Friday, January 20, 2012

Guest Post Author Marilynne Miles Gray

How/why did you start to write?
Starting as a teacher of language and literature, then as an editor of a peer-reviewed journal for professional educators and people in corporations, I’ve found it an easy descent into writing a novel.
I can credit a love for reading to my mother who read to me almost daily (just to get me to take a nap) when I was very young and frequent trips with her to the closest decent-sized library which was an hour by bus. Fortunately, I never suffered motion sickness on the bus – the rule was: no reading on the bus, please! To go into the ‘big-city’ library in Hamilton Ontario back then was awe-inspiring. I can relate to those who still do not have ready access to reading material.

How did you become an author?
I still ask myself: did I trip or was I pushed?
In grade school, I entered a writing contest that landed me a radio interview. It happened so long ago that all I can recall was the interviewer slipped in a trick question: “What did your parents tell you not to say?” I fell for that one big time. Poor mom and dad. What I had said was not all that bad but it was something that needed a sentence or two of extra explaining – why I wasn’t allowed pets. Made them look mean when they were anything but.
In high school, I wrote a prize-winning essay that landed me on an American television show that pitted young people against each other to see who could ask the most insightful questions of people who came from other countries and cultures.
To appear on the show, every so often, I would take the trip over the border from North Vancouver to the big burg of Bellingham to compete. Appearances involved some great coaching on the part of my teachers who donated time and interest in the development of their pupils. At the time, I had no idea I might be honing my writing skills beyond being on t.v.
One young Nigerian medical student I met on the show later came often to visit me and my family. We would feed him, of course but not Nigerian style. As I think of it, he could have given us some cooking lessons. His stories about the transition from hot Nigeria to cold and wet Seattle were both sad and funny. I sometimes wonder what will appear on the computer screen if I Google his name -- J.A., wherever you are, I hope all has gone well.

What was your first published piece?
I honestly don’t recall. Likely it was an art show review I wrote for The Ubyssey during my second year at UBC. While I’ve never lost my love of art, my tastes have broadened and changed so I now feel as home at a contemporary painting display as at a show of Renaissance art in some European gallery. (As an aside, my husband jokes: “Marilynne’s idea of a good time is a walking visit to a museum, cathedral and art gallery all in the same day.”)
At the time, I thought some of the art was… well, juvenile and ugly so my dilemma was: how to write about something objectively yet not insult the artist? There’s such a thing as killing potentially good writing (let alone art) with premature or wrong-headed criticism. Interestingly, according to some experts, premature and badly-conceived criticism is the #1 writing problem, not misplaced modifiers and clichés or other issues some writers might imagine. I cover the topic of premature criticism when I give writing classes: how to appropriately criticize and appreciate work whether it’s your own or that of others.
What did you do before embarking on your writing career? Was it an asset to your writing? How?
By the end of second year university, I was torn between taking a degree focussed on History and Geography or one slanted towards English Literature. I had already decided I didn’t want to go the PE (Physical Education) route, though that too was a natural given my ongoing interest in sports.
In the end, I opted for an Honours English degree at UBC. The English Department had a wonderful faculty, the likes of Earle Birney and Roy Daniells to name two great men. They could not only write but they could also teach and convey their love of the field. So, I was enticed by the fact the professors were warm and friendly (with perhaps one exception – an old curmudgeon … but that’s another story). The programme was respected across the country; classes were small, my marks were reasonable and I felt a growing love for the field. I added another year to do my Masters in Can. Lit. then another year to do my Professional year for a teaching certificate and went out into the world to teach for about 15 years.
The decision to become a teacher in my field is not one I regretted.
At university, when I returned to do doctoral studies, I was also a supervisor / career advisor of students taking their fifth year of teacher training. One of the most important insights for me as much as for them was the value of being flexible and creative as to where, when and how our formal studies can be applied in varied settings especially when we start out with the idea we want to take up profession ABC then discover maybe it’s been a mistake. It was hugely gratifying when a student understood their courses were anything but a mistake and that there were places in the world to now put the learning to happier and more productive uses.
Eventually, my husband and I left academia to start our own professional mentoring company as trainers, programme designers, and (for me) a writer of technical manuals and a newsletter –MentorInk -- that I recently laid to rest after almost 25 years non-stop.

What inspires you?
I could say ‘jealousy’ that other writers have managed to make their millions by publishing schlock. That would be true. To that notion, I can also add ‘a desire to leave a legacy of interesting, thought-provoking and well-written material’.

Please share one of your successful marketing techniques.
If I knew, I’d gladly share. This is my first non-fiction work. To this point in time, almost all of my writing (or editing) has been non-fiction for professionals, oriented towards career development and my specialty field of mentoring. Occasionally, I will do ghost-writing which is fun.
I’m familiar with methods that worked during the pre-ebook days but that was then and this is now.
I have a deep, dark, strongly-held suspicion that contemporary successful marketing is the happy confluence of luck, unbridled determination, unholy amounts of time spent massaging social media, and tons of energy.
For my first murder mystery – The Avid Gardener: grieving and scheming -- now nearing the completion of Draft #1 prior to its first edit, I’m hoping to learn the secrets (if there are any) from others who’ve gone before me and won over the world!

Writing tips
1. I spent a great deal of time examining different ‘writing websites’. How-to writing websites vary in quality from bad to very bad to reasonably useful (depending on the purpose). This is no news to most writers yet all too often we writers hope to find ‘the perfect website’ that just doesn’t exist.
One piece of advice? Spend a few hours locating five or six promising sites, each for a different purpose depending on your goals (how to get ‘unstuck’, character arc, and so forth). For a limited period of time visit each site for ideas and suggestions. Keep this activity to a minimum as you’ll find yourself spending more time doing this than actually writing and revising.
If, after a few visits, the value of a site seems to be questionable, keep on the hunt or give yourself a breather and consider another approach.
2. Create audio chunks of what you have written then play it back to your ‘inner ear’ or have someone who knows how to critique listen to the portion and give feedback. This has always been a method that is worth trying.
3. Develop a series of questions a ‘critic’ can ask you about different aspects of your writing. Asking yourself each question from your list has limited value. An external, competent person is a necessity.
4. Don’t think of someone who gives you five minutes of advice as your mentor. Five minutes here or there just doesn’t cut it. Mentors are people who help change our lives in profound, meaningful and positive ways.
A mentor is someone whose helping role varies according to your need. I know how the many mentoring factors come together having spent so long researching and helping others to develop mentoring skills to better effect.
If you have a mentor, (or wish to have one) keep in mind she or he may be a teacher one day, a sounding board another, an advisor on a third occasion, a coach the next time, a role model at all times. Mentors can play some two dozen different roles in the life of the protégé! Note that I did not mention the role of ‘critic’ as one the mentor plays.

Most recent book
My most recent work (2011) is an ebook: Mentoring A to Z as part of a series of books to wrap that part of my career.

1,000,000,000,000 protégés can’t be wrong. Neither can the same number of mentors. That could mean some 500,000,000,000 or so relationships (love those numbers!) over thousands of years (give or take a few here and there). And each relationship unique! How is this possible?
Those are the words to an imaginary ad from a couple of years ago intended to catch the hearts and minds of the jaded who thought they had the mentoring relationship notion in a box, no surprises. After all, what could I teach them about mentoring that they didn’t already know? A great deal as it so happens and it didn’t take them long to see this fact.
Yes, everyone has a different opinion of what mentoring is, what a mentor does and the unfolding of the relationship. Yet, opinion isn’t good enough. What you need is solid understanding of what it will actually take for success. Some of the secrets to success are counter-intuitive. Others are overlooked. This book is based on my years of close-up field experience given to people around the globe who suddenly understood the need to fill in the many gaps between what they believe they know about successful collaboration and what will truly lead to success no matter what the field, the goal or the circumstances. 

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