Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
I have something very exciting to share with you. Okay, I lied, I have something very exciting I’m about to share with you, and I wanted to introduce it. Those of you who have been following my blog will have acquired an awareness that I’m not primarily a genre author. Both the novel I’m currently editing and the one I’m currently writing can be best described as literary fiction. Not to say that I have any aversion to genre fiction. Most of my early short stories were science fiction (think really crappy Black Mirror episodes), and one project in particular has been growing in my head for a decade and a half now. And it’s this project that I want to talk to you about today.
Drops of the Black Sun has its roots all the way back in high school. Having grown up on Star Wars, Babylon 5 and to a certain extent everyone’s unfavourite Star Trek series, Voyager, I have always longed to create my science fiction or space fantasy universe. It was one of those ideas that I always believed in but knew for the longest time that I did not have the requisite ability to give it justice. It has suffered through many stages of the creative process since then.
I attempted to actually put it down on paper once, and never got past the first chapter. To give you a sense of how the project has evolved since then, not a spec from that original first chapter, except a couple of character names, has survived into the vision I currently have for it. I’ve bounced plot ideas off my friends for years, being met with everything from encouragement to “this particular thing makes no sense.” I took every piece of feedback I received and threw it into the cooking pot that Drops of the Black Sun has become.
For years I worked on additional plot lines, finding ways for them to intersect and grow in scope. I’ve worked out additional details of the universe going on for years in each direction to make the world seem more dynamic and “alive”. I rewatched Babylon 5, read and watched Game of Thrones, and the Kingkiller Chronicles and dabbled in the fine line between inspiration and plagiarism. I’ve noted similarities to other works and tweaked them into something different or else embraced them and made them my own.
It’s amazing how much goes into a piece of work that’s not necessarily “writing”, which again why I think one should not define their writing by soulless “words per day” goals. If you are truly a writer, then it doesn’t matter whether you have a pen in your hand. Your mind is always working through ideas and plot and dialogue. So much of a writer’s craft happens in their daily life, and I’ve extolled the virtues of this “off the page” writing on multiple occasions. However, every piece of advice can go too far.
Over the last few years, Drops of the Black Sun has been stuck in worldbuilding hell. I’ve convinced myself that I can only return to writing it once every meticulous detail is in place; only when every character has a name and complete biography, every alien race has a name and history and the all the star systems have been mapped and their political relationships defined. For some writers, this works, but in my case, the project was tied to an unrealistic goal.
And so as I was reflective on my last year in writing, on my successes and how to grow them, I decided that perhaps this would be a good time to stop procrastinating. I feel reasonably comfortable with the framework I have in place so that the story won’t get away from me, but at the same time, I need to start growing it organically.
So I’m excited to announce that starting next week, this blog will become the home to Drops of the Black Sun, which I will plan to release in somewhat irregular intervals over the course of the next whenever, since I will be posting it at the rate that I write it. I want to do this with a manageable schedule and in manageable chunks as I don’t want my other projects to be sidelined. But because this story is always itching to be written, I think this will be the perfect opportunity to allow myself an outlet, and finally share with the world something I have been working on for basically half my life.
So here’s hoping that it catches your eye, and that you stick around through the adventure.
A year ago, shortly before I started this blog, I was a writer with only a single published credit to my name – a third-place finish in a contest run by a trade journal. Just under a year later, I have three literary journal publication credits, and recently reached a new exciting milestone – my first publication in a physical printed journal.
Yesterday my copy of the Nashwaak Review Volume 40/41 arrived, and it contained one of the most exhilarating things for a writer – my name in print. Although I talked a bit about my short story “Nightfalls” and its acceptance last year, I once again want to thank everyone involved with the Nashwaak Review at St. Thomas University in New Brunswick who saw merit in my story and thought it was worthy to be published in their journal. Without your hard work and dedication, writers like me may never be able to find a platform to share their writing.
It was pretty exciting showing the journal off to everyone, and particularly pointing out to my kids their dad’s name in the journal. They’re both huge bookworms and it was such a special feeling showing them that their dad contributes to these things, too. The older one assumed it was a published version of the bedtime story I’ve been crafting for them for weeks, and I said maybe one day. Because this is a print publication I’m not able to share it with you directly, but you may find it at your local library if you’re in the New Brunswick area, or else order it from them directly. Either way, I wanted to talk a bit more about the story itself, hopefully serving up some helpful advice along the way.
Without retelling the whole story here, I first want to touch on what Nightfalls is about. The premise is that one day, the sun sets and it never rises again. Eventually, the light from the moon and the stars also disappears, and humanity is forced to create its own cycle of day and night by regularly shutting off all the lights and plunging the world into impenetrable darkness.
The story follows the protagonist, Jonas, as he struggles with his own feelings of hopelessness, despair, and apathy in a world cast into inexplicable darkness, until he discovers something that may just bring back a light of hope into a dark world. As you can see, an element of magic realism that was present in my first publication, Ursa Major, and to a lesser extent in Slippers, is also present in this story. It seems to be my most successful genre so far, which has got me to rethinking my writing lately.
Often I hear of new writers who say they’re bursting with creative energy, but they don’t know what to write. I think “Nightfalls” is the perfect example of the fact that inspiration can strike from anywhere. I was driving down a dark highway from a friend’s wedding, contemplating my existence up until that point, and wondered what it would be like if the streetlights up ahead were the only light left in the world. Granted, the formation of the story itself was more involved than that, but that is essentially all it took – a single thought on the drive home. So if you want to be a writer, and you’re searching for something to write, don’t try to have the next great novel implanted firmly in your head before you write the first word. All it takes is a single image, as ephemeral as a shooting star, to start putting your story together.
“Nightfalls” ended up being deeply personal to me. Though starting off as a casual thought it quickly grew into something bigger. If I recall the timing correctly, I had just graduated with my Bachelors and was ready to go to law school. I attended the wedding of a good high school friend and ruminated on the difference between my high school self and who I had become four years later, perhaps convincing myself I was now so mature when the next decade would bring arguably even bigger changes. I needed to both self-reflect, put a lid on some things, and do something kind at the end of a long journey. So I ended up gifting this story to my married friend and her husband.
While not a love story, “Nightfalls” is about hope, and every long-term relationship should be built in some way on hope. Hope for a limitless future with your partner. The story is about finding light at the end of a tunnel, and when you end up with someone you love as much as you love the whole world, that’s what it should feel like – that everything before was a little bit bleaker.
Nightfalls was written ten years ago and it showed its age. My writing had advanced significantly since then, and it underwent a couple of “post-completion” revisions over the years. My wife has long tried to convince me to leave my old writing alone. She is right of course but there was something about some of those old stories I couldn’t let go. So as I picked up my publication efforts in earnest earlier this year, I thought that now that I was in my thirties I would give some of them a final coat of polish, promising myself that if they didn’t get published in this form to just accept it and move on. I don’t know about you, but I develop a sort of familial attachment to old completed works, especially ones that have sat in the “good” pile for so long. It brings me immense joy to finally see it succeed.
But at the same time, I wound up sitting on conflicting feelings. On the one hand, I know I need to move on and not dwell over things conceived and written when I was essentially a different person. Yet on the other hand, I want to bring these stories to life and share them with the world. I think what it ultimately comes down to is the same thing that applies to any writing rules, and that is that there are no hard rules that are applicable to everyone in every situation. That’s why I recommend taking each piece of writing advice you sea not as a piece of a puzzle or another step in this grand instruction manual of writer-hood, but rather as an ingredient to throw in a pot. Some ingredients you use more, others less, the flavours interact with each other in different ways, and at the end of the day, you get the kind of writer that you’re comfortable with. So do you in the best way only you know you can.
Those of you who have been following this blog for a bit know that I’m still trying to figure out how best to use this resource. Which made me consider that even though I have expressed how important I think reading is for a writer, I haven’t said much about what I personally read. So I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to share, and given that it’s still early in the year, and I have already expressed how obsessed Russians are with their New Year’s stuff, I would put together a “Best of” list for 2018.
To start with a disclaimer, I want to say that due to work and home commitments, 2018 has been my worst reading year in about five years, so I won’t provide my embarrassingly short list of everything consumed and will try to conceal it as best as I can. I’m also one of those people who doesn’t care to distinguish between audiobook and written text. Sure, you’re technically not “reading” but you’re still consuming stories in a way that’s closer to reading than say, observing drama or television, so I think it counts. Having said that, I probably won’t be mentioning below which is which unless it’s relevant to my feelings on the book.
Anyway, without further preamble, here are some of the top books I’ve read in 2018:
Kingkiller Chronicle Day Two: The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. Earlier this summer I joined the legions of fans who are patiently waiting for the next book in the Kingkiller Chronicle saga. Fortunately, since my entry into this club is fresh, I am yet to join the other legions who are impatiently waiting for next one to come out. Either way, after taking several years to go through all the Song of Ice and Fire books, Kingkiller Chronicle is a refreshing read that doesn’t dwell on the doom and gloom. The world and character building is so detailed, however, that the pace of the books makes me think they need about 20 books and 200 years to finish. That said, despite the fact that I got myself into this fandom mess, I loved listening to this during my morning bike rides and runs. And knowing that Lin-Manuel Miranda is involved in an adaptation makes me all sorts of giddy for many reasons.
Nicholas St. North by Laura Geringer and William Joyce. Ever just see a book in a store and then tell your friends how ridiculous you thought it looked and they bought it for you for your birthday because they knew you secretly really wanted it? Well that’s how this children’s novel came into my possession and I’m so glad it did. It’s the adventures of young Santa Claus in the days that he could be described as a “ruffian” and a “thief”. How could you not want to read this? It’s the first book in the whole Guardians of Childhood series and I’m not sure I’ll be picking up any of the sequels, but at the same time I had fun with the ridiculous premise and jaunty execution. Could have foregone a full two-page spread crapping all over my ancestors, but that’s beside the point.
The Book was Better
Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan. This was one I listened to on Audible and I think the experience was enhanced by Todd McLaren’s gruff narration of this hard-boiled detective novel placed in a sci-fi setting with excellent worldbuilding. The core concept of the novel, where human consciousness can be transferred to a variety of physical bodies, or “sleeves” thereby creating near-immortality, is taken to some very interesting places by Morgan. The Netflix adaptation, which I still think is a decent piece of television, tries to both condense and expand on parts of the story with varying effects. Overall I think the changes in the adaptation lead to a more sloppy plot with holes and inconsistencies, so I would recommend giving the book a try first.
That Was Fun but Let’s Not Do This Again
The Stone Raft by Jose Saramago. Once upon a time, sometime in undergrad, I set myself a goal of sampling the work of each winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. What I was doing making such lofty goals when I couldn’t even keep up with the assigned reading in my English classes I’ll never know, but more than a decade later I’ve just cracked 25%. The thing about winners of the Nobel Prize, is that it the Prize itself has been criticized for picking obscure winners that are less than accessible to the general public. I’ve found my experience to be a mixed bag – I absolutely fell in love with the poetry of Tomas Transtromer but getting through Mo Yan’s Republic of Wine felt a big like running an uphill marathon drunk. Stone Raft, by 1998 winner Jose Saramago would fall somewhere in the middle of this scale. On the one hand, I quite enjoyed all the satire that grew out of the Iberian Peninsula’s sudden break-off and drifting out to sea, as it took digs at tourism, international and local politics and nationalism. On the other hand, his paragraph-long sentences and dialogue structure that’s presented in a single sentence with only commas indicating a change of speaker, was a challenge to say the least. Not to mention the multiple references to outdated gender norms which may or may not have been part of the satire but sometimes it’s hard to tell, you know. In the end, it was a book I was glad I had read. I don’t believe I’ve read anything by a Portuguese writer before, and it was nice to dive back into some magical realism while I myself am somewhat exploring the genre.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien. First off, this was an excellently written and deeply powerful novel with intricate characters that really brought the pain of their time to the surface. Well deserving of the Scotiabank Giller Prize that Thien won in 2016. So what exactly is my beef with it? The Cultural Revolution is downright terrifying. The ability of humans to turn on their neighbours, friends and even family in the name of survival is nearly limitless. And governments built on ideology, greed and a thirst for power can exploit that ability with frightening efficiency. So much of our western media, and particularly a relatively recent wave of young adult novels, portrays the eventual triumph over oppressive regimes. But if you want to read about hope dying under the treads of a tank, read Do Not Say We Have Nothing. For me, I’m going to take a short break from the bleakness of reality.
Che: A Revolutionary Life by Jon Anderson. Yes, probably the most “wtf” entry here. I’ve had a fascination with Cuba ever since I was a little kid, having visited a couple of times while my grandparents were stationed there during Soviet times (yeah, a whoooole many more stories coming out of this that I’ll save for later). So as part of my education on the subject I wanted to know a bit more about the Cuban Revolution’s most far-reaching figure. Some paint him as the devil, others as a saint, and I wanted a book that can do a good job of showing me where the middle was. Ultimately, the safest word you can use to describe Guevara is “complicated”. He led a fairly inauspicious life that blew up to global significance within a few short years. He somehow possessed a poetic love for humanity while also being completely numb to the value of individual lives when they face off against his political ideals. He managed somehow to both be a visionary and someone who often went way in over his head which resulted in disastrous consequences for millions of people.
As you can see, there’s lots of aspects of Guevara that can be picked apart into various fictional characters, and I’ve already begun the process with some of my works in progress. So at least in that respect I’m glad I read this.
As an aside, reading this book on and off over the last year also made me realize how important reading fiction is to my writing, and you can read more about that here.
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. The really influential thing here is actually the Hamilton musical, but I think Chernow’s voluminous biography rounded out that experience quite nicely.
Best Book of 2018
There There by Tommy Orange. For a few years now I’ve attended the Vancouver Writers Festival. Not only does it encourage me to buy books I normally wouldn’t have picked up, but also sometimes I buy a gem like this one. It’s been a while since I read anything that felt like a true page-turner for me, probably The Golden Compass, but this one I was just hooked. The interconnected stories of Native American characters living around the Oakland area pulled me in and wouldn’t let go. It was such a richly varied cast that it made me feel almost as though I was there, observing both the struggles with things like depression but also the hope that is built from family and community. The novel of course touched on sensitive issues that I can’t even begin to understand, lacking the perspective being a non-white minority as well as the original settlers of the land upon which white settlers built their country. We face very similar but somewhat different issues in Canada and our own Indigenous population is probably the most marginalized in our society. Admittedly, I’ve been on my own slow journey to understanding that is still far from complete, but I’m glad for books like this because they showcase how important novels are in changing the world.
I love New Year’s. As a Russian person I am pretty much obligated to obsess over it and structure my entire year around what happens on New Year’s Eve. There’s the Russian saying that “How you greet the New Year is how you will spend it” and this is just a hotbed for all sorts of neuroses and superstitions, which we Russians also excel at. And speaking of Excel, judging by my posts talking about bullet journal entries, it should come as no surprise that I have all sorts of spreadsheets that I use to collect data on my writing.
One such spreadsheet is my words-per-day log, which I have been keeping since 2005 though with a significant gap covering 2011-2015. That said, at the end of this year, I now have 9 years-worth of numbers, and since it’s just past New Year’s, and my obsession extends to all kinds of year-end lists and reviews, I thought I would download some of that obsession onto you and do a year in review about how much writing I had done this year
At a cool 100,000 words, this has been the most productive year since I started tracking. There is of course the disclaimer about the missing years but I doubt any of them came close. 2018 leaves second place (with only 69,000) in the dust. That year was 2008 and I spent the better part of the summer getting almost 50K words into a novel that I ultimately abandoned. Reaching this 100K milestone makes it a bit tough to have the 2019 top this output, but what’s life without a couple of challenging goals?
My most productive day was October 10 at 1634 words. Wish I knew what it is that I was eating on that day so I can replicate this success, but oh well. I have not broken 2,000 words since the long care-free days of having a lot of time on my hands during summer. That’s fine, there’s always next year and it’s not like I’m going to beat myself up over it. Sometimes I have a day where I feel like I could go north of 2,000 but other responsibilities come calling and that’s okay. Writing may be your life, but life is still bigger than your writing. Your muse won’t retire just because you told it that you need a break for a day or two.
Speaking of fickle muses. I spent 147 days not writing at all this year, most of them weekends, because face it, after I’ve put the kids to bed at the end of a long day all my brain is good for is to maintain vital bodily functions. This amounts for a seemingly horrifying 40% of all my days, but again, you can stare at the raw numbers and beat yourself up over it, or you can accept that you did your best in the circumstances. Sure, keep your eye on opportunities where you can write more, but I felt as though I had a decent writing year, and I’m going to go by the feeling, rather than the stats.
On a similar note, the least productive month were August and December with 14 days of not having written a thing. Both of these were due to going on vacation, and for some reason I have a really hard time getting down to writing, even though I have so much to say. I guess the best alternatively is to write about it when you get back. And either way, those months might seem weak, but 14 days is still getting to write any other day, and if you’re like me and hold down a day job, writing every other day is a pace to be proud of.
I know these kinds of numbers seem antithetical to the whole “write everyday” creed but man, love is such a complicated beautiful thing it's hard to find time to do the same thing every day even if it is something you love. Lesson here? Relax, right when you can and when you feel like it. Don’t make it a chore. There are plenty of those that will set hard targets for you making it sound as though you’ve completed failed as a writer if you didn’t meet those goals. I want to make it quite clear that I don’t subscribe to this kind of gatekeeping in writing.
Writing for me is a constant journey. It’s not just a hobby, or something I’ve set out to do merely to challenge myself. It’s one of the ways I see myself. And this is the main reason why I don’t encourage defining yourself with words and goals. They’re a fun part of record keeping, and a nice way to motivate yourself, but they can’t grow into more than that. I once fell into the trap of defining myself by my production and the only thing that did was hurt my production. If you see yourself as a kind and funny person, would you accept someone telling you that you need to do x number of good deeds per week or make x number of jokes a day to be allowed to see yourself as such. No. Your trait belongs to you, and so you get to define what it means for yourself.
That little word in my bio here, or on Twitter or Instagram that lists me being a writer alongside a father and a husband, and, to a certain extent, a lawyer, is not just a useful descriptor but goes to the essence of who I am. “Writer” is part of me, and like any part of a person, that part grows with me, it adapts with me, it responds to me as a person. So this year has not only been about putting words on paper, about starting novel projects or getting short stories published. It was also about learning and growing and moving forward wiser and hopefully better. I embraced my need to outline before I can launch myself into a project. I ruminated on where writing fits into my life and my relationship with my loved ones. I’ve worked out a way to get out of some instances of writers block.
So in the end, I’m super excited about the words I will commit to paper in 2019, about the projects I will start and I will finish (fourth draft of my novel, perhaps?), but most importantly, I look forward to all the things I might learn, and to share them with you here.
As recently as my previous post I mentioned that I had a few short stories accepted earlier last year that were still waiting on their publication. Well I had a pretty pleasant start to the new year and am happy to report that “Slippers” has now been published on the Prairie Journal website. You can find it at the following link by clicking my name in the left column that lists author names under “2019” and then selecting “Slippers” rather than “Biography” from the drop down that appears: "Slippers" on the Prairie Journal website.
I can’t express enough the gratitude I have to the Prairie Journal editors who have found merit in my story and have so kindly helped me share it with the rest of the world. Also quite happy that it’s an online publication so I can easily share with you all another piece of my writing.
“Slippers” had originally been written as an entry to The Advocate’s annual short story competition. The Advocate is a publication for British Columbia lawyers that includes academic writing, columns and local legal news, but also does this annual writing competition where each submission has to be at least tangentially related to something about the law. The Advocate was actually the publication that gave me my first big break. Back in 2013, my short story “Spider Silk” won third place in the competition and was published in their July issue.
“Spider Silk” was a dense story into which I managed to pack the entire court proceedings for an emancipation application of a domestic android. His main argument? He was in love, and therefore deserved the same rights as humans, instead of being sold for parts because his owner hit some rough financial times. It was a soft science fiction story (or is it “speculative fiction”? I can’t keep up) reminiscent of my earlier writing in terms of content but obviously not in writing quality otherwise it would have never gotten published.
I had prepared a number of short story for the same contest since then but none have won. With “Slippers”, it wasn’t much a surprise – the connection to law is fairly remote considering the winners that get picked year after year, and the protagonist could have been easily working in any number of high-demand professions.
I guess this story would have come about when I started feeling my first pangs of burnout at the law firm, before I’d taken any of the steps to get out and go in-house. That would explain why I don’t exactly treat that type of work-life “balance” kindly in the story.
As for the story itself, I’m afraid there’s not much more than meets the eye, unlike my long-winded rant about everything that went into my last published story, "Ursa Major". I wanted to explore this sense of emptiness that comes with the loss of a loved one. The emptiness was then contrasted with the personified demons that move into the house in earnest and fill in the empty space. It is a story about the dark that invades when the light retreats, and how to find that spark to push back the demons once more.
Fun fact here is how I visualized the little demons that haunt my protagonist. I based them largely on the gremlin that takes apart the school bus from that “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” parody in the Simpsons’ Little Treehouse of Horror IV, except without the hair and the overbite. Probably one of my first early clues of how much animation is an influence on my writing and how my writing works best when imagined as animation rather than “real life”. This is a realization that has been slowly dawning on me over the last year and I’m sure I will share more about that later.
So there it is, hope you have enjoyed my story and a little peak into the process behind it. Hopefully there are many more to come.
For those of you that have been following me over the last year, you would have seen me talk about how seriously I have taken my publication efforts this year. To be clear, I don’t have any finished novels as of today, so these efforts have focused on my short stories.
In 2018, through perseverance in the face of an endless string of rejections, many lunchtimes spent in front of Netflix and publisher websites and with, of course, a little bit of luck, I managed to get my short story, Ursa Major, published on the Passages North website.
I’ve received another three acceptances since then, though none of them have yet to culminate in actual publications, but by early summer, I found that I exceeded my own expectations for the year. And I’m glad that left me flying high, because it seems that my well of good luck was tapped dry. Since then it’s been an endless string of rejections, and because of my very concerted efforts to keep sending submissions, the rejections have been a real deluge in the latter half of 2018 (by the way, the busiest time for these has been Christmas, so … thanks for that, I guess?).
So this is when you stare at all those unfortunalies and regretablies and “pls delete this number” (okay, that one didn’t happen but I’m not the only one who reads this in between the lines, right?) and dig deep for a little self-administered pep talk.
Firstly, you’re never alone. Not to say that you can’t indulge in complaining and self-pity once in a while just because everyone experiences it, but that you don’t have to feel so lonely about it. You’re not the most miserable writer in the world because you received three rejections in one week. We’re all out there doing more or less the same thing, pouring our hearts and souls into a piece of writing that we then willfully submit for the judgement of others.
Sometimes we’ll get unequivocal but politely-worded ‘no’s, but sometimes even in the rejection we’re able to find a ray of light. It was one of these instances that prompted me to write this post – three short words that can act as a hook to hang my hopes on.
A couple of months ago I mailed a short story to a fairly prestigious journal (I don’t want to name names because I’m not sure what the etiquette is on that but let’s just say if they ever publish me I will be pretty dang ecstatic). I checked the mail on New Year’s Eve and found an envelope that was addressed to me in my own handwriting. I still get this giddy feeling of excitement and dread any time I get one of my self-addressed envelopes back, and it makes me miss the days when most submissions were done by mail rather than through Submittable or other online submission portals.
As I’m opening the envelope, I can tell the contents is pretty thin so I kind of know what to expect at that point, and out falls a small piece of paper that accounts for their form rejection letter. The name of the short story is handwritten at the top, the generic rejection text apologizes for the form letter, but at the bottom of the note they added a short message: “Try us again”.
I don’t live in a world of four and five-star Amazon reviews, or bestseller lists, or author signing tables. I live in a world where three short words like “try us again” can mean the difference between looking down and looking up. It means there’s an editor out there who chose not to publish my story, but gave me hope that it was mostly the work of serendipity. They, who read hundreds if not thousands of short stories a year, asked me to send them one more, and that to me means the world.
It’s a funny feeling, trying to build some wings out of such a small phrase, but therein lies my advice to you. I think there is a temptation among writers, especially those starting out, to glamorizing the suffering of the art. We shouldn’t derive inspiration from the grind, or from proving ourselves or others wrong, or from whatever sense of suffering and conquest we feel as we write.
Instead, look for the brightness that breaks through the dark. Did someone like your turn of phrase? Did they complement you on your vocabulary? Did they point out how concise that email was? Did anyone ever say to you “well said” or to “keep writing”? Take every single one of these instances and build yourself a fire. Even if you’re not finding traditional writing success, this is what makes you a writer. The world isn’t able to ignore what you are and in that you can find comfort.
Don’t clutch those rejections tightly but let them flow through you, discarding them like autumn leaves ready for the spring buds. So with that simple note that arrived on the eve of the new year, I have my motto for the next one: try us again. And with that, I will keep trying. I will continue my existing efforts of getting published, I will write more new stories, and I will try new things that may or may not succeed. And I encourage you to do the same: forget Yoda’s “Do or do not, there’s no try” and build all those tries into a ‘do’.
There are times when I occasionally want to write out a scene without any intention of it growing into anything bigger. I think of these little side projects as self-inflicted writing prompts. Depending on my mood, they may be more or less like free-writes, but the goal is to just write without much concern over how it would fit into a short story or a novel. Sometimes they are a tidbit of lore from a larger work, but again, they’re written for the sake of writing, and can always be reworked (even if I’m just using the tip of the iceberg) into something else. Since I have no intention of incorporating these little writing assignments into anything, I figured that this blog would be the perfect place to share them.
This particular piece came out of me brainstorming what I would make “a lonely New York Christmas” look like. So without any further backstory, here a piece called “Silence”. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays everyone, my next update will come in the newly minted 2019.
The peppermint stick came to rest against the lip of a mug that proudly bore the epithet “novelty-sized”. Carefully dipping the tip of her tongue into the hot chocolate, Nora decided that it was just on the right side of scalding, and should last for the whole opening of the movie, in time for Buddy the Elf to walk through the Lincoln Tunnel after crossing the sea of swirly twirly gum drops. The movie had been her fireplace since she was a kid – the radiant glow she could warm herself with during the holiday season.
Nora crossed the three steps from her kitchen counter to the couch, which was another generous two steps from the door to her bedroom. The snow was heavy enough to fall through the narrow gap between her building and the one next door and the fat flakes outside the window glittered in the reflected glow of the television set.
Her phone responded to her readiness to settle in for the evening by ringing. His name came up on the caller ID, and after a game of chicken with the answering machine, she finally picked up. Following an exhausted silence, the voice on the other end of the line spoke, “Nora?”
She took another deep breath before acknowledging his existence. “Yes, Spencer?”
“I’m in New York.”
It wasn’t the opening she had hoped for but at the same time it didn’t surprise her. Her patience for her older brother’s voice was limited and if this was what he was going to spend it on, then she was glad to know he hadn’t changed a bit and she could continue to brood on her feelings guilt-free.
“Okay,” then, magnanimously, “for how long?”
“Okay.” She wished there was a verbal equivalent of texting someone with a lowercase ‘k’, but this had to do. She wondered why he was calling, today of all days, after more than three years of silence, and then a thought struck her. “You’re just stuck overnight because of the snow, aren’t you?”
After the guilty sigh from the other end of the line finally came she put her phone in her lap and looked at it with her thumb poised over the hang-up button. Faint whimpering sporadically emanated from the receiver, including a drawn out “Hello?” She blamed the overwhelming smell of peppermint, and the twinkling of multicoloured lights from the neighbour’s window, for her putting the phone to her ear again. “What?”
“It’s Christmas Eve,” he stated matter-of-factly, as if it was the only reminder she needed to invite him over for some hot ham and turkey, so they could drink spiked eggnog and reminisce about that hilarious time he moved out without even warning her.
“Merry Christmas?” There was only a faint trace of a question, as if the question mark had been hastily erased but its ghostly outline remained.
“Merry Christmas I guess.”
“So what are you up to?” He permitted a bit of pep, a morsel of hope, to enter his voice.
“It’s Christmas Eve, Spencer,” she got up from the couch and walked to the window. An inch of snow had settled on the lid of the dumpster below, “I’m out with friends.” Yes, at the quietest house party ever thrown in Manhattan.
A lot had been dredged up the moment she saw the caller ID, memories she thought she was doing a good job of burying. Waking up that morning and finding a note slipped under her bedroom door, saying he couldn’t handle their parents anymore, paragraphs explaining what he had to endure as if she hadn’t seen it herself and was with him on the receiving end all her life, failing to even casually slip in a hint of apology. The three months it took her to finish her senior year and then another three before she scraped together enough money and courage to move out. Hearing from mutual friends rumours about how well he seemed to be doing while she went through the gauntlet of humiliating first jobs in a city that had too many stories like hers to care for her personally. Finally feeling settled into her new life even though most dinners were prepared in the microwave and Christmas Eve was spent with a Will Ferrell movie. Pushing deep inside the bile she tasted whenever she imagined her role model and protector just chickening-out one morning and leaving her to grow up overnight and learn to fend for herself. And the pride knowing that wherever he was, she had more dignity crammed into her tiny apartment then he would ever get to know for the rest of his life. The things she imagined she would get to tell him if they ever came face-to-face to remind him that he never even deserved a sister.
She stirred her hot chocolate. It was no longer perfect, but it was not the only thing that cooled. With his pathetic little ‘oh’, that betrayed all the guilt that went into delaying this call and then finally making it, her anger had cracked as well. The first couple of rocks shifted as a precursor to a landslide that she knew she now had no hope of stopping.
“Yes?” Another clattering of rocks.
She let him ruminate for a long moment on a deep sigh.
“Next time you’re in New York … call me.”
He spoke more eloquently with his silences than he ever could with his own words.
“Thanks,” and after a pause, “Bye Nora.”
“Goodbye Spencer,” she said and hung up.
She put her phone on silent and placed it on the kitchen counter. Outside, a siren wailed through the streets. Someone was having a worse Christmas Eve than she was.
Spencer was right. He never said anything, he never had to in front of her, but he was right. She let herself grow deaf to his prolonged silence. Across the city, and soon to be across the country, they shared something again. A faint shimmering star of hope. And the responsibility to keep its little flame alive.
Between writing, my day jobs, and having two small kids, I go out to the movies once in approximately never, but when I do, I always seem to have a lot to say about them. I think the last movie I had seen was Solo and I immediately went here to defend it against the hordes of fans who hate on any post-Disney Star Wars content. By some weird coincidence that only solidifies the suspicion that I’m a studio shill, the most recent movie I watched was Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck It Ralph 2; may the person who thought of this unwieldy monstrosity of a title get a hangnail, or something.
Any time I watch a Disney film, it’s an event. The previous two that have come out, Moana and Coco, are not only currently sitting as my top 2 favourite animated films of all time, they are both easily in the top 10 favourite movies in general. I think you get the picture. I’ve already previously mentioned that we’re a Disney family but you will eventually learn just how deep this rabbit hole goes.
Anyway, back to Ralph Breaks the Internet, or let’s just go with WIR2 for short. Although it was a very special experience in that it was the first movie my youngest has seen in the theatre, and that my four year old kept his Pikachu stuffy in the cupholder of his seat the entire time except for the scary scenes where he would put down his popcorn and clutch that electric mouse like his life depended on it, I would not call the experience magical, at least not in the same way that I could call other recent Disney experiences.
As far as the Disney Studios animated films, we’d have to dig back as far as Bolt to find one I enjoyed less than this. Now don’t get me wrong, I still think this is a good film and would recommend watching it. When stacked against some other studios that produce animated films this would be a great movie by their standards. But I started to get used to was that films like Moana, Zootopia and Tangled or Pixar ones like Inside Out and Coco, is that the movie itself had left an imprint. I would walk out of those feeling like the movie was a transformative experience because I knew right away that it would influence my writing, or my outlook on life, or simply contain emotional experiences that I would want to revisit over and over again. But WIR2 contained none of that for me.
I could feel something was wrong about twenty minutes in, this discomfort at not being sucked in entirely into the story. In fact, that seemed to be the problem, I was acutely aware that I was being told a story instead of being absorbed by it and taken along for the ride. Granted, I have long feared this movie coming out, not exactly being enticed by trailers or the prospect of a sequel. So maybe some of this initial suspicion was on me, but the feeling never left. Throughout the whole film I felt as though I was being deliberately walked through the elements of the story. Here is their friendship, here is the strain in their friendship, here is the inciting incident, here is a sprinkling of character development. These are of course all legitimate parts to a story but I should not be so aware of them.
I shouldn’t have to listen through dialogue such as “your guys’ friendship is like this” or “you’re my friend, so you shouldn’t do this.” It was all so on the nose that towards the climax of the film a character was basically talking to themselves out loud listing all the things about friendship that they learned throughout the movie. So much of this sounded more like placeholder titles for scenes than actual fleshed-out storyboarding by Disney’s usually brilliant writers.
I think in part due to this lack of naturalness and authenticity, the movie failed to connect with me on that emotional level. Sure, there were emotional scenes but they never quite got to that next level. I think one of the low moments was supposed to have been Ralph reading a bunch of mean comments about himself on social media, but this is a kids’ movie folks, and you and I have probably had waaaaaay worse said about ourselves at some point in our lives. Compare it to the scene in the first one where Ralph, with his bare hands, destroys Vanellope’s car in order to protect her, but being unable to explain himself while she’s screaming in mental anguish about the betrayal and her lost opportunity. That’s emotional. Reading “ralph stinks” is not.
And I feel as though Disney failed to provide their stars with a proper supporting cast. Granted, they avoided a common sequel pitfall in that they didn’t just milk the side characters for the same jokes without any character development, and left Fix-It Felix Jr. and Calhoun on the sidelines for almost the entire movie. But if you’re going to do that, you need someone memorable to replace them with, and sadly, that was lacking. Yesss and Shank were cool characters, but that was pretty much where their merits stopped – neat concept with a slick execution.
And no offence to Gal Gadot, I absolutely loved her in Wonder Woman, but I’m not entirely sure that voice acting was the right choice. For folks like John C. Reilly (Ralph), Jack McBrayer (Fix-It Felix) and Jane Lynch (Calhoun), their voices are very distinct, but when they’re playing their characters, I still hear the characters and not the actors behind them. Yet with Gal Gadot, the whole time I was like, oh, there’s Gal Gadot doing a Gal Gadot character. Maybe it’s because the character she was given to bring to life was as two dimensional as the old Fix-It Felix Jr. arcade game, but that’s just how I felt.
Again, I feel obligated to pause here and say that I still enjoyed the movie. This post is more just the ramblings of an overly-invested fan. The movie was much better than I thought it might be. Okay, fine, that doesn’t sound like a glowing recommendation, but seriously, I had a lot of fun. The internet jokes are at risk of becoming dated, but in this day and age they weren’t groan or cringe worthy. What a time to be alive when “screaming goat videos are back” is a reference that moviegoers actually get.
They heavily-promoted Disney princess reunion had just the right amount of meta and self-aware jokes to be funny, and given the premise of the movie it didn’t feel forced. After all, Vanellope is a princess in a Disney movie and is yet shut out of the club when Merida gets to hang out like one of the crew.
The movie took some great characters and moved them forward and actually added to both the world and the story, unlike a lot of sequels. But here I am wanting something more and I’ve convinced myself that I didn’t get it.
So this probably puts me on Mickey’s naughty list, but hopefully I get to keep my fan card. I’ve gotten quite vested in their movies after not having grown up on them, and Moana, which also intersects with another obsession of mine, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is probably one of the most influential pieces of storytelling in my life. So hopefully I’m just making a tempest in a tea cup here, but with the next scheduled movie being Frozen 2, colour me a little apprehensive.
Talking about writer’s block feels a bit like talking about being tired. We’re all tired, we’re always tired, talking about it won’t fix it, and in the end, no one cares. However, given that it has been scientifically proven that if a writer doesn’t spend at last half their waking hours lamenting about writer’s block, they literally detach from the cosmic plane and stop existing, I feel I need to put my quota in lest I suffer such a gruesome fate.
For me, writer’s block doesn’t feel like a wall, rather, it’s more like a writer’s valve. Some days, the valve is open full blast, others days, it’s a moderate stream, or a trickle, or we’re in complete shutdown mode and I’m staring at an empty Tweet for five minutes convinced that I have lost the ability to communicate. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve suffered through one of these partial shutoffs. It’s not like I couldn’t write anything, but my production was slowed. And when I did write, I generally didn’t feel good about the product. I mean, I know that’s what editing is for, but it still doesn’t feel good, you know?
As the calm rational individual that I am, I go into full panic mode every time my fingers don’t go berserk the moment they hit the keyboard. Am I sleeping enough? Of course not. Am I eating atrociously? Absolutely (screw you, never-ending Halloween leftovers). Is work super busy and invading my thoughts? Wouldn’t be myself without it. Yet none of this really any different than the status quo, so what’s the problem. Why is my creativity so sluggish that the new novel that I was so excited for just a month ago now has placeholder dialogue like “Sergei says something” and “Then Andrei says something”? I couldn’t answer it, until yesterday.
So what happened yesterday? Despite having no sleep, snacking ferociously and being up to my eyeballs in work, I had a breakthrough in that same dialogue, and managed to move the conversation through poking fun of the protagonist and discussed shitty pirated Russian dubs from the 1990s. It wasn’t perfect but I was happy with the result since the scene was now moving along after a couple of weeks of grinding to an almost complete halt.
So here’s my theory: my reading feeds my writing. Now, it’s a pretty common sentiment that to be a good writer you need to be a good reader, and I subscribe to that. I’m not going to put some arbitrary gatekeeping minimum that writers should read, but I do believe a good writer needs to read. Yet this idea hasn’t quite hit home as it did now.
For about the last month, my leisure reading has consisted of finishing up a biography I had been reading on and off since last October. Now, we’re talking about a 730 page dense tome written in a very different writing style than fiction. So the period of me reading this biography in earnest coincides approximately with the length of my latest bout of writer’s block. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to crap over non-fiction. While the bulk of my reading comprises fiction novels I do enjoy the occasional non-fiction book and biography and find them both educational and useful in my craft. But dig this: the moment I finish this book and read the first twenty pages of The Hate U Give, the very next day the valve is opened and my writing pours out.
Of course, this could be pure coincidence but I choose not to see it that way. As much as a biography is great writing it’s not the writing I do. It doesn’t really contain dialogue, it doesn’t set the scene in the same way, and the “plot” while mostly linear has its own ways of meandering that’s not reflective in fiction. Maybe it is a little worrying that my “writing muse” is so fickle that it leaves whenever I spend more than a couple of weeks not reading fiction, but hey, writers are a fickle folk. For me, this has been a lesson to not stay away from reading fiction for too long, unless I want to see that writer’s valve tighten on me again. Variety is the spice of life and maybe here I need to take a more organized approach at keeping myself spiced up. Some might balk at any suggestion that I should regiment myself, but if Douglas Coupland can recommend eating dark chocolate to get those writing juices going, then I will fully endorse reading good fiction as a possible cure for writer’s block.
As I’m sure a lot of other writers do, I like to embrace some of the stereotypes that are associated with being a writer. Since I’m a creative type, this must mean that I thrive in a little chaos, since over-organization will stifle my creative spirit. While I might feel as though this is true, I also know that if I fully submit to my propensity towards the “creative mess” or “tvorcheskiy besporiadok”, as they say in Russian, nothing will get done. The only solution to this is to organize myself … creatively.
In an earlier entry I described one of the ways in which I do just that – when I turned thirty, I downloaded a lot of my organization into a bullet journal, which tracks and logs various aspects of my life. I went into detail about my exercise tracker, which alas is not as colourful now that the autumn months and my wife’s new school semester have kicked in, but today I want to talk about one of the entries that specifically relate to my writing:
As you can see, the reason I chose to talk about this entry now is that I had just completed a six-month spread of May through October 2018. If it looks familiar, that’s because I featured it briefly in that introductory post, but I figured I’d go into more detail here.
Primarily this entry is organized by month, day, and type of activity. The activities are broken down into eight categories – used to be seven but I recently added the eighth and finally filled-up that empty column.
Of the eight activities, three are purely “content creation” – novel, short story and blog. That is, any time I write new words for any of these, I earn my check mark for the day. This interacts with my “Words per Day” bullet journal entry, but I can discuss that one in greater detail later. Note that I don’t break these up by works within the categories. For example, I’m currently working on two novels, but any additional words to a “novel” are just categorized in this column.
“Editing” usually relates to the three categories described above. Any time I take a draft of whatever has already been written and start tweaking it, the check mark for that column was earned. It was my choice to collapse the editing across genres into a single column, but I suppose you can be extra and subdivide each of the genres into “writing” and “editing” columns.
“Outlining” was added quite recently as a result of my realization that I need to outline in order to get any projects off the ground. So I wanted to separately track this activity in order to make sure I’m not lapsing and that I’m working towards having a robust outline by the time I need to launch into a new project. Due to the nature of outlining, both editing and adding words to an outline would earn me a check mark for this.
“Poetry” is also one of those categories that collapses outlining and adding words. I feel it’s kind of pointless counting the word count for poetry because it tends to be shorter, and because I find that for me 95% of the work on it is revising. Not that I know much about poetry. As you can see, poetry doesn’t get much love. I had to flip back all the way to January 2018 before I could locate the most recent check mark. But I have to admit that sometimes I get a feeling or an idea that seems to beg to be expressed in verse, and off I go to my handy poetry notebook where I jot down some words and then edit them again and again and again until I’m too intimidated to go back and try to sift through the scribbles to find some finished product.
And this bullet journal entry remains as a reminder that this notebook exists somewhere and I should probably go back to it and finish the poems some day.
And speaking of using the journal as a reminder to do things, the “blog” column is exactly that. It existed for over a year before I actually put this blog online, serving as an almost daily reminder that I have been meaning to undergo this task. So I would say not only does this spread serve as a tracker, but it could be used for goal-setting as well.
“Side Project” is really the “miscellaneous” category. This can range from things like work memorandums that I deem to require a sufficient amount of creativity to working on my alternate North American history project that I have no intention of utilizing in any way except for fun. For this reason “side project” also often contributes to the word count tracker when it can’t be fit into any of the other categories.
This leads us into “Publication” which is meant to capture those times that I work in some way or another on career management. Presently, this involves spending time on my short story publication efforts, such as searching for new journals or submitting the stories, either online or through the mail. It can be a daunting task sometimes, especially in the face of all the rejections that steadily trickle in now that I have so many stories submitted somewhere. It can be a discouraging task, but this bullet journal entry assists me in keeping focus and not staying away from the efforts for too long.
So that about wraps it up. As you can see, this bullet journal spread helps me keep on track, to set goals and to see which parts of my craft I may have been neglecting. Not to mention that it provides me with statistics about my own writing, and statistics are fun no matter how much my Psych stats prof tried to convince me otherwise. It could easily be adapted to whatever kind of writer you may be – if you never plan on touching a short story in your life, no need to include this column. Hopefully this might inspire you to pick up your own bullet journal and give it a shot, or set up your own spread that works for you.
Wanted to also make a quick note on the title of the entry. It’s a reference to some of the material in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. While not a magic number, he posits that is about how many hours most experts require to actually become masters at a certain activity. Oh, and it’s the title of an awesome Macklemore song. Pretty sure I’m yet to clock my 10,000, but this’ll help me get there.
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.