Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
How many times are writers, especially beginner writers, told to write what they know? And in the face of that advice we routinely write about people we’ve never met, occupations we’ve never worked, or countries and even whole worlds that we’ve never visited. So even though we’re no strangers to the fantastical, how come it’s so difficult to make sure that something as basic as a conversation between two people doesn’t sound like a couple of aliens wearing people suits doing a poor job of trying to blend in?
If you’re looking for sage advice from a master of realistic punchy dialogue, you’ve taken a bad turn somewhere and ended up on the wrong side of the tracks. If, however, you’re looking for the musings of a kindred spirit who seems to completely forget what human beings actually sound like whenever you pick up a pen, you might just be in the right place. Dialogue has never been my forte. In fact, it is pretty much the opposite of a forte. It’s like an Achilles heel, if Achilles had no heel and just hobbled around on one foot.
Given that the initial bar had been set so low, it’s also an area of my writing that has seen a lot of improvement over the years. I think what would help here is to demonstrate some of that journey through excerpts of my old writing. I want to start doing that more and more here – sharing my very outdated writing – because through a little bit of self-deprecation, I think it might be encouraging for others to see that no matter where you start out, there’s always the possibility of improvement.
Let’s dig all the way back to high school for an egregious example, where a character is introducing a new student in town to their clique of friends:
“This is our world, Mikha; you are the newbie. We were a unit five: Billy, Harbir, Riley, Jonathan and I. Now all that has changed and we need to expand. We are now a unit of six. Mikha, welcome to the fold. I’m pretty sure you’ll find your place here very quickly. Good luck!”
If you didn’t cry while reading this, then you’re made of sturdier stuff than me. I think the most egregious part of this, was this story was based on my school and my friends, and I am the speaker in this piece. Let me assure you that I, nor any other sane individual, have ever uttered anything resembling these words. Just look at the drama of “this is our world” and “welcome to the fold”, the ludicrous exposition of “we are a unit of five”, the needless reminder that the character is a “newbie”.
Now let us take a look at following atrocity – an attempt at some serious drama between a husband and wife from around the same period of my life:
Believe it or not, it was difficult to pick out the most cringe-worthy excerpt in this chapter that showcases Jason, the most annoying character that I ever created. The biggest sin of this particular piece of dialogue is the “I need to show a character’s personality and I will burn cities to get there faster” trope. Look how unreasonable Carla is – “shouting” and “complaining”. Look at her completely ludicrous statements about soccer, her weird insertion of “therefore” and lack of contraction in “you are”. Nobody talks like this, except when they’re written by a stupid male teenager going “hurr durr, bad wife”. This is dialogue that has become completely subservient to the plot, and Jason’s three hastily tied-together clauses in his second line of dialogue really seals that.
I would also note that there’s four dialogue tags that aren’t the word ‘said’ – editorializing the speech instead of letting it flow.
While we’re on the theme of couples arguing, let’s fast forward a few years into my college days, with an excerpt from a screenplay I had written:
This doesn’t quite make my stomach turn in the same way but the dialogue is still ridiculously stiff. Cali’s first line is a bit of an edgy eye-roll, and the “so why be pissed” line just doesn’t sound like something a person would say and would be better off as “So why are you pissed?” or “so why insist on being pissed?” But even if we change it to that, it’s still a bit of a non-sequitur for Cali’s line – just because you like someone, doesn’t mean you won’t be mad at them for any reason. Of course, reading the whole exchange together you can see why I had tried to beat this dialogue into submission – its entire purpose was to lead to that final line, which, again, is some serious edgelord shit.
Now, since we’ve already established a theme, let’s fast forward an entire decade to a story I finished a couple of years ago, where a young couple is arguing over their future, and where they ought to live:
Wanting to use this in the context of showing improvement in my writing makes me have a particularly critical eye to this bit of dialogue as well. I’m still not the biggest fan of that first line – it’s a bit on the nose but doesn’t sound entirely unnatural. And I’m not sure how evident it is, but there was a definite intention to lead the whole conversation down to that final line, where the male narrator says something he immediately regrets. But let’s see what’s improved. Firstly, for you, who has no context for this story, the lack of dialogue tags probably immediately jumps out. I use them sparingly now especially where a lively conversation jumps between people as it does between these two. And the dialogue comes at you more in clauses rather than full long sentences, which does a better job of replicating how people actually talk.
I think even while fairly critiquing this last example, concessions can be made that my dialogue writing has shown vast improvement over the fifteen or so years represented here. There’s a few things I’ve gotten in the habit of doing to improve, and I wanted to share these here.
One technique that I frequently use, which is endorsed by one of my creative idols, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and that is assuming the identity of your characters and having a conversation with yourself. This might mean having to dig in and channel any drops of thespian blood you might have, so that you can actually inhabit the characters and give justice to their voice. Because let’s face it, I don’t know about you, but I’d rather visit the dentist than have to read a whole book where it’s just basically five copies of me talking to each other.
I often hear the advice that reading your work aloud is the best form of editing – allowing you to easily pick up typos and awkward sentences. While I often skip over this, given that I edit in places where I can’t be freely talking to myself, I want to stress that nowhere is this more important than dialogue. It makes sense, given that the words in the story are spoken out loud, and so the best test of them would be to actually listen to them. You don’t know how many times something looked passable on paper and then when I say it I realize no one would structure a sentence like this in natural speech.
Often we’re tempted to have one punchy line that sounds really good in isolation, but in order to not feel forced, it needs to naturally follow a previous line of dialogue. So then I would structure that line to serve the “oomph” line and move on. And then as I reread, I realize how obvious it is that the preceding line of dialogue is only there to serve the next line. Conversations in fiction are meant to give the reader a sense of looking into a room and actually watching people talk. It shouldn’t serve as a jarring reminder that there’s an author in the background pulling the strings. That is not to say that leading to a punchy line should be avoided entirely, but great care should be taken to lead the reader to that line, and not drag them by their ear to it.
In contrast, another thing I’m finding is that sometimes too natural can be just as off-putting. When we talk, we use crutch words, such as “like”, “well”, “you know” and so on. I find that having to many of these also interferes with the flow of words on the page. So a little compromise is necessary to really deliver a memorable product.
I think I still have a long road of improvement ahead of me, but it’s nice to turn around and reflect on the journey that’s been taken so far, and some of the various techniques that have taken me there. Hopefully you can incorporate some of these into your writing to see improvements in this area as well.
As mentioned in my previous entry, I wanted to start each year with a review of what I had written and what I had read in the previous year. Reading is essential to writing in the same way as eating is essential to living – it’s the kindling that goes into your head to start the fire of your own creativity. So I think as a writer it’s important for me to share not only what I read, but also describe ways in which it may have influenced me or helped me grow as a writer. Please don’t take this list as commentary on any books that don’t appear on it – as more likely than not, I simply had not read them.
Percy Jackson by Rick Riordan. I know I’m a little late to the party on this, but for this entry, I’m not talking about the best books of 2019, but rather, the best of what I read in 2019. One of the great things about having kids is being introduced to a fantastic world of children’s literature, and so the most fun I had reading this year were the first three books out of the Percy Jackson pentalogy. My wife picked this up for our eldest son earlier in the year and he was hooked. Between the non-stop monster appearance and the Greek mythology, it was everything his five-year-old mind wanted, and honestly my thirty-two-year-old mind was pretty impressed as well. I would recommend this for anyone who’s looking for a light entertaining read with lots of action and fun twists. I’ve gobbled up the first three novels of the series, and taking it slow with the other two, since my kid is still going through the fourth one. It encouraged me to also venture out into other books that are generally deemed to be for a younger audience, which has been very important in broadening my horizons.
Mortal Engines: Book 1 by Philip Reeve. Sometimes the core of worldbuilding is intricately constructed societies with attributes that subtly influence the plot in unexpected ways and often mirror our own world’s issues in a way that provides not too in-your-face commentary. And sometimes you have frickin' cities zooming around on wheels across a post-apocalyptic wasteland and eating each other. Whatever went into cooking up the core concept for Mortal Engines, I want some of that. I audiobooked this one and was treated to some hammy, but very appropriate narration from Barnaby Edwards. One particular thing about this book that I respect is that it did not pull any punches, and though it had dark tones throughout, not quite sure I was prepared for how this one wrapped up. Will likely steer clear of the movie because I hear it’s a stinker. Ditto goes for Percy Jackson, though curiosity may just kill the cat on that one.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. This was basically the “it” book for a while, and for good reason. Though fictional, the story it tells might as well be looked at as factual, given the similarity it shares with countless incidents that happen in the United States and around the world. The use of first person present tense not only pulled me into the narrative but also gave me all the ammunition I need against anyone who claims that using present tense is doomed to fail. It allows the reader to walk a mile in the narrator’s shoes in a more intimate way, and while for many, the feelings it is meant to illicit are all-too familiar, for many others, myself included, it is meant to open eyes. Sure, for a lot of people who would benefit from a story like this, inherent biases will prevent them from picking it up, but the book’s existence alone, not to mention the powerful cultural impact it has already had, shows us the sustained power of novels in our society. A story that needs to be told, and a story that ought to change the world, no matter how uncomfortable it makes one feel about one’s privilege.
The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller. I picked this book up as part of my goal to sample the works of all Nobel Prize winners. Sometimes a pretentious-seeming exercise that occasional yields books I’m glad I picked up (see last year’s winner of That Was Fun but Let’s Not Do This Again). I’ve read a few novels about the horrors of the Holocaust, and a few novels that highlight the terror of the Gulags, but this work by a German author brought those two topics together for me. The protagonist is an ethnic German civilian living in Romania, who gets scooped up by the Soviet advance and is forcibly sent to a work camp in order to rebuild Soviet infrastructure destroyed in the war. As someone who had grown up in Russia, where WWII movies were a staple of daytime TV, to the point where something inside me still flinches whenever I hear German shouting, a small sinister part of me was tempted to revel in vengeance. A sort of “How do you like it now? At least your captors saw your death as a byproduct of their goals, not a goal unto itself.” Of course, every time this thought would rear its ugly head I’d smack it down. The German in question had nothing to do with any of the atrocities committed, yet is thrown into one of the most brutal prison systems known to history, where friends and acquaintances perish on a daily basis, and where the hunger angel rules as despot. Everything about this is fucked up, and was a system by which my immediate forebears benefited. If that doesn’t make one uncomfortable, nothing will.
Becoming by Michele Obama. I am a sucker for self-narrated autobiographies and when that autobiography is by one of the most influential people of the decade, then this is something I can hardly pass up. I don’t follow American politics all that closely, but certainly maintain some exposure through news and the occasional meme whose origins I’m forced to look up. So purely from a curiosity aspect, seeing this influential presidency from an inside perspective was a learning experience. But what was far more significant for what it revealed about that part of the iceberg that lies brooding underneath the water. It demonstrated how the resolve of even a strong person like Obama is tested time and time again not only by the absurdity of the political machine by the racism and the misogyny baked directly into every aspect of our system. Ultimately, I find that this book is about strength; of will, of family bonds, of belief in oneself and one’s country, and should serve as inspiration to anyone who reads it.
An Unhinging of Wings by Margo Button. I found this collection of poetry as a recommendation in another book I read and it wrecked me, as it chronicles a mother’s struggles with her son’s schizophrenia, an illness that would eventually claim his life. This short collection is a tender work of absolute heartbreak – a mother’s ode to a son that had been taken from her. I’m not much of a poetry person, as most of it seems to go over my head, but this aimed directly at the heart – even now just thinking back on it I’m getting choked up a bit. It is a portrait of coping, of grief, an utterly private moment that was shared with the world, and I’m thankful to have had the privilege to read it.
Thanks but Let’s Not Do This Again
The God of Small Things by Arudhati Roy. First off, this was a fantastic book, as it’s Booker Prize win in 1997 would attest, but for some superficial reasons, it was a challenge for me to finish. The rich narrative that sometimes freely moves between time periods often slipped through my fingers, forcing me to sometimes reread whole paragraphs as I better understood their context. Same goes for the characters who are often introduced without much fanfare, and only pages later did I figure out where in the overall context they fit. Not to mention that the difficult scenes in this book make it really difficult to stomach, and this, along with Wide Sargasso Sea are the two books this year that forced me to put them down while my rage processed the actions of a particular character. In the end, I was glad I had read this book, but the lingering heaviness was difficult to shake off, and I’d rather not go through the profound sadness, discomfort and anger that it induces.
Best Book of 2019
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. I hadn’t picked up anything by Atwood since I finished Maddaddam – the third book in her Maddaddam trilogy, and while it was good, it didn’t quite measure up to the series’ originator, Oryx and Crake, which is probably one of the most influential books I’d read. I had also raid the Handmaid’s Tale when I was younger, and possibly didn’t appreciate it as well as I could at the time. But boy did this one just blow me away both in terms of its writing style and its content. Atwood masterfully puts together an artful writing style that never descends into pretentiousness, which I find is often the sin of authors who take themselves too seriously. Instead, it’s crisp and punchy, which helps carry a narrative that keeps you on the edge of the seat with its excitement, while pushing you down into with its terrible plausibility. This is a book that came at exactly the right time – into a world that needs it. Laws, the constitution, ethics and morality are concepts that are worth only the people that choose to uphold them. When the collective consciousness chooses to abandon sanity, human rights become little but a paper shield. It’s a concept that bears repeating, because letting our guard down is what allows those willing to use this truth for their purposes to succeed. The Testaments should be required reading for this new decade.
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. In any year when I didn’t read The Testaments, this would have probably been my favourite book. Winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, short-listed for the Book, this was definitely the pinnacle of Canadian lit for 2018. The themes are carried masterfully by characters that feel real despite the occasional fantastic elements of the story. It was one of those books that made me look forward to the next opportunity that I can pick it up. What I found particular striking was Edugyan’s punching physical descriptions of her characters – using two or three sentences to paint a vivid portrait of a living being. The narrative absolutely gripped me until about the last twenty pages, when I ended up disagreeing with how the book wrapped up. This doesn’t often happen to me, and honestly is just probably simply the result of how invested I felt in the book. So proud to have such a powerful work be produced by a British Columbia writer.
A new year is here, which means it’s a perfect time for annual traditions. Looking back at my previous posts, I’ve decided I’ll start every year with a “What I’ve Read” and a “What I’ve Written” reviews.
The good news is (for whom this is good news other than myself, I’m not sure) I’ve got two charts that I run throughout the year that help me analyze how I did in terms of writing productivity. The first is a straight graph of total words written, plotted against previous years for which I have data:
As you can see from the above graph, 2018 had smashed all previous records, but 2019 still did better. So I’ll take a moment and appreciate that it had been my most productive year. In fact, up until about May, it looked like it was going to leave 2018 firmly in the dust. That long flat line in May was our family vacation following quickly by a work conference, and though it looked like 2019 was recovering some of its pace, the gap really shrank towards the end of the year. I was hoping for a little more separation here by January 1, but if I wanted to look on the bright side, all it means is that any improvement I have in 2020 might look even more impressive.
The second way I record my writing production is through my bullet journal entry, which I have described in a previous post. So I'm providing here the completed one for 2019, with a legend on the right of the page showing what amount of writing activity each colour represents.
Firstly, my attention is drawn to the lonely little purple square on April (though I find, especially in this picture, that it has terrible contrast to dark blue). This was the single day where I had finally broken that two thousand word barrier that I tried to reach in earnest over the last two years. The other thing that’s noticeable is there is a whole lot of blue in this chart – I doubled the number of days where I had written over a thousand words (dark blue) and had 50% more days where I wrote over 500 (light blue).
One stat that stands out as shocking to me when compared with last year (though I suppose not too surprising considering the sea of red) is that there were 192 days where I didn’t write at all – 45 more unproductive days than in 2018. This amounts to more than half the year where I couldn’t muster the ability to write even a single word. How then did I top the previous year’s overall writing productivity?
Given the combination of an increase in both red and blue squares, it seems that the story of this year was particularly productive days rather than consistency. When looking at the increase of red in this log, and also the shrinking gap in the year-by-year comparison, you can plainly see that the last quarter of my year was marred by burnout. All you can do with that is shake it off and approach the new year with some optimism.
The story of 2019, however, isn’t just contained in how many words I wrote and how many days I managed to figuratively “get out of bed” and write something. There were important milestones I achieved this year that I have no reason to downplay.
This was the first full year during which I blogged, posting 25 entries in 2019. Some of these entries also happened to be the first chapter of Drops of the Black Sun. Sure, the second chapter hasn’t been posted yet, but sometimes starting is the hardest part. This was the year that after about a decade in production I’ve shared a draft of my first novel with beta readers, and had already received feedback from one of them. I’m now 50,000 words deep into a story I’ve been reading to my kids since January, and I’ve put some flesh on the outlines of several other projects. I’ve endured another year of ceaseless rejections yet I remain committed to keep trying and to keep improving my writing and to enjoy telling the stories that long to burst from my head. I’m proud of what I had done, while keeping an eye on what I didn’t do, to set myself new goals in 2020.
I hope to write for more than half the days of the year. I hope to reach at least 120,000 words. I hope to finish two more drafts of my novel and to post more than one chapter of Drops of the Black Sun this year. But most importantly, I promise to keep enjoying myself and to never fall out of love with my craft. To keep going, no matter how murky the horizon is.
I’ve made it no secret that we’re a Disney family, which is probably why the only movies I’ve talked about here are Disney animated films or other Disney-produced films. So it should come as no surprise that this weekend we’ve seen Frozen 2, and that I have some pretty strong opinions about.
One of the things I found curious about the sequel before watching it were the critic reviews. By the time we went to see it, it sat at 77% on Rottentomatoes with a 65 on metacritic; a far cry from Disney’s recent huge successes like Moana (96% and 81) and Zootopia (97% and 78). But what was even more concerning for me was that it even lagged behind their other recent sequel, Ralph Breaks the Internet, who landed 88% on RT and 71 on Metacritic. While I enjoyed Ralph Breaks the Internet, I didn’t find it all that special, so coming into Frozen 2, I was justifiably worried.
I came out of the movie confused.
For starters, I feel like Frozen 2 makes Wreck It Ralph 2 look like Pocahontas 2. It is what sequels should be – instead of lazily rehashing elements that made the original successful, it moved both the story and the characters forward and explored its own issues in a complex ways. Heck, even the comic relief, Olaf, gets some development and his struggles are used to explore sentience, growth and understanding one’s own emotions.
Frozen 2 takes the first movie, which followed more closely to the Disney formula and was more of a sister story within a fairytale, and flips it into a fairytale within a sister story. The relationship between Anna and Elsa takes centre stage here as the young women try to build a future in which they can shine both individually and as a sibling unit. Stories like this need to be told considering how much of children’s entertainment is filled with only-child orphans and sibling rivalries.
I would be remiss if I at least mentioned the music, which was probably the defining feature of the first movie and the primary method by which it bore its way into our minds and pop culture. You won’t find the next show-stopper like “Let it Go” here and the movie accepts this by not making any cheap replicas. Instead, the songs serve a strong narrative purpose but are more woven through the movie to ensure that the soundtrack is both essential but doesn’t take precedence over the story.
Coming out of the theatre, I was curious to see where the criticism for the movie had come from and found that two common themes were its supposedly meandering plot and bleakness.
I can see why the plot may have felt like a series of sequential steps rather than as a smooth arc, and I do find that the magic lore requires a bit more suspension of disbelief than one is used to, but I think this is a direct result from the movie’s movement away from a particular formula. Rather than being pushed along through a particular set of check marks to a predetermined destination, the characters are forced to react to changing events and revelations and move through darkness towards the light.
Which brings me to the issue of “bleakness”. I’m not sure how we can expect Disney’s storytelling to mature if don’t allow it to take us to places we might not necessarily be comfortable in. The hope that it wants to inspire in us needs to be set against a backdrop of a certain kind of despair.
This is exactly where I feel Frozen 2’s legacy will lie – using their own constructed world to start conversations about indigenous topics in an organic way that doesn’t feel forced. Without getting too deep into revealing plot details that you really should appreciate for yourself, themes of reconciling the past, both personal and societal run deep through Frozen 2. Trauma can reach across generations and the movie highlights how we can take it upon ourselves to right the wrongs of the past and grow in the process instead of being overwhelmed by a history we had no control over. What we do have control over is ourselves, and to echo a common refrain throughout the film, we need to focus on doing the next right thing rather than folding your hands and giving up.
Disney’s approach to handling this important and sensitive topic shows that they can put their money where their mouth. In making Frozen 2, Disney had consulted Sámi parliaments in Norway, Finland and Sweden, created an advisory group that included Sámi artists, historians, elders and political leaders, and crucially provided space for the Sámi to tell their own stories by offering internships to Sámi filmmakers and animators in order to promote their own stories.
Frozen 2 takes a topic that can overwhelm with its grave enormity and makes it more approachable, so I think we owe it to the efforts that the Sámi people have put into this movie to use it to start important conversations with ourselves and with our children.
The impression I leave with is that Frozen 2 isn’t just a good movie, it’s an important movie. It’s the kind of movie that we need more of – where the story takes centre stage to the glitz and glamour but doesn’t fully sacrifice the latter either, and where that story takes aim directly at our minds and hearts so that the world can be just a little bit brighter for the next generation.
I don’t know how many of my blog posts are spawned from Twitter discussions (arguments? petty slap fights?) but let’s hope it’s less than I think.
This particular one stems from a recent Emma Watson interview where, when talking about turning thirty and being single, she described herself as being “self-partnered”.
Much like the creation of the universe had made people very angry, so it goes whenever a strong female voice expresses any independent thought or opinion and *gasp* dares suggest that she’s doing just fine being single. All manner of vermin are suddenly roused from their damp and murky dens to crawl onto social media in an attempt to remind the world of the superiority of their limp and pale appendages.
One such fellow caught my attention as I was scrolling through my feed. He chose to tweet at both Emma Watson, and at writer and current Chair of the NYC Mayor’s Fund, Chirlane McCray, who expressed support for Watson’s choice of words. And the important message he wanted to communicate to two people who accomplish more before breakfast than he does in a year, is that they don’t know the meaning of the word “partner”. Everyone, stop the presses, this man knows what a word means.
A commitment to misogyny, and a commitment is the only way to describe this person’s Twitter feed, reminiscent of the commitment shown by the rats to sinking Titanic, is difficult to break. But this person wasn’t just committed to a single line of outmoded narrow-minded thinking. This guy was also a prescriptivist. Or more accurately, he used prescriptivism as a platform for his misogyny, because let’s face it, this isn’t going to be someone who complains too much that “covfefe” is not a word.
When called out on his mansplaining, he double, triple, and quadrupled down leaving me with an image of a skinny guy at a hot dog eating competition. I was presented with a Googled dictionary definition of “partner” with the snarky comment about how that’s just English 101. Not sure which English class he’d taken where students are merely beaten with a dictionary for the entirety of the lesson, so maybe some sympathy on my part was in order.
Whatever childhood trauma causes the affliction, prescriptivists see language as a set of rigid rules that must be adhered to. Anything that does not fit into a prescriptivist’s neat definition of what language should be is chocked up to ignorance, or worse yet – innovation. You see, a prescriptivist’s mind is incapable of comprehending speech that isn’t robotically like their own.
They’re the ones who will happily, and incorrectly, remind you that “literally” has never meant “figuratively” and never will – the lowest hanging fruit of grammatical nitpickiness. In fact, it’s not even low hanging – it’s fruit that’s been on the ground so long that it has fermented and anyone who partakes of it because so inebriated that everyone around them is rendered uncomfortable and in want of more pleasant company.
Prescriptivists are the ones who are horrified at the prospect of “alot" becoming a word, even though “alright” and “already” exist. “Ain’t” is an affront to good manners and slang that isn’t so old that even grandpa has starting using it unironically at the Thanksgiving table is evidence of the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of youth these dates. Two hundred years ago, they fainted at Canadian colonists using “fix” instead of “mend” and “store” instead of “shop” and probably strongly considered dismantling the Empire just to preserve the Queen’s English. These days, they get flustered by the mere suggestion that they ought to use pronouns based on the preference of the people they’re referring to, and not their own sense of linguistic intractability.
So how did my prescriptivist dictionary-quoting English-101-invoking friend respond to a gentle reminder that English 101 fan-favourite William Shakespeare left his mark making up words or using them in novel ways? Here is where he trudged out the vague specter of philosophy – an internet argument’s equivalent of a Swiss Army knife comprised entirely of corkscrews. Philosophy, in this case, required recognizing a difference between “organic” and “contrived”. When pressed again whether not to “coin” a term is a contrivance and its general acceptance is subsequently organic, the point was deftly side-stepped, Bill Shakespeare resoundingly ignored.
If you’re having trouble following the logic here, it’s because there is none. I believe the message was loud and clear – men are innovators, women are wrong. And yes, he did actually include the word “wrong” as an emphatic one-word sentence in our communications. If there was any remaining doubt who the global champion of these abhorrent opinions is, here’s the evidence you need. Who else feels like they need a shower at this point?
And here lies the more insidious aspect of prescriptivism – its shameful use as a tool to denigrate linguistic minorities. If one single WASPish version of English is the correct one, then everyone else is wrong, and by extension, inferior. The destruction of language has been a favourite tool of colonists for hundreds of years and this is little different – cultural vernacular or even gender differences in word usage could be relegated to deviations from an arbitrary norm. Unprincipled application of prescriptivism allows for Shakespeare to be celebrated as a visionary and for Emma Watson, despite her successes and education, to be ridiculed for not knowing what simple words mean.
Prescriptivism has little place in society, except perhaps as a foil to the increasing speed with which language changes in the digital age. There is even less space for it in creative writing. The facetious retort to that could be that I’m advocating an abandonment of all norms to the point where meaning itself would become meaningless, but that is a cowardly attitude. What I’m advocating for is to move quickly through the first stage of “learn the rules first, then break them”. As someone who grew up with a different language, I believe I have a good window into seeing the flexibilities in English – its potential rather than its current state. This leads me to experimenting, which I love to do, and sometimes this results in misses, but other times I can offer an interesting twist on an existing word or phrase. Why limit yourself? Why not strive to be innovators?
Break down the rigid barriers of “proper writing” with your own craft, and help open doors that are being so stubbornly closed by others.
My country is currently abuzz with the news of the firing of a Canadian icon, a long-time hockey commentator by the name of Don Cherry. For my Canadian readers, this man needs no introduction, but for everyone else, I figured I’d start with a summary.
Shortly after spending two decades as a hockey player in the minor leagues, in 1974 Cherry was promoted to the head coach of the Boston Bruins, one of the oldest franchises in the National Hockey League and a very successful team in the 70s. Cherry coached the Bruins for five seasons before entering broadcasting where he soon landed a gig for his own segment during Hockey Night in Canada, the premier hockey broadcast in the country.
Cherry had kept this job for nearly four decades, despite over the years accumulating soundbites that ranged from somewhat questionable to straight-up sexist and xenophobic. His ire was an out-of-control firehouse that sprayed every demographic that didn’t fit into his anglo-white old stock conception of what Canada should be. French Canadian and European hockey players were a favourite target, but all sorts of diatribes accumulated over the years including about women reporters and Canada’s Indigenous people. These might seem tame by the standards of media personalities in other countries, but in Canada, despite his lovable bright suits and tell-it-like-it-is attitude, he stood out as a sore thumb in a country where it’s generally frowned upon to be openly hostile to one another (off the ice, that is).
Don Cherry’s inexplicable longevity came to a grinding halt this weekend. Monday was Remembrance Day in Canada, a solemn occasion to commemorate all those who sacrificed their lives to make sure we can continue to enjoy living ours. One of the associated traditions here is donating to the Royal Canadian Legion and wearing a commemorative red poppy. Cherry had taken issue with the fact that he’s observed fewer and fewer people wearing poppies over the years. But instead of directing his rant at Canadians in general, he chose to single out “you people” – specifically immigrants who come to enjoy the Canadian way of life but allegedly can’t be bothered to honour those who’ve laid down their lives for it. Interestingly, it wasn’t the worst thing Cherry has said, and his overall point was a decent one: trying to drum-up some support for veterans and to help rekindle a waning tradition. But instead, he chose to make it an “us” versus “them” problem, where “us” is an extremely specific definition evidenced by Cherry’s comments over the years.
The proverbial straw had crippled the poor exhausted camel that has been forcibly dragging Cherry’s career towards the third decade of the twenty-first century. Two days after the “you people” monologue aired, Cherry was canned.
I think before I say anything further I should mention that a small part of me is saddened by this. It is an ignoble end to a national icon, a household name, a staple of Saturday night television, and the seventh highest-voted Canadian in the 2004 “The Greatest Canadian” TV show. He’s survived so many self-inflicted verbal wounds that one simply assumed only health issues could keep him away from the broadcaster booth.
But beyond the begrudging respect for somebody who obviously loves our country very much, my sympathy for Don Cherry is in short supply. He should have been fired a long time ago. Instead of being propped up and forgiven in the name of ratings, his employers should have pulled his national platform for sharing his bilious opinions. He had made Canada a less welcoming place.
To understand where my own feelings about Don Cherry stem from, you have to remember that I moved from Russia to Canada when I was thirteen years old, and spent most of my teenage years struggling into my new identity. Many tears had been shed over the question of whether I could ever be able to consider myself “Canadian”. And a recurring casual reminder of my otherness was the man in the silly suits yelling at me from the TV every Saturday.
Cherry had always worn his attitude towards Russians on his sleeve. This clip from the 1996 Hockey World Cup is a particularly fiery example. . Coincidentally, I was present at that game, in my Pavel Bure Vancouver Canucks jersey, unequivocally a fan of Team Russia. It was a couple of months before my parents formed the intention to immigrate and three years before Don Cherry assumed a supporting role in my ensuing identity crisis.
You can see from the clip that it wasn’t enough for Cherry to comment on the quality of Canadian hockey versus Russian hockey. Russian hockey accomplishments were completely demolished and the Russians were accused of having no heart. The problem with Cherry’s brand of patriotism is that it’s not only based on building Canada up, but tearing everyone else down.
And that is how it felt – as I built up my confidence in my “Canadianness” Cherry’s routine commentary would tear pieces of it down. Russians are cowards. Russians are sneaks. Russians have no heart. Never sticking to a specific incident, always these sweeping strokes as if Cherry was pointing his accusatory finger right into my soul.
The low point in this journey came for me in Grade 10, during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Probably in part because I stubbornly held onto to some pride for my mother country, I was anointed the class scapegoat for the entirety of the Russian Olympic team. Russian ice hockey team losing? French figure skating judge helping Russians win? Russian skiers caught doping? I was called to answer for every one of these sins.
So while I literally had my back against the wall as several of my classmates jeered about Russian cheating, what did Don have to say about all this?
"I’ve been trying to tell you for so long about the Russians. What kind of people they are and you just love them in Canada with your multiculturalism."
You see, his comments didn’t just stop at hinting at systemic Russian doping, a stance that would be vindicated years later; he had to take it a step further. This was all about what kind of people these Russians really are, and that tolerance of these people is a negative consequence of multiculturalism. Here was a beloved Canadian basically telling me that I was unwelcome here. While I struggled to feel like I belonged, Don shamelessly reminded me that I didn’t and fanned the flames of ridicule that I was subjected to.
Over the years, I’ve grown more comfortable in my skin, and I look back at that period of my life as an unfortunate but essential part of a young immigrant’s struggle. I know what I am and it would take more than the careless words of a TV personality to shake my identity as a Canadian. But the hurt had never fully healed, especially while Cherry was still given the time of day to make others feel the way I did, or worse.
At the end of the day, Don Cherry is not necessarily a bad man, but he is an ignorant man, and the narrowness of his mind does not leave a lot of room for people who are not like him. This to me has always been antithetical to my vision of Canada – a nation that strives to the best of its ability to be inclusive and welcoming.
So thank you, Don, for your service, but it’s time for everyone to move on.
I find that I don’t talk enough about the stuff I read. Other than the review of my 2018 reading list in January, I don’t think I’ve mentioned it much, even though I have repeatedly said how important I think reading is to being an effective writer. So I thought I would therefore take a moment and talk about a novel I recently finished and that had more profound effect on me than I had expected.
Wide Sargasso Sea is a 1966 novel by Dominica-born British author Jean Rhys, and acts as a kind of prequel to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. I’m about to delve into some heavy spoilers for Jane Eyre so consider this your fair warning.
I had read Jane Eyre when I was undergrad, and recall not particularly enjoying it. I much preferred the works of Jane Austen, and didn’t much care for the gloominess of Jane Eyre, though I suppose that was kind of the point of the genre. In any case, I knew what I was reading was good, but it wasn’t my thing.
What did leave a big impression on me was how much I despised Rochester, the main love interest and the man Jane ends up with in the end. I couldn’t stand the archetypal brooding dark male lead, essentially the human equivalent of a wang-shaped monument to 19th century British patriarchy. And the cherry on top was that he kept his mentally ill wife Bertha locked up in the attic, which given the state of mental facilities in England at the time may or may not have been a mercy, but that’s besides the point. Mr. Darcy he definitely was not.
So what Jean Rhys gave us in Wide Sargasso Sea, is the back story of Bertha (nee Antoinette) and a whole pile of reasons to hate Rochester even more. The novel follows Antoinette’s story – her childhood and adolescence in Jamaica, eventual marriage to Rochester and her precipitous decline into the mental state we witness in Jane Eyre.
Antoinette is presented as someone who is able to rise above tragedy – her family estate is burned down (the colonial aspects of this book are problematic, but it was written in the sixties, after all), her developmentally delayed brother dies in the fire, her mother suffers a break and then dies alone as Antoinette is raised in a convent. Now into her adulthood, she’s ready to reconcile all that has happened her and make the best of her life in Jamaica along with her remaining friends and servants (there’s that colonialism poking its ugly head out again).
But then comes Rochester, here presented as a younger brother who’s unlikely to get a sniff of the family fortune so he’s shipped off to the West Indies to marry rich. It is exceedingly easy to dislike Rochester from the get go. He is whiny, he is suspicious, he is racist, he will literally complain about anything including that the plants are too green. He marries Antoinette, somewhat reluctantly, and shockingly he never once complains about the fat dowry, though his endgame remains largely unclear.
Here’s where I start going into some spoilers, so even though the end of the novel is a foregone conclusion, if you want to maintain some mystery, you can skip to the last three paragraphs of this entry.
Though Antoinette also had her own major reservations about the marriage, she approaches it with her usual attitude of making the best out of her lemons, and she develops what appear to be genuine feelings for Rochester. Her husband, a suspicious man who thinks even the wilderness is out to get him, in turn eats with a spoon any vile rumor he hears about his wife and becomes convinced he’s been given “tainted goods”. Considering he never truly treats Antoinette as a human, this is a disturbing but apt description of his thoughts.
Despite the already less-than-flattering portrait the novel had painted of Rochester, there was still room for more outrage. In fact, at one point I had to set the book in my lap and stare out the bus window before I could regroup and tackle the conclusion of the novel. Rochester fully embraces believing nothing but the worst about his wife, and channels all his feelings into vindictive rage.
He basically attempts to write the textbook on gaslighting, choosing to call her “Bertha”, also one of her given names but one she does like using. He just flat-out states she’s more like a Bertha, and her opinion on the subject of how others should refer to her doesn’t matter. A theme that seems to resonate quite loudly in modern times as well. Oh, and did I not mention that he also sleeps with one of the servants while across a thin partition from his ailing wife, and then basically chocks up anything she does in response as an overreaction. Yeah, he’s swell.
Rochester’s completely demented obsession to hurt Antoinette can be summarized with the following quote: “She’ll not laugh in the sun again. She’ll not dress up and smile at herself in that damnable looking-glass. Vain, silly creature. Made for loving? Yes, but she’ll have no lover for I don’t want her and she’ll see no other.” That has to send a chill down your spine. Not laugh in the sun again? This paints Rochester’s motivations to lock her up in the attic as a direct attempt to destroy her humanity, to deprive her of simple joy because he can and because he feels justified.
I know Brontë did not intend for him to have such a dark backstory, but Rhys’ version of the character fitted in so perfectly with my own abysmally low opinion of Rochester, that the two have been inexorably linked in my mind. As far as I’m concerned, this is Rochester.
Wide Sargasso Sea is also a perfect illustration of the importance of the public domain. While something like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is awesomely creative, its mostly a vehicle for light entertainment (not that there’s anything wrong with that, I’m a strong proponent that there is little distinction between entertaining art and “arty” art) and doesn’t necessarily transform the original work. But in this case, it’s such a meaningful expansion of the story – bringing to light a character shrouded in darkness and casting into darkness a character that was supposed to provide the heroine with light.
I’m glad I picked up Wide Sargasso Sea and I would recommend it to anyone who’s read Jane Eyre, especially Rochester-haters like myself.
There is a distinct possibility that I will never be truly happy. No, no, not with my life, I’m riding a wave of contentment that had been uninterrupted since the last time I shook the blanket of negativity earlier this spring. What mean is, never be happy as a writer, and specifically, with my writing, and more specifically, with this novel that I swear to eff I will one day complete.
I’ve recently finished my third major revision of Wake the Drowned, and I was sure to drown that bad boy in a sea of red. So naturally when I opened it up for a fourth crack at it, I thought it would be relatively smooth sailing from here. Woefully, this has not been the case for this last month and red ink is still being liberally spilled. I’d be curious to run a comparison blackline at this point to see just how much has changed since the first draft, because it feels that the cumulative changes must be massive.
So, like any true writer, this makes me question everything about myself and my art. Will I ever be happy with the finished product? Part of me likes to think so, especially when I do have that stretch of several paragraphs that I glide over without making any changes (this uncorks a whole different batch of paranoias, but let’s not get into those right now). I also admit that the beginning of the novel has always been a challenge not only because of the pressure to make it a good hook, but because the initial draft was written so long ago that I’m still trying to wash out the ghosts of my previous writing mistakes. I suppose that’s one of the challenges of working on a novel for so long, especially during such a formative time of both my life and my writing. Part of me doubts that it’s necessary to keep working on it, but a bigger part of me wants to see this story through and told well.
Given my natural struggles with approximately the first quarter of Wake the Drowned, I’m not surprised I’m hitting the doubting blues. If I recall correctly, I suffered the same fate during the last two drafts as well. I want to believe that pushing myself through this is the right thing to do for me and my craft. But even through these questions I have to remember that every word and every red mark counts in the end. They’re the drops that add up to make me the writer I am. Even all those stories you may have discarded, or novels that died after three chapters, they’re all worth something.
I think you’re writing is similar to faith – it’s not worth much if you don’t freely question it. And for that reason, I believe the occasional frustration is not only unavoidable, but desirable in a good writer.
So even if I’m feeling a bit dull about the novel, maybe after I’ve hit a few pages that made me stare at them in awe of a bungled transition or ham-fisted metaphor, I find that I just need to take a deep breath, and turn the page and keep plowing away at it until I get to a stretch that reminds me that I’m a decent writer. Because if I can do it for a few pages, then with enough thought and tinkering, I can sustain that momentum for a few hundred pages, and a quality novel would rise from all this effort. Or it could not, and it will simply become the foundation on which I will build my next work, and the next.
The important thing is not drown in your own sea of red. The fact that you’re fixing and rewriting so much is not a sign of weakness but of strength. It means you’re constantly accepting your errors, you’re learning and improving. It would be far worse if you were incapable of putting a critical eye on your work, or if you were afraid to accept that sometimes what you wrote didn’t work.
To borrow a bit from Ms. Frizzle – here’s to taking chances, making mistakes and getting messy. And also conquering your writing fears. Mine seems to be the fear of never being good enough. But what I need to remind myself is that succumbing to this fear is the main threat to being good enough. So I can either wallow, or I can keep writing and keep editing. Keep building, and keep destroying. And one day, Rome will be built.
Not gonna lie folks, the real world is hitting me pretty hard this week – my big boy is starting kindergarten and I’m not sure what to do with this bouquet of emotions I’ve been handed. I’m not sure how we arrived here so quickly. I can still feel his warmth on my chest from those times where I strapped him into the baby carrier at three in the morning to rock him back to sleep. And now he’s about to walk away from us and enter the building where he will likely make the bulk of his childhood memories, away from his mom and me.
I feel like a big part of parenting is accepting that the helpless lump that relied on you for every need including holding up their own head is transitioning into this independent human being, with their own life, thoughts and memories. Who doesn’t remember their first day of school? I recall standing wide-eyed with some flowers outside my grade one classroom on a rainy Moscow September morning. I’m not sure anything could have prepared me for the journey I was about to undertake – both into the next major stage of my life, but also into a whole new language that would come to shape my life forever. And now somehow more than a quarter-century later, on a different continent, my own son stands on the same threshold, about to enter into French Immersion and unlock for himself a whole new world that comes with learning a new language.
On the one hand, I’m terrified – my memories of myself in elementary school are a bit too fresh. But on the other hand, I know he’ll do just fine. This is the same kid who almost fell down the stairs when leaving the library because he couldn’t get his nose out of a book. And his teacher seems absolutely lovely so he should be in good hands.
One thing I like that our school is doing is this slow transition, which honestly is more for the benefit of the parents than the students. First we get to meet the teacher for an hour, absorb the classroom our kid will be spending the majority of their waking hours for the next year, get a sense of their teaching style so that we get a sense of what’s going to be going on there during school hours. In our case, we then got a day where we get to adjust to everything we’ve heard, to complete the checklist that’s been given to us and read a very thorough write-up on class activities and expectations. And then finally the kiddo got to march off to school for about an hour-and-a-half yesterday, so that us parents aren’t a crippled weeping mess when they got home from their first exciting “day” of school. Then we transition into a couple of half days, after which we’re off to the races.
So I’m glad we get to do a slow burn on this. I know I’ve seen my wife do the silent thousand-yard-stare a couple of times during the last few days, and she’s told me that I have been a little sullen at times too. Even his little brother looked a little shell-shocked after dropping off his big bro on the footsteps of his classroom. He ate three hash-browns at McDonald’s later that morning, so I think he’ll be okay too.
It feels like the first real test of our responsibilities and abilities as parents – did we do all the right things over the last five years to prepare our son for this. Does he know how to make friends? Does he know how to make mistakes? Does he know how to succeed humbly and to push through failures and challenge himself? All of that will be revealed in due course and it’s absolutely petrifying.
Thankfully we already got a preview by having a one-on-one teacher conference yesterday – which gave us a chance to absorb first impressions. Did I mention his teacher is amazing? Because she is. She seems to already have a read on his big personality and I’m hopeful that he’ll thrive. We just have to make sure we keep doing our part.
As much as we creative types tend to see our works as our children – little pieces of ourselves that we hand over to the world – nothing I write will likely make a greater impact than raising these two wonderful boys. It all kind of puts into perspective years of writing, hours of editing, days of agonizing over whether a manuscript will be liked by a beta reader or accepted by a publication. After years of steering our ship blindly, the anxiety reaches a bit of a crescendo and all the questions begin to be answered, probably with more questions, the most important of which is: have we given him everything he needs, and did we manage to go beyond?
I don’t mean to throw a gloomy cast over the entire affair – storm clouds of anticipation and anxiety aside, this is a magical time. He’s taking his first steps into a life outside of his parents, into taking responsibility for himself as an individual and a human being. Just like when I took his hand in my mine when he first starting walking, I hope I can support him now as well. Shine bright, kiddo.
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been mentioning how I was close to the completion of the fourth draft of my first novel, Wake the Drowned. Today I’m happy to share the news that the draft has been completed, bound and printed, and now sits on my desk as I begin work on the next draft. This particular undertaking took about nine months and found me sometimes breezing through 2-3 pages at a time, and then being stuck on a single paragraph for two days. This is definitely not the smooth reading experience I would expect from something that’s a final draft, not that I expected this to be the one.
Even with the first couple of pages, on which I’ve probably spent the most amount of time over the last few drafts, I knew that the sea of red wasn’t a particularly encouraging sign that I was anywhere near done. But I didn’t let that discourage me, liberally spilling red ink over the next 245 pages.
This draft is also a product of me taking research seriously. It’s not as if I was talking out of my ass before, but there’s always room to do better. I was pleasantly surprised how accurate some of my details were and also humbled by where I stood to inject some realism. I strongly encourage reading both non-fiction and fiction books on your subject to look both for inspiration and to bolster the credibility of your work. I’m certainly not done the research portion of this writing process and I expect the next couple of drafts to reflect this.
I also ran through all the graphs and metrics I use to improve the productivity of my editing process. This includes the plot graph, my word clouds, my “shit list”, and others. I’ll elaborate all on these in upcoming entries though you can read a bit about my word cloud process here. In any case, I saw improvement, some modest, some significant, on all of my metrics, which again pumps me with excitement for the following drafts.
But I think the most important aspect of draft 4 is that this is the draft that I have chosen to share with a small group of beta readers. I have previously talked about how my wife was subjected to a largely undigested first draft, but with three major rewrites since then, I felt I was ready to go into a slightly wider world.
This is where the excitement really begins and my stomach is aflutter with all sorts of butterflies. Sharing my writing with other people has always been an exhilarating and terrifying experience for me and I look forward to it every time. I can’t wait to see what they enjoy (hopefully something) and what I need to improve (hopefully not everything).
I’ve heard time and time again that writers should just write for themselves and not worry about what other people think. But I see the writer as primarily a storyteller, and for a story to be told, it needs to be heard. So while I want my beta readers to like my novel, I don’t want them to do so unequivocally. I want them honestly to tell me what they think about my story, because my story is not for me, it’s for the world.
After this, I estimate I have about three drafts left (two of them post-beta readers) until I might be in a spot where I think I’ve given the story all I can give, and at my current pace, this should take about a year and a half. After working on Wake the Drowned for more than a decade, this feels like almost no time at all, the proverbial light at the end of that tunnel. At this point, I’ve got an unquenchable craving to see it through, which is why I didn’t bother to take a break between drafts four and five and dove right into the next one while my beta readers go through my novel at a comfortable pace.
I hope this novel is the one, but at the same time, I know it’s my first novel, and it should be treated as a learning experience. So wherever this journey ends up, I’ll just be content to bask in the excitement of a long and massive project slowly nearing its completion.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.