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?


Operation: salvage

Word count: 305                                                   Reading time: 2 mins.

We prepare our fruitcake in September. The ritual goes like this: drown dried fruit in rum, allow alcohol to evaporate, add more rum, repeat several times. Bake, wrap it in layers of cheesecloth, christen with a little more rum, and then store in a cool corner of the basement. Open it once a month to top up the rum level.

This year we seem to have been carried away by Christmas spirit. Literally. When we opened it today, three months later, it was sodden. It buckled under its own weight as we lifted it onto the serving platter. The bottom is more like pudding than cake. Lots of work and lots of waiting – to produce something that looks like a bakery reject.

Sometimes that’s how it feels with writing. Over the past four years I’ve devoted a good chunk of my life to a sweeping novel set in Australia. I work on it, ask for opinions, revise it, and then store it in a cool corner of my laptop to mellow.

I took that novel out again earlier this year but had to admit it’s still a bit of a bakery reject. I can see the cracks in it and its feet are muddy, but the flavour is still rich and spirited. Unlike this cake, my novel can be salvaged. The beauty of writing is that there’s no single point of failure; there’s always an opportunity to revise and improve. I’m going to open the Aussie adventure early in the New Year. I know it’s going to be a little bit stronger than the last time I looked. Watch this space. It may even be ready to submit to the market in 2012.

What’s cooking in your writing kitchen? Is there a rich fruitcake hidden on a pantry shelf?


photo by: Alan Bolitho

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