What are your favourites?

The Different Lives of Dogs by Ida Waugh

The editing process has shown me that I favour certain words and expressions. I don’t notice them when I’m capturing the story for the SFD. But when I go back and revise, I’m astonished at how certain phrases are repeated many times. Even though many eyes will pore over my book before it goes to print I’m nervous that I’m going to bore my readers by my favouritism.

Word count: 442  Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Because I’ve seen this kind of tic in other writers’ work, I know it happens, even after the most meticulous editing. A couple of years ago I read a memoir where the author loved the verb schlep; he used it in almost every chapter. Recently I read a book by a different author where his characters frequently ‘bellied up’ to the table. The first time I read that it was a unique and fun image. By the third time, it jumped out like someone had underlined it.

I’m not casting stones here – I know all too well how easily my darlings slip into my writing. I let them curl up in front of the warm winter fire and shut the rest out. Sometimes this is the right thing to do. It shows I’m comfortable with my vocabulary as Stephen King (On Writing) encourages writers to be. By sticking with words we know, he says, we find our own voices. 

Then I think of my own exasperation when authors fixate on an odd word like the two examples above and I read my draft one more time. In spite of all the dissenting opinions on this question, I even reach for the thesaurus when I’m stuck. It’s a valuable writing tool. Like any tool though, it has to be used with discretion. Not all synonyms are created equal and I hesitate if I find one that is unfamiliar. If I trip across an unknown word that sounds wonderful, I look it up in several dictionaries. If it means what I need it to, I happily use it. But I have to be comfortable with context. A thesaurus is a tool to keep the engine running, to push through vocabulary block; it's important not to let it misguide me.

Until then, I’ll try to stop myself from incessant use of xxx, xxx, and xxx. I’m not actually sharing my sins because I hope to be free of them before the end of this summer. At least in this manuscript.

Do you have favourite words that crop up in your manuscript no matter how hard you try to banish them? Do you find them for yourself or do you have a critique partner who keeps you honest?


Image from Wikimedia Commons: Different Lives of Dogs by Ida Waugh


Thanks for Judy Mayhew for pointing me to this valuable tool: WordCloud

How are your tent caterpillars?

Ernest Hemingway rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times. When asked why, he said he rewrote it to get the words right.

Yesterday I walked along a sunny road on the edge of Mount Maxwell. It was bordered by thick rows of enormous foxgloves, some of which towered over my 172 cm / 5’ 8” height. Later, when I mentioned it to my sister, she commented only weeks before when she walked it, she’d had to push her way through all the tent caterpillars.

Word count: 344                                    Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Not long ago my novel Lockdown was in the same state as that mountain trail in the spring: sticky with tent caterpillars. It had been part of me for so long that I was unable to see its flaws. Then I skyped with my editor, Anita Daher and she turned the light on. The spidery webs started to fall away and a few flower spikes nudged their heads into the sunshine. Those blooms only started to open after more rewriting.

The editing process is far from being a pleasant summer’s walk on a favourite mountain trail. It’s more like hiking the same terrain in autumn, winter, spring and summer and contemplating the different perspectives that each rewrite brings.

I think my novel is getting close to its full glory, although I have a draft or two to run through yet. To help get there, I remember the beautiful flowers that rise out of the caterpillar silk. As I work through the next reiterations, I’ll model my attitude on John Irving’s: I think what I've always recognized about writing is that I don't put much value in so-called inspiration. The value is in how many times you can redo something.

How many times have you rewritten your latest scene, story, or book? Are you like Hemingway, rewriting the same page thirty-nine times? When someone suggests you rewrite something, do you perceive that as a punishment or as an opportunity to bring the work to greater power and clarity? Are there bright spring flowers poking through the caterpillar plague?



Photos from Wikimedia Commons:

Abstract art in the hedgerow by Penny Mayes

Digitalis purpurea by Nevit Dilmen

What's your view?

From where I sit, peering down through the thick evergreens on the side of Mt. Fromme, the cruise ships that slip in and out of Vancouver’s harbour look like toy boats on a glassy pond. They move, sleek and quiet, on the waters of Burrard Inlet.

Then I ride the SeaBus into town. When I’m at water level next to the huge liners, my perception of size changes dramatically. Even the small cruise ships are huge. The big cruise ships are the size of small countries. They are like floating, vertical islands.

Word count: 395                                                      Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Every time I start writing a novel it seems a small task: the simple telling of story. I’m sitting at an elevation of 1,100 feet, watching a story unfold on the harbour below. My last three novels, drafted during consecutive NaNoWriMo’s, took less than thirty days each.

In that short period I invented new worlds, populated them with fresh characters and manned the deck while big adventures rose, reached climaxes, and came to resolution. Pushing the small boat around the pond was light work compared to what came next.

I’m talking about revision of course. Of draft numbers one, two, three and beyond. That’s when the toy boat morphs into something much larger. With every pass, the story deepens, characters fill out and tension tightens. The challenge gets bigger and bigger.

Perhaps that’s why emerging writers need to look to proven authors for help and inspiration. Success provides lessons on what to do when tugboats turn into freighters and they’re no longer as agile and easy to turn as they once were.

  • Brian Beker recommends Clean [your writing] up and make it interesting. This involves rewriting until you feel like you need a bone marrow transplant.
  • Jane Austen hinted at the same tenacity with, I am not at all in a humour for writing; I must write on until I am.
  • And if it all seems to be taking too long, don’t worry about it. Definitely do not rush it. Especially do not rush to self publish. Try to remember Moliére’s words: The trees are slow to grow bear the sweetest fruit.

Where is your writing now? Are you pushing a small boat around a pond? Or are you standing at the helm of an aircraft carrier wondering how you are going to get it into dock? 


Picture from Wikimedia Commons: Disney Wonder by Shorelander

Can your work survive a tough cycle?

For years I’ve worn the same pale blue Gore-Tex raincoat, a wardrobe essential in the BC rainforest. Recently it started to look worse for wear, kind of grubby. I didn’t like the replacement options so, with nothing to lose, I threw it into the washing machine one last time. I selected a heavy duty, warm temperature wash (instead of the usual regular and cool). Result: a coat that looks bright and new again.

Word count: 264                    Reading time: 1 minute

That’s very much like writing. When I have a piece (one particular novel comes to mind) that feels shop-worn and tired, I need to put it through a course of no-holds-barred rewriting. I need to stop treating it as a fragile work that will fall apart if I’m too rough with it. Ernest Hemingway rewrote the end of Farewell to Arms 39 times before he got the words right. Based on that standard, my weary novel needs a few more revisions.

Kurt Loder urges writers to give their work stronger treatment: “The most important thing you can to is learn to edit yourself. Then go back and rewrite.” I blog on this often because I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that writing, like any meaningful endeavour, is full of repetition and hard work until it’s finally right. We have to turn up the heat and pummel it hard if we’re going to produce something that is shiny and appealing. 

What is your old blue raincoat? Is there a neglected manuscript sitting on your shelf? Would throwing it into a heavy duty cycle bring it back to life?


 Photo by: Elana Elisseeva

Time and tide

Word count: 253         Reading time: 1 minute 

I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again. – Oscar Wilde

Revise and revert: I know the exercise well. It’s not usually a simple comma that gets removed. More than once I’ve spent half a day revising a scene only to realize it was better before I started to play with it. I’ve torn whole books apart and rearranged them, only to put them back together again with the slightest of changes. Now that you mention it, I am thankful for the gift of word processing. 

I say half a day but I can’t be sure. Time loses meaning when I’m swept away by a story, either the telling or retelling of it. As Mary Novik explained, through her character Pegge Donne, in Conceit: It was true that, when I picked up my pen, it was sometimes hours before I counted a minute gone. Like eating a fresh buttered pike, I could not stop until my belly cried out it was glutted.

Right now I’m revising a novel. For the fourth, fifth, or maybe even the sixth time? The fact is I love the characters and they drift around me like phantoms wailing to be heard. So when I pick up the hard copy to move a comma or two, the clock stops ticking and the walls recede. 

Are you lost in any projects right now? What stops time for you?


Photo by: Kris Jacobs

The unexpected

Word count: 428            Reading time: 1-2 mins

On a recent ferry ride home from the Gulf Islands, I sat in front of a couple who talked non-stop the entire trip. They spoke French with soft Parisian accents and as I eavesdropped, trying futilely to pick out words, maybe even sentences, I pictured them as the epitome of Gallic sophistication: young, stylish, poised.  

When we approached Vancouver and everyone started to head back to the car deck, I got my first good look at them. They were seniors. Senior seniors at that. He was short, stout, and balding and wore a Harley Davidson hoodie stretched over his pot belly. His jeans were rough and torn but not in a fashionable way. He walked round-shouldered and slumped. Her thin, brassy red hair lifted off her head in a frizzy peak. The Kelly-green vest she wore clashed with the gaudy orange underneath it. Enough gold hung around her neck to pay the National Debt. I laughed at my clichéd assumption and enjoyed the surprise of how they really looked.

I love surprises in fiction too. But I don’t like being deceived or manipulated. I don’t want to get to the end of a story or chapter and find out that sequence was just a dream. I don’t want to be led to believe that the main love interest was cheating on his or her partner only to find out it was just a close friend or relative who was being embraced so passionately. And I sure don’t want a new character or device introduced at the end of a novel, a Deus ex machina solution to a complicated problem.

As I work, I love uncovering the surprises in my own stories and characters too but these appear slowly. In the first draft I find out who the players are. The second draft helps me get to know them better. It’s only in the third or fourth revision of a novel, as I push along the question of what if, that my characters start to reveal their idiosyncrasies and unusual interests. Between each revision, I follow the advice of Steven Pinker and give them all a rest, “Write many drafts, separated by a long enough interval so your writing will seem strange to yourself.” When I go back to a work after a long interval, it’s like opening the box of Christmas decorations from the far corner of the basement: full of delightful things I’d forgotten were there.

Where are the surprises in what you are writing? How do you uncover them?


Photo by: Royce DeGrie

Across the line

Word count: 258        Reading time: 1-2 mins 

I typed the last word into my NaNoWriMo document a week ago. Once I was in the habit of writing 2,000 words a day, it surprised me (yet again) how easy that exercise was. In fact it was very much like physical exercise: much easier when done on a regular basis. Also like physical exercise, one day’s finish line was the next day’s starting block.  

Around the middle of November I saw a tweet from a literary agent cautioning writers against querying her with their new novels in December. I laughed at the idea that the final period in my manuscript might signal anything like a finished work. During NaNoWriMo, I follow Tara Moss’s rule: Don’t write it right, just write it—and then make it right later.

In November I wrote. Later I’ll right. The NaNo effort has been buried in my electronic crypt. Now I’m revising something different, which is a fresh start  - and much more fun in its own way. Rose Tremain explains: The process of rewriting is enjoyable, because you’re not in that existential panic when you don’t have a novel at all.

Last week’s dash across the finish line left me perfectly poised for this week’s race. Practice makes the whole thing easier.

Did you finish a first draft recently, what Anne Lamott calls a SFD? Do you need the distance of time before you can start the process of ruthless self-editing? Or are you able to type ‘the end’ one week and revise the next?


What I meant to say was...


Word count: 428                         Reading time: 1-2 minutes

I’ve been told – and found it on the internet so it must be true – that the best way to wash a car is to do it twice. I don’t have a lot of patience with cars so mine’s lucky if it gets a single wash every couple of months. I’m like that with a lot of jobs. I’ll never create a dessert so beautiful that guests won’t want to eat it. I’ll never produce an awesome needlepoint or restore an old piece of furniture. I know. I’ve tried. These are all endeavours where the that-will-do-factor cuts in really early.

But writing? A different story: the more I do it, the greater my patience is for rewriting and the easier I accept other people’s input. So I  understand what Bernard Malamud meant when he said, “I would write a book, or a short story, at least three times--once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say.”

When writers forget this essential part of the writing process and rush to bring their work to the world by way of poorly-edited self-pubbed books they risk terrible remorse down the road as discussed by Suw Charman-Anderson of Forbes. They risk alienating readers who might have enjoyed their work if they had just given it a little more patience.

I'm sure there are writers whose flawless first drafts are ready for global release but John Irving’s words resonated with me: “More than a half, maybe as much as two-thirds of my life as a writer is rewriting. I wouldn't say I have a talent that's special. It strikes me that I have an unusual kind of stamina. I can rewrite sentences over and over again, and I do. . . . And I think what I've always recognized about writing is that I don't put much value in so-called inspiration. The value is in how many times you can redo something.”

I’d be delighted if I only had to write things three times like Malamud or was even close to Irving’s talent. But still, I do have the stamina to rewrite often, very often. And I hope, at the end of the process, whatever I offer the world shines like it’s been washed twice and well polished.

How do you feel about rewriting? Have you written your story at least three times? Does it finally say what it must?


Photos:      Junkyard Car by Melissa M. Morris

                 Old Truck by Ron Hilton

Make No Mistake


 Word count: 248          Reading time: 1 minute

To enter the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, it’s necessary to bow to pass through the Door of Humility. As a writer who seriously wants to get better, I’m developing a supple spine from bending through that door often. I’ve had a lot of practical lessons in writing and the most valuable have not been from seminars or courses; the greatest improvements have come from critiques.

 To be truthful, the opportunity for improvement isn’t apparent right away. First there’s disbelief that what I wrote wasn’t perfect. Next there might a dark hour or so of resentment when I think that the reader doesn’t appreciate my cleverness. Finally I slip through the door and see that the feedback is more than well-intended, it’s enormously helpful.

Humility makes us accessible to learning, to new ideas. Unlike insecurity which whispers that nothing we ever do will be good enough, or vanity that blinds us to other suggestions, humility reminds us that there is work to be done and alternate ways of doing it. When a manuscript comes back covered in notes, I try to remember the words of Alexander Pope No one should be ashamed to admit they are wrong,  […], that they are wiser today than they were yesterday. I’m a much wiser writer today than a year ago, which is to say I’ve made a lot of mistakes.

How is your writing caper going? Are you bowing through the Door of Humility as you progress?


Photo by: Renewer

Hoping for serendipity


Word count: 281                                              Reading time: 2 mins. 

All last night I dreamt about lost animals: finding a litter of tiny kittens strewn in garbage heaps in an alley, a hungry coonhound pup pawing at the back door. These sweet animals weaved themselves into my subconscious and I didn’t sleep well for worrying. This morning I opened the newspaper to the headline that a local dog rescue group has been linked to dog-napping. Vancouver Sun

Bad surprise.

Years ago I went scuba diving with a girlfriend in the chilly waters off Horseshoe Bay, West Vancouver. On the beach that day was an Aussie diver who set his sights on me. I rebuffed him, he held his course. Five years later I married him. Happily ever after.

Good surprise.

In real life I hope for only serendipity, inadvertent good luck. As a reader I love sinister twists and turns, especially if the end of a story is uplifting.

As I careened through NaNoWriMo 2011 a revelation rocked me at 36,000 words. I tripped over a central theme to the story that I hadn’t seen at the outset. Good surprise.

This week I looked at another novel that has been resting for the past month. The voice isn’t quite right yet. Bad surprise. I reminded myself that the revisions need time. Randy Susan Meyers and Roz Morris

Solution: I’m using literature to wake me from “the sleepwalk of self-involvement” (William Deresiewicz). In other words, I’m reading lots. I’m also listening to music and getting outdoors to enjoy the scenery. Both of these activities trigger images that no other process can release.

What surprises are shaking your world right now? How do you manage them and how do they influence your writing? 


 Photo of Salt Spring Island by: Aidan Cassie