October 6th, 2016
It has been so long since I had multiple things going on, writing life-wise, I can’t even remember. Years, probably. But this is good stuff, guys, so it was worth the wait:
—Emily Saso’s fascinating new novel The Weather Inside came out in September, and is blurbed by me (and Bradley Somer). If you click on the book link you can even find me being quoted down near the bottom of the page, calling the novel “heartbreaking and hilarious.” So you should probably buy it!
–my short story “How to Keep Your Day Job” (aka the most successful thing I ever wrote) is being included in Room magazine’s 40th anniversary anthology, which is a lovely honour from a lovely magazine, and a thrill to be included with so many other brilliant women (if you click the link you see a partial list). Maybe you should buy that one too?
–I did a short interview with Danila Botha, author of the For All the Men (and Some of the Women) I’ve Known, which you should buy (there may be a theme here. Anyway, the interview was part of Danila’s tenure as writer in residence at Open Book, and I was thrilled to be included. This also constitutes the first press my book has gotten since its deal announcement back in 2014, and it’s really really really exciting and scary. If you’d like to read the interview, it is posted here.
See, I told you–excitement!
February 27th, 2016
There’s definitely people in the literary community who would crucify me for saying this, but I sometimes describe writing as a lucrative hobby rather than a job. I do this not because I think writers should not be paid for their work–I absolutely do–but just for personal morale purposes. If you line up writing income beside other jobs, like bank teller or physiotherapist, and compare incomes, you’re going to feel really really bad about writing. Whereas if you make the comparison instead to other hobbies, you feel like you’re coming out ahead. Knitters I know spend hundreds of dollars on wool, needles, and patterns and what do they end up with–some sweaters. Skiers are constantly buying clothes and equipment and paying for travel, and they don’t even get a product. Whereas all I need is the laptop I would own anyway, an internet connection, and a few pens–and I’m well on my way to writing the stories I love, and maybe, sometimes, as few bucks. It’s a cheering way of thinking about it–I assume the skiers, knitters, and I all have fun, but my fun is the cheapest, and the only one that’ll put the fun-haver occasionally in the black.
That said, there are a lot of products and services targeted at writers for a hefty cost. Many of these are fun, some of them are helpful, none–beyond a decent dictionary and the aforementioned computer–are really necessary. There’s always a way round, and I would encourage anyone who is worried not to feel pressured into paying money for something just to feel more “writerly.” If you want something because you think it would bring you joy or convenience or be helpful in your work and you can afford it, great–go for it–but assume that buying writer stuff is the same as any other capitalist transaction: once the money is spent, it’s gone. The worry I have is when folks tell me they’re going to spend x on a thing for writers that is guaranteed to pay for itself when they sell their movie option or whatever. Don’t do that–those things might not be scams, but there’s no such thing as a guaranteed return on investment in this crazy game called literature.
That said, I am finally finally nearly finished with my novel, and there are few things I’m going to buy my writer self as a reward. These things are fun for me and also, I hope, a bit helpful for the book–but if it turns out that they aren’t that helpful, ok, I’ll get some joy out of them and write off the money. I’ll put my hoped-for treats at the bottom of this list, after all the other ones I’m aware of.
Writing classes: So fun and valuable to me–I’ve taken half a dozen as an adult and learned a tonne. I’ve also met some wonderful other writers who are my workshop-friends now. I no longer take classes, but we still work together and offer each other feedback on our work, so what I got out of those initial, expensive classes was the ability to create free classes of my own. It was also a real blessing to just get out in the world with my stories and have people start to read them in a very supportive environment. While I no longer do these, writing classes were a really valuable first step when I needed them.
Books: This one is so obvious I almost didn’t put it on the list. Buy as many books as you can afford. When you run out of money, head for the library or borrow from a friend, but it’s really great to own the books you love best, so you can consult them or just reread for pleasure whenever you need a hit of high-quality literature. Buying books is also a good way to meet authors you admire, because everyone likes to be asked to sign their books (people who say they don’t are LYING).
Fancy notebooks and pens: I never buy these because I get them as gifts so often, but they are nice to have. I’m much less of a longhand writer than I once was, but I do like to have books to take notes in at meetings and workshops, and good fast-running pens. True confession: sometimes I use my nice stationary at my job instead, but it still makes me happy.
Manuscript evaluations and other editorial services: In general, I would recommend the first option on this list over this one–teach a man to fish and so forth. But some people learn better one-on-one, and some have issues with a particular manuscript rather than the craft of writing as a whole, and in those cases it does make sense to seek out a professional consultation and see if the editor can help you. My only advice would be to get a recommendation on this–there’s tonnes of people doing this kind of work in a variety of ways, so you want to find someone you can trust–and then consult on exactly what you need and can afford. Real, thoughtful substantive editing on a full manuscript is a huge job, something that often takes writers by surprise (though I don’t know why, considering how hard it is to write the damn thing in the first place) and can rightly be very expensive. A manuscript evaluation–an editor reads through your book and sends a few pages of notes on what’s working and what isn’t, but mainly leaves the how-to-fix up to you–can be a lot cheaper and still really insightful. If you want to go this route but are stumped at finding someone, hit me up–definitely don’t do this via google.
Writers’ retreats: Oh, my goodness, I want to do one of these. These are basically fun little summer camps for writers–you get food and a place to stay in (usually) a very pretty or interesting setting. There are other writers around to talk to in the evenings, and really nothing else to do but write during the day. How perfect does that sound? However, these are typically very expensive, and I don’t have a good justification for taking one. If I want to spend a week writing, I just take the week off from my job, sacrificing that income, and go write in my home office. To pay to write in a nicer place, while desirable, would be hard for me financially on top of the lost income from not being at work, and I really don’t have a hectic enough home life to justify it. BUT I WANT TO. If you do this, let me know how it goes–and send pictures! EDIT: Lovely Julia pointed out to me that there are fully funded residencies in the states, and even some that make up your income while you’re there. Obviously, I’m not too conversant in this stuff, but definitely I should be looking into it!)
Professional website design: I did this one–you’re looking at it! I love Rose-coloured and I spend a lot of time on it, so it sense for me to have a pretty, personal design that suits me and my work and accommodates the things I want to share in the ways I want to share them. I’ll go back to the designer (www.createmethis.com) for site refresh for the new book, and this is one of the aforementioned treats that I’m really looking forward to. It’ll be fun to have the site look different after half a dozen years of pink and the subway map. That said, I don’t think anyone needs to do this–you more or less do need a site of some kind, so that people can easily find you bio, events, and publications all in one spot, but you can totally do that with Blogspot or WordPress.com or any of the others free or cheap self-design sites. It can make you feel lovely and professional to have a lovely professional site, but it is totally a treat (can’t wait!)
Headshots: This is the other thing I’m going to do soonish in support of the new book/because I want to. I was pretty much told I had to get professional head shots for my first book, and though that turned out not to be true, I loved doing it. Professional photographers are so cool and interesting, and so different from writers, and it’s fun to spend a few hours trying to look like a real writer. Not to mention stage-managing the shoot so that the mood suits the book, maybe buying new clothes or whatever. Totally vanity, but if you’ve spent a few years in your sweatpants writing a goddamn novel, you are entitled to a little vanity. Or so I believe. Anyway, if you don’t want to go this route, it is fine, but you should still put a little thought into it. Basically, don’t take a cellphone selfie and call it a day. Try to find a friend who has a nice camera and takes photography at least a little seriously (easy way to tell: ask your publisher to send you the specs of what they need in a photo, then ask the friend if they understand those specs–if yes, they’ve got the gig) and ask them to take the pic in exchange for dinner or something like that. Spend some time thinking about how you want to look and where you want to be in the photo, and ask the friend to take a whole bunch of shots so you have options. Then go to a nice restaurant.
There are so many more treats you could buy your writing self: business cards, specialize software, fancy writing hat (ok, that last one is not a thing, I don’t think). There’s also stuff I know nothing about, like the services of a professional publicist to promote your book. Sounds legit to me, but I know no one who has done it, so I can’t offer any advice. And there’s probably lots more that I’m not even thinking of.
So basically, write your book, do your drudgery, put in the long exhausting hours, and then buy yourself a treat or two. You’ve earned it.
October 13th, 2015
One of my favourite things these days is getting to do guest blogs for other writers. It’s such a great change from the novel, and really satisfying to get something written, edited, and out into the world *quickly*, which is not the path the novel is on. I did a bit on writers helping writers for Ottawa Poetry a while back, and now this week, a piece on confidence for Emily Saso‘s lovely blog Ego Burn.
Emily’s confidence series is really interesting, both because it’s something we all grapple with and because I’ve never really thought about it from quite this angle. How confident am I? How do I find the will to keep going when I haven’t written anything good in ages and/or no one cares? Is that confidence, or bloody-mindedness or habit or what? In addition to my piece, there’s a fascinating take from Erin Bedford already on the blog and more to come. I’m really looking forward to the whole series.
October 7th, 2015
I think I wrote this…in the spring, maybe? And then thought I couldn’t use it. Now I realize I maybe could, so I went back to the file and for once in this depressing year, was kind of jazzed by something I’d written. I need to do a lot more with it to suit the context and I think some of my favourite bits of the scene may be lost in the edits, so I thought I’d put it here, just as it is, before I start that process. I don’t think any explanation is required–it’s just a moment. I hope you like it–I do!
Kevin was steadfastly staring at the small window perched high in the cinderblock wall, set deep enough you couldn’t really see out, just a small bar of sky. Deirdre was petting Monica’s hair and talking about legato. I went over to Lars at the snack table. He had an entire Nanaimo bar in his mouth, standing motionless in front of the platter holding several dozen more.
“I think that might’ve been too big a bite, buddy,” I told him.
His lips bulged; his eyes were agonized. “Murf,” he said.
“Oh, buddy.” I knelt in front of him. “Can you chew?”
He started to shake his head, then stopped and I saw a ginger motion of the jaw muscle and heard, almost immediately, a weak and high-pitched retching sound.
“Eh, just stop for a sec—um…” I stood up and grabbed his arm, then half-crouched again. I didn’t want to be seen aggressively hauling a groin-high kid across a church basement. We staggered slowly towards the door to the parking lot, his face turning greyish.
Out in the snow without our coats, I felt damp before the cold hit me. I guided him up the wet stone steps to ground level, then over to a snow-covered bush. “Ok, let ‘er rip.”
It was amazingly gross—the yellow cream in the middle had mixed enough with the chocolate enough that most of what fell into the show was a beige-streaked and it had of course semi-disintegrated in the warmth and salvia, even though he hadn’t been able to chew. What a tragedy—Lars loved Nanaimos more than anything, even ants or Pokémon.
He was coughing and spitting a bit, as though he’d actually vomited, so I gave him some back slaps and rubs, just to remind him I was there for him. Then he abruptly plonked down in the snow next to the mess and began to cry.
It was around then that I most felt the wind through my restrained dress shirt and remembered that it was February. Of course, to a good uncle physical discomfort means nothing, so I knelt beside him and pulled his head into my chest, feeling the snow swamp the knees of my good cords.
By the time I got the kid back inside, wet and shivering and with an unfortunate wash of brown down the middle of his shirt, Deirdre and Kevin were standing by the door, making angry hissing whispers at each other. It was one of those moments, and there were getting to be a lot of these, when I glanced at my watch and counted the hours until I could go to work.
September 9th, 2015
I wrote a little advice-y blog post for rob mcclennan’s Ottawa Poetry blog on Ways to Help a Fellow Writer with His/Her Work. It’s an area I know well, having been giving and receiving criticism from my peers since 1997, and hopefully some of this is helpful. It was fun to write, anyway.
July 15th, 2014
I have done very few things for an entire decade–other than be friends with a short (though ever-growing) list of excellent humans, practically nothing as an adult. This is not because of a restless, nomadic disposition (if you know me, you know that’s pretty laughable) but simply because I took a while to find my groove. I think I have found it at last, and I really hope that a lot of what I’m doing now (career, cats, marriage) will last me a lifetime.
But before any of that, there was this little writing group. In the spring of 2004, Andrew Pyper’s short story class wrapped up and four of us decided to try meeting on our own and see what happened. We never specifically decided to be a foursome, and indeed some other members have been invited a time or two, and might yet again, but we’ve always mainly just been us.
Writing groups, as you likely know, are hard–they require the time commitment of not only showing up but reading beforehand, thoughtfully and articulately, and writing down your thoughts in some fashion. Anyone who has ever been in a workshop class, where that sort of attendance and participation is enforced, knows how heartbreaking it is to see someone flipping frantically through your story two minutes before class starts–clearly, they haven’t put much thought into it or made the workshop a high priority. So through the evolution of our group, to have those guys put the time in on every story, year after year, is an incredible gift, one I try to reciprocate at every meeting.
It’s not like we’ve not been doing anything else. Ten years as brought us, as a collective, two masters degrees, three children, and a husband, along with a couple home purchases, job changes, and pet acquisitions. Oh, and a move to the west coast–for two years we met as a threesome, with emails and holiday visits to break it up–until our wandering member completed her degree and returned to us. It was if she’d never left. We have, to put it mildly, kept the faith.
These folks have of course, over the years, become friends–we couldn’t do this kind of work together for so long (and do it over dinner parties, no less) if we weren’t compatible sorts of people. I am interested in their lives and adventures, and they have supported me in mine. But it is kind of nice that we started *first* as colleagues, as fellow-writers. There’s lots of time to talk to other writers in the “writing community”–lots of weird networking/socializing hybrid time. I have no problem with this–this community has given me lots of gentle, lightweight friendships, people I’d rush across a crowded party for, though perhaps not call from jail.
But the people you trust with the stories are a different kind of people–that kind of respect for their judgement and sensibility does not come lightly to me, nor I think to them. I’m really truly grateful to have my little group–we never came up with a name–because it’s made me a better reader and a better writer. The opportunity to see such a long arc of creative growth in these folks has been immeasurably instructive, not to mention fun. We are all so much BETTER as writers than we were ten years ago.
I have a number of awesome reading and writing friends outside the group–true literary colleagues, not the party kind–but this collective its own special thing, and it deserves a sincere happy birthday.
June 8th, 2014
There are a few little writing Q&As that roam the blogoverse. Like the frosh questionnaire, they sometimes come around more than once, but usually with enough space in between that my answers have totally changed in the meantime. I actually don’t think I’ve seen this exact one before, so even better. The “blog tour” is coming to me courtesy of my very talented friend, the writer/birder/teacher Julia Zarankin. She’s lovely and her answers to these questions are really wise and interesting–go read (the rest of her blog is also delightful–it’s about birds for the most part, but in a way totally approachable and entertaining to the non-birder). And now here’s my version–less wise than Julia’s, but hopefully still a little interesting…
What am I working on?
A new book! I finished the old one at the beginning of this year, and despite going back to it a couple times for revisions, and knowing that if I should be so lucky as to publish it a substantive edit is still ahead, I have plunged gleefully into a new on. The “finished” book was extremely challenging and dark, particularly at the end–I won’t say it ruined fall 2013 for me, but it certainly made it a grimmer season. Through that, I kept imagining a nice new project where nothing had gone wrong yet, where I didn’t fully know what would happen and the characters were waiting to be explored. Of course, doing that is significantly harder than thinking about it, but I am still enjoying this new, fresh writing with no expectations and no boundaries.
How does my work different from others’ in this genre?
Well, I don’t know that it does–I work hard a being good, but not necessarily at being unique. I figure that just comes with being myself and not being able to really disguise that fact or write in anyone else’s style. I’m actually a pretty conformist person and when I can be like everyone else, I usually will do so. Writing, though, I’m pretty much stuck with myself. I’m ok with that. So I suppose the short answer is that the way my work differs from other people’s is that it is written by me.
Why do I write what I do?
In terms of content, I write about the stuff that interests me. Writing fiction is a strangely useful way to figure out stuff in life that I don’t understand–when I don’t understand why people are behaving the way they are, sometimes I can write my way into their shoes. Who knows if I ever get it right, but I do acquire empathy for their ways of being and acting, and that’s really useful. I write short stories because that is what I am good at. I have been congratulated before at not abandoning my allegedly less-saleable stories in order to write allegedly more-saleable novels. But that is like congratulating me for not selling out to play with the NBA. I don’t know how to write a novel (or poetry or plays for that matter). I still have a lot to learn about stories, too, but I feel like I do know the form a bit, and how to most usefully work with it. That experience is hard won and it allows me to–sometimes–write something a reader can actually connect with. I may eventually be ready to start over in another form, but for now I’ll keep pushing stories to see how far they go.
How does my writing process work?
Whenever I have time–twenty minutes, two hours, a day–I open my computer and scroll through my current project until I get to the spot I was at last time, and then I try to keep going. I get distracted by everything, and rarely have a tonne of time to work, but bit by bit I get a draft. When it’s done, or at least has reached what feels like an endpoint, I go back to the top and read it through–changing obvious issues when I can. I try to go faster this time so I can hold the whole thing in my head at once. It’s usually only on the third time through that I start making big structural changes and finally feel like it’s actually a coherent story another human could read and understand. Another time through for line edits and then I’ll ask the aforementioned other humans for feedback. Then I’ll take the feedback that rings true, revise the piece yet again, and submit it for publication. If it gets rejected and the rejection comes with useful feedback–or doesn’t, but I’ve thought of some one my own in the meantime–I’ll revise it another time. Oh, and if there’s research to be done, it gets done whenever I get a chance. Easy stuff I can google or call a friend about happens mid-writing; trickier stuff that requires interviews or trips usually gets slotted in after the bulk of the writing is done. Sad but true.
This is meant to be a tour and I’m to pass on the baton at the end of this, but it seems I have fewer actively blogging friends than I used to, and those I do know have pretty specific content that they like to include most of the time. So I’m just going to leave this open to whomever wishes to try it out–but if you do take up the baton, be sure to let me know (if you don’t mind) so I can read your answers!
May 7th, 2013
The Windsor Review‘s Best Writers under 35 edition came in the mail yesterday, looking lovely and including lots of great folks, as well as yours truly. Please keep in mind that it’s an impressionistic “best” and also that I will turn 35 in 16 days (making me, I’m pretty sure, the oldest writer in the collection) but also that this’ll be a great read. I’m definitely flattered to be included with the likes of Souvankham Thammavongsa, Spencer Gordon, and Andrew MacDonald, among many awesome others. The whole show is curated by the lovely Jenny Sampirisi. On newsstands now, I believe…
September 3rd, 2012
So it turns out Andrew Hood has a blog. Did you know that? I didn’t know that until this week, despite the fact that there seem to be posts on there going back a couple years. Why don’t people tell me stuff?
Anyway, as with most fiction writers I admire who bother to blog, Mr. Hood blogs pretty well. And he wrote this post that pretty much encapsulates everything that’s wrong with my life right now (except quiche-related issues, which he doesn’t cover). You’ll have to strike out most of the history, as I have never done most of the things Andrew has, and nearly all the swearing, but what remains is super-true. I advise reading the whole post, but here’s the crushingly accurate kicker:
“Failing’s the worst, but it’s the only result that I can ever count on. Every fucking day I sit down and fail fucking miserably. I did this in my basement years ago, with late night softcore on mute. And I failed big time in university, though never as bad as the fuckfaces who were convinced the drivel they’d managed was tops. And when I got a fulltime job, my failure was contained to the pockets of free time I managed. So I suppose writing’s always been easy, but it’s the failure that’s gotten difficult. Somehow I’ve found myself in a place where I say that writing’s what I do and is a thing I’m supposed to be good at. So when, out of sight, I spend a day producing plodding, trite dreck, the consequences of that failure feels more severe, intractable, fucking absolute.”
August 28th, 2012
I wanted to see Ruby Sparks because it looked like a sweet comedy and I have low standards for films: if I can laugh along with strangers in a darkened auditorium, I’m basically always in. Even better, this sweet comedy was about fiction writing–it practically counted as professional development. Super-in.
Surprise, surprise–Ruby Sparks is way *better* than I expected. While I’ll watch almost anything, this film actually has genuine emotions, and is a genuine reflection of not only writers but the whole messed-up romantic comedy genre. RS isn’t a work of genius or anything, but it’s a pretty great movie for a Friday afternoon.
Less of a surprise is that this film has tonnes in common with Stranger than Fiction from 2006. Both movies are about characters who are helpless pawns of an author who writes them any which way s/he pleases, despite the characters having fully developed personalities and desires of their own. In both films, the author/character conflict stands in the way of romance. In StF, the story was told from the character’s point of view–a buttoned down, grimacing Will Ferrel in my favourite of his performances. In RS, the story belongs to the writer in both senses–Paul Dano stars as Calvin, the hotshot young novelist who can’t his personal life together. Sound familiar? He’s no Emma Thompson, who played the neurotic writer in StF, but he does the job pretty well. His sensible sidekick is his brother, played by Chris Messina, and I really enjoyed the realistically funny depcition of their relationship. However, Messina, one hardly needs to add, is no Queen Latifah, who played Thompson’s sidekick/assistant in StF.
That’s about where the comparisons end, though. The character Calvin creates is not just the protagnoist in a book but the girl of his dreams–Ruby Sparks, as played by Zoe Kazan. Kazan also wrote the screenplay, which caused me to meditate a little on the personality type that would write a film about a dreamgirl, then cast herself. It works, but I still wondered.
So Calvin writes about a girl he would love to have, and then she materializes in his kitchen. After a brief and funny freakout, he gets on with his now-perfect life of love and meatloaf with lovely Ruby Sparks. Except…
Before this all went down, his brother read the novel draft and pronounced Ruby Sparks a fantasy, not a girl–created to fill a need of the mind, not to be real and weird and difficult the way actual women actually are. And this is the problem with most romantic comedies–people don’t have real flaws, they have “quirks” that make them adorable, and which they aren’t really responsible for anyway. Because they are so darn quirky!
I get it–I love this sort of fakey-fake romantic comedy too. Who wants to see Reese Witherspoon actually behaving badly, and actually having to deal with it. I mean, maybe you would, but that’d be a whole other category of movie.
Or maybe not. *Ruby Sparks* somehow allows the viewer to slowly and gently probe the depths of Calvin’s fucked-up-ness. A visit to his parents, played by Annette Benning and Antonio Banderas (*very* funny) starts out as your typical “wacky parents” schtick, but gradually we see that they’re basically nice people with a little surface wackiness, and Calvin treats them rather badly. There’s also a nice scene late in the film where the dynamic with Calvin’s “awful” ex-girlfriend is revealed to be rather more complex than first expected.
This is not to say that Calvin is cast as the villian, or even an unlikeable guy. It’s just that he has some real-person flaws, unlike the usual rom-com fake-flaws-that-are-actually-other-people’s-faults, like fear of committment and trouble discussing feelings. Calvin is a control freak and unwilling to explore other people’s lives or personalities outside of the narrow confines in which he has placed them. These are flaws that many writers have to struggle against–written characters stay so beautifully still and passive in a way that humans just *won’t*. It’s frustrating.
That’s why Calvin’s betrayal of Ruby towards the end of the film is so gut-wrenching. While every rom-com has some kind of betrayal to drive the lovers briefly apart and create a crisis in the narrative, most of them involve crazy misunderstandings, things done while drunk or upset that don’t really mean anything, or any of a number of other constructs designed to keep viewers from liking the characters any less.
Calvin’s betrayal of Ruby is genuine, and genuinely horrible–even though the scene is based on silly magic, the emotion in it made me cringe like when I overhear couples arguing in restaurants. Calvin’s actions aren’t a mistake and he can’t take them back–they arise out deep and genuine flaws in his personality. I hated him in the moment, but I also totally got his motivations.
It’s not all as dark as this–there’s a hopeful ending that actually doesn’t make too much sense even by the magical laws that governed the rest of the film but, eh, I liked the spirit of it and the movie was over then anyway. This movie was far funner and sweeter than I thought it would be, and more of both than anything else in the category I’ve seen in ages. And it gives you some insight into the ways writers are screwed up, if that interests you. Highly recommended!!