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Archives | Sylvia McNicoll

Witchlanders by Lena Coakley at the Eternal Flame in Ottawa

This is a historical post in that it refers back to October 18. Kelly Duffin (Executive Director of The Writers Union of Canada) and I were dashing in to hear the second reading of Bill C11, the copyright bill. But I stopped at the Eternal Flame to read Lena Coakley’s brand new Witchlanders.   Okay not really.  I was reading it on the my Porter Airlines flight to and from but I didn’t have anyone to photograph me there.  Instead, a fantasy in front of Parliament.  More dramatic and fitting I think. Witchlanders tells an engrossing story about witches and magic and my favourite, the Dredhounds.   The cover is beautiful I’ll have to take a picture of it more close up.  Pale blue with strands of white ice on it.  The writing is pure magic too.  Get a copy and read it somewhere comfy.

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Title Sudoku

As part of my job as magazine editor, I often help or come up with “cover lines”, “heds” and “deks”.
A “hed” is the title of an article, a “dek” is the preamble to further explain what’s in the piece–both need to be catchy and cute.

Note the alliteration Catchy and Cute. Alliteration is my favourite tool.

Sometimes I play with movie titles, as in a Greek restaurant review, I called it My Big Fat Greek Dinner (there were generous portions) Everyone likes a double entendre although my “Egg citing Breakfasts in the Annex” got voted off the island by my other editor. Multiple entendres can seem like cliche puns.

I should be an expert on titles by now, after 27 books and five years of magazine editing. But the person who writes the piece, rarely is asked to title it. That person needs an overview (for newspaper and magazine anyway) of what other titles are in the magazine, on the content page and on the cover (cover lines). Yes, a piece often has three nomenclatures.

So back to my book: originally The Forty First Hour, named for the volunteers hours needed for the death/manslaughter to have taken place.

New additions to the title wars: The Lesser Charge (manslaughter is this)
We want to cue the reader that there is a trial as a major component of the story, so legal terms with double entendres might be good. The senior with dementia in the home might be considered a low

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responsibility on the hierarchy of who is important to society hence, the dead 75 year old could be The Lesser Charge.
with an implied irony.

Irony is a good tone for the title because the character can be witty in a sarcastic way.

Suspicious I just like this word and everything that happens in this story can play out so many different ways that it’s all suspicious.

We could add other words Truth and Suspicions.

Deliberate Actions

Nothing But the Truth

Sunny’s Daze (character’s nickname is Sunny )

Circumstantial Evidence


Trial by Fire


Innocent Until Proven Guilty


A Reasonable Doubt


While I like playing title Sudoku, it reminds me of when we first brought our puppy home. He had been named Willy by the breeder but my daughter was naming her newborn William and asked me to change it. For three days we deliberated but until we decided it was very frustrating for us to call “Sit ….” or “Be quiet noname dog”. I’m very excited about this upcoming novel and I find myself wanting to tell librarians, teachers, booksellers and potential readers in general about it. But to say I have this new book coming in March and not be able to quickly follow with “and it’s called” is frustrating.

By the way, my puppy became Mortie as in “Be quiet, Mortimer”. Mortie also sounds a bit like Willy to the dog so the transition was seemless. He’s mischievous, throwing huge boots or pillows around when he needs our attention, and very vocal. He seems to try to articulate his barking into groans, whines and words. I can’t imagine him with any other name.

If you have any suggestions, please make them. Feel free to combine titles that are already listed:
“Trial by Circumstance” “Reasonable Evidence”. Or vote on your favourite. My new title, when it’s decided, will become the perfect match too. Thanks.








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Name that Story

Here’s the first 900 words of a new book for me coming out in the spring with my new publisher Lorimer. The book was originally called The Forty-First Hour, because it’s structured around the forty compulsory hours of volunteer work Sonja aka Sunny must do in order to graduate. She

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comes an extra hour of her own free will to visit a woman in the late stages of Alzheimer’s and when the woman chokes to death, the administrator of the longterm care unit has Sunny charged with manslaughter. The story crisscrosses three strands, the trial, Sunny’s volunteer journal to her teacher and then her own first person narration. The ending will give the verdict but I hope the reader will question not only what was alleged to have happened but also the notion of judicial vs moral guilt. If you want something to happen but you didn’t plan it but maybe you didn’t go out of your way to stop it, are you guilty legally? And what if the victim had told everyone she wanted to die. Are you guilty morally?


I like A Reasonable Doubt but my good friends at the publishing house want a title that plays up the trial and the character of Sunny–she’s a strong character who places a high value on appearance. She wants to pursue a career in hairstyling. She has deceived in the past but struggles to become a better person in the story. If you choose the title the editors agree on, I’ll send you the first copy I get.


Thanks!


“Sonja Anna Ehret, you stand accused of manslaughter. How do you
plead?”
It’s been a year since it happened and now, here I stand, front row centre of a courtroom. Four windowless beige walls surround me and I find it hard to breathe let alone answer. Silence hangs heavy and musty.
A couple of clerks watch me from behind a long desk. Dressed in black robes they’re like crows on a wire between me and an eagle, the judge. He trains his eyes on me from a higher perch, a throne-like desk flanked on either side by a flag.
Two people sit on the other side of the aisle from me. The pouffy-haired business woman is Mrs. Johnson from Paradise Manor, the one who had me charged. The guy beside her is a reporter judging by the steno pad in his hand. Everyone’s waiting for my answer. The clock on the wall ticks slowly forward.
I want to plead guilty. Immediately the trial would end and the sentence would be lighter, probation and a few thousand hours of community service. But it would kill my parents especially Mom.
She sits in back of me, tall, pale and

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thin with her chin held high. She’s a proud woman and I’m already the Big Disappointment of the family not at all like my older brother Wolfgang who is minding the condo management company so she and Dad can be here. Next to Mom sits Dad, slightly shorter but square shouldered and strong. He and Wolfgang look alike, guys you can instantly trust and lean on.

My family is the only reason I’m considering this dragged out process and I know they’ll stand behind me no matter what. Still what happens if I am found guilty? The sentence will be way worse, a couple of years in a correctional youth centre at least.
Twelve jury members stare vacantly at me from the left side of the courtroom waiting for my answer. They’re going to decide my fate. Really?
My lawyer told me to dress in smart casual but I’m guessing no one instructed the jury. The best-dressed one wears a kiwi-coloured sweatsuit, the worst, relaxed-fit jeans and a long-sleeved red plaid shirt. Then there’s the lady in the front with a stained top, a fat guy wearing a polo shirt with horizontal stripes, a guy with broken horn-rimmed glasses that make his head look tilted in a question. Two young guys with identical goatees fidget at the back. One is multiply pierced as though the rings in his eyebrows and lips are the only things holding him together. The other scratches his beard a lot. Five more jurors look like they’ve just left the bowling alley or their jobs as greeters in a box store.
That jury doesn’t know that I took a half an hour to press my clothes and maybe that’s good. Maybe they’d hold it against me—excessive neatness, signs of a serial killer in the making. I’m wearing a dark grey skirt, a pale rose shirt and low-heeled pumps. A subdued look except for the pink streaks in my hair.
The guy in the glasses yawns, checks his watch then glances over at me. Still waiting.
“Sunny?” Brendan McNeil, my lawyer prompts. I look down to the right where he stands. Another crow in a black robe. Or maybe a raven. His hair is dark and closely cropped and everything about him seems sharper than those clerks at the front. His brown eyes measure me.
Guilty, guilty, guilty. My heart flip flops. This is it, I’m going to say it. Who cares what the lawyer told me to say? Can he honestly believe this jury will acquit me?
I face the unsmiling bald judge. He’s wearing a jaunty red sash across his robe. I focus on that diagonal slash of red. Guilty, I say in my mind, and tell my mouth to follow. But for some reason, that stripe of colour gives me hope. Instead I speak out as clearly as I can:
“Not Guilty.”
The judge raises his eyebrows at me. Oh really? “Very well,” he says out loud. “Mr. Dougal, are you prepared to make the opening statement?”
The Crown prosecutor nods and approaches his stand like a large vulture, his robe floating behind him. His skin and hair look white against the blackness of the robe, his eyes are a window cleaner blue. “Your honour, members of the jury,” he stares their way till all of them pay attention, “we will prove that on February 14, 2011, the defendant entered the Paradise Court Longterm Care residence and willfully fed hard candy to Helen Demers, a known diabetic who had difficulty swallowing due to her Alzheimer’s.” The jurors squirm under his stare and he swivels to focus on me instead. “Not only was the candy full of sugar and therefore toxic to her, it was also in a format that would cause her to choke.” He looks towards the judge now. “Evidence will show Sonja had a relationship with Cole, the victim’s grandson, and that she carried out his pact with his grandmother to assist her in suicide so that when the victim began to asphyxiate, the defendant walked away purposely failing to provide medical assistance.”

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Twenty-four Hours in Ottawa

It was a grey drizzly afternoon when we arrived in Ottawa but I hiked from the hotel to Parliament Hill immediately.  Just the sight of these buildings inspires me into belting out “Oh Canada” and I wanted to get that nationalistic feeling for when we broke bread with MPs next morning.  I felt a little depressed at the desertion of the hill worrying that it foreshadowed attendance.  When I saw the statue of the lady listening to the man I thought it might prove a metaphor (me begging for someone to listen to us).
I’m happy to say this was not the case.  Ten people attended.  I won’t list the MPs but my table included Burlington’s Mike Wallace and Dufferin/Calidon’s David Tilson.  I had a simple mission, to explain how a writer earned her living, to talk about what copyright means in terms of income and to talk about how the educational fair dealing exception  would negatively impact my earning stream.  This while we ate, always conscious that politicians had other places to be.  I thought it might be hard to squeeze it all in without madly ranting non stop but when Mr. Wallace, conversationally, asked if I earned a living at writing, it was easy to dive in.

Carolyn Wood, my publisher partner, spoke more on the business sides of the problem.  Mr. Wallace and Mr. Tilson asked questions and I believe they were sympathetic.

Next I headed to parliament to hear the discussion of the bill. Wow.  All the arguments seemed more to be about the digi locks that the educational exemption.  The example of the mom who buys a dvd and wants to put it on her Ipod for her child to watch on a long trip was cited over and over. We don’t want to fine her 5 to 20 thou do we?  Another problem that was discussed was Distance Education.  According to discussions, after 30 days students are required to erase/destroy notes.  This was like book burning, according to the MPs.  Really.  Can’t they just pay for the usage they actually need.  Remember when we used to have to buy text books?

At the end, however, one politician whom Kelly Duffin had spoken too, actually suggested including the three step Berne test. Fair dealing won’t mean free chunks of our work then.  Hurray for Kelly.

Was the trip a success?  Yes, because we said what we wanted to.  Just like writing books, you have to celebrate the effort and process. If things don’t go our way in the end, we know we did our utmost.

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What People Should Know About Writers

Currently the rotten economy has made the publishing industry leaner and meaner.  Rejection notes sound curt and dismissive.  So much so that I caught myself telling a relatively new writer the other day that I couldn’t believe I could make a living at it all these years (25).  She pondered at how difficult that must be herself.

The truth of the matter is that many writers earn a living besides blockbuster writers such as J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins or Stephanie Meyers.  What even new writers don’t understand is that advances and royalties alone rarely make up that liveable income.

Writing-related income does.

So, the moment you write a book, you are often asked to teach others how to do it.  This could be in a community college or university depending on your own educational background. Or it could be a session at a writer conference. Children’s writers also instantly become experts on how to make kids read–parents wring their hands as they approach me about advice on this matter–so income can come from family literacy talks.  We also know how to inspire writing in young people.

If you listen to anyone who is passionate about their work, you realize the potential to motivate and inspire students and others.  Income, and book sales, therefore can be derived from school, library, and bookclub visits.

Strangely, I’m often paid to judge writing contests.  Minimally, still usually enough to pay for a full grocery cart.

Looking at, evaluating and/or suggesting changes on a manuscript should pay the mortgage for one month, depending on the size of the home and manuscript.

The expertise required to write a book can lead to the ability to edit others’ work.  I love my part time job editing a parenting magazine called Today’s Parent Toronto.

Freelance writing opportunities have become less frequent since everyone gives away information, such as what I’m doing right now, on blogs.   But I have, in the past, written for newspapers and magazines.  This month I hired myself to write a feature called Creating a Passion for Pages.

Additionally I have earned my way through being an electronic writer in residence, through writing a proposal for an internet travel journal and even bartered a museum membership by “trying out” to write the (wall) speech balloons for some microbes.

My family vacations have been structured around weeklong readings where the hotel has an amazing waterslide.  

Lately, most of my royalties come from other countries where I guess kids buy more books than in Canada.A windfall gain might be an Ontario Arts or Canada Council Grant.  I have been fortunate in the past.When a writer wins a GG, TD or other major monetary award, don’t even ask what they’re doing with the money.  They’re paying down their VISA and/or personal line of credit.

Two fairly steady streams of income are public lending rights (moneys paid through Canada Council for books available in libraries) and Access Copyright (blanket licensing that charges small fees for small unrecorded photocopying and digital downloading–saves the user time if he/she doesn’t have to write me for permissions)  Monday, I’ll be flying into Ottawa to try to convince MPs to tighten the educational exception on the copyright bill C11 to protect the AC income.

Grocery cart by grocery cart, the bits of income all add up.

I think every writer longs to be a blockbuster author.  We feel inadequate when we’re not, especially when signing a contract in the publisher’s office. Or when a government (municipal, provincial or federal) makes cuts to the arts.

But, does the world only want blockbuster hits?  Think of all the wonderful surprising books that have changed your life that weren’t best sellers.

I fondly remember a waitress hugging me after serving me my lunch because her child had stayed up reading her first book (mine) the night before.  I’ve heard that a young victim of parental abuse came to therapy clutching her favourite comfort, one of my books.  I know at least two young women who have fostered many guide dogs after reading my fiction on the topic.  There are many other touching stories I know about that make me realize that blockbusters are not the only important literature out there.
In fact, I often find the bestsellers rather disappointing.

So for the general public, don’t begrudge the writer the fees for talks and other writing related activities.  Also buy the book even if you can put it on hold at the library or borrow it from a buddy.
Finally, tell your MP that the arts and a strong copyright bill are important to you.

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