Are you a fair weather writer?

Word count: 374            Read time: 1-2 minutes

The skies over Vancouver cleared last week and the rainforest deluge stopped. These sunny winter days are stunning but I miss the downpour that traps me inside. Dark wet weather is the perfect backdrop for my writing. Regardless, I work every day because, A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” E.B. White

Today’s blinding sunshine didn't keep me from my novel even though I wanted to lace on my boots and hike through the forest. Instead I struck a compromise: once I’d broken through the rock wall in the plot in front of me - okay maybe chipped a little hole in it - I could go for a walk. But first I worked. "The fact is that writing is hard work, and sometimes you don't want to do it, and you can't think of what to write next, and you're fed up with the whole damn business. Of course there will be days when the stuff is not flowing freely. What you do then is MAKE IT UP. I like the reply of the composer Shostakovich to a student who complained that he couldn't find a theme for his second movement. 'Never mind the theme! Just write the movement!' he said." Philip Pullman

In our last seven weeks as residents of Australia, the LM and I toured our favourite spots, spending a few days here, a fortnight there, ten days with friends in the Hunter Valley. That was when I wrote my first YA novel. The weather was heavenly, the beaches were seductive and the wine flowed; it was Australia after all. Yet every day, no matter what distractions beckoned, I wrote for at least an hour. By the time we got on the plane to Canada, I had a viable first draft; it was that easy. Of course it would have been even easier not to have bothered but then I would only have had memories of those last weeks, not a SFD.

What propels you to stay on course with your project? When does the weather help you write and when does it offer a reason to play hooky? What deals do you make with yourself when temptation calls?

Magic Time

Word count: 478                  Reading time: 2 minutes

5:00 PM on Halloween afternoon I looked at the two pumpkins sitting on the kitchen counter. Should we bother to carve them? The weather was foul, not Hurricane-Sandy foul, but heavy-rain-warning-in-the-Pacific-rainforest foul. And rain it did. The downpour drowned the stereo and pounded loudly enough to suspend conversation. No trick or treaters were going to come out in this mess.

But still. Miss this holiday and it would be gone forever. So we rolled up our sleeves. When we were done, we set the two jack-o-lanterns on the front steps. Twenty minutes later our first and only callers of the night arrived: three young girls in garbage can costumes with big plastic lids for hats. I admired their tenacity and determination to celebrate one of the most fun holidays of the year. I also knew that two shining lanterns had drawn the kids to our house.

The next morning, November 1, marked the start of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and I thought of many reasons not to participate this year:

  • I only have a story idea. It’s not fleshed out. There is no timeline or well-defined story arc. It’s just a fragment.
  • NaNo is hard. It takes a lot of effort and sacrifice even to write 50,000 words in 30 days. It means saying no to many things. Christmas fairs start in November. And I love Christmas fairs.
  • All I’ll have at the end of will be a SFD, the start of a work, not a finished product.
  • I can’t do it. It’s just not possible.

All of this, of course, is ridiculous. I’ve done NaNo for the past two years. It is a productive, intense experience. So many reasons to participate:

  • All stories start with a single idea; they have to be told to find out where they are going. NaNo is the chance to capture what Anne Lamott calls the ‘down draft’, the getting down of the story. The ‘up draft’ – when the story is fixed up – comes later.
  • Anything worth having is usually hard work and normally involves sacrifice.
  • At the end of the process I’ll have another SFD, the important starting point for another novel.
  • I can do it. I’ve done it twice before. In fact, my 2010 NaNo novel is currently under contract to Great Plains Publications. There are lots of published NaNo books.

Like Halloween, NaNoWriMo only comes once a year. A thirty day commitment isn’t forever. And if I miss it this year, I’ll have to wait twelve months to participate again. If I roll up my sleeves and finish a glowing jack-o-lantern for the front porch, who knows what fun characters might show up at the door.

How do you keep moving forward even when your psyche throws up the stop signs? How do you keep the prize of finished work in clear view?


Photo by: Alan Bolitho, LM


A rose by any other name

Word count: 397                         Reading time: 1-2 minutes

The ancient walking tracks that crisscross Australia are sacred pathways that the indigenous people call songlines, dream lines, or dreaming tracks. The Aboriginal people believe that they must continually sing to the land to keep it alive. As they sing they walk, navigating thousands of kilometres with clues provided by traditional songs.

When the European settlers tried to force their culture, and more specifically their work ethic, on the local tribes, they didn’t anticipate the phenomena of the walkabout. To the Europeans, walkabout meant a time when their workers simply put down tools and disappeared. To the Aboriginal people it meant a focussed journey, to reconnect with the spirit-creators by following the tracks laid down at the start of time, during The Dreamtime or The Dreaming.

To clarify, for all the journalists and marketing people out there, going walkabout does not mean taking a pleasant stroll around a garden or park as suggested on the Vancouver Tourism website. Or should I say it didn’t used to mean that? It used to be a specific and respectful word that denoted a spiritual practice by people whose culture has been under attack for over two hundred years.

I accept that language is organic. In the 1964 movie A Hard Day’s Night, Simon Marshall (Kenneth Haigh) pushed some shirts at Beatle George Harrison and said, “Now you'll like these. You'll really "dig" them. They're "fab," and all the other pimply hyperboles.”

Those hyperboles, which had replaced superlatives like wacco, wizard, and smashing, were soon discarded in favour of hippie expressions like cool, groovy, outasight. Today awesome, amazing, epic, brilliant and sick are conferred on much-admired and coveted things. As I write this, I’m sure other superlatives are incubating. And that’s good; language should evolve and change. Each generation needs to leave its own stamp.

Still, I have trouble accepting walkabout in the meaningless way it’s tossed around lately. On the other hand, I probably use dozens of expressions that once meant something very different than they do now so I’m trying to be patient with this one. In time I may even forget that walkabout meant anything other than a stroll in the park.

As you craft your work do you stumble on words that have taken on new meaning in a way that irritates you? Or are there new words that delight you with their flexibility and mental images?


Photo: Alan Bolitho, LM

Pick and choose

 Word count: 460                         Reading time: 1-2 mins

Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year. Ralph Waldo Emerson.

When summer finally arrived in the Pacific Northwest (last week) I was on Salt Spring Island. Summer on SSI means swimming in lakes, hummingbirds thrumming, eagles whistling, and hiking the gentle mountains in the company of a golden dog. Roadside farm stands groan under the weight of organic produce and at Artspring, the island’s main arts venue, there are concerts and exhibitions.

On the other sides of this heavenly coin:

  • it takes a half a day to get to SSI from Vancouver and BC Ferries seems to have forgotten its mandate to be part of the highway system as the fares ratchet ever higher.
  • the house here uses aquifer well water. The rain stops in June and doesn't start again until September. That means constant vigilance about water use, listening for the sound of the pump which signals the time to turn off the taps. Showers are short. A soaker tub would be an obscenity.
  • the gorgeous birds that sing outside the window feed on a wide array of insects. At night the thousands of bugs that didn't end up as bird food swarm through the screens and cracks in the doors and congregate in the bedroom, throwing themselves in my face as I attempt to savour the best moment of the day, my reading time.
  • lake access is limited and the small beaches are often crowded.
  • spiders lay eggs in the corners as soon as I dust them (which isn't often).

None of that matters. When I think of SSI in summer I remember only the very best parts: the great walks, the buzz of the farmer’s markets, and the soothing silence at night, broken only by the call of the barred owls. As I hiked up Mount Maxwell on Sunday a loose sock rubbed a blister on my heel, but I was too taken by the fragile Garry Oak meadow to notice until much later.

So let it be with my writing. I have to choose to let my strong scenes move me forward and forget about the times that the words fall flat and lifeless on the page. I have to remember the idyllic moments when the stories flow from my fingers and forget the moments when dull clichés launch themselves at me like desperate insects at a slim beacon of light. I have to choose today as the best day ever to write.

What choices are you making today to keep yourself motivated? When you feel the blister of discouragement do you look ahead to the next bloom of inspiration or do you stop hiking for a while?


Photo by: Alan Bolitho, LM 

Hitting the frog and toad

Word count: 343           Reading time: 1-2 minutes 

When the LM takes a motorcycle trek, he always avoids what he and his mates call the super slab – those long boring bits of multi-lane highway that are the most efficient routes from A to Z. Efficiency is good, it has its place in our lives but, for a truly pleasurable experience, the road not commonly taken offers so much more.

Clichés are the super slab of our language. I love them. They allow us to converse in shorthand. How are you today? Can’t complain, no one listens. Fair to middling (or muddling for variety). When I first moved to Australia the idiom no worries was unique to that culture but it’s crossed the Pacific and is as common here now as the ubiquitous have a good day (which I notice has been upgraded in some places to excellent or awesome day). Idiom becomes cliché when it’s over-used and no longer exclusively understood or used by a particular group. On that basis I suggest that no worries is no longer an Australian speciality, it’s a cliché.

Still clichés let us travel from point A to point B with a minimum of thought and a high degree of efficiency. Like the super slab they are soulless experiences. A problem for writers is that clichés are so fixed in speech they can creep into our writing if we aren’t vigilant. Luckily we have sites like ClichéSite and the westegg ClichéFinder to double check any phrase that pops into our heads a little too easily. It’s also possible to cut and paste whole tracts of prose into another ClichéFinder site for easier identification.

At the end of the day we all know better than to use the really tired clichés (that one alone is rated journalism’s worst by Chris Pash), but what about cliché characters? How do you avoid them? Do you use The Female Character Flowchart to make sure your protagonist can hold her own? Or do you go to sites like listal to make sure you haven’t taken the super slab by mistake?


Photo by: Alan Bolitho, LM