December 11th, 2016
This site was down for a few days and no one complained outside of my immediate family–not a great sign. So I’m going to work towards a revamp early in 2017 and also try to step up the posting a bit. I’m not sure if that’s akin to offering bigger portions on nicer plates of a food no one is eating, but it’s actually what I want to do, so let’s just see how it goes.
In other, better news, my wonderful agent Samantha Haywood and her co-agent Agata Żabowska have sold Polish rights to my forthcoming novel So Much Love to PRÓSZYŃSKI, and you’ll be able to read the Polish translation in a year or two (I’ll update you). Here’s the deal announcement. I’m so delighted!
If this isn’t immediate enough–or you don’t read Polish–how about a story in French. My short story How to Keep Your Day Job was translated by Miguelina Kroeh from English into French and published online at K1N Litra. If you’d like to read it, it’s here.
I’m feeling quite jazzed–and quite cosmopolitan–about all this!
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!
May 24th, 2016
In the fall of 2000, I started working on a big project called “Homing”, which I occasionally (and for years) retitled “All the Pretty Girls.” I gave up on that still-incomplete novel sometime in 2002, came back in 2004 and chucked a bunch and wrote some more. In 2005 I planned to work on it as my MA thesis andrevised some of the old material for my MA application portfolio and some grant applications, and added some new stuff along the way–including a new title, “The Scenarios.” By the time I needed to properly work on the thesis in fall 2006, though, my focus had shifted to short stories, and that is what the thesis project became–poor old *The Scenarios* went on the back burner.
I revised and edited that thesis to create my first book, *Once*, then went on to write another collection of stories before returning to *The Scenarios* at the beginning of 2011. By this point I had realized short stories worked for me as a structure, and I thought perhaps I could finally write this thing by breaking it up into stories–that would allow me to shift point of view, time period, etc., in a less weird way. And it worked because I was able to finish a draft by early in 2014, having acquired yet another title–*So Much Love*–along the way. I retained a few chapters of what I had written previously, some of which was already shaped as stories and some of which had to be sculpted into that shape. Of course, a lot had to be junked, but some of the old stuff–almost as old as the beginning–remained, albeit re-contextualized and somewhat rewritten.
The book was sold the M&S with the caveat that I would work with an editor to make into a true novel, rather than a novel in stories, as well as substantially increase the page count. Under the guidance of the tireless Anita Chong, I’ve done that–a challenging process. The lesson is, if the inherent form of the thing should be a novel, don’t write it as stories! So now, there’s a number of new chapters and all of the old stories have been reworked (a lot) to becoming chapters…and again, a bunch of stuff got tossed. But there is *still* some of the original material in there going all the way back to 2000 (or close–the memories are a little murky). But less and less–my writing at the time was different, the book was different, my goals for the characters were different, and it’s very hard to make old material fit the new mold.
Thus, this piece below, one of the original bits, is getting cut. If you have read a lot of my work, you might recognize Alan, who shows up in every book I’ve ever written–he’s a favourite, for sure. But he doesn’t really belong in *So Much Love* anymore–he had a major story that was taken out, and now this piece, an intro to his character, doesn’t lead anywhere and is confusing. He’s going to end up with 1 or 2 scenes and the occasional oblique reference and that is all. It’s sad, but it’s what the book needs–which is more important than the sentimental affections I retain for what I wrote 15 years ago.
Anyway, I present to you my darling Alan:
I find Alan, my TA, darting across my driveway as I pull in. The low beams catch the trailing edge of his long coat as he jumps up on the retaining wall by the front door to wait. He’s got his Inspector Gadget trenchcoat cinched tight. He is clutching a package to his chest. As I turn off the ignition, I notice ketchup on my right cuff from the fries I had at lunch. I roll up the cuff, and then the other one to match. I think about putting my face down on the tan, stretched plastic of the horn. Then I get out of the car into the chilly darkness.
Leaning against the hot, clicking hood, I wait for Alan to stroll over to me. If I went to him we’d be too close to the door and I’d have to invite him in. He crosses the driveway briskly; I’m sure he doesn’t want us to end up sipping tapwater in my living room any more than I do. I’m sure Gretta wants that even less.
“Professor Altaris. Hi.”
“Hey, Alan. What brings you by?”
He stops about a foot in front of me. “I brought over the marked essays, sir.” The bundle rests in the crooks of his arms, exposing the pale blue insides of his wrists.
“You didn’t have to do that.”
He shrugs, his narrow shoulders dragging up the hem of his coat a few inches around his shins.
“You could’ve given these to me next week, remember?” Nothing. “Or during the day at my office instead of in a dark driveway like this is a drug deal.” Too much alliteration. I yank the package out of his hands. “What’s the median?”
“It’s all in there, sir. But I think it was about sixty-two or sixty-three.”
“Sixty-two. Alan, we talked about this.”
Another shrug. His face is shaped like a light-bulb and completely expressionless. “The short answer will probably bring it up some.”
I start to argue and then stop. I don’t care. They’ll pass or they’ll fail, and if it’s really important to them, I’m sure the students will be happy to let me know. My shoulders curve inwards.
Alan seems ready to depart—not yet moving but relaxing into his new freedom from marking. I don’t want to interfere with that glee. “We’ll talk about this next week, Alan. In my office. Come up after class, ok?”
March 30th, 2016
In the endless drudgery that is novel-completion, I am very fond of anything that is not novel-completion. Especially things that make me feel writerly without requiring me to, you know, actually write anything. That sort of thing is really the icing on the cake of this whole career choice I’m making…
So getting to talk with a classroom of college students last week about reading and writing (along with my husband Mark Sampson and the wonderful professor (and friend) Nathan Dueck was a joy and delight. So was tagging along with Mark to launch his new poetry book, Weathervane alongside Dorothy Moahoney at the fabled Biblioasis store (it’s a lovely as I’d hoped!)
And so is the prospect of getting to take part in “Burst: New Voices in Canadian Literature” on May 6 as part of the Pages Unbound festival. The wonderful and talented Suzanne Alyssa Andrew and I will be sharing the stage with a bunch of other emerging types, and I’m so excited to meet and hear them. And to read a little myself, too!
Sharing what one has written is the frosting of writing, of course–it has to be, for if you are counting on publishing and ensuring accolades to sustain you emotionally or (heaven help you) financially, you might well starve to death. Writing as well as I possibly can needs to be enough for me because it would be easier to do almost anything else and no one wants to listen to me complain about something I could easily elect not to do. But I like this line: “If someone can talk you out of being a writer, you’re not a writer.” (it’s from this essay by Josh Olson–warnings: snark, swears)
So I write because I’m a writer and if it’s hard it’s my problem because I wanted to tell these stories. Them being written, and available for me to read myself is the sustenence here. But I do really enjoy the icing on the cake, giving the work to others and seeing what they think–so grateful the opportunities to do so that come my way.
Possibly, frosting is on my mind of late, because I was in the States last week (after Windsor it seemed natural to go on to Michigan and see some of the rockstars we know there) and a friend asked me to see if I could find any rainbow-chip frosting. Apparently it used to be available all over North American, then only in the States, and most recently no one could find it anywhere. I googled and found that the frosting had in fact been discontinued and is now coming back. I also found this insane video of a guy who who got 7000 people to sign a petition to bring back the frosting (!!!!) and then, when invited to a party celebrating his success, seemed absolutely terrified.
Anyway, I bought the frosting and my friend was delighted. I bought a tub for myself too and am really looking forward to trying it–can 7000 people be wrong? I can’t find a way to tie this back into the post or the central metaphor, but basically: you take your fun where you can get 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.
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.
May 11th, 2015
Guys, I really do try not to be a snark-head, and this post is not intended that way. It’s just that I read a lot of fiction–stories in journals and magazines, big name novels and collections as well as those from unknowns, plus the literally 100s of fiction-contest entries I’ve judged. From this reading, I have categorized in my head a number of foibles authors of fictions often seem to have. Unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do to fix published work and the people who run contests do not let you call up the non-winning entries and let them know where you think they went wrong. Sometimes I use what I have learned in creative writing classes, but since I am not currently teaching, I have no one to share these insights with. I do want to share–and offer some potential solutions. I’ve stayed away from problems I feel like a lot of writing advice thingums cover–like overusing research and having one-note secondary characters–in favour of stuff I haven’t seen covered too much.
Please (please please) do not assume that I am making this list under any kind of impression that I am a flawless writer. Ahahaha. It’s just that other people’s problems are far easier to spot than one’s own. I am actually writing this post as procrastination against my own writing. Yeah, I’m pathetic, but let me help you!
1) What happened: You started your project with the central character and you did a lot of free writing, character sketching, and thinking to explore who this person is. You feel you know what he or she would wear, think, eat, and imagine every second of most days. When you started writing the story or novel, you were able to write quickly and easily because you were so thoroughly in the shoes of your protagonist, but what you ended up with is very long and rambling, because you kept getting stuck spending pages on how the character feels as s/he, say, walks to the bus stop and realizes the bus is late. All of this minutiae is helpful in learning who this person is and why what happens to him/her matters…and yet people do claim to have been bored while reading.
What went wrong: I ran into this a lot with the young writers I taught in high schools, but you also see it with grownups and even published books. In my humble opinion, what is happening here is mistaking process writing for product writing. Authors often do need to know everything about their characters; readers very rarely do. It can be very useful to free write about your characters’ childhoods in great detail, for example, because that’s going to reverberate through their later lives and a reader will be able to feel it–without there being a word about the actual childhood on the page. It can be very hard, especially for students doing a writing assignment or adults with limited time to believe that they’ve written hundreds or thousands of words for themselves, not for an audience–but that’s often the way we write.
What to do: Sometimes, we just need to write the block of wood, then carve the story sculpture out that. So do it–write about every teacher your character had in grammar school and describe her whole house and all her friends. Then go back through what you’ve written and figure out what the story is about and trim it down so that most of the text is in service of that story. I don’t know your writing process but a random shot: maybe colour coding would help? Running a coloured highlighter down the page beside the text, switching colours when you switch content. Maybe green for dialogue, blue for action, yellow for character introspection. That can help show you schematically where cuts might be needed. You might also need a trusted and literary friend to go through the manuscript and note everything that doesn’t really need to be there.
2) What happened: You wrote a story that circled around a secret–a character’s hidden past, a mysterious crime –without knowing what in fact the secret was. You wanted to experience the mystery along with the characters and when you got to the end you were pleased to come up with a fascinating denouement and the secret has now been revealed to both you and the characters. However, you weren’t able to make the ending 100% line up with what came before–some characters’ actions don’t make sense given what they knew at the time, and other “mysterious” action has no real point at all now. You might have a character who knows the secret truth seemingly lying in interior monologue, or someone acting clearly counter to their own best interests for no real reason.
What went wrong: This is not a failure of writing–writing to find out what the ending is a totally fun thing to do–it’s a failure of editing. Really the first example is, too, but it is much harder to see when you have too much extraneous information–it should be obvious to an author when some information in the book is actually wrong in the face of other info therein. And I feel several really big-deal books were published in the last few years with this sort of thing not yet worked out. I read and read, excited by good writing and an interesting plotline–I was eager to figure out where all the pieces fit and get to the end…and never really figure it out. Apparently no one cares about this sort of thing because I look up the reviews of the books and my issues go unmentioned, but I still think writers should try to fix them.
What do do: Reread your manuscript once you know the ending ad make sure everyone’s actions make sense given what they know and what their goals are even if the reader won’t know these things until the end. You may need to make a chart of who knows what when, and what their goals are, if your plot is particularly complex. Really, this is just an extension of the challenge of writing any long fiction–make sure desires, personality traits, problems, and pleasures play through throughout the book. You can’t make a character who hates ice cream in chapter 3 gobble down a bowl in chapter 7, and you can’t make a character who knows who the murderer is throughout the book have a long internal debate about who might have been the killer.
3) What happened: You based your book or story on real events that happened to you and/or people close to you. Initially you thought that you’d either just tell the story as it happened or, if you got uncomfortable with writing some personal details, lightly fictionalize and make up things to replace what seemed best kept private. It turns out both these strategies are challenging, as more details make you uncomfortable than you thought, plus some people in your life have asked you not to write about them. The fictionalizing isn’t really working out either, as it hard to make things up when you know what really happened–it just feels like lying. So you’re ending up with a lot of holes in your story–big jumps in time and event where you skip over what you don’t want to talk about. You’ve also eliminated a lot of characters at the request of the people who inspired those characters–so it feels like the people who remain in the story live in a sort of social black hole. Yet another problem arises when real events were somewhat convoluted–people showing up even though they weren’t involved, multiple locations for reasons that are irrelevant–and you’re wasting a lot of time trying to explain all this stuff.
What went wrong: A humble guess–you might be too close to the events, emotionally or in time. It’s really useful in a therapeutic sense to write out important or traumatic events in your life when you are close to them, but it’s really hard to do that artistically in a way that a reader can understand and empathize with. It’s tough to walk the line between writing that you have no feeling for and writing that you have so many feelings for that it impedes your process.
What to do: For most writing problems, I would say one solution is to have a wise friend read it over and see what they suggest, but that might not work here if you are very emotionally invested in the work–criticism of plot and characters might come into your brain as criticism of your life and friends/family/self. Waiting is the cure here; eventually you will have some perspective on what is germaine to the story and what you can safely leave out or fictionalize. You need to be able to see what you are writing as something for strangers and work to make it what it needs for them to be affected, involved, empathetic. As long as it’s something you’re writing for yourself, beautiful and important as it may be, it will be hard for others to access. Writing is always a small act of generosity–you are giving a story to your reader. Wait until you have enough emotional strength to be generous to your reader.
That’s all the tips I have for now, anyway–I’m sure there’s loads more ways to solve these problems than what I’ve mentioned, and lots of other problems besides these. What are you seeing in stories and novels that you’d like to fix?
May 5th, 2015
I’ve been reading a lot about writing retreats lately. They just seem so lovely and idyllic–you go somewhere really pretty and fun yet somehow isolated and silent, and you get put up in a nice room just for you and given great meals you don’t have to cook or clean up from. You’re surrounded by people who want the same things as you do–solitude and time to work yet also later on stimulating company and challenging conversations and walks and laughs and snacks. You work so hard and so purely with no distractions that you end up with amazing new pages or spot-on revisions, a raft of new people to put in your acknowledgements and a few extra pounds of gourmet food. And a million good pictures from the gorgeous nature hikes you took every day after you finished work but before the social hour began.
I mean, who wouldn’t want to do that? Except I don’t actually have a life I much need to retreat from. I have a pretty nice home office with a door I can close and window with an interesting view. Besides work and writing, I don’t have a lot of demands on my time–well, no, i have tonnes of them but they’re all discretionary. Hanging out with friends, going to shows, watching Buzzfeed videos all take a bite out of my writing time, but I think I would just find other friends at a writing retreat…and somehow find a wireless connection to watch more Buzzfeed videos. My one non-discretionary obligation: I have a job, yes, but it’s pretty flexible–however, since I’m paid hourly every hour I take away from work to write quite literally costs me money. I try not to be nickel-and-dime about this, but I also try not to waste time…or money. Flying elsewhere at my own expense, taking a travel day and then possible time to settle in, just to get a room of my own when I have such a room already…I can’t really justify it.
I am NOT belittling writing retreats, which sound like they genuinely do simultaneously stimulate and soothe people into producing some amazing work–it’s just not in the cards for me right now, though I would like to go someday. And yet, in the meantime, my apartment is pissing me off lately (constant plumbing issues, some other stuff) and if I stay here I have to do my own cooking and laundry. So then I thought of it: where do I know that is pretty and peaceful, I could get a room of my own for free, and someone would make me lovely meals and have stimulating conversations with me? You’ve read the title of this post so you know what answer I came up with…
It went pretty well, actually! Minimal travel time, low cost, and no settle-in/getting-to-know-everyone time since I lived at my “retreat” for nearly two decades and have known the coordinators my entire life. The food was excellent, the weather was lovely, and there were even some birds singing the apple tree outside my window.
The downside is that I’m probably more eager to chat with my family than with strangers, and they of course have a vested interest in chatting with me. As well, unlike at a real retreat, they weren’t hard at work on their own projects, so whenever I went to get a snack or a drink there was the potential of sitting down and having a 20-minute conversation with an eager participant–a temptation I rarely overcame. I’m also just really comfortable in that house and it was a relief not to be constantly hassled by cats whenever I lay down (not that I didn’t miss them, but…) so I took a number of naps!
So I wasn’t as productive as I’d hoped to be but honestly I never am–this was pretty good for me, actually. I highly recommend the Childhood Bedroom Writing Retreat if your folks have a location and a relationship with you that’s amenable to such things. Or I guess you could also put in an application Chez Rosenblum….
July 22nd, 2014
I have been working on this book a long time–I believe the original idea sparked somewhere in the year 2000 . I know I workshopped some very early ideas with my Concordia friends’ writing group that winter, and have been workshopping and rewriting on and off from this book ever since (about every 3 years, I’d try again). One of the many (many!) joyful things about the book deal is that now I know for sure I will have a place to put my ever-expanding list of acknowledgements. But the weird thing is, so many people have helped me with this book so long ago that they don’t even remember helping me, or in at least one case, who I am (that was an awkward conversation, let me tell you). I think I’ll try not to freak people out with the acknowledgements page–so no one who has potentially forgotten my existence–but I’m still really looking forward to writing it. Gratitude–love it!
After I posted the happy news on Facebook and Twitter yesterday, a few people asked why it would be SO LONG until the book is published–which is the sweetest thing in the world to ask. But the reasons are good ones! First, that’s how publishing rolls these days. To sell books effectively, it’s very hard to just publish things all of the sudden. Substantive edits, copyedits, page design and layout, cover design, composition, proofreading, printing and binding all take time, of course, and when you add in marketing and publicity, even more. It’s better to be later than sooner in order to get it all right. There’s books that come out faster, but mine definitely won’t be one of them…which brings me to reason number two…
SML needs a lot of work. I wrote the best book I could, and a lot of people helped me, and I am very very proud of it. But I knew it needed more, and I knew it was only by working with a really insightful editor that I’d be able to produce it. I am so grateful to Anita for wanting to do this heavy lifting with me, and I definitely want all the time I can get to make the edits and additions to the manuscript work in the best way possible. If it gives you a sense of my perspective, spring 2016 seems crazily SOON to me.
So yeah–that’s the scoop. Book in a couple years, in the meantime lots of work. In case you can’t tell, I’m THRILLED, really just bouncing down the street excited. More on this situation as it develops…
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!