?

When I read the positive comments, I’m happy about what I did. When I read the negative comments, I wonder if I should have put my money towards a trip to the Galapagos.

I guess I have adopted the mind-set of a professional writer.

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Back From San Miguel, Part 2

During my stay in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, last month, I happened to be in town for the Guanajuato International Film Festival (GIFF). Guanajuato is one of the states of Mexico. It is here that San Miguel is located. I had not tried to plan my trip to correspond with the festival; it was merely a coincidence.

I live in Toronto where we have the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), arriving very soon next month. TIFF is world-famous and GIFF is rarely heard of in Canada and the U.S. It is, however, well-known to Latin Americans.

Although I am a movie buff, I have never attended any of the movies presented at TIFF, nor do I stand in long line-ups, waiting to get a picture of a celebrity. They get enough attention.

In fact, while in Mexico, I was more excited about GIFF than I have been in the past about TIFF. There are many similarities between the two festivals: the number of different venues where movies are shown, the red carpets, the celebratory atmosphere.

I took in one movie: Eden. It is directed by Elise Durant and stars Diana Sedano. Durant was once a native of San Miguel and many of the scenes are filmed in and around the town. Sedano plays an ill woman who has returned to the town where she grew up with her father. There is a reason for her return: she must talk to the man who played a huge part in dismantling the lives of her and her father.

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From the attention that the movie was generating in San Miguel, I got the idea that this was going to be the darling of the festival.

There was a huge turn-out. It was exciting to sit in the audience with native San Miguelenses, all of us waiting to identify places or people that we recognized in the movie.

And, as is typical at TIFF, the director and actors came out on stage at the end to talk about the reception. With my limited knowledge of Spanish, I did understand some of what they said.

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Back From San Miguel

When my parents return home from one of their trips, they usually say, “I was ready for home. It’s good to be back in your own bed.”

Here I am back from another of my trips and although I am already ingrained into the routine of my home life, I cannot share my parents’ sentiment. In fact, I often drag myself, kicking and screaming, from my holiday, not wanting to return home. Between you and me (and, of course, the rest of the cyber world), I’ve been known to cry on some occasions.

As my driver took me away from my Bed and Breakfast in San Miguel and was heading for the Leon International Airport, I kept thinking, “Who would be sleeping in my bed tonight? Using my underwear drawer? Washing themselves in my shower?”

Travelling, in this regard, is very difficult. I have even had absurd thoughts of never travelling again because it’s too emotional to pack up one’s things and come home at the end.

San Miguel was blissful. I have journeyed there so many times now that I usually avoid the sightseeing (Been there, done that!) and the picture-taking (Btdt!). Instead, I eat, drink, wander the streets, and visit the jardin, the centro in front of the massive La Parroquia church, and people-watch.

I regularly attend the House and Garden tour every Sunday. It is my chance to travel outside of town and go into peoples’ homes and gardens, getting an excellent sense of how expatriates live in Mexico. I have probably been on 20 of these tours over the past ten years and what I find most amazing is that the majority of the houses I’ve seen incorporate Mexican art (e.g., native masks on the walls) and architecture (boveda ceilings) while the gardens contain native species of plants.

If all this weren’t enough, the money I pay for these excursions goes to programmes for disadvantaged children in SM.

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There is usually at least one activity per trip that I do and that I’ve never done before when visiting SM.

On this occasion, it was a cantina tour in which a group of us had the opportunity to visit five well-known cantinas around town. For those of you not familiar with these drinking places, they are meeting stops where one goes just to socialize and get drunk. They stay open until early morning and did not admit women at one time. I got the sense from the bars’ ambience that they are still strictly for men.

Our tour lasted quite early into the evening and included beer and/or tequila. I also sampled mezcal which, to my lack of knowledge, is also extracted from a cactus plant.

We were all pretty happy by the end of our tour.

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Return to San Miguel

In 11 days, I will be returning to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. People wonder why I am visiting Mexico in July when the heat can become oppressive.

I usually visit the place in March; however, this year, I was too busy. In the past, I’ve gone for a week. I will be going for three weeks this time, making up for my long absence from a place I cherish. The hot weather will not bother me.

I am now visualizing San Miguel, an art colony with cobblestone streets. This is my first journey there since I self-published The Monarchs, a novel about a retired couple who seek refuge in San Miguel every year. The husband has cancer and SM provides him with some therapy to an otherwise difficult life. I will be taking along some of my books, one of which I will donate to the library which has one of the largest collections of Spanish and English books in the Americas.

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I will give the remainder of the books as gifts to locals there: people I have come to know due to my numerous visits.

The front cover of the novel was designed by my niece who has more of an artistic eye than I do. I asked her to draw a picture of the town’s parish church, La Parroquia. The married couple are standing in front of it, blissfully happy, trying to ignore those obstacles in one’s life. Soon, I will be standing where my characters are standing.

The expression, truth is stranger than fiction, applies here.

San Miguel, I cannot wait.

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BlueInk Review of my Novel

My novel, The Monarchs, has been reviewed by BlueInk. Here is the review:

In his first novel, Randy Coates tackles some tough topics: old age, illness, and death. With The Monarchs, he pulls no punches on any of these subjects, offering a raw and sometimes painfully realistic look at how one paired-for-life couple handles their final years, months, and days together.

Coates gives us Sharon and Robert, a retired couple who travels annually from their chilly Canadian home to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, in a human “migration” that parallels the path of the majestic Monarch butterflies. In their twilight years, however, the trip becomes more and more difficult, as the increasingly depressed Robert’s prostate cancer causes him considerable pain, inconvenience, and embarrassment. Like the famous butterflies, however, the couple continues to make their trek despite the odds against them.

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Coates’ delivery is not without humor. Robert, for instance, wonders if the doctors are just throwing darts at a diagnostic chart and choosing a new remedy for him each time he’s in the hospital. But the bulk of the very graphic writing focuses on the growing humiliation of Robert’s incontinence, which makes for fairly grim reading. When Robert doesn’t quite make it to the bathroom, for instance, Coates writes that a “brown stream followed him like an obedient dog.” One or two such scenes showing us the way cancer has made Robert’s life almost unlivable would be enough, but Coates revisits this theme so frequently and intensely that it overshadows the charming relationship between curmudgeonly Robert and his loyal, if frequently sarcastic, wife.

The story moves slowly towards its inevitable end, with ambulance calls and hospital stays becoming more and more frequent. The Monarchs isn’t light reading but may resonate with seniors facing end-of-life decisions. Coates ultimately turns away from grisly medical details to evoke the eternally renewing butterflies. Death, he suggests, is not the end, but merely a migration to a new place.

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Garage Sale

 

 

Last weekend, I helped my parents organize a garage sale.

I asked if I could include some of my items to be sold and they said yes. One of the items was my children’s fantasy novel, More Precious Than Rubies: The Return of the Norse Gods.

I have not been getting the sales for this novel that I desire. I love to write but I dislike marketing because I’ve always seen it as a pushy affair. I know that it’s necessary if one wants success as a writer. I’m just not very good at it.

So I decided to try to get some exposure at my parents’ sale. Yes, I know that a garage sale is not the normal for book-signings; however, if I can ask to put the book in my dentist’s waiting room, why not here?

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In fact, I sold three copies.

The first buyer said, “Imagine that. Coming to a yard sale and getting a book signed by its author.”

The second buyer had her pre-teen son with her and was deliberately looking for something that might interest him.

“Do you like fantasy?” I asked him.

His slightly confused look suggested that he didn’t know what I was talking about. After all, don’t we all like fantasy?

I described the book to him.

“He’s not much of a reader,” his mom said.

Words that teachers dread to hear.

But after some consultation with her son, she said, “He says he’s going to try it.”

Which brings me to those survey questions about what I want my writing to achieve. Well, if I can get a reluctant reader to read, that’s sufficient for me.

The third buyer was a woman I know. When she was six, my mother looked after her in day care. I used to play board games with her and entertain her with fabulous stories. She told me she never forgot these. She now has two kids of her own and drives a bus. She gladly bought the book.

My mother, bless her, likes to be my promoting manager at times. She told people about the book, telling them that the author was “sitting right over there.”

Writing, as writers will so often tell you, can stem from humorous incidents in our lives. Two of my mom’s friends, both in their 80’s, walked around, looking at the sale items. Mom directed them to my book but they either didn’t hear her or didn’t care.

Then, five minutes later, one of them almost stumbled over the box containing my books, looked down, and said, “Oh, here are some children’s books.”

Life itself is a book.

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