Who's your worst enemy?

My agenda today: write a short story, write some flash fiction, and polish the current work-in-progress. I also needed to unpack one more box in the basement, reconcile the last two months’ bank statements, etc. I started with the domestic chores, which may not come as an enormous surprise.

Because of that decision, some of my ambitious writing plans have slipped onto tomorrow’s list. As Fran Lebowitz put it: The act of writing puts you in confrontation with yourself, which is why I think writers assiduously avoid writing.

Of course this type of self-sabotage isn’t unique to writers but I think many of us are masters at it, because of the way writing moves us outside our comfort zones. That can be scary. So we do the things we’re good at and comfortable with.

If we don’t try, we can’t fail.

If we go to a writing group where we are asked to share our work, we simply pass. Maybe we wrote something really good last time and we want to be remembered for that.

Coasting on past victories is stagnation, pure and simple. Playing small like that doesn’t serve the world, to quote Marianne Williamson. I’m too smart to stand in my own way but I do it, all too often. To be a better writer I need to use willpower and discipline to build bridges between my goals and my accomplishments. I have to practice that every day but it can be the hardest thing to do: silence off the external noise and write. Too often I am my own worst enemy.

What is the hardest part of writing for you? When the dull domestic world wants your time and energy, how do you turn off that sense of duty?


Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Arch Enemy’s Angela Gossow 2009 by Roman Hornik



What is your hummingbird?

There is one major problem with our new home. Hummingbirds. They come to feed on the fuchsia plant hanging outside my window. When they do I am lost. I have no hope but to sit and watch them dart in and out of the flowers.

Then I have to go online and read about them or watch videos made by local Eric Pittman Hummingbirds Up Close. And we all know what happens when a person when you start searching the next.

Word Count: 449                                                               Reading time: 1-2 minutes

While I’m on the subject of things that distract me at this new house, I’d like to add the following:

  • Cats. There are a few of them in this neighbourhood and it’s entertaining to watch them face off on the street out front or cadge a pat or two from someone walking by.
  • Raccoons. Aren’t they meant to be nocturnal? So what are they doing, cavorting in the driveway across the street, forcing me to lift my eyes from my work?
  • Dogs and their walkers. At least a dozen different breed and mixes of dogs walk past this house everyday. My favourite is what Aussies call a bitsa, bits of this, bits of that. His top half looks like a lab with a long, golden body and a handsome head. His legs are basset hound short. His winsome face charms me from thirty feet.
  • Deer. There were lots here in the spring but they seem to have found greener pastures now that we are close to summer. Just as well. I have work to do.
  • Characters. Different people in wonderful outfits parade past every day and often I want to do nothing more than watch them.
  • Cooper’s Hawks. Granted, I’ve only seen one (once) and that was just this week, but I hear them all the time so I’m on the constant lookout.
  • Lastly there is an occasional rabbit and I have to stop what I’m doing and wait to see where it’s come from and where it’s going to. I’m always in the mood for a tea party.

Sometimes it’s good to lose myself in the passing tide of life, to meditate while a frenetic green bird drinks nectar. Other times the imaginary world I’m creating blinds me to all but what is on my screen or in my notebook.

Where do you write? What are the distractions flicking into view that take you from your work? Do the distractions also serve as real life reminders of the magic you are trying to create? Does the man sitting across from you in the coffee shop figure into that scene you are writing now? Or does his image hover and dart out of view?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Annas Hummingbird, Calypte anna in flight by Calibas

What is holding you back?


I understand why people live with peeling wallpaper and ancient kitchens with drawers that jam and stick. It takes courage to venture beyond the planning stage. Once a renovation starts, there is no turning back. The old bathroom gets ripped out, but what looked good on paper may not proceed according to plan. Electricians, plumbers, and builders come into the mix. They each have an opinion and they often contradict each other. Maybe it’s easier to live with the crack in the bathtub and the toilet that flushes away 13 litres / 4 gallons of potable water with each use.

Word count: 327                                                                                          Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Is an unknown result the reason some people fail to finish the big artistic projects they start? How many outlines of stories have I scribbled into my notebooks over the years? I love that playful stage. So I write the first scene. It’s satisfying to see the characters come to life, say and do things exactly the way I expected.

Deep into a manuscript, I often find that a story is not unfolding the way I expected. The electrician arrives on the scene and says that my protagonist has no spark. No one is getting a charge from her. The plumber informs me that my throughline is jammed and needs to be reworked. I need to rip out half of what I’ve written.

Sometimes the weaknesses are beyond repair. Better tear the old house down and salvage the parts. Other times I just need to pull out the rotted wall and replace it with something  more substantial. The urge to destroy is also a creative urge according to Picasso.  So really, when unexpected obstacles pop up in the narrative, isn’t that the time to muster the creative courage and smash what needs fixing?

Do you avoid writing your great novel because you know hard it’s going to be? Or do you have the perseverance to get through the project, so you lay out your blueprint and get started?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Bedroom and sitting room of the White House during the Renovation 2/27/1650 by Abbie Rowe from the US National Archives & Records Administration

Are you making time?

In all our deeds the proper value and respect for time determines success or failure, according to Malcolm X.

In 2014:

  • My YA novel Lockdown will be released in the spring. Before that happens, a press kit and a book launch must be organized.
  • My epic Australian novel is shaping up and should be moved to submission-ready status.
  • The Young Writers Club remains stronger than ever and still demands lots of time and preparation.
  • I have a handful of short stories to polish.
  • This writing blog and the earthquake blog must be maintained.
  • A rough draft of a new YA novel needs a month or more of work.

Word count: 370                                                                              Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Behind the scenes there are major changes going on in my personal life that wake me early every morning and occupy me until I drop into bed, late every night.

How easy it would be, in the midst of all this busyness, to think, “I’ll find time to write something new tomorrow.” Time is a slippery thing: one unproductive day becomes seven. A week drifts into a month. Experience warns me that if I let things slide, soon I won’t have created anything new in recent memory.

This year I will make time (because no one finds it) for all the competing priorities. Otherwise starting a new project, or even advancing a half-finished one, seems as feasible as scaling Mt. Everest. To avoid this pitfall, I will shake myself and remember that the only way to get things done is to quit talking about them and just do them.

A goal without a date is just a dream said Milton H. Erickson. So, before the days disappear like cherry blossoms in spring, I’m going to set deadlines and try to avoid the whooshing sound as they fly past. (with thanks to Douglas Adams). I don’t want 2014’s goals to end up as unrealized dreams. I have a calendar. I have dates for each goal. I really, really intend to stick with it. Unless, of course, there is another cute dog or cat video on YouTube…..

What are you doing this year to master the gift of time? Have you recorded your writing goals? Are they broken into small increments that aren’t overwhelming?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Wanduhr in Deutschland. Es ist 15:00 Uhr.

Are you losing it?

The best writing moments are when the characters speak to each other and the scenes unfold with surprising twists. When I work, these exhilarating moments occur at a rate of about one in a thousand. First I have to slog through many dull, prosaic hours before a gem glitters in the dust. 

Word count: 435                                                            Reading time: 1-2 minutes

I’ve looked around for ways to beat the odds, to increase the incidents of strong writing. So far the only thing that improves my writing is practice. By practice I mean work: working harder, working more, working with focus. I don’t worry about whether or not I have the talent to write. Instead I put my faith in people who have gone before me:

  •  Perseverance is a great substitute for talent.Steve Martin, Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life.
  • The real writer is one who really writes. Talent is an invention like phlogiston after the fact of fire. Work is its own cure. You have to like it better than being loved.Marge Piercy.

Work means sitting down to long, seemingly unproductive hours, even when inspiration is weak and I’d rather wash the kitchen floor. I have to be there, chipping away for the moments when inspiration ignites and talent erupts. I have to write the bad sentences to find what doesn’t work. I have to play the wrong notes so I can find the sweet ones. Yes there are demons: the empty page, the incomplete scene, the manuscript that is 95% written. These terrifying events often tempt me to throw up my hands, to stop writing altogether. Then I move past my panic and get to work.

One of the greatest ballerinas of the twentieth century, Dame Margot Fonteyn, overcame her stage fright with additional practice. In 1949, as she geared up for her dancing debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, she had a bad case of butterflies. Her solution? Two extra hours of drills besides her regular workday of classes, rehearsals and performances. Investors.com

Because talent—if you don't encourage it, if you don't train it, it dies. It might run wild for a little while, but it will never mean anything. Like a wild horse. If you don't tame it and teach it to run on track, to pace itself and bear a rider, it doesn't matter how fast it is. It's useless.Elizabeth Hand 

Talent doesn’t develop on its own. It needs practice, education, and a chance to run free. So how do you get past your stage fright to let it grow? How do you ensure your talent doesn’t atrophy?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Vinit Sharma practising violin by Rockwithvinit

What are the signs?

In Australia my husband and I adopted a series of abandoned cats. Our vet said there was a mark on our front gatepost that told the animals our house was a good place to find food, shelter, and safety—like the hobo marks of a bygone era.

The internet is that gatepost now. Whatever a person wants to do, the directions are laid out, marks carved or chalked, by those who have passed that way before. Naively, when I set out, I didn’t look for those marks. I thought writing was a solitary journey. It would be an understatement to say I made mistakes—but that’s one way to get an education.

Word count: 481                                                                                                      Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Some of the marks I wish I’d seen earlier in my writing life were these:

  • Be prepared for the long haul. It takes can take years to develop proficiency as a writer. In his book On Writing Stephen King says that commitment is one of the six essential tools in the writer’s toolbox.
  • Writing a novel can seem overwhelming. Concentrate on what is in front of you and move the story forward one paragraph or one page at a time. Or in the words of Anne Lamottone bird at a time
  • When it gets really frustrating, do something else. Agatha Christie said The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes Get away from it—for a while.
  • Don’t try to do it alone. Yes, writing is a solitary occupation but there are benefits to sharing with trusted readers or writing partners. You may not find the right person (or people) to share with immediately but keep kissing those frogs. When the match is right, your work will soar.
  • Become a ruthless self-editor. Put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it. Colette
  • Don’t send work out too soon. Impatience can close doors.
  • Don’t hang on to your work too long. Perfectionism can leave it in limbo.
  • Go to writers’ festivals, book launches, and readings at your local libraries.
  • Read books on the craft of writing. Try to absorb some of the vast wisdom available. It can be your secret—It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way. (Ernest Hemingway)
  • Go into the universe with a friendly, non judgemental soul. It’s easier to observe that way.
  • Get an online presence. It doesn’t have to be flashy but agents and editors want to be able to find you when they put your name in a search engine. They want to see what a reader will find with the same search.

 

What would the hobo marks look like for the points above? What other reminders should be on this list for writers new and old?

Lost in the words?

A marine inversion layer covered Vancouver in a blanket of fog for much of October. When I rode the SeaBus from Lonsdale Quay to Waterfront Station last week I couldn’t see six feet beyond the windows. That felt a bit like writing a novel:

  • I couldn’t see where I was going. 
  • I couldn’t be certain of reaching my hoped-for destination
  • There was a sense of being suspended in time and space with a cast of unknown characters  
  • The short commuter ride into the gloom was both frightening and exhilarating.

Word count: 433                                                                               Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Over the years I’ve collected some tools and practises that help me navigate past the obstacles that threaten the direction of my work:

  • Free writing. Ten minutes minimum. Don’t lift the pen from the page. Just keep going. Great prompts for free writing exercises can be found here, Sarah Selecky and here, Writers Write Daily Writing Prompt.
  • Copy type. I pull out work by a respected author and let his or her words flow through me. Ten minutes minimum.
  • Don’t worry about the big picture: look at what is in front of the bow. Write that one small scene. The next day, write another one.
  • Get on a bus. Go to a coffee shop. Listen, smell, taste, and feel. Give the brain a holiday from the screen.
  • Turn off the ruthless self-editor. Accept permission to write something truly dreadful. After that, there is no way but up.
  • Read a good craft book. There are tried and proven ways to improve writing; skills can be sharpened, new techniques can be tried.  
  • Go for a walk, a run or a bike ride. Do something to wake the body up.
  • Share the work. On Questions Tuesday recently John Green said Curiosity is not the most important human trait. The urge to collaborate is. A second or third set of eyes are often the ones that find a critical weak spot and help a story shine.
  • Read the work aloud. From Neil Gaiman’s acknowledgments at the end of his book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane: As this book entered its second draft, as I was typing out my handwritten first draft, I would read the day’s work to my wife, Amanda, at night in bed, and I learned more about the words I’d written when reading them aloud to her than I ever have learned about anything I’ve done.  

What methods do you have for finding light in the darkness? How do you keep your bearings when the path ahead is unknown?

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 Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Burrard Street Bridge & Fog, DougVancouver

What's the rush?

Back in May 2011 Publishing Perspectives reported that an estimated 200 million Americans said they’d like to write a book. Back then, that represented 64% of the population of the United States. I bet that number was just as high in other countries.

Word count: 478 Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Likewise I’m certain that every single person on the planet could tell a good story based on his or her share of life’s sorrows and joys.

  • Question: who is prepared to sit down and transcribe their vision into a book?
  • Answer: quite a few people if Twitter is any indication.

I searched ‘free e-book’ just now and got eighteen immediate hits. Six new results arrived in the time it took me to count those. I usually read 50-60 books a year so if I wanted to, I could fill my reading list with nothing but free e-books picked up on Twitter.

  • Next question: who is prepared to work and hone that original draft? To sit down and mould their experiences into a quality book?
  • Answer: not so many people if my experience with free e-books is an indication.

“We’ve all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the internet, we know this is not true.” Robert Wilensky

The simple fact is it takes time, lots and lots of it, to learn to write well and to develop a strong voice. It takes stamina, both physical and psychological, to slog through the 20, 30, or 40 drafts that may be necessary to produce a single good scene. I didn’t realize this when I wrote the first book that was dying to get out of me. In fact my first three novels were more like monkeys typing than quality art.

Good writing isn’t something that’s tossed off in a few minutes whenever it’s convenient. It’s the culmination of training, effort, and setting ego aside, again and again. Of listening to how tension hasn’t been sustained in a scene or how the characters simply aren’t convincing. It’s about having the patience to hear all that and still tackle the next revision with heart and soul.

Speed and quantity do not trump craftsmanship and quality.

Then there is the final – brutal – fact of life that even if a person does invest a huge effort into being the very best writer they can be, it doesn’t ensure success. But, as Steven Pressfield suggests in his Writing Wednesdays column about the 10,000 hour rule, maybe mastering the craft is its own reward.

What started you writing? Was it a single idea? How has your commitment to your first (or second or third) book stood the test of time? Do you push out work at a great rate of knots? Or are you patiently crafting a good story, told as well you can tell it?

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 Picture from Wikimedia Commons: Dogge mit Würsten by Wilhelm Trübner

 

Do you love it?


The Tired Seamstress by Angelo Trezzini

In the past, in an effort to explore the world around me, I’ve taken courses in sewing, bicycle maintenance, and basic automotives. I’m a certified scuba diver. I’ve done years of martial arts, and I’ve gone to beauty classes to learn the best way to do my own home waxing.

Word count: 323                  Reading time: 1 minute

For all that I admired the work of my friend who patiently helped me make a pair of trousers I had neither the perseverance nor passion to build that skill. Home waxing was messy and not immediately successful so I abandoned that within a few months. I skipped out of the automotive class at the first coffee break.

Writing is one of the few exceptions to my fickle dabbling. Since I started it seriously, my interest hasn’t waned or flagged. It’s not something I pick up and put down. It’s part of breathing, even on the worst days.

In the end I guess I’ve adopted Thoreau’s approach: Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.

From there, unknowingly, I followed the lead of Tracy Chevalier: Don't write about what you know—write about what you're interested in.

I shape worlds around subjects that I love which makes sculpting characters within them much easier. In doing so, I find resolutions to questions I didn’t even know I wanted answers to.

Through all of this, I ignore the phantom voice that sometimes sings out that I can’t do it, that my words aren’t worth reading. Determination trumps self sabotage and I get back to the job at hand. Doing what I love can sometimes be stressful but not going where my heart takes me, would condemn me to life of tinkering in one long automotives course.

How do you pick the subjects for your novels? Does love of the craft bring you back to the story even when you are half-paralyzed with self doubt?

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Picture from Wikimedia Commons

What lies ahead?

Perseverance of a decapitated tree by Wing Chi Poon

Nobody told me there’d be days like this sang John Lennon. When I looked at what lies ahead of me this week, I was reminded, once again, how little I knew about the publishing industry when I started. Here’s a mud map of what may be necessary, after you’ve polished your novel and got it fit for general consumption:

1. Master the art of writing a query letter, which is infinitely more difficult than writing the book itself. Writer’s Digest offers Ten Dos and Don’ts of Writing a Query Letter. Janet Reid’s Query Shark site gives examples of what turns agents off in actual submissions. Then there’s the whole question of whether you should seek an agent or go directly to a publishing house. Di Bates has a good discussion of Literary Agents on her site Writing for Children. One thing is certain, unless you intend to self publish, your query letter will open or close doors for you.

Word count: 474                                                                             Reading time: 1-2 minutes

2. Develop a web presence. Or should you? There’s a question for a search engine! It seems logical that if you want people to be interested in your work, it’s probably best if they can find you. It is sometimes suggested that this step should precede step 1, that agents and publishers are people too.

3. Familiarize yourself with the basics of contract law, or at least develop the tenacity to wade through legal documents. Even if you self publish you need to understand what to expect under the T&C’s (terms and conditions) of your contract.

4. Prepare yourself for editorial input. Allow time for more revision.

5. Before the book is published, assemble a press kit and gear up for what Jill Corcoran calls Book Marketing and Sell-Through.

6. Be prepared for a book launch or even a book tour. Start researching these events well before your launch date. If your publisher doesn't support these events, look for inexpensive ways of hosting your own.

7. Investigate the possibility of a blog tour which is a less physical way of creating buzz for your work but also very time consuming.

8. Between all this – start working on your next novel because if people like your voice, they’ll want more and you’ll want to deliver.

I’m on step four of this list and the road ahead looks exhilarating, to say the least. No one told me it would be so demanding at the outset but I would have soldiered on even if they had. I’m nothing if not perseverant. I’ve had setbacks and false hopes but I keep Winston Churchill’s advice – never never never give up – close to my heart.

What part of the writing journey has surprised you the most? Have you encountered obstacles that you just didn’t anticipate when you started the deceptively simple ambition of telling a story that was burning in your head?

 ***

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

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?

 

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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? 

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Picture from Wikimedia Commons: Disney Wonder by Shorelander

Have you crossed the line?

Last week we had a family gathering where relatives who hadn’t seen each other in years shared a meal. Glory stories were told and there was probably a grain of truth in most of them. No constraints like correct grammar or good structure were imposed on the tall tales.

Word count: 477           Reading time: approx 2 minutes

At the writers’ panel last month, a man in the audience asked why editors were even necessary. Why can’t anyone who wants to write, just write? Sylvia Taylor fielded this question from the perspective of commercial publication. She said people’s stories are the rough stones that are dug from the earth. What makes a diamond shine is the cutting and polishing.

Anyone who wants to write can, and often does. There are over 750,000 ebooks for Kindle on Amazon right now. At least some of them, I’m sure, are written by people who just wanted to write without the constraint of an editor or a proofreader.  

At that family reunion two of the people at the table commented that they, too, have written books. Each had written one book that has since been shelved. Completing a novel is a commendable effort; not many people get that far. Still, the first draft is closer to the starting gate than the finish line.

A person doesn’t have to be published to be a serious writer but there are some signs that a line has been crossed between messing about with words and being committed to the long game. Here are some indicators that the writer has passed that point of no return:

  • Writes. Writes a lot. Writes often.
  • Has always written a lot. If not fiction then letters, emails, shopping lists – anything.
  • Cares about the pesky points of grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
  • Reads a lot and thinks about what she reads.
  • Is curious about the world at large. May be known to disappear from a party to check out the host’s bathroom cabinet or eavesdrop on the next door neighbours.
  • Makes choices that create time for writing.
  • Keeps learning through books, writing groups, conferences and coaches.
  • Realizes writing may never be a viable way of supporting herself but writes anyway.
  • Sets aside her ego and accepts critiques that will improve her writing.
  • Stands her ground when what she has written is true to her intent.
  • Thinks about her novel the last thing at night and the first thing in the morning.
  • Travels with a pen and paper to collect the precise words of conversations, the exact descriptions of landscapes.
  • Treats other writers with consideration and respect.
  • Considers the first draft of a manuscript the starting point of the work.
  • Knows to step back from the story, reflect on it and let it rest.
  • Writes with passion, succeeds with discipline (Shannon A Thompson).

What would you add to this list? What else tells you someone is serious about writing?

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Frédéric Bazille via Wikimedia Commons: Bazille Family Reunion 1868

Is your writing dying?

Every single cell in the human body replaces itself over a period of seven years. That means there's not even the smallest part of you now that was part of you seven years ago.  The Raw Shark Texts, Steven Hall.

Word count: 334    Reading time 1-2 mins.

This means that there is still hope for the novel that I started writing seven years ago. Over the course of time, it has been revised to the point that very little of the original text survives.

This novel has become a bit of an annual tradition that coincides with spring. When the cherry trees flower and sunny forsythia brightens even the dullest day, a sense of renewal, of a fresh start, buoys me. So I revisit the languishing saga. Every year, when I open it again, it feels like I am administering CPR to a failing body.

In December 2010 at the 92nd Street Y in New York City writer-artist Lynda Barry and illustrator Maira Kalman spoke about their artistic processes. In particular, they talked about how a piece can feel like it’s dying and how rescuing it is what makes it work.

“It’s literally every day, I’m dying, it’s dying,” Kalman said. “Then something happens and it’s like, 'OK, it’s going to be OK.'”

To me, that’s what perseverance and rewriting is about; it’s digging for the moment when everything feels OK again. Just this week my writing partner, who has probably read the entire seven-year-old novel three or four times, suggested a change at a pivotal point in the story. It wasn’t how I imagined the narrative unfolding but as I revised, new perspectives on the story opened. (Thanks, Allison!) The branch of the cherry tree that looked lifeless last week is now covered in blossoms.

Is there a manuscript sitting on your shelf that you have abandoned because it looked, to all appearances, dead? Should you try to breathe some air into its lungs and hope for a ROSC (return of spontaneous circulation)? Could yesterday’s fallow ground open with flowers?

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Photo: Cherry Blossom in Branch Brook Park, NJ by Siddharth Mallya from Wikimedia Commons

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?

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 Photo by: Elana Elisseeva

Is your writing as strong as good tea?

The patience of tea refers to its quality after being brewed many times. Good teas – patient teas – maintain complexity and flavour with multiple infusions. The flavour evolves each step of the way, as Joshua Kaiser one of the world’s leading tea experts demonstrates here.

Likewise, patience builds a good writing career.

(Word count: 342                Reading time: 1-2 minutes)

  • First we have to learn to write well. Consider Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule: it suggests that 90 minutes a day practice for twenty years is needed to master something. I’m unsure if I agree with that onerous a requirement but I do know that writing proficiency demands practice, as least as much as sports, music, or art. There is no way out of this.
  • Then we have to wait for recognition.
  • While the first two processes are underway, we must dip into the world of social media where, Suw Charman-Anderson reminds us, maintaining a blog or website is a long game. It can take months or even years to develop a strong following.

In other words, if you want to carve out a career as a writer, be prepared to cultivate the virtue of patience. Tolstoy said, “The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.” Right now the publishing industry is battling for sales in a constantly changing, more-distracted-than-ever market. Prepare for a wait. How?

  • Keep writing.
  • Keep studying the craft of writing.
  • Throw yourself into new experiences and enjoy the moment, embrace the now. It will ultimately feed your writing.
  • Meditate. Seriously: take time to breathe and relax.
  • Stay strong and determined – two essential skills.
  • Slow down. There are shortcuts but, if you take them and publish or submit before a novel is well-polished, you may burn a lot of bridges.

Impatience is the intolerance of anything that thwarts or delays us. It’s a wonderful quality in a character. In a writer a lack of patience crimps the prose and taints the voice.

What are you waiting for in your writing life? Are you like patient tea, transforming with multiple infusions of practice and feedback?

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Photo by: Ragne Kabanova

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?

Keep on shovelling

Word count: 442               Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing to do is shovel shit from a sitting position.Stephen King.

This year, like the other years I’ve done NaNoWriMo, the feeling that King described has haunted me on a regular basis. There are times when my story seems mired in cliché and dead ends and I’m tempted to throw it in and work on something else. Then I remind myself of Neil Gaiman’s thoughts on writing: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It's that easy, and that hard. So I get back to work and a little glimmer of light shines through the darkness. For a while it’s easy again: the characters come alive on the screen, I can smell the mountain air, and see the next plot twist clearly. Margaret Atwood is right. A word after a word after a word is power. It’s the power of finishing the first draft, digging up the gems along the way, and the power of pushing through to completion.

The end of my novel is in sight. It’s just around the next corner. As I clear the last hurdle, I’ll keep Robin McKinley’s advice in mind: One of the biggest, and possibly the biggest, obstacle to becoming a writer... is learning to live with the fact that the wonderful story in your head is infinitely better, truer, more moving, more fascinating, more perceptive, than anything you're going to manage to get down on paper. (And if you ever think otherwise, then you've turned into an arrogant self-satisfied prat, and should look for another job or another avocation or another weekend activity.) So you have to learn to live with the fact that you're never going to write well enough. Of course that's what keeps you trying – trying as hard as you can – which is a good thing.” Even after I type ‘The End’ for the first time, I’ll keep working on this novel. I’ll keep trying to improve it, to make sure that the right words follow each other in the best possible order.

What keeps you shovelling when you’d rather do anything than attempt to write? Do you have inspirational quotes taped to the top of your computer screen? Do you bribe yourself with a treat to get through the next 1,000 words? Once you break through a barrier and your characters are really talking to each other, do you work through the night to capture them before they vanish with the rising sun?

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Image by: mspraveen

Oh the places you'll go

Word count: 391                          Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Week One of NaNoWriMo has come and gone. To me this month is always like a wild journey. I think I know where I’m headed when I write my one sentence outline: This is a book about ________ who wants ________ but ___________ gets in the way. But I usually end up somewhere quite different than I first visualize.

This November 1st, I filled in those blanks and launched myself into the work. To help me navigate the course, I armed myself with some ground rules:

  • Do it. Just sit down and write. Or, in the words of Louis L’Amour: The first essential is just to write. You have to turn the faucet on before the water starts to flow.
  • Don’t let perfectionism kill the story. Remind yourself of Natalie’s Goldberg’s golden rule: give yourself permission to write crap.
  • Stay organized. Within reason. This is not the month to tidy the tax file, repaint the living room, or arrange the bookshelves alphabetically according to genre. But it is the month to clear off your desk so that only things that help with the novel catch your eye. Push everything else into a drawer.
  • Remember to laugh. To help you do this, Debbit Ridpath Ohi and Errol Elumir have created a NaNoWriMo cartoon-a-day website.
  • Go to local events. Last week the City of North Vancouver Library hosted five YA writers. These wonderful women gave generously of their time and I was well rewarded for carving out three hours for their workshops. I came back to the keyboard with a better direction and clearer sense of purpose. Thank you, Eileen Cook, Denise Jaden, Catherine Knutsson, Mindi Scott, and Joelle Anthony.
  • Don’t forget the music. My novel is moving to a dystopian kind of place so I’ve had Godspeed You! Black Emperor playing Mladic in the background. It’s music of impending dread, like something dark looming on the horizon. Perfect.
  • Take care of yourself. Do all those boring things like eat well, get enough sleep, and squeeze in a walk around block if you can. It helps to be fit when you’re wrestling demons.

Have you done NaNoWriMo before? What is helping you with it this year? Is the story unfolding according to your plan? Or will your destination be some place you couldn't quite see when you set out?

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Photo by: Bibigon