What Have You Got to Lose?

On Not Winning.

My first blog on this new site was about heading off to an award ceremony, The Arthur Ellis Gala, sponsored by the Crime Writers of Canada, a celebration of all things criminally literary, including the category of Best Juvenile/Young Adult Crime Book, for which my latest thriller The Ruinous Sweep was short-listed. Well, I fell short of taking home the prize. Congratulations to Linwood Barclay for Escape (Puffin, Canada), the second in his “Chase” series of books for kids (9+). He’s won the Arthur before for his adult fiction and will inevitably win again. He’s good. I’m a big fan.

Losing loses its sting over time. It gets easier to say what you knew all along – Hey, my book got nominated, aka noticed. I’m in the game. And while you’re at it — giving yourself a pep talk — it’s great to remember that the book lost, not you; you’re not a loser. A loser is the person who doesn’t get around to throwing their hat in the ring. You wrote a book, it got published. Yay!

The best antidote is to just get on with life. This is especially true, at the beginning of your writing career. You slave over that first manuscript. You revise it until it is as good as it can possibly be and then you begin the painful task of sending it out to find an agent, a publisher, a home. That’s a time-consuming business all on its own, or at least long periods of time are likely to drag on while you wait for a response. The very best thing you can do is not wait, in the sense of sitting around, eyes glued to the mail slot. As soon as you can, start into that most wonderfully hopeful and agreeable of all literary creations: the next book. Fill up your waking hours with a new cast of characters to care about, a new protagonist to throw to the lions and lose sleep over, as you heap conflict upon his or her head, raise the stakes, alarmingly, while all the time rooting for and strategizing toward a successful outcome and satisfying denouement. 

Become ensconced all over again in story. The Cambridge Dictionary defines the verb “ensconced” to mean, “positioned safely or comfortably, somewhere.” There is also implied the sense of barricading oneself in, in some secure place. That’s what you need. The comfort of a diverting tale, the security of knowing that as long as this one is in your hands, it has every chance in the world of being… well, of being the best damn thing ever written. Oh yes, the writing of a first draft is fraught with hardship and frustration – that’s why it’s called a “work.” But if you love writing, there is no more dependable, sheltered place than being inside a story under construction. It is just so full of potential. 

That other story — the one you finished – it’s out of your control for now. There’s nothing more you can do for it until otherwise notified. Bend your imagination toward a new task. Considering the snail’s pace of the publishing process, you’ll be so deeply inside this new struggle that the Thunk! of an SASE manuscript on the front hall floor will be only a momentary distraction. I’m waxing metaphorical here, of course; fat parcels with your address written on the front in your own hand seldom “thunk,” anymore. The rejection comes as a “ping” on your computer, announcing you’ve got mail. And if you’re smart, you’ve turned off “mail” while you’re writing. The story coming to light, coming to life, under your fingers – this is the one. What have you got to lose?

Who is this?

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I’m off to Toronto next week for the Arthur Ellis Awards Gala. It’s an annual event held by the Crime Writers of Canada, celebrating the best mystery books of the past year in several categories including “Best Juvenile or YA Crime Book.” I’ve been lucky enough to win in that category twice before, for The Boy in the Burning House, in 2000, and Blink and Caution in 2012. I’m up against some stiff competition this year, including Linwood Barclay, a favourite thriller writer of mine. Escape is Barclay’s first foray into juvenile crime fiction. The list also includesMichelle Barker for The House of One Thousand Eyes, Kevin Sands for Call of the Wraith, and E. R. Yatscoff for the Rumrunner’s Boy. My own short-listed book is The Ruinous Sweep. I’ve got my fingers crossed!

My own connection to the CWC goes back almost to the very beginning. Long before I won an “Arthur” I had an intimate relationship with him, shall we say. But before I go into that, let me tell you about the man whose name appears on the trophy. Arthur Ellis was the nom de travail of Canada’s hangman, when we used to do that kind of thing. Which, you might be surprised to know was as recently as 1962. On December eleventh of that year two men were hung for two different murders at the Don Jail in Toronto. I guess that would be a busy day in the life of a hangman. The whole idea gives me the shakes. Canada still had a hangman on the payroll until 1976, when parliament voted to abolish the death penalty and only by a slim margin, 130-124. Scary to think about.

So how did Arthur and I become acquainted? Well, I never met the man – not as far as I know, anyway. After all, Arthur Ellis wasn’t his real name. Maybe he was that weird guy next door, the one who never got around to telling you what he did for a living? Anyway, my fellow crime writers entrusted me with the job of coming up with a suitable trophy for crime writing. The British Crime Writers had their “Silver Dagger,” the Yanks had their “Edgar,” named after Mr. Poe. And we had “Arthur.” When I started thinking of what awards were supposed to be, I thought of the Oscar and that endless parade of winners clutching the prize as they blubbered their thankyous. For one precious moment, I figured, a prize is a kind of stage prop. It needed to look good in somebody’s hand as well as on their mantel. So I thought, why not get a stage designer to come up with one? And I knew just the guy. Peter Blais was, at the time, an artist/actor/designer and just an all-around creative guy. Full disclosure, he beat me in an art competition in grade five. When we met again a million years later, I forgave him for winning; we were performing in a show together and, man, did he have a wicked sense of humour. He got it! He knew the kind of thing I wanted. Here’s the CWC’s first president, Tony Aspler, describing the wooden statuette that Peter Blais came up with: “a condemned man on a gibbet whose arms and legs flail when you pull the string – considered by some to be in execrable taste.” You bet! But a lot more fun than most prizes. I’m hoping I’ll get another chance to pull that string on May 23rd!