Melanie Dugan's Blog

June 30, 2014

Hard working book

Bee Summers has been buzzing around out there, working hard. Here are links to two mentions: Quill and Quire, Canada's publishing trade magazine, has a terrific review: (thank you, Brenda Schmidt, for a thoughtful, nuanced reading), and Open Book Ontario (which is worth exploring for anyone interested in the dynamic literary scene in Ontario): Happy Canada Day to Canadians everywhere, and happy Fourth of July to Americans - fireworks all 'round!
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May 20, 2014

Bee Summers buzzing around

On Thursday, May 15 Bee Summers was launched and now it is buzzing around the book world.

I have been gobsmacked by the kindness of reviewers — here's one, the Tuesday, May 20 edition of

Writing goes on usually by oneself, alone, in a room, and often when a book is released what the author hears is a resounding silence, so to have this kind of thoughtful, generous response is remarkable, heartening, and encouraging.
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Published on May 20, 2014 07:43 Tags: bees, coming-of-age, father-daughter

April 3, 2014

Bee Summers, About a Book, A Beginning

In May 2014 my fourth novel, Bee Summers, will be published by Upstart Press.
Bee Summers is the story of 11-year-old Melissa Singer, whose nickname is Lissy, after her mother leaves the family and doesn't return. That summer (1966) her father, who is a migratory beekeeper, takes her with him as he travels through the countryside delivering his beehives. The trip and the people she meets change Melissa's life. Over the next seven summers as she travels with her father, she tries to unlock the secret of her mother's disappearance and struggles to come to terms with her loss.
When I speak to people about writing one of the questions I'm often asked is: where do you get your ideas? Where do stories come from?
The truth is, the ideas that trigger novels come from different places. My first novel, Sometime Daughter, was set in a nursing home. When I was in high school I worked in a nursing home; later, my mother lived in a nursing home for 16 years and I visited her regularly. But it wasn’t the experience of nursing homes that inspired a novel; what happened was one day a woman started talking to me, a woman who lived in a nursing home. It was Ruth, the narrator of Sometime Daughter. If you've read the book you know Ruth is a force of nature, and once she starts talking, you're along for the ride.
My second novel, Revising Romance, had quite a different genesis. From 1990 to 1993 I worked at Quarry Press, a small press in Kingston, Ontario, so I had an insider’s knowledge about that part of the publishing world.
One day — this was while I was working at Quarry Press — I read an article in the Times Literary Supplement about a writer, a quite well-known writer, who had been working on a novel for twenty years, releasing bits of it now and then for colleagues to read. The thrust of the piece was, when this novel is released, will it have been worth the twenty year wait?
A year later I was reading a book review, again in the Times Lit Sup, and part way through I realized the book being reviewed was the one I'd read about previously — the book that had taken twenty years to write — and the sub-text of the review was, 'This is a fine novel, but twenty years?' And I thought, what if you were that author's editor? How would it feel to have an eagerly-awaited novel land on your desk and discover that it was, to put it diplomatically, not that great? How would you handle that situation? That question and my experiences at Quarry Press were the beginnings of Revising Romance.
Bee Summers sprang from two sources quite separate from one another. I love to garden. Several years ago gardeners became aware of, and alarmed by, the enormous numbers of bees that were dying off from causes unknown. This became known as Colony Collapse Disorder. It was and remains very disturbing. For a long time no one could pinpoint the cause; now it seems clear the reason is neonicotinoids, a class of neuro-active insecticides. However, whatever the reason, if bees are dying off, that's bad news for humans because without bees to pollinate food crops such as apples, almonds, oranges, berries and other foods, we'll lose those crops. First the bees will go, then we will.
So I began to read about bees, and that's when I first discovered migratory beekeepers, people who transport beehives long distances so the bees can pollinate crops. There have been migratory beekeepers, the records suggest, since Egypt during the time of the Pharoahs. These days it’s big business; semi trucks carrying thousands of hives ferry bees back and forth across the continent.
The other starting point for the novel was an image that flashed across my mind's eye one day, of a battered, rusty pickup truck travelling along a gravel road in the country on a summer day tossing up gravel and dust as it passed through dappled shadows thrown down by tall trees. As the truck sped past there was a flash of light and I knew, although the impression was fleeting, that what I had glimpsed was the side of a young girl's face. Somehow I knew she was riding with her father, and somehow I knew her mother was absent. I could sense that absence, and the girl's confusion about it, and the sadness of both the girl and her father. I wanted to know why the mother had left, and where she had gone.
Then the strange process of alchemy that is novel writing took over, and I put the young girl together with the migratory beekeeper — it turned out he was her father — and I understood she was travelling with him as he delivered his hives. Simultaneously, I realized she was on a much longer journey. So I wrote the novel to find out what that journey was, and where it took her.
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Published on April 03, 2014 12:13 Tags: bees, coming-of-age, novels, writing

March 4, 2014

Bee Summers: About a Book: How a Book Is Made

My partner, Don, is a visual artist. Several years ago he was the subject of a TV show about creativity. For a couple of weeks our family was shadowed by a very pleasant camera crew. We learned about lighting, and scrutiny, and making sure microphones were out of the camera frame.

While the program was being filmed I got to know Leslie, the producer. One day I asked her, "Do you ever do similar shows about writers?"

She grimaced ever so slightly. She was a nice person, who didn’t like hurting anyone’s feelings. "Well, no," she admitted after a pause. "The problem is, writers are boring."

Leslie was right. Writers are boring. Where the TV crew could film Don at work in his studio brandishing his brushes, messing around with pigment, and slopping paint on canvas, if they had been filming me writing it would have involved looooong shots of me sitting at my desk scribbling in longhand on a pad of lined paper. Or not scribbling, but thinking. Staring off into the middle distance. Silently. Not writing a word. Or writing a word, and then crossing it out. There might be a moment's drama when, frustrated, I crumpled up a piece of paper and chucked it at the wastebasket. Most of the time I missed the wastebasket and the paper landed on the floor.

Books are written word by word. Some people — I am one of them — write longhand with their instrument of choice: pencil, ballpoint, fountain pen, rollerball. Some key the text in directly onto a computer. I write longhand because that's the speed at which the story tells itself to me.

As I write, I edit. Here's an example: rough draft

(The astute reader will recognize this as a first draft of an invitation to a beheading. Surprisingly, though, my first drafts look remarkably similar.)

That's the first go-through. I am reluctant to even call it a draft. After this, emendations and all, I'll go through it all again and write out a clean copy. I might be willing to call that a first draft.

Working from that copy, I'll key what I've written into my computer. Things change when you view what has been handwritten transformed into digitized text on a computer screen. Sometimes I notice repetitions I didn't see when I was writing by hand. Sometimes I see structural changes that need to be made to heighten drama or make the narrative move along more quickly, such as changing paragraph breaks. Sometimes I see too many "I"s and know I have to weed some out someone has to weed them out.

After I've keyed in the text, making changes as I go, I print it out. Once again, things change. Text looks different printed out than it does on screen. I see imbalances; I see repetitions — sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. For some reason, when text is printed out and read from a page, the rhythm of the words becomes clearer. More editing goes on; "started" might be changed to "began" because that word works better in that particular situation. Patterns of visual references become clearer, and I can decide to keep them or cut them. Patterns of symbol and metaphor are more obvious and the question is, do they serve the story, in which case I'll keep them, or are they obtrusive, in which case I'll cut. I am always working towards clarity, which often means simplicity.

I suspect one reason these things become clearer when the page is printed out is that I am no longer looking at my handwriting. With that personal element removed, I am better able to read objectively and "kill your lovelies," as Faulkner put it, cut out writing that when first committed to paper seemed beautiful, lyrical, virtuoso but which in fact gets in the way of the story.

I may repeat this process two, three, four times for a four-page passage, but eventually I have to stop tweaking and get back to writing the story. A big part of knowing how to write is knowing when to stop.

Every time I pick up the narrative, I go through this process, and every time I finish a passage and key it in, I re-read what has gone before from the beginning. By the time I finish a novel the first pages have gone through dozens if not hundreds or thousands of these sorts of edits. When a manuscript goes to an editor, it's ready for a new set of eyes, a new perspective.

And so am I. I need to know whether I have written what I meant to write, whether I have served the story well, crafted it in a way that is true to what is being told, used language appropriate to the task, whether I have successfully gotten it out of my head and onto the page. I need to know whether I have served the story well, and that often means: have I gotten myself out of the way and let the story tell itself?
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Published on March 04, 2014 09:07 Tags: bee-summers, bees, coming-of-age, father-daughter, fiction, relationships

January 27, 2014

And now for something not entirely different

As none of you probably know, I’ve been working on an audio-book version of my most recent book Dead Beautiful for the last year. My eldest son, Dugan, gave me a microphone for Christmas 2012, and over the last year I’ve been recording it. He has spent countless hours engineering it (thanks, Dug). It was a lot of fun to do, and I hope it will be a lot of fun for others to listen to. It's available for free at so please check it out and let me know what you think.
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Published on January 27, 2014 12:07 Tags: audiobooks, myths, persephone

March 16, 2012

Coming Soon

My third novel, Dead Beautiful, has just been published by UpStart Press. What if the man you love is Hades, God of the Underworld? Check it out: ISBN978-09783774-7-2.
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Published on March 16, 2012 12:30 Tags: dead-beautiful