Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
On the scale of “plotters” versus “pantsers” – where plotters are those who rely on heavily outlining their stories before they proceed and pantsers are those that prefer to fly by the seat of their pants and see where the story takes them – I am confessed plotter. In fact, my tendency to plot (or is that overplot?) sometimes needlessly delays my projects because I want everything to fall neatly into place first. That is not to say I’m on the extreme end of the scale either. I don’t need to labour over every single plot point, and my short stories mostly get away with a mental roadmap to how it’s supposed to progress. But both the novels I’m working on have started as paragraph-long chapter outlines, and some works are in my version of “development hell” because I’m not comfortable with moving forward until more pieces have fallen into place.
Something needs to be said in favour of being a pantser though. Even with those novels that started as full outlines, both in the writing and editing stage there was significant divergence that perhaps could have been cultivated better with no outline. In fact, some of the newly “off the script” scenes have become some of my favourites, and at least one beta reader agrees with me. As another example, one of the short stories I’m currently finishing up was born as what I thought was a fully-baked idea, but some shower time musings have produced a twist on the ending that I then ended up weaving back through the entire story. Now I’m wondering what is even the point of that story without the new ending – that fully-baked idea seems at best half-baked.
All this makes me wonder if this propensity to outline is more useful or detrimental to my writing. Given the amount of time I spend in the editing phase reworking the plot, and adding and deleting major scenes, is the inordinate amount of time I spend on outlining those scenes in the first place a waste of time? Would I be better served if I just used that time to jump into the writing, let the story take care of itself, and then make the same investment in the editing process that I do now? All food for thought.
I don’t think I’ll ever be, nor do I want to be, a full-on pantser. I can’t just start writing only to discover that the story is going nowhere. It may take a different route, or change its intended destination along the way, but it can’t leave the house without knowing where it’s supposed to end up. I’ve heard of authors, well-established authors, who get a spark of an idea and then just set out to write a book. And then these authors, who’ve written plenty of books in the past, reach the approximate quarter-way mark, realize it’s going nowhere, and just dump the idea altogether. I mean, I get abandoning a project when you realize it’s not quite what you intended, but to have no intention at all and then drop it because it never formed, the thought makes me shudder.
Though the high-risk life of a full-time pantser is decidedly not for me, I’ve been slowly disavowing my overcommitment to plotting. Just last year I decided that if I go the full plotter route, the sci-fi story that had been forming in my head for over a decade would never see the light of day, and since I never intended to be exclusively a genre writer, I thought I’d start releasing here as a serial with a much thinner long-term outline than I’m usually comfortable with. I’m also loosening my restrictions as to how much I edit-as-I-go – prefer to fix plot-related changes in the editing stages instead of constantly rewriting the first draft.
Being able to relax about structure is already paying dividends in the sense that I feel like the writing is growing organically instead of being pushed into some kind of mold by me. It’s kind of weird to think about – I’m the writer, shouldn’t the story follow exactly what I say? I’ve been learning that it’s not exactly the case. If anything, it’s been a historic weakness of my writing – where I want my work to “say” something and I sacrifice quality for the message and come off being preachy. I’ve written a bit about this phenomenon in my post about writing dialogues.
Sometimes though, the story bucks against this original intention, or ends up arriving at the same intention but in more subtle ways.
Recently, I experienced this on a chapter-level as I set out to write Chapter 4 of Drops of the Black Sun. I had only the vaguest idea of what was “supposed” to happen in the chapter – something that could hardly fill a page of writing. But instead of overtly planning all the character movements and dialogues, I tried to imagine myself in the setting, digging deep into the POV character for that chapter. Then I tried to set him in motion, and observe. Some writers say that’s all they need for their writing process – just peek into the room and write down everything that happens. I don’t quite have their powers of being able to drift into alternate words, but it’s the closest I’ve come.
I still had to ask leading questions. What’s the character’s general perception of their situation? What’s their current mood? What’s their primary worry? What’s their short-term and long-term goals? Have they spent too long in this particular setting, so should they keep moving? And so on.
Sure, there’s was a little poking around in the dark involved and a few times the chapter stalled and I had to come away and do something else. But eventually, the chapter grew its own conflict – it told me what the character tensions would be instead of me deciding what the particular tension was going to be.
At the risk of a little hyperbole I have to say it was a weird and exhilarating feeling. Like watching your child take their first steps after you’ve been carrying them around for their entire life. Or better yet, having that child grab you by the hand and lead you somewhere.
I’ve gained a lot out of the experience. Not the least of which is a little bit of confidence that I can write myself out of a wet paper bag. Writing is an art, and by and large, art has no rules, and neither should artists themselves. If you catch yourself that you have certain rigid rules or habits as a writer, perhaps it’s time to push yourself out of your comfort zone a little, and you may find yourself better off for it.
Another month gone by of this madness and I wanted to check in on something else I’ve been seriously unmotivated about, so that I can let you know you’re not the only ones out there who aren’t quite feeling yourselves during quarantine (actually, it’s to make me feel better about all my productivity failures – if I’m being productive about not being productive, it kind of resolves part of the problem). I’ve been pretty much neglecting my publication efforts for the last two months.
If I’m being perfectly candid with myself, the lack of acceptances over the last two years probably has something to do with it. I often come on here to encourage folks to push through the wall of rejections and just keep trying in the face of adversity, but it wouldn’t be adversity if it didn’t have any adverse effects. Sure, I’ve had my share of “good” rejections including one that said my story was in the final fifty for consideration. These are the blinking lights at the end of the tunnel (or the flame that attracts the moth, whichever way you want to look at it), but overall since my last publication in Nashwaak Review in December 2018, things have been pretty grim. And the grimness does get to you.
Whether as a result of the lockdowns or because the academic came to a close, but I feel like editors have been very active since March, and in that time I’ve accumulated about two dozen short story rejections. Normally, these get processed into my big glorious spreadsheet of submissions, I make notations of when I can next submit to a journal, and makes plans for the next rounds of submissions. Currently, this stack is sitting neglected next to my desk, and I haven’t opened my spreadsheet in over a month.
This makes me a little bit sad. Despite the minuscule ratio of my works that have been accepted, I usually enjoy playing the game – organizing journals, figuring out which stories are appropriate for which ones, customizing cover letters, sending my babies off into the real world where they inevitably get smacked around a little bit. It helps that I’m also a chart fiend, as evidenced by my light bullet journal addiction, so updating this gives me a certain pleasure based on that alone. Plus there’s always the promise of success – the more I send out, the more chances there are of being published no matter how small. So when I don’t find joy in something I normally do, it leaves me with a troublesome feeling.
I apologize if I’m being a bit of a downer. If the previous trend has been any indication, the moment I complain about something here is pretty much when I turn it around and start doing it again. Despite my lamentations a couple of weeks ago, I’ve slowly been getting back into editing my work, which is a good sign for finally completing Chapter 2 of Drops of the Black Sun (it’s been over a year, I should be dead of embarrassment but it helps I have very little shame) and a couple of short stories that have been “almost complete” for quite some time.
So too I think in the next week or so I’ll rip off that Band-Aid, update my chart, and start planning out my next flurry of submissions. I guess, in a time where we have to tell ourselves ‘no’ so much for the greater good, it’s hard to keep hearing ‘no’ from an additional source, particularly when it chips away at one of the core parts of your identity. Sure, each rejection is like a mosquito bite, but as someone who once went to a beach in Cuba after nightfall, I know that a having a few dozen simultaneous mosquito bites is a whole different ball game.
I guess what I’m trying to convey is that to be a writer, you need to have thick skin. But having thick skin doesn’t mean it’s impenetrable. Some things will get you down more than others, and right now I’m in my down. I know the next ‘up’ is right around the corner, and if you’re in a down, I hope you find yours too.
When I set out to do this blog I hadn’t expected that my highest traffic would come from entries about my bullet journal (I use the term “traffic” very loosely – imagine a dusty country road which sees a couple of horse buggies and a pickup truck pass by every week). But it does seem that bullet journals, or “bujos” are still pretty popular and I’d be happy to share one of my favourite entries – my reading tracker:
I always think it’s pretty self-explanatory until I show it to someone and they greet me with a “wtf” face, so I think this one needs a little bit of explanation.
Firstly, the title “Kindling” is easy to miss since it runs across both pages both pages. This is a result of a very corny metaphor that came to me around the time I turned thirty (which is when I started my bujo) and refers to the fact that I think reading is the kindling that starts the mind’s fire. I’ve posted before about how important I think reading is to a writer, so this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, though perhaps as an eye-roll moment.
The basic premise of the entry is based on Tetris. Each colourful piece represents a particular reading medium (yes, I count audio books and will fight anyone who argues otherwise). Usually the threshold is about a half-hour of reading in the specific category, the notable exception being short stories where a single block represents a single short-story, even though it might take me anywhere between five and forty minutes to read one. The grey block that’s “blog/misc” is the loosest category, and I usually count this only if the reading is particularly involved or informative, but really it’s whatever I feel like (as you can see, I don’t often count it so it’s not exactly a “cheat” category).
One of the wonderful things about the way this graph is set up is that I use it as a way of self-manipulation, specifically exploiting my competitive nature. It’s a point of pride for me to avoid any gaps between the pieces until the last possible moment and to leave as few as possible before the “play area” fills up. Based on this, not only do I sometimes need to read a particular genre or medium in order to make sure I don’t leave any gaps, but sometimes I intentionally place pieces in order to push myself towards doing something.
For example, if I find that I haven’t read a short story or a graphic novel recently, I could place an audio book or novel piece in such a way that the only pieces that would satisfy the remaining gap are the short story or graphic novel blocks. Boom! Suddenly I’ve found additional motivation to reach for those. Not to mention what’s going on in the far right part of the player area, where I leave an empty single block wide column that’s quite familiar to Tetris players. The only way to fill this one is with my most often neglected medium – poetry. I’ve never been a poetry connoisseur, and most of it admittedly flies right over my head (feel like the proverbial swine before a whole pile of pearls), so I tend to steer away from it. That said, I do occasionally enjoy it, and I find it to be a valuable literary exposure, so I have to find ways to read it, or I will be left with an unsightly gap in my log. This has worked out great over the last couple of years as I’ve discovered that I quite enjoy the poetry of Pablo Neruda and Wisława Szymborska, and I’ve got a lot of others on my to-read list.
A couple of interesting observations from the spread that I included above:
It’s hard to imagine that just over a month ago, I chose to drive to campus and forgo public transit, and then called my mom and said that bringing the kids over that weekend might not be such a good idea. Within days, my commute to work was resolved with a “Work from Home” directive from the university, and my decision to not visit anyone outside our household was no longer just a precaution, but an expectation for the public good. These six weeks have certainly stretched for many of us the definition of what “normal” could be, and I hope all of you are doing as well as you can under the circumstances.
As for myself, in a previous entry I mentioned how I was having a rough go of it, but it’s been getting gradually better. I’ve made progress across multiple projects (as I’m prone to do, since I can’t seem to commit to any specific thing for too long) and it’s less of a chore to sit down and force myself to write. One would think since I enjoy it so much I should just be turning to it for comfort in difficult times, but as I’m sure many of you have also discovered this doesn’t seem like the case. The stresses and anxieties of the current situation have knocked us out of ourselves and it’s going to take a while to feel normal again, and probably not until the situation stabilizes. I’m looking at my sister-in-law as well who knits like a fiend but has completely dropped it for last month. She recently bought new yearn, so maybe she feels the same slight thaw that I do.
And it’s okay if you’re experiencing no such thing. I think there’s an unfair perception out there that because some of us suddenly have way more time on our hands we should all come out of this as world-class bakers, or pianists or polyglots. That’s a whole lot of aspirational baloney that doesn’t take into account the fact that we’re all human and that our flight-or-fright response had been perma-activated for weeks on end. I’m yet to even touch editing. I can get myself into putting down new words on the page but even the thought of rereading my writing for the purposes of improving it is giving me anxiety.
Dealing with my mistakes is a future me problem.
If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught me anything is that my job has limited public utility in a time of crisis. Don’t get me wrong, I’m plenty busy doing my small part along with thousands of colleagues in helping the largest university in the Province function during these difficult times, but this is background work, like floating cloud #4 in a grade school production. The real difference-makers at this point are healthcare professional, grocery store workers, delivery people, teachers, and many others I have surely missed.
But while I certainly can’t use my lawyering to make the world a brighter place, I was hoping I could at least do something with my writing. I had mentioned in my previous post that art is important to provide hope in troubled times, and while my own contribution to the literary art has been paltry so far, I found something in my completed works that I thought I would share. “Nightfalls” is one of my older stories and I was very fortunate to have it published in The Nashwaak Review last year. So here it follows in its entirety – an earlier rumination on the perseverance of hope in a dark world. I hope you enjoy it.
It was a cold and windy August evening on the West Coast. Beach goers that looked forward to a nice walk in shorts and sandals were bundled up in autumn jackets desperately hiding their necks behind their collars. The circle of the sun had already dipped into the sea, and slowly melted into the water. The sunset licked the sky with beautiful scarlet tongues and many had stopped to take pictures or to simply hold hands and enjoy the solar descent.
Jonas sat on a park bench and read a book, occasionally glancing up at the mountains that were bathed in an increasingly brilliant pink light. To his right there was a stream that ran under a stone bridge and into a pond. A duck had waddled from the stream up to his feet and quacked a few times to get his attention. Jonas peered over the pages of the book and the bird turned its head sideways and waited. Having nothing to pacify the duck with, he reluctantly returned to his novel. The duck continued to stare quizzically, but eventually gave up and clumsily made its way to the next bench.
It was then, in the middle of a sentence, when he turned his head to the west. He didn’t hear anything; no one had heard anything, but no matter what they were doing, they all jerked their heads to the spot where the bloody orange disc of the sun disappeared beyond the horizon. A cold summer evening had turned much colder.
Bored and without a light by which to read, Jonas got up from the bench, scaring the duck back into the water. A chill had made him shiver. This chill didn’t come from the wind that had snuck its way under his jacket, rather, it had come from within, and spread to the tips of his fingers. He felt an overwhelming presence, as if something was bearing down upon him from the heavens, threatening to make him one with the dirt. He looked up and joined the crowd in standing mesmerized with their noses pointed upwards. A river of black birds had bisected the sky, with every creature heading out where the sky met the sea. All had strained to watch the ominous procession until their necks were sore, as black spot after black spot made its pilgrimage west. No one could say where the river had begun, for it still flowed by the time it was dark, and the birds had dissolved into the black of the night. Jonas walked home stepping through puddles, though it hadn’t rained since the Tuesday of the previous week.
Few slept well that night. Most had tossed and turned and stared at their ceilings, making revisions of various livestock in their heads. Some stayed up to read by the light of a desk lamp, while others simply stayed on their porches, and waited for the sun to come up. And they had waited and waited, but the sunrise wouldn’t come.
Jonas found himself sitting up in bed at three in the morning, without a moment’s rest behind him but with no intention of going back to sleep. He thought he could still hear it – the river as it passed over the city, and the many coarse cries of the birds overhead. The sound was lost somewhere in the wind and it got louder every time he closed his eyes. He went to get a drink of water, and then returned to his bed, where he lay on his back and waited with the others.
The first cries of sorrow had quickly turned into a chorus. As the truth took over, one by one the voices realized that they had been robbed. As the morning slowly turned into the afternoon, there were few who could not face it – the sun had refused to return. Jonas went out into the street, hoping that the darkness was merely a figment of his apartment’s imagination. There, underneath the sub-orange glow of a queue of street lamps, lost and confused souls wandered without a purpose. They all shuffled east in an involuntary daze, searching for the love that stood them up. Jonas watched their faces, pale with fear, the eyes glazed over, and he was drawn to join them. But he held back, retreating into the shadows of the building, shutting the door to his room and praying that this cosmic prank would soon end.
Come next morning, the word ‘morning’ had become obsolete. The night had taken over. It proclaimed the earth as its domain and it had begun to seep into every corner and every heart. It transformed everything it touched and it drew the hope out of every victim. There were stories being passed down about how one felt the cold fingers of the night reach deep inside them, and pull out a thin thread and while it pulled you felt cold and empty, and once it was gone you felt fine but different. No one could really say what was changed except they all knew that they lost something and would never get it back. It was swallowed by the night and they needed daylight to find it, and that is when the final traces of hope had begun to wash from humanity.
Yet, few had resolved to live in a world where time was banished to clocks and watches. No one was willing to make a graveyard out of a planet that was united by a single time of day. And so humanity had come together to wretch the day away from the night. They needed to create a new morning, and a new sense of life amidst death. And thus the night had shattered and split in two. The true night became a time when the lights would all go out. Inside and outside, the surface of the Earth would be consumed by shadow, an invented darkness made so that the day could still hold meaning. Only the moon that drifted overhead and the immortal stars pierced the night.
Day was the hum of the television sets and the glow of chandeliers. It was seeing people outside walking their dogs under the street lamps and talking loudly under the neon signs of corner stores. Smiles crept back onto the faces of pedestrians that Jonas passed on his way home. Once more he occasioned to hear laughter, and a little spark of joy invaded his heart.
Yet the merciless night would not cease its onslaught.
It was an evening, sometime in the month of September when all had already retired to their homes and sipped tea by the candlelight and talked about the days filled with sunshine. Like a jug of icy water drained down their shirts they felt something cascade down their spines that made them all jump up and run to look outside. United by a new horror, they all stood by their windows, and watched the skies with tears in their eyes. On the night of a new moon, when the stars were the only sign that the planet had not fallen out of existence and was still drifting through the universe, those little specs of light were extinguished. Like a shower of sparkles at the end of the fireworks they sizzled and died, and everyone knew that they would soon forget what the moon looked like. The night had consumed the world in an impenetrable cloak of darkness, and they were all left to shiver in a blind panic that fell on them every day.
Once again the Earth drifted through space as a dim sphere, as if mankind never invaded it, never decorated its surface with its inventions. In the pitch black of the night, when even if you strained your eyes you couldn’t make out the contours of your own hand, it was hard to imagine that you weren’t the last person left alive. Lovers touched fingertips in the dark, reminding each other that they were not alone. It was a world without a fifth sense; blind and scared. All would fall silent once the lights would go out. Motionless and tense, in the hours when sight was obsolete, they longed to hear the planet breathing, the world still existing, the night not yet delivering its coup de grace.
One evening, when the world was preparing for another night, Jonas couldn’t find a place for himself in his own home. Restless, as if constantly prodded by a thousand little needless, he went outside when everyone else flooded indoors. He walked along emptying streets, peering into the alleyways where the creatures of the night were already stirring into wakefulness. Those people he had passed eyed him suspiciously and he responded by pursing his lips into a feeble specter of a smile. Aimless yet determined, he pushed through the streets against a current he could not see.
Almost an hour later, only minutes before the dawn of a new night, he found himself on a highway. Once, it had bustled with cars racing up and down its six lanes. Now, he sat on the median, his legs dangling off the concrete divider as he slowly scanned in each direction, seeing nothing but the shimmer of downtown in the distance. Across the road from him, beyond the concrete fence that was scratched up by speeding cars, there was a forest. The trees had barely stood out against the sky, but he could still see them sway, and hear the wind that was caught in their leaves. It was a howling sound that was the siren song of nature, drawing people in, and never letting them out.
They’d already begun to forget the sight of an endless ocean sparkling in the sunlight, and the blue sky that stretched for miles. Forests were gaping black traps that threatened to consume anyone who dared to try to find their way through. Nature had shut its gates and people were reduced to wandering a world of grey concrete and tinted glass, all illuminated by the barren glow of electricity.
His gaze was pushed back onto the highway, his mind warning him about the dangers of daydreaming. Far off to his left where the road went over the hill, he thought he saw someone else. The figure lethargically roamed across the street and disappeared into the shadows of the forest.
Even in large crowds that flooded the streets during the day, Jonas felt alone. Though around him he could see faces, human faces by all accounts, he still felt like he was the only living organism that bobbed in a sea of marionettes. Phantoms that were sent to bring nothing but deceit. Now, in the presence of a shadow he couldn’t be sure was human, he felt the loneliness budge and begin to slip away. He felt that he was not alone, that there was still another soul that drifted like him, in need of answers, instead of just accepting the night, embracing it, and letting it fill every pore. There was still dreaming in the world, naïve as it may have been.
He dwelled on that silhouette as he sat in the middle of the road. What had they come for and where had they gone? What did they think of all of this and had they been able to think at all? Had it been a he or a she? The possibility of a conversation stirred in him a fearful curiosity. It had been months since he talked to anyone. By then he was sure that he would end his days by dissolving into the dark of the night and not reappearing the next morning. He’d be forgotten faster than the moon.
The word had jolted to life an image that had been hibernating for longer than he wanted to admit. He looked up at the sky in the vain hope that he may see a sliver of a crescent, and for the first time ever he saw the unreal beauty of the street lights. They stood defiantly, and they kept the darkness out. They protected him and asked for nothing in return. Like sentinels over a flickering candle they kept the feeble flame alive, so those like Jonas could live to look at them and be thankful.
He hopped down from the concrete slab of the median and the dull echo rolled out over the asphalt. As he walked towards the nearest lamppost, he could hear the sound of his every foot step, in sync with the heartbeats that told him that he was still alive. The short walk felt like a trek; like a journey across a desert whose destination was a drop of dew hanging from a single leaf. He stood under the street light – dead centre of the circle it had drawn on the ground. There was no sound on the street except for the trembling of the light bulb over his head.
He closed his eyes and let the light shine on his face. Behind the murky red glow of his eye lids he imagined the sun. He imagined that instead of the cool wind blowing over his face he felt the warmth sent down from above. At any moment he could open his eyes and be beautifully blinded, and walk around with a green patch floating wherever he looked. He breathed in what he imagined was a warm summer breeze, until he couldn’t take in anymore. As he exhaled, the bulb let out a quiet ‘snap’ and the trembling stopped.
He could no longer tell whether his eyes were open or closed. He blinked in the darkness. He could still see the faint outline of the bulb, but it was merely the dying retinal image – the mind grasping for as long as it could. While his eyes adjusted, the phantom image disappeared, and he was left with nothing. He continued to look up.
There was a sky above him, though he couldn’t be sure. Once, so long ago that he had to wonder whether it was true, it had been littered with stars. The Milky Way was a silver river that flowed from one horizon to the next, and the moon washed fields in a pure blue light. During the day, the sky would be on fire, torched by a mythical creature called ‘the sun’. Now the sky made its own colours. On the dark background, Jonas began to make out dancing waves of navy blue, and slivers of a black violet. There was a tinge of decaying green and the morbid hue of a scabby brown. The shapes and patterns danced in his vision, the night showing all its best evening dresses. He could no longer tell whether this vision was real, or came from inside him – the labour of a mind still longing for wonders. The twisted kaleidoscope continued to spin.
Dizzy, and almost falling into the void that engulfed him, he suddenly heard a ‘pop’ to his left. It came from above, and sounded like a burst of air escaping through tightly shut lips. He turned his head in the direction of the sound, and that’s when he saw it. It glowed with a piercing white light that was almost green and fell from the sky in a smooth arc. It was chased by a long flowing tail that broke apart at its tip into a myriad sparks. A star cast down from the heavens, but nothing like the shooting stars he had seen while bright skies still existed.
The sight of the beautiful glow rushed through his mind and beat its way through hardened layers to reignite him. He watched the shooting star wide-eyed, and with his mouth agape, tracing the line of its movement. It couldn’t have lasted for more than a minute but it felt like hours, like a whole other lifetime had passed before it hit the ground and disappeared in the fields beyond the road.
Once again he was left in the impenetrable dark, yet this time, it could not penetrate into him. He felt the glow from the star inside him, radiating, pushing the black out and keeping it frustrated and stalking around him. Without a second thought, he ran. He ran though he couldn’t see anything around him, couldn’t even be sure he moved at all. The blackness remained unchanged, though he could hear his footsteps and he could feel his breath getting shorter.
Quickly, he felt a sharp pain in his knees and he fell forward. His hands caught something coarse and he knew they were scraped. He cursed himself for forgetting about the concrete median. He climbed over it, and limped across the other side of the highway, knowing that another obstacle awaited him at the end. His steps were impatient, and his heart was racing, and as soon as he felt the slab tap his knee he let go of thinking. Immediately he hopped over and found himself rolling down a small hill and landing into some tall grass. Picking himself up, he bolted once again in the direction of where he saw the star fall into the fields.
He had no idea how far away it was, nor how much he ran. He was only aware of the uneven surface under his feet and the uncomfortable burning that was building in his chest. The air smelled of damp earth and decaying hay. There was something so natural and untainted in that aroma he was sure that he was alone. Humans did not exist, could not exist, but were rather a legend passed between the different parts of his mind.
There was a ditch separating two fields and he found himself elbow deep in sludgy water. He could hear the drops drip into the ditch water as he pulled out his hands. He couldn’t see what was on them and he was glad of it. In the blinding darkness, Jonas could hear the wind knocking the reeds against each other, but the water was so still it made no sound. He heard the whisper of rustling stalks rolled across the field ahead of him. He could feel that it was close, sensed that it fell somewhere nearby and that with this last stretch he could reach it.
He climbed out of the depression and burst into the thicket of waste-high wheat. He pushed past the grass while he was pulled along on the invisible line he drew for himself. He was sure he had long veered off-course; made a circle. He was squinting and cringing in anticipation of finding himself tripping onto the highway again, and bleeding onto the asphalt in defeat. He would lie there until morning, when the lights would come on again and someone would find him. And then he would go home and watch the sun on TV and cry. He hadn’t cried since it started.
When he thought that he must have passed it, he almost did. Standing and wheezing, he looked down onto the faint glow pulsating from the broken soil. He fell to his knees, exhausted. The sweat stained his face and trickled down his back. He could taste it on his lips that were dry from heavy breathing. There was a sharp pain in his chest, and if he had fallen down then and died it would not have surprised him. Yet it had all begun to melt away. The pain faded, the sweat no longer bothered him. There was no sound and no more cold, and the wind had ceased to howl. Instead there was only the tranquility of a cocoon that wrapped itself around Jonas as the faint glow reflected in his pupils.
Gently, he pushed his trembling hands through the dirt and scooped it out. She was a perfect sphere. Alive with its own light, almost blinding and hurting. He looked around and saw that the wheat was still golden like it had been in August. The forest beyond the highway was flush with green, the trees looking like living giants instead of swaying skeletons. When he looked up he could see that the sky directly above him was tinted blue – a slight break that made it seem like the whole thing had cast off the shadow. He laughed. And he let his tears fall onto the star where they disappeared. For the first time since the sunset, it rained, and again the birds had begun to sing. Jonas knew how lucky he was to be there; he trembled at the thought. To be there when the raindrops pattered on the soil and the chirps filled the air. To be there clutching the precious fallen star. To be there when it started. A hailstorm of light.
Wanted to check in from my den during the Covid-19 lockdown/isolation/quarantine. I’m blessed in that I’m able to work from home and have my closest family under the same roof and am generally doing well. And even then I went pretty silent over the last two weeks because, let’s face it, it’s a lot to process.
I think it’s important to remember that it’s okay to feel how you’ve been feeling. This entry is the first time I took to my writing. Even though I don’t have a commute and so technically would have more access to free time, my writing requires a certain headspace and all the space in my head has been filled with news of the pandemic, as I’m sure it has for all of you.
So forgive yourself if you think you have all this newfound “free time” that you’re wasting. There’s nothing “free” about this time. It comes at a great cost, both globally in terms of those directly affected by the virus, and personally for all your anxiety you have for the world, your loved ones and yourself. I think accepting the fact that you may not be yourself could even help settling your mind and your mood so that you may be more productive in ways that you hoped you could be.
You may also find, like I have at times over the last couple of weeks, that nothing outside of the pandemic matters anymore. It certainly feels like it has smothered the world to be the singular thing of importance. My home conversations are often about Covid-19, my group chats are almost exclusively about Covid-19, all the social media that used to talk about sports, and politics and writing is pretty much all devoted to discussions of Covid-19. It’s a fascinating phenomenon to watch the world unite on a single topic, but at the same times it threatens to eclipse everything else.
Here is where you need to remember that writers are artists, and great art often arises out of dire circumstances as a beacon of hope for the world. Not only that, but we are also storytellers, and humans have sought comfort in stories since times immemorial. Now is not the time to put writing on the backburner because something bigger came along. Now is the time to channel your fears, anxieties and frustrations into something that could help others deal with this.
Write for yourself, to help get your mind off things. Write for others, to help them do the same. Sow hope and happiness and sunshine as much as you can, and forgive yourself if the burden of current events prevent you from doing what you love.
Most of this also applies to those of you out there who are not writers. Be kind to yourself and how you’re dealing with something humanity hasn’t really dealt with in over a century. You each might find your own method of coping, whether it’s dark humour, apathy, aloofness, despair. Don’t judge yourself, or others, with how you’re reacting and what you’re doing during your days. As long as we’re doing what we need to do to protect others from the pandemic, what you do with the rest of your time is mostly your business. We could be hunkering down for a long time, and we’ll face a lot of adversity, and as long as you don’t act like your own adversary, it would be that much easier to get through.
Best of luck everyone, and stay safe.
If I can’t talk about acceptances, which I have been starved for, receiving my last bit of good news almost two years, then I will talk about rejections. Specifically, rejections that include a few kind words that make me think I might not be so bad at this and should keep trying.
A couple of days ago, I received a standard Submittable rejection for one of my genre stories (fantasy? Magic realism? I’ve no clue, but I would put in the same bucket as my previously published “Ursa Major”). In any case, the editor of this particular journal decided to add a post scriptum to the email calling the main conflict in the story a bit vague, and suggesting that some rich world building was being crammed into story that yearns to be something else.
On the face of it, a rejection is still a rejection – there’s no success and no publication at the end of the day. But this is a silly and bleak way of looking at things, and I refuse to do that.
What I found here is two things to be happy about. The first is feedback. Almost any feedback is good feedback, and especially so for feedback that comes from an editor – someone who is steeped in the literary world and likely reading dozens if not more of these stories per week. It’s understandable that individual comments on each manuscript read are impossible, so consider that there was something about the story that caught their eye and motivated them to spend a bit of extra time to offer their opinion. Presumably the editor thought that it worth the effort to offer a helping hand to improve my writing. I choose to believe that it means the editor thought that my writing was worth improving. I think it’s great to walk away with this from a rejection – whether I use this to improve this specific story or the next one I write, I come away richer for it.
The second thing to hold onto is the encouragement hidden in the critique. In about 3,500 words I was able to create a world that seems to be yearning to grow. While perhaps this particular narrative doesn’t work, there is an idea in it that would pique someone’s interest. Great writing is a marriage of skill and idea, and the idea side of things is where I believe my current weakness lies. So hearing someone allude to the fact that I’ve had an idea here that may flourish better in wider pastures makes me think that I might not be completely hopeless on that front.
It may not quite have been the news I wanted to get, but this rejection letter is as important to my writing journey as meeting arbitrary daily writing goals or whatever other kinds of measure of success we place on ourselves as writers.
So here’s a big thank you to this particular editor, and any other editor that had taken a few moments to write some feedback and criticism. You folks make sure the creative world keeps running.
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.
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.