7 Questions for a 1st Draft

Spoiler Alert: I’m about to start work on a new Cole Blackwater mystery. I guess that screws up the suspense over whether Cole survives his most perilous encounter yet in The Vanishing Track. Cole’s too much fun to kill off. Not now. But I’m not saying he gets through The Vanishing Track unscathed.

I’m really excited to start work on this book whose working title is The Glacier Gallows. The last time I penned a first draft of a Cole Blackwater book was the winter 2006-2007. The prospect of getting to visit Cole again is like the anticipation of seeing a really close friend for the first time in years. I’m really excited to explore how Cole has changed, and a little nervous that we won’t have anything to talk about.

In The Glacier Gallows Cole will be back in familiar territory, working on environmental issues; this time energy and climate change. About two years ago I wrote six or seven pages of the outline of the book, just to make sure I wouldn’t forget what I was considering for the fourth instalment of the series. I re-read them the other night, and now I’m getting ready to start draft one. Two things need to happen before I start the mad-capped, hell-for-leather, eye-popping, sleep-depriving, masochistic odyssey that is associated with writing 100,000 words or so in a month of early mornings.

Well three things, if you include a trip to visit my shrink for a thorough examination of my mental stability.

First, I’m going to take a few hours and think about, and write down some tough questions I want to answer with this novel (see blow). Then, I’m going to undertake my traditional story-board exercise that has served me well with six or seven previous novel projects. Here are the questions:

1: Why am I writing this novel?

Obvious, and easy: Cole isn’t finished. As a character, he’s still got a lot of room for growth, discovery, challenge, adversity, and triumph. The narrative arc for Cole’s development in the first three books was centred on facing and then addressing the damage done to him as a young man at the hands of an abusive father. But a few sessions with his own shrink and some Tai Chi with his best friend Denman won’t turn Cole into a crystal wearing, flax seed eating, organic tea drinking pacifist. He’s a boxer; a fighter, and a lifetime of anger and aggression isn’t conquered in the few months that make up The Vanishing Track. In short: Cole isn’t done.

The other reason is that there are still tales to tell. My premise for penning the Cole Blackwater mysteries was to tell compelling stories about complex environmental and social issues in a way that engaged a new audience. It happens that in the course of this story telling people get killed. Murder makes a compelling backdrop against which I can talk about mining, salmon farming, homelessness and now energy and climate change. Alas, fodder for these stories will never be exhausted.

2: What will make The Glacier Gallows different?

I hate formulas. It’s the mark of a lazy writer. It’s the mark of a disinterested editor and publisher to let formulaic mysteries and thrillers plague the market. Sure, every mystery series has unique elements that help the reader identify with the character. That’s different.

So how will The Glacier Gallows be different than the three previous books in the series? Well, I can’t tell you. Not yet. I know; but if I tell you, it will spoil a big surprise. You have to wait eighteen months. That sucks, but it’s the way it is. I think it will be worth the wait.

The Cardinal Divide was a pretty straight forward mystery. The story was told start to finish with just a few timeline breaks to allow the reader to see the murder in the first chapter, even through it happens a third of the way through the book.

The Darkening Archipelago was much more complex. The story was told from the perspective of three separate characters: Archie Ravenwing, eight months before the start of the book, and leading up to his death; Nancy Webber, in the present, poking around in Cole’s past; and Cole himself, also in the present, investigating Archie’s disappearance, and ultimately demise. About two-thirds of the way through the novel, all three timelines collapsed into one. It was fun.

The Vanishing Track is a reverse mystery. I love this format. My favourite mystery of all time, The First Deadly Sin by Lawrence Saunders, inspired this book. The reader gets to meet the killer in the first chapter and then watch as the protagonist and his friends scramble to solve the crime. My goal is to have readers yelling at their copies the book “He’s right there in front of you you morons!” That will make me happy.

The Glacier Gallows will be completely different. I promise.

3. What do I want to say with this book?

If you’re going to spend 18 months developing a book, you better have something to say. For me, the purpose of writing – whether it be my various mystery series – or my other yet to be published books, is to make the world a better place. Hell, that’s the reason I do anything. But how can a mystery novel make the world a better place? And what exactly is it that I want to say with The Glacier Gallows?

Somebody once told me that all murder mysteries were about social justice because murder is such an egregious wrong that the sleuth therefore is always a crusader for righteousness. True that.

Specifically, though, The Glacier Gallows will be a book about three things:

  • How incredibly stupid it is to be destroying our future on the planet, along with so much of the extraordinary life on said blue orb, in order to drive around in gas-guzzling Hummers and SUVs while eating “food” made of petrochemicals out of containers made of the same. Especially when we have options. Cole Blackwater, as it is alluded to in The Vanishing Track, has emerged from his rage-against-the-machine phase, which made for great rants, but would get boring quick, into his “solutions” phase. Now he’s working with businesses to try and find solutions to energy issues and climate change. But his past catches up with him in The Glacier Gallows, which leads to:
  • An understanding of the truth surrounding power and money in the business of energy production and the political corruption that fuels decision making about the Tar Sands and its resulting industries, and:
  • That human development isn’t linear; it’s at best an upwards spiral, and more often some kind of drunken stumble down an ally full of cast off prophylactics, needles filled with heroin and dirty blood and broken bones. At least for Cole it is. Cole is getting a grip on his fear and anger and the violence it induces, along with the heavy drinking that is standard fare for most sleuths. But throw something totally new into the mix; something that triggers all the old impulses, and occurs in the absence of his safety net (best friend, daughter, girl friend) and watch out.

4. What do I want to learn as a writer?

A few things:

  • To write with discipline and a clear focus: 2-4,000 words in two hours each morning, with some editing each night.  I’m pretty disciplined, but am subject to distractions: Twitter, Facebook, John Stewart….
  • To catch my mistakes as I’m making them. That might be hard. I get pretty caught up in the story. I might try to spend an hour each evening tightening things up so that drafts two, three and four aren’t so arduous.
  • How to develop secondary characters, including the antagonists, so that they are more completely drawn.
  • To write women. Haven’t  figured that out yet. I think Nancy Webber is okay, but she could be a much more complete character.
  • To make my voice and my style my own, without fear that it won’t measure up.

5. What do I want the reader to get out of this book?

Besides what I want to say in response to question 3, the most important thing I want to reader to get out of The Glacier Gallows is a perfect moment of suspended disbelief. If my readers disappear into this book, if they lose track of time, forget to pick up the kids, stay up past their bedtimes, leave a kettle boiling while making tea, forget about the beer on the table next to them until its warm and flat and practically undrinkable, that will be a success.

6. How do I see The Glacier Gallows fitting into my career plan?

I have a plan. I’ve written about it for a friend’s blog and will likely post it here sometime soon too. The Glacier Gallows will arrive in the world, if all goes according to plan, in the fall of 2013. It will be my 8th book. I hope that it will be the one that cements Cole Blackwater’s place in the mystery cannon. That’s pretty presumptuous, and maybe a little grandiose (I’ve been watching Newt Gingrich a lot lately). But The End of the Line sold as many copies in its first couple of months as my first two novels did in three years. The Vanishing Track is an unknown, but I hope it will do well too. If it does, there’s no reason to think that The Glacier Gallows can’t follow suit. I want to do this full time. To do that, I have to sell books. It’s pretty straight forward.

7. What future novel do I need to be thinking about?

I have the next three Cole Blackwater books mapped out. Surprise. As with the first three, I need to be seeding Cole’s future challenges and future who-dun-it’s in The Glacier Gallows. I know that Cole needs to be challenged, and I want all of those circumstances to be unique. What is meaningful to Cole that needs to be developed in The Glacier Gallows that might be threatened in subsequent novels? His work is important to him. And so is Nancy Webber. His friends are meaningful to Cole, and so are the places that he loves.

And so is his daughter.

I’m going to pen updates on what I’ve been calling Deconstructing Draft 1 here. Follow along.

The Vanishing Track is due out in March of 2012. Follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault for updates on this series, the Durrant Wallace historical novels, and a new series due out in September of 2012 called The Red Rock Canyon Mysteries.

So Many Voices

The human mind is an idea factory. Our brains, mysterious as they are, are part of a receptor system to receive and organize information at a scale we can scarcely fathom. For the last twenty years my brain has been developing book ideas pretty much non-stop. It can be overwhelming. Fifteen years ago I made a list of all the books that I wanted to write: at the time there were about a dozen on that list.

A few months ago, I did the same thing. Now there are more than thirty. Interestingly enough, of the original list only a couple have survived. Of the four books I have in print, and the two on their way in the next 9 months, none were on the original list.

I am blessed with both an overactive imagination and a publisher who is trying to keep up. The convergence of these two is a rare gift in the publishing world, and every single day I feel deep gratitude. But at times this plethora of ideas can be a little overwhelming. There are a lot of deadlines to juggle. For every book I write there are a series of stages that each must pass through before they are published (and sorry about the numbering; I’ve about had it with WordPress this morning):

  1. Story conception. This sometimes is a mere flash of inspiration where an entire novel emerges almost fully formed in my mind in a matter of minutes. Other times the story develops slowly over weeks, months or even years.
  2. Outline. As I’ve noted elsewhere, I have learned that I write better, and faster, with a detailed outline, so I map out each novel on large sheets of “butcher paper” that I can tape up on the wall of my office as I’m writing.
  3. Research. Often before the first draft of the book is written, I have to do a lot of reading. Before I wrote The End of the Line, I read a dozen books on the history of the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Research for the second book in the Durrant Wallace series, set during the Riel Resistance, took Jenn and I to Saskatchewan where we visited old battlefields and read a lot of history.
  4. First Draft. This is me, barfing ideas onto the page as fast as I can type. Generally this takes about a month for an average 90-100,000 word book.
  5. Second, third, fourth drafts. This is where I clean up the barf. Each subsequent draft usually involves cutting the manuscript down to size. It’s rare that I don’t write enough words; it’s more common that I over write a book, and have to trim it down and tighten it up. This is where, of late, I’ve learned to use the style sheets my publisher provides for previous titles and do my best not to embarrass myself by making the same mistakes over and over. Sometimes this works.
  6. Peer review: Jenn is the first person to read everything I write. By the time I’ve spent two or three months with a manuscript I can no longer see it, and need someone to tell me where it’s strong, and where I have to work on it. I then go through drafts five and six, further cleaning up the writing, strengthening characters and dialog, and trimming out crutch phrases (“Durrant pushed himself to standing…” Barf.) and unnecessary past participles such as “said” from dialog stanzas.
  7. Send to publisher. Always nerve wracking. Who knows if the book is half decent of totally sucks?
  8. Story Edits. I’ve been working with the same amazing story editor for my last three novels. She’s an expert in the mystery genre, knows my writing intimately, and levels no-holds-barred constructive criticism in an effort to help me create the best novels I am capable of. I’ve written a tongue in cheek blog post about this process here.
  9. Revisions. Once I get the story edits back, there is usually a month of work to be done revising. I usually go through the manuscript twice making the revisions, and then reading the book cover to cover to ensure that the Texas Chainsaw Massacre like editing hasn’t resulted in unintended confusion. Then back it goes to the publisher.
  10. Copy Edits. I have also been working with a terrific copy editor. This is where my appalling grammar, spelling and sentence structure is corrected. But my copy editor at TouchWood also makes sure that the sequencing in the book works; are the dates and timelines correct? Is there character consistency? Another week or two of work results from the corrections that come back.
  11. Cover Art. I’m very fortunate that TouchWood lets me be a part of the process for developing the cover art for our projects. I’ve written about that extensively here.
  12. First Proofs. Once the copy edits have been reviewed by TouchWood, the book is laid out as it will appear in print, and gone over with a fine tooth comb once more. This usually results in a great deal of back and forth between the publisher and me. Its detail work: Is the word “wash” supposed to be capitalized if it’s used in a sentence to describe “Courthouse Wash” but without the common identifier? Emails go out to sources, facts are checked, and I go through the whole manuscript again, looking for mistakes.
  13. Final (or Fourth) Proofs. This is the last look at the book before it goes to the printer. More back and forth. Some last minute panic.
  14. Book launch, publicity and tour. This is a whole topic unto itself.
  15. Reap vast royalties. I’ll let you know when and if this ever happens. So far I’m making about $.45 an hour, and that’s for a book that’s sold half decent like The End of the Line.

What I’m finding is that as I’m launching one book from a series, I’m beginning work on the next book in that same series, back at step three: writing the first draft.

As I sit down soon to write the first draft of the next Cole Blackwater mystery, I will be working on copy edits for the Slickrock Paradox and finishing the peer review process for the next Durrant Wallace novel, The Third Riel Conspiracy. At the same time, TouchWood will be launching the third Cole Blackwater novel, The Vanishing Track and because moss doesn’t grow on a rolling stone, I’ll be working up ideas for a few other books yet to find a publisher.

This whole process should take about eighteen months. I hope. Touchwood and I are just starting. The End of the Line was the first book we published together in September of 2011. The Vanishing Track will be out in the next few weeks. The Slickrock Paradox: September. Three different series all proceeding along parallel tracks, all with different characters, different challenges, all vying for space in the infinite, but overworked corpus callosum. Our agreement is to do this so long as I am able to write good books and not burn myself to a crisp in the process.

Fortunately, a bit of a type-A personality, bent on keeping things organized as best I can. We’ve developed a chart. It’s the only way I have any hope of publishing a book every six months while holding down a full time job and raising two young boys.

Why try? What’s driving me? Ambition, for certain. I have always wanted to be a writer, and after a decade and a half of trying to publish books, I’ve found a publisher whose drive matches my own. But there is also the creative impulse. I have all these voices in my head: characters from the three mystery series I’m currently writing, but also from new series that I’ve yet to begin, along with stand alone thrillers, more books on eastern philosophy, books of photography, a compilation of short stories, and a few good old fashioned novels. Life is short and there is so much to see, do, experience and write about that I don’t want to waste any time.

With all these voices in my head (I recently figured out that with the three series I’m currently writing I have about 50 people in the form of characters nattering away up there) it’s no wonder I forget people’s names sometimes. It’s nothing personal: it’s just crowded in the old hippocampus.

And there is this: so far the ideas haven’t stopped coming. Thankfully, I get new ideas all the time, and as I learn to develop these ideas, they are showing up more fully formed. I am eternally grateful for this gift and only a little troubled that more voices are showing up to join the party every day.

Guest Blog by Scott Bury

Scott Bury is an Ottawa based writer, editor and communications adviser. This is the first time I’ve ever swapped guest blogs with anyone and would love your feedback: leave a comment below. I’ll post my note from Scott’s Blog here later.

What good is writing?

I was wondering how I could contribute to Stephen’s fine blog in return for the excellent post he wrote for mine, and after reading his post on January 13, “I am a radical,” I found that inspiration.

I blog for a couple of reasons. The most obvious, and the noblest (I hope) is to help other people communicate more clearly and easily. My target audience is not just professional writers and those who want to write for a living, but also those who have to communicate as part of their jobs as managers or professionals in other fields.

The other, perhaps less noble reason is to point out where someone is misusing words either when they really ought to know better, or where they’re deliberately trying to mislead us. A good Canadian example comes out of the opposition to the proposed Northern Gateway oil pipeline from the Tarsands to British Columbia. Natural Resources Minister Joe Olivier is just one federal government figure to apply the “radical” label in an attempt to discredit any opposition. Fortunately, most of us can see through that attempt to paint anyone who disagrees with the government as an enemy of the country.

That raises a question, though: people generally see through those attempts; so why do governments and wannabe governments keep doing it?

Yes, we do have a message applicable today

Stephen writes historical mysteries and other historical stories — in other words, they happened a long time ago and no matter how much you want to, you cannot change it. But that doesn’t mean they’re not relevant today — it means the opposite, in fact.

In his blog, Stephen states that how he knew that while he wanted to deliver a message in his novels, if he wanted an audience to read them they would have to have a real plot and compelling, believable characters. Audiences have an unprecedented and vast choice in reading material today. They need a good reason to read your book, and a rant about whatever cause you feel passionate about won’t do it.

“After reading a stack of soggy paperbacks by Lawrence Saunders and others, I got the idea that I too could write a murder mystery and use it as a foil for my environmental message. I knew from the start that Cole couldn’t just be a fictional version of Stephen Legault; there had to be a plot, not just a polemic,” he writes in his blog.

In my case, I tried to evoke myths from several different cultures in my first-published novel, The Bones of the Earth. I hope that I at least hint at a few underlying themes applicable today: environmental  degradation; acceptance of people with disabilities or abilities different from our own; and the absurdities in organized religion; and how we need to be skeptical of the history taught to us, to name just four.

You may not agree with these messages. That’s fine. You don’t have to. I hope you’ll read my book and enjoy the story, the action, the romance, the development of a character.

I also hope that you might start thinking about ideas you never thought of before. That may provoke you to write something, yourself: to respond with a comment on a blog or a news feed, or to write a letter to your legislative representative. Or maybe, to write a book of your own. Warning: expressing yourself leaves you vulnerable to being labelled as a “radical,” or a “reactionary,” or a “pundit.” It’s like having the teacher tell you to sit down and speak only when acknowledged.

There has always been a titanic effort by those with power to control speech and expression. They command formidable resources, and regularly employ them to squelch anyone who disagrees with them — especially when those dissidents have the potential to mobilize others.

In the West, where money rules uncriticized, radicals like Stephen Legault get labelled as something undesirable. If you start a blog to promote or just expound your own ideas, you may find the corporate media scoffing at you as a “self publisher.” Sadly, snobbery works. (You remember junior high, don’t you?)

But we’re not in junior high, anymore. There are more of us outside the media establishment than within it, and we all have the right to express ourselves, and we all need to hear you. That’s called democracy.

So here’s my final goal as a communicator: I want to open up publishing and communications. No more gatekeepers. We need editors (and I’m not saying that just because I am an editor) to make our messages as effectiveness as possible. We need editors as quality control, but not as gatekeepers.

So speak, write, dance, sing. Be heard. What’s democracy for?

Follow Scott on Twitter @ScotttheWriter.

Poem for Rio

When you were born, ten years ago today

Moments after you came into this world

Perfect

I held you in my arms and began a mantra

I haven’t stopped repeating since.

I intoned:

There will never be a single minute

Of any hour

There will never be a single hour

Of any day

There will never be a single day

Of any week

There will never be a single week

Of any month

There will be never be a single month

Of any year

Of the rest of your life

That I don’t love you more.

And there never has been.

Cole Blackwater’s Journey

Cole Blackwater has been on a long journey. Cole is the protagonist in my environmentally themed murder mystery series that features The Cardinal Divide, The Darkening Archipelago and soon to be released The Vanishing Track.

Cole was born on a plane: a long flight from Costa Rica, through Houston and back to Calgary, in the fall of 2003. After reading a stack of soggy paperbacks by Lawrence Saunders and others, I got the idea that I too could write a murder mystery and use it as a foil for my environmental message. I knew from the start that Cole couldn’t just be a fictional version of Stephen Legault; there had to be a plot, not just a polemic. To that end, I built an elaborate back-story for Cole that I hopped would be compelling.

The publication of The Vanishing Track in a few weeks will bring some resolution to a narrative arc that started almost four years before the beginning of the first novel, and that has coloured Cole’s bull-in-china shop approach to life throughout the first two installments of the series.

Cole was abused as a young man. His father, for reasons explored in The Cardinal Divide, beat him. While teaching the boy to box in the barn at their Porcupine Hills ranch, the lessons often turned into fits of rage for the old man, who took his life’s frustrations out on his youngest son. Cole grew up seething, and in turn allowed his own anger to create a penchant for violence.

That sort of anger can burn inside a person all their lives, sadly never being resolved. In a series of murder mysteries, the discerning reader demands that the protagonist address their challenges. Or as Cole’s friend Nancy Webber would put it: Cole Blackwater has to deal with his shit.

The Vanishing Track is set in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Just a few months after Cole’s confrontation with the salmon farming industry in The Darkening Archipelago, Cole is working with his best friend Denman Scott to address the issue of chronic homelessness in the one of the most troubled neighbourhoods in North America. They discover that some of the people they are trying to help are disappearing. Working with Vancouver Sun reporter Nancy Webber and street nurse Juliet Rose, soon the friends find confronting a dangerous cabal of crime bosses, city officials, high ranking cops and condominium developers.

All the while something far more sinister is at work in the Downtown Eastside than Cole or any of his friends could foresee.

It’s a match for the powder keg Cole Blackwater. But Cole discovers that a man can only burn with rage for so long before something incinerates. The Vanishing Track is Cole’s moment of truth.

I couldn’t be happier with The Vanishing Track. I started working on this book in 2007 during a very tough time in my life. I wrote the first draft sitting at an old kitchen table in a nearly empty living room in the Fernwood, Victoria home I rented after my relationship of 11 years fell apart. I had a lot of time on my hands: my consulting business was steady by not overwhelming, and I had my children with me just 3 nights a week. I wrote a 130,000 word manuscript in two months.

I poured a lot of the anger I was feeling at the time into Cole. In some ways, Cole coming to grips with his shit helped me get a grip on my own.

The first Cole Blackwater novel was published in 2008 and the second in 2010. Now, TouchWood Editions has picked up the series, and thanks to their sharp pencils the book is a much more manageable 95,000 words. Cutting the book by 35,000 words was an extraordinary team effort, and has made this a very tight read.

Does Cole resolve his challenges in The Vanishing Track? Only if he survives the most dangerous inadvertent investigation of his life.  A life time of rage cannot be cooled in a single book, and if Cole does live, his creator will have to be mindful of that.

Cover me

Authors love book covers. I remember opening the first box of my first book — Carry Tiger to Mountain – and being memorized by the cover art. Sure, its vain and egotistical, but its also healthy to have such pride in our work.That being said, cover art is largely the domain of the book publisher, and while the author is often invited to provide ideas, the final result is a product of long negotiations.

Take, for example, the evolution of the cover art for the Cole Blackwater series of mysteries.

This was the original cover concept for my first mystery, published in 2008. My publisher — NeWest Press — explained that they had a “vision for this which we believe supports our marketing plan to veer away a little from marketing this as a “mass-market mystery” and instead as a literary piece. We like that it looks modern, fresh, and eye-catching.”

My response was underwhelming. Though I too wanted to attract a literary audience, in part because I was a little embarrassed to be writing mysteries rather than great literature (this was before I realized you could do both), I didn’t like the blandness of the design. The dentist-office green left me feeling nothing what-so-ever.

I had just met a senior executive at Chapters-Indigo, and I ran it by him. He in turn, gave it to the person at the company who managed the mystery category and they provided this frank feedback: “I don’t like it a bit. Too bland. To academic. And too boring.”

Back to the drawing board. With that feedback in hand, the publisher added a photo I had taken of the actual Cardinal Divide, but choose to stick with the verticle orientation, and reduced the image to an abstract.

This is how the book was published in 2008. I liked it, but at that time I would have liked just about anything. This was my second book, and my first novel, and I was deeply grateful that it was being published at all. While I had aspirations of making my living from writing at some point in the future, I didn’t really have a plan as yet. I don’t think I had made the connection between actual published books – the product – and how my readers – the market – might match up.

Some of my friends liked the advent-guard approach, but others, including a lot of book sellers, told me the book was hard to read on the shelf. You had to turn your head to look at it. It was a barrier to sales, and the book didn’t do very well.

When it came time to publish the next book in the Cole Blackwater series, I played a larger role in the design process, noting that the vertical orientation might have worked for a book that had the word “divide” in its title, but for The Darkening Archipelago, it wouldn’t fit. We tried a few options, and I suggested using an actual photograph of the Broughton Archipelago, in BC, where the book was set, (by wild salmon advocate Alexandra Morton) to help orientate readers.

The first version came back with the vertical orientation once again. I took three versions, each with a different picture, and created a survey on my blog to ask for feedback. Fortunately the readers who responded to the poll felt the same way I did and I asked the publisher to change the orientation. I was pleased with the version on the right, and that’s how the book appeared in 2010.

But sales of the Darkening Archipelago disappointed. Despite good reviews, and more than a dozen events to promote the book, I just couldn’t seem to get any traction. There were a lot of factors at play in my decision to leave NeWest Press, but ultimatly it was a business decision, and for better or for worse, a good cover is your sales pitch to your readers, at least in traditional book stores.

Because TouchWood Editions was already publishing my Durrant Wallace series, starting with the End of the Line, I approached them about publishing the third Cole Blackwater novel, at the time called The Lucky Strike Manifesto. They aggreed, and a significant part of that conversation was about the business of selling books.

When TouchWood came back with this cover for the renamed novel The Vanishing Track, I was floored. Here was a book that took pride in its genre (as I now do: more on this in another post). It was clean, and practially jumped off the page, and hopefully the shelves.

As I’ve said elsewhere, book covers are important. They introduce the reader to your work. They tell at least part of the story of the novel, and they are a key component in the marketing and promotion plan for your writing. As a writer I’m learning more about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to covers, and as I do, am able to advocate more effectively for myself, and the presentation of my novels. But most importantly, I’ve found a publisher in TouchWood that I trust to not only publish my books, but to share in a vision for their success.

I remain grateful for the work of talented designers and my publisher at NeWest in their efforts to bring Cole Blackwater to readers, and am very excited to see how much further TouchWood can take the series with a new look, and a very new (and much more disciplined) story found between the covers.

The Vanishing Track will be published in March of 2012. Please follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault for updates and news on its release.

The Three Treasures: 2) Compassion

Compassion is the “deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relive it.” Lao Tzu, the hero of Carry Tiger to Mountain: the Tao of Activism and Leadership, says that the sage activist is “saturated with compassion.”

It is the second treasure of the Tao te Ching’s three treasures: restraint, compassion and love.

It is easy for us to feel compassion with those we are closest too: our partners, family, children, friends, and close colleagues.

And while they need and deserve it, if we wish to make the world a better place, not just in the short term, but for the long journey of humanity, then we must practice compassion with those who oppose us. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama says that we must “remove negative feelings towards our enemies.”

I believe that we must stop thinking about people as our enemies. Simply put, we oppose other people’s actions. We oppose what they do, and sometimes, their world view. But they are not our enemy. We do not wish them harm; we want to stop what they are doing that is harming the world and its creatures.

Always remember that your opponent is human

Like you

Treat her with love and compassion

(Tao, 31)

Those we oppose are human, and humanity is all interconnected. Even those who we most vehemently oppose are capable of loving their children. Our most ardent opponents have fears that drive them to make wrong-headed decisions that harm the earth and make other people’s lives very difficult. Treating them with compassion will unlock the possibility for long term solutions to the problems that vex our society and our planet.

What do we do when compassion doesn’t feel like it’s enough? How do we respond when it feels as if the world is on a collision course with doomsday and people are suffering and dying?

We meet anger and fear with love. Next week, the third treasure: L.O.V.E.

There is a whole chapter on the Three Treasures: restraint, compassion and love in Carry Tiger to Mountain, The Tao of Activism and Leadership. You can read more about the book here.

The book was published by Arsenal Pulp Press and is available by ordering it directly from the Press, or by asking for it in your local bookstore or library. If all else fails, you can always buy it online.

Follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault as I post stanzas from the Tao te Ching all week related to compassion.

I am a radical

Recently Canadian federal Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver branded those who oppose the development of the Northern Gateway Project as radicals who were ideologically bent on stopping development of energy projects in Canada. I’m one of them.

It’s been a while since anybody called me a name while in a debate over an environmental issue; longer still since that person was a Minister of the Crown. I think the last one was Ralph Klein or Ty Lund.

But truth be told, the Honourable Minister was right. I am a radical.

I want to get to the root of this and other challenges that face Canada, and the world.

And that’s what a radical is: someone or something that “goes to the root or origin.” Mr. Oliver was likely thinking about a couple of the word’s other meanings when he made his pronouncement: “going to the extreme, especially as regards to change from accepted or traditional forms” or “favouring drastic political, economic, or social reforms.”

I’m okay with being labelled with both of those definitions too.

The fact of the matter is simple: radical change is needed in Canada, and around the world, to create a society that doesn’t destroy its life support system while going about its day to day business. That doesn’t mean we have to conjure an unsavoury images of hooded trouble-makers burning cars in the street. The most radical people I know are everyday, average citizens who work hard, pay their taxes, love their children and are trying to make a difference not only with their actions, but also with their hearts.

We don’t just need to stop a pipeline from being built across some of the most amazing landscapes in North America to belch bitumen into tankers that could foul some of the most pristine waters in the world; we need to address the underlying reason why humanity feels the need for the products that this filthy oil produces.

If that makes me a radical, fine. If that makes the vast majority of First Nations in BC, along with the diverse coalition of activists and community members who oppose the Northern Gateway project radicals, so be it. My fellow radicals and I are in good company. Ghandi was a radical for wanting to peacefully harmonize post-English India; Martin Luther King Junior was a radical for working for civil rights. Jesus Christ was a radical for teaching peace, and that the one true way to know God was through direct communication through prayer; Lord Buddha was a radical for teaching us that there is an end to suffering.

I am a radical because:

  • I think that Canada’s natural resource wealth, and in particular our tar sands, shouldn’t be liquidated so that wealthy corporations based in the US, Europe and China, can get even richer;
  • I believe that if we’re going to use tar sands oil, it should fuel a transition from a petroleum based economy to one that is sustained by sun, wind, tides and most importantly based on conservation, and
  • I believe we need to address what underlies our insatiable thirst for the dirtiest energy on earth. I think we need to address the very root of this problem.

I know: radical.

I believe that the root of this challenge is that humanity is destroying the earth’s precious life support system to fuel a pell-mell consumerism in a vain effort to placate basic human suffering. It’s not the sort of suffering that can be cured with a trip to the doctor; it’s a spiritual hole that exists in every human being that we mistakenly try to fill with things.

Until we address this underlying issue we will continue to fight pipelines, tar sands projects, fracking, clear cutting, strip mining, damn building, and the inevitable degradation of natural ecosystems and creation of green house gasses that result.

Maybe the most radical idea is that every single one of us suffers, feels alone, fears death, is afraid of the unknown, mistakes the basic reality of human existence and has desires that can’t possibly be fulfilled with a bigger house or SUV or a new iPhone 4S. Instead of wondering why, we just keep on gobbling up the earth’s natural capital, hoping to ease our pain, necessitating the building of pipelines to pump more and more filthy oil to more and more hungry, unquenchable markets.

If wanting to put a stop to that makes me a radical, then I wear the moniker with pride.

Further reading:

The real foreign interests in the oilsands, Terry Glavin, The Ottawa Citizen.

Cozy Ties: Astroturf ‘Ethical Oil’ and Conservative Alliance to Promote Tar Sands Expansion, Emma Pullman, the DeSmog Blog

An open reply to Joe Oliver’s Propaganda for the Petro State, Andrew Nikiforuk, the Tyee

For updates follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault.

The Three Treasures: 1) Restraint

The foundation of the Tao te Ching are the Three Treasures. These have been interpreted in many ways over the last 2,500 years; in Carry Tiger to Mountain, The Tao of Activism and Leadership I interpret them as Restraint, Compassion and Love.

Restraint is sometimes know as “daring not to be first,” in various translations of the Tao te Ching. Ostensibly, it requires us to control our own ego, to step aside while allowing others to step forward. The Tao te Ching says:

Our finest effort will flow like a river

Rocks, boulders, even a dam, in time, will succumb

to the current

We can learn to act with such patience and perseverance

In doing so, be like the Tao

Tao, 8

Together, patience and perseverance form a yin-yang equilibrium. Patience is the yin side of the equation – the light, the yielding part – while the yang, or assertive part, is the perseverance. Yin and Yang do not work against one another; they are not opposites: they are two parts of the same whole, working in harmony. Knowing when to step back, and when to step forward and provide a needed injection of energy and enthusiasm is one of the hardest challenges facing leaders, in both business and in non-profits.

Restraint does not come naturally to those of us working to protect what we love, either through non-profit organizations or by running ethically driven businesses. We’re afraid that if we step back, more of what we hold dear will disappear. But sometimes, practicing restraint is what we need to do to advance our efforts. Lao Tzu says:

When you speak, do so clearly

And then remain quiet

Be like nature

A tempest doesn’t last all day

Afternoon heat is followed by a thundershower

Tao, 23

One of the themes I’ve explored in Carry Tiger is ego. Ego can be very helpful; it propels us forward, it provides us with “appropriate self worth.” But for an activist working to create a better world, it can be very harmful. Ego can keep us from allowing others to step forward and share the burden of leadership; ego can keep us too long in the spotlight, casting long shadows on others. Practicing restraint allows us to step aside and let others step forward.

One final thought on restraint: the most important time to exercise it is with those we oppose. When we win, do not be boastful; simply “step back and be watchful.” When mired in conflict, retrain from inflammatory accusations. These only harden our opposition, and prevent us from long term progress.

There is much more about this theme throughout Carry Tiger to Mountain. And in the coming weeks and months, I will explore this further through Twitter (@stephenlegault) and through this blog.

Next week: the second of the Three Treasures: compassion.

I’m going to share bits and pieces of my interpretation of the Tao with friends on Twitter using #carrytiger as a hashtag. Please follow me @stephenlegault and retweet when you can.

You can read more about the book here.

Carry Tiger to Mountain was published by Arsenal Pulp Press and is available by ordering it directly from the Press, or by asking for it in your local bookstore or library. If all else fails, you can always buy it online.

Join the conversation: tell me about your experiences exercising restraint, or when in retrospect it might have been a good idea:

Preparing for the Perihelion Shift

Originally posted in February 2008, and re-posted January 2nd, 2012. Will 2012 be the year of the Perihelion Shift?

This is an extraordinary time to be alive. It is, arguably, the most important period in the history of humanity. We face the most astonishing challenges. The twin apocalyptic horseman of climate change and the loss of biological diversity are laying waste to so many of the world’s ecosystems. Global economic systems are failing. War and conflict plague us on nearly every continent.

And now, we see that these three monumental challenges have a common source: borrowing from tomorrow to pay for today. We have failed to respect the natural limits of our life-support systems, and in doing so, have amassed a staggering ecological and economic debt. The scarcity that this had created has lead Dennis C. Blair, the head of US Intelligence — the umbrella organization that overseas the FBI, the CIA and the NSA — to site the global economic crisis as his number one concern for global security.

While the world faces nearly unprecedented threats, I believe we have both the skill and the opportunity to meet them. And so we have a choice to make: What do we want to be doing during this most important time in the course of human kind? What do we want to be doing as individuals, and what do we want to do collectively, as a community, as a society, as a species?

The choices that we make now, today, will carry us as individuals and as a species into the next perihelion shift.

The perihelion is the point at which a celestial body, such as a planet or comet, is in its closest orbit to its star. In the case of Earth, the perihelion orbit takes place roughly every 23,500 years. That’s the point at which the Earth’s orbit is closest to the Sun. This perihelion is influenced by all of the other celestial bodies in the solar system. Other planets, moons, comets, and even factors like gasses and dust can influence the perihelion. If none of these other factors were involved, then the earth’s orbit around the Sun, for example, would always be exactly the same. But the gravitational forces of all the other objects spinning through space play a role in determining our trajectory.

People have been observing this for more than a hundred and fifty years. And during that time, they have noted anomalies in their calculations of the parabolic orbits that celestial bodies make around the Sun. In short, sometimes planets and other bits of rock and ice, hurtling through space, don’t do what we expect them to: they experience a perihelion shift. Their orbits change unexpectedly.

Astronomers guess that these shifts are the result of unforeseen forces: a moon or an asteroid, or even a dust cloud, that they can’t see which influences the gravity of the orbiting body.

We as a species are drawing near to the metaphorical sun. Who among us will be that gravitational pull that creates the desperately needed perihelion shift that sets us on a new trajectory? What will your part be in that shift? Your relative gravity need not be immense. Small things can create great change. A meteor can change the parabolic orbit of a planet.

But we must choose. Now is not the time to be passive. Decide: what do you want to be doing during this most important time in the history of humanity. And then do it: joyfully, passionately, intelligently, and above all else, with love.