Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
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.
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.
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.
Today I want to introduce you to a novel project that has been very dear to me for quite some time. I’ve recently discussed my struggle with transitioning into my next novel, and blamed this on my addiction to outlines. A half-dozen ideas are all percolating still in my mind for varying lengths of time, but one project has now crossed the magic 10,000 word threshold for when I consider a novel to actually be in progress. And the two main reasons why this one seemed to pull ahead are that it’s my oldest unwritten projects that I’ve had and because, unlike the rest, it has a fully-fleshed out outline. Old dogs, am I right?
The novel doesn’t yet have a working title, partly due to the fact that titles are a bit of a weak spot of mine (or one link in a chain mail armor of weakness). What it does have is a code title for the document, so for ease-of-reference let’s just use that until something more acceptable comes along than “Maple Vodka”. The reason why I refer to it as “Maple Vodka” will become clear soon enough, but first let me tell you a meandering background tale that I insist, at least to myself, will not bore you to death.
As you’ve seen from my introduction to my first novel, Wake the Drowned, I brew ideas sometimes for years at a time before they ever see their first words committed to paper. Like Wake the Drowned, Maple Vodka has its roots from over a decade ago.
I was still riding the high of having one of my short stories adapted into a short film, an adventure whose telling is best left for another day, and was trying to explore the lucrative screenwriting career I was obviously going to have. Back then, the regrettable Kevin Spacey’s production company, Trigger Street Productions, ran a peer-review site for amateur screenwriters. The premise was if you read and reviewed other people’s scripts, you could eventually post your own script and have it reviewed by complete industry noobs like yourself. For a year I eagerly worked to add my piece of garbage onto the communal landfill (to be perfectly honest, I did read a couple of scripts that were, in my opinion, worthy of Hollywood productions, but the overwhelming majority was similar to my own puerile attempt).
After having that script excoriated by the reviewing community, I decided to move onto my next project. This one would serve two purposes – my next script to be offered up to the Trigger Street masses, and also a way of outlining my next novel. As an outline, this was actually a decent idea because it allowed me to hash out my dialogue, which at the time was by far the weakest point of my writing. So I wrote up the first couple of scenes, made the most skeletal of outlines, and like every other large scale project I touched up until that point, off it went into the Land of the Forgotten, sort of.
When I decided to take Wake the Drowned to an agent, I thought I would hedge my bets. After bits and pieces of my novel swam around in my head for about four years, on a long walk around the city I decided to hash out the same full outline that I did for Wake the Drowned. The idea was snuck into my email to the agent and because they never addressed it, instead choosing to opine on Wake the Drowned, nothing came of that outline, but it sat there for years on my hard drive whispering into my ear every so often.
It's both a project that I’m excited to write, and one that terrifies me in its scope. I describe it simply enough – an alternative biography, a sort of personal alternate history. At least, that’s how it started.
Imagine if, at the age of thirteen, I never moved to Canada. What kind of person would I have become? What parts of my personality and my future were shaped by my environment and what was inherent to me? Could I really be considered the same person? These are all the questions my protagonist, Paul, ponders during one of his identity crises, until one morning he wakes up, and finds out he never actually moved to Canada and has to deal with the person that he became in his native country. You see? Russian immigrant in Canada? Maple Vodka? As far as working titles go, I’ll say this one isn’t half bad.
In the decade since I first thought of this idea, there have been significant changes, both to myself and my story. Firstly, even though it was going to be a literal exploration of what I would have been like if I had not moved, Paul had slowly diverged from me in terms of personal experiences and personality. Sure, he still shares a lot of my childhood experience and certain traits, but changes needed to be made to provide at least some objective separation, and artistic liberty was required.
The novels relationship to the origin/destination dichotomy had also shifted. The novel was conceptualized to show a very obtuse picture of Canada being good and Russia being bad. But the country I had not visited in almost twenty years has changed in unprecedented ways. At least in Moscow, beautification projects have changed the face of the city, modern apartment blocks repaved outdoor farmers’ markets, pedestrian crossings have transformed the streets.
But at the same time, whatever hope remained in the 90s seemed to have been sapped. The country has reshaped itself as a pariah, as one against the world, steering the people against external enemies instead of the internal ones sitting at the top of the food chain. Not only that, but I myself have developed a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between person and place. We are a product of our own free will as much as we are about where we are from. The novel has thus become more introspective to the main character.
So as I’m starting to work my way through the first quarter of the novel, all these things are rearing up and threatening to scare me away into safer waters, you know, the ones where I’m bouncing from idea to idea unable to commit. I’ve embraced the challenge of writing about a country I personally haven’t been to for more than half my life, but one that has given me an inexorable part of the soul that longs to write. I’ve got a few windows into Russia I can still use, so I’m not flying completely blind. I also know that this can’t be a long-winded essay about my own opinions. Paul needs to be real to me, he needs to be thrown in this situation and genuinely try to find his way out of it, to genuinely react to the face that he sees in the mirror.
So there it is, what is likely to become my second novel if things go well.
Meanwhile, I should write some outlines, otherwise I’ll have nothing to do once this one is done.
I have recently put the finishing touches on the third draft of my first novel, Wake the Drowned. It’s been a process that has lasted almost two years, so I hope that not only did I improve the manuscript, but actually managed to learn something along the way. So without further introduction, here is an arbitrary number of writing tips I have distilled out of the editing process for draft 3.
Tip 1: Just let it spill out
Self-editing as you go is probably one of the worst sins a writer can commit against themselves. I still find myself, during what should be a breezy first draft, questioning “is this scene dragging on too long?” or “wouldn’t this be better in another part of the book?” or “does this aside actually serve any purpose?” These are all extremely valid questions and answering them will go a long way to improving your work. However, they shouldn’t be asked at the writing stage and are best left for the editing stage.
I spent years writing the first draft of the novel. And then another year editing it into the second draft. You’d think with all the self-editing I did along the way, everything would have come together by then. Wrong. So much of draft 3 did not just involve editing for phrasing or brevity. I was moving around chapters, adding new chapters, merging chapters from different parts of the book into each other. All that time that I spent overthinking as I wrote was largely wasted, because difficult decisions are being made right now.
So when you’re writing that first draft, just write. Put down every scene you think of writing onto the page. At least now it’s there, saved, and ready to be dealt with later. Then, when you’re editing, apply a liberal does of the following tip, and then you’ve done yourself and your work a great favour.
Tip 2: Be merciless
My first draft clocked in at about 95,000 words, and after the first set of revisions, the second draft came it at around 73,000 – that’s almost a quarter of the original manuscript gone, so I thought I was in a good spot.
The third draft of the novel included additional chapters and material that amounted to approximately ten thousand words, yet the length of the manuscript remained unchanged. That means through this edit, another 10,000 words came off the books. Now a full third of the original was gone. Granted, this process was gradual and didn’t feel so drastic, but think about what this means. Imagine writing 32,000 words and then just … deleting them.
Not everything you write will be gold, and part of editing is panning for that gold so that the end product is a distillation of your writing. Imagine yourself as an athlete with the ability to take away some of your failed attempts. Imagine the career you could have. This is presented to you as an option in writing, so it would be a crime against yourself to not seize the opportunity. Cut. And don’t let the writer you used to be dictate what your writing should look like.
Tip 3: There no such thing as too slow
Slow and steady wins the race. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. On the surface, all platitudes to make yourself feel better about procrastination, but I found them to be strangely true.
Yes, looking back at the fact that I finished writing the first draft in 2015 and it’s been more than three years later and I’ve only made it through two major revision cycles may sound a wee bit discouraging, but what’s the rush? I’ve got a day job, a family, *gasp* other hobbies. I can’t afford to throw myself in, to marry myself to the “writer’s lifestyle” whatever that might mean to you. So why should I be hard on myself for taking my time?
I’m in my early thirties. I’m still learning life, still reading, still improving my writing. They still make “Top 40 Writers Under 40” lists so I’ve got a lot of room here. No one wins a lifetime achievement awards for a decade worth of work. No one writes an autobiography before they’re twenty. Okay, that last one may not be true, but you get the point.
Tip 4: You are not an ostrich
It’s easy to breeze through an edit, correcting typos, changing wording, maybe even tweaking dialogue to make it more natural. But then you get to a page, or maybe a whole scene, and something just doesn’t feel right. Maybe it’s the pacing, or maybe it doesn’t serve the plot, or maybe the tone is wrong or the characterization is inconsistent. Maybe it’s just a feeling that something is amiss. Do you a) wrack your brains about how to fix the problem, or b) do you stick your head in thee send and pretend you didn’t see anything.
I’ve certainly done the latter with some of my previous edits and have paid for it in this draft. I’ve already got my eye on the next draft and have a feeling I know what I need to tackle. For years I’ve ignored an uncomfortable feeling about a certain aspect or my story. But now that we’re squarely in 2018, I find myself needing to make some significant edits to avoid what I find to be cultural appropriation.
I won’t be happy until all those wrinkles are ironed out. So why dodge it? If something doesn’t feel right, try to figure out why, and how to fix it.
Tip 5: You didn’t marry your outline
I’ve already lamented about how I seem to be unable to start a project without a robust outline in place. While this so far appears to be a prerequisite for me to actually get writing, the outline is just a skeleton of the work. But bones break, get re-set, limbs are amputated, okay, maybe the choice of metaphor was a mistake, but in any case, what you thought your story would look like before you even started writing it should not dictate how your story should develop.
I’ve already gone at length about at the transformations Wake the Drowned has taken over the years, and it only really took off once an outline was in place. So I owe that much to it. But I recently found one of my early outlines for it and almost laughed at how much it has changed.
For this particular draft, I found significant “dead zones” in the plot, or as I like to call them “doldrums” where there’s neither moving action nor character developed (I’ll go into more detail about my plot graphs some other time). I worked hard to whittle these down and yet the problem was right there from the beginning – so much of my outline was basically “and then Charlie walks around for a while and basically does fuck all”. How I thought that would make for engaging story, I’ll never know.
So once the first draft is complete, the outline has served its purpose. Your story is now an organic entity in your hands and you need to help its development. If that means throwing your original plot twists into the dumpster, that’s fine. Save them onto a file somewhere on your computer so you can maybe go back and be inspired by them later.
So that’s about all the drops of wisdom I have to share – felt like juicing a turnip with your bare hands. Hopefully this will make the road through draft 4 a less painful affair.
There’s a bit of disagreement with me and some of my fellow writers. Then again, try to go find an issue all writers agree upon, and we’ll see how long it takes for that task to kill you. So I’m not trying to pass myself off as a unicorn, but I do find that advice that promotes avoiding writing for the market primarily often is distilled into the simply rule of just writing for yourself and forget what anyone else thinks. But this distorted view of “writing for yourself” ignores a fundamental attribute of the storytelling craft – on the one hand you have the story, and on the other you have the telling, that is, the story must be heard in order to be told. I’m not advocating constantly catering to an imaginary audience. A story that pleases everyone is the golden fleece that a writer could sink their ship trying to find. But at the same time, an author that creates a story for the love of the art alone risks ripping the soul right of the work and leaving it a dead and useless thing.
Not without some reservation I admit that I find little merit in works that are purposefully created to be difficult to access. I recognize the genius that it takes to put some of these works together and won’t pretend that somehow pop literature is the superior medium. Rather, I find them to be an art unto themselves, a separate category of literature that has moved so far away from the intent of storytelling that it should find itself in its own realm. It’s one of the reasons that you will never find me criticizing Dan Brown or E.L. James as someone who “should not be read”. Most anything can and should be read because it gets people reading, feeling, learning. The reader is at the heart of writing and when an author writers to exclude as large of a readership as possible, the work loses the heart.
I can’t write without an audience in mind, and I admit the dangers are there. Occasionally I have to ignore the siren’s call of pleasing an imaginary reader at the expense of the story’s integrity, and sometimes I find myself sailing through the narrow straits between Scylla and Charybdis, wondering if I’m straying from the path the work needs to take in order to please someone who’s not there. It’s an approach not without flaws but it’s one that helps me sustain my writing.
For Wake the Drowned, my first novel that I’m currently working on, I feel that the driving force has two parts to it. On the one hand, I’m writing it for myself – I need Charlie’s story to be told. But on the other hand, I also need Charlie’s story to be heard. The book is written as much for me as it is for the people who could either relate to Charlie, or learn something from Charlie’s experience. It is because of this belief that every story must be heard that I haven’t been able to write in silence and sought out others to read my work. Sometimes these people are referred to as “beta readers”, though I’ve often found the term to be much too informal. To me, these are the friends and family who helped keep my writing; my indispensable ones.
In an earlier entry I’ve dragged readers through the broken glass field that was my early juvenile writing. Since my elementary school stories involved my friends and I kicking ass and taking names, their interest wasn’t that hard to grab. It was all a bit of good fun, until my one friend decided to make fun of the fact that in the story I married myself off to one of our classmates, so I sent him flying down from the tall mound of snow that our groundskeeper built on the side of the parking lot. I believe I mentioned before something about not exactly being a perfect child. Sorry Matthew.
Early in high school, when my friend Bajer and I took turns narrating a Power Rangers: Lost Galaxy rip-off that was also populated by us and our friends, writing like that was no longer considered cool, and was mostly hidden by us in our lockers and read in the privacy of our own homes.
My plans to create and star in a blockbuster television series based on our work fell through when I moved schools the following year. This was, however, where I find the support I needed to take my writing into the realm of a serious hobby. Sam, Sarah and Catherine had kindly let me into their circle of friends when I came to the new school, and then eventually goaded me into sharing with them my handwritten scribbles about teenage drama that would have probably become the longest and least necessary work of literature in the English language. The three girls really didn’t know what they were getting themselves into. Their general lack of good judgement is plainly demonstrated by the fact that one of them ended up marrying me a decade after we first met.
To maintain their sanity while correcting my atrocious grammar, they took to making what they called “snide comments” on the margins of the page. These took the form of jokes, commentary on plot, silly observations, and for Catherine sometimes just plain screaming at me that my thinly-veiled emo allegory was not fooling anyone and I should just stop embarrassing myself.
Thanks to their efforts and the laughs we’ve had around their remarks, I found a new reason to writer. Living vicariously through my writing, which was almost entirely focused inward, I was now writing to see what reaction I could illicit. The inward turned outward and I was writing for an audience. I wanted them to laugh, to think and to feel and to tell me what they thought of my work. I waited impatiently for them to go through my work not because I wanted to get the editing process out of the way but because I genuinely enjoyed seeing what they had to say. As a testament to my appreciation of all their efforts, I still have the stacks of marked-up stories stashed somewhere in the house, most likely only funny to us four.
As is often the case when high school ends, friendships began to drift apart. Being the prudent individual that I am, in order to maintain some kind of readership for my writing, I conspired to marry one of my beta readers. Kidding, though that was one of the perqs of marrying Sam, especially when she decided to become an English major and could see things in my work that I didn’t even realize were there. Made me very much feel like a “real writer”. She’s my main beta reader now, the only one I really need. When I gave her the first draft of Wake the Drowned, before I had even given it a good edit, she suffered through the whole thing and told me she didn’t know quite what to say. She described the experience as being given some raw pancake dough to eat. It was her polite way of telling me to finish my damn work.
So I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone in my life who was willing to listen, like those I have already mentioned, Ms. Densford, my high school English teacher, Allan, my friend who edited my first published work, my mom, who was my kindred lit nerd in the family, and a special thanks goes to my dad, who’s never been much a book guy while I knew him.
The last book I remember him reading was a biography of Pavel Bure, and that was before we hit this century. Even though it was always my mom who cultivated my arty side, he was always watching from the outside. Any time I came to him to read my stuff, he put his all into taking a look. He was a very technical editor, and we disagreed once or twice on the finer workings of the English language. But in the few pages that he committed on, he taught me the values of consistency, plausibility and doing your research. He pointed out that my writing should not thrash about unconstrained, propelled only by convenience and what’s cool, but that the world has rules, and a writer should respect them. Of course, every rule has its legitimate exceptions, but for a fourteen year-old boy those were words I needed to hear.
I lost my dad to cancer last year. In the weeks before he passed, it spread to his brain so he was left increasingly disoriented. But one of the last things we did together, is one evening I brought the current draft of Wake the Drowned, and I read it to him and my mom while he seemed to drift in and out focus, but looking like he was trying to listen intently. It was one of those images that has been burned into my mind from that last month – the dimly lit living room that always felt too large for comfort, me sitting next to my reclining dad, my mom hovering a bit away from us wrestling with every emotion ever described, our little family spending one of our last activities together.
I can’t really say why I did it. Dad has always been a supporter of my writing with the caveat that I get a “real job” first. Able to reflect on this now in my thirties I think it was a solid piece of advice. I guess I was facing the uncomfortable realization that he would never see my novel, the first real fruit of a hobby that he gently tried to keep a hobby without extinguishing my passion for it. And in response to that, I wanted to give him an introduction to it. The story told me that it needed to be read to him.
I can keep piling up explanations each more poetic-sounding than the last, but the bottom line is that it was his story as well. There will always be a part of him in the finished work, just like there will be a part of anyone who had ever read any of my writing, or helped with my writing, or just helped me be the person I am today. And for that, I will never stop sharing.
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.