Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
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.
Let me first preface this with the disclaimer that I had completely lost track of how long it had been since my last entry. I guess between work and some issues that required my full attention on the Board of our Housing Co-operative, I was all tapped-out for creativity. I had told myself when I started this endevour that I wouldn’t let my entries lapse this badly and I had a good streak going for about two months. Hopefully this is just an aberration that will result in some lessons learned and I won’t go this long without an update again.
Now, getting back to the entry I first started writing almost a month ago, I find it a bit amusing that despite it being my major current project, I have actually devoted very little time to discussing my novel. I kind of mentioned it towards the end of my first blog entry, but beyond that, I don’t think I’ve given it much attention. I suppose one of the reasons is that I’m currently in a love-and-hate struggle with it, but the bottom line is I was about to sit down to share with you some of my editing struggles and realized that I haven’t actually provided any context to what has been a decade-long process.
The novel I’m trying to finish, whose working title is Wake the Drowned though my wife has informed me it sounds like the title of a high school essay, has its roots in one simple image. I was no older than seventeen, likely still in high school, taking out the trash in the parking garage of the condo complex we were living in, and whistling some unnamed tune. I locked onto that image, of whistling a tune while walking through a long tunnel, and somebody waiting on the other side to meet the mysterious source of that tune. That’s it. That’s all it was. Not particularly original or awe-inspiring but it was the spark that ignited a fire that was very slow to catch.
The image kept coming back to me, time and time again, until I figured out who would be emerging out of that tunnel and who was waiting for them (I would say who that would be here, but I’ll let you savour the moment if my novel ever sees light of day). And so other ideas built on top of that. The protagonist formed soon enough, a loitering man-child whose character became more and more nuanced until the “man-child” concept was dropped and reworked into something different. The tunnel became the exit out of a perfect little town called Middleton, and contrary to the first line of the novel, Middleton quickly stopped being so perfect.
Most of these concepts were churning freely in my head for many years, all through undergrad and into law school. It was then, in our little first-floor studio apartment in downtown Toronto when I finally sat down to write the short story that had been stuck in development hell until that point. This must have been about ten years ago.
The reason it started as a short story is that short stories were kind of my thing, and they still make up a good portion of the words I commit to paper. I’ve flirted with novels before, and as recently as the summer before law school managed to get almost 50,000 words into a manuscript about a love affair between a Russian Count and the poor relation of a powerful Countess (that one is still officially a work in progress). So when I set out to finally write down the ideas that would form my novel, I very much intended it to be a short story.
That is, until I found myself 5,000 words in and not even having scraped the plot at that point. This was a curious sensation. Probably one of the first times something in my writing had organically developed without me intending to. I wanted to know where it would lead me, and over the next few years and many distracting shiny projects (some of which had now been accepted for publication, so yay!) I decided that about 18,000 words in, I would try my hand at finding the book an agent.
The sheer audacity and naiveté of sending an unfished (let’s be honest, barely started) book to an agent is both impressive and mortifying. But I was greeted with kindness, and though she politely told me to come back with a finished manuscript, she had given me many important pointers that have blown the book wide open. Five chapters in and I was already heading for massive rewrites. This was around 2012 and of course with that much reworking, I had lost steam and motivation, and the book mostly lingered for the next couple of years.
That is, until I hit another breakthrough and the final piece of the puzzle slid into place. The “what” that my novel is about had been made clear to me. It was a work that snowballed atop a single image, but it had not found its purpose. Only after my own thankfully brief struggle with PTSD did I realize what story the novel needed to tell. It needed to be about mental illness, it needed to be about alienation and how we sometimes fail those in need, even the ones we love. The realization was so striking that I remember where I was when it had, driving in the evening over the Oak Street bridge heading home.
That’s when the floodgates opened, and chapter upon chapter poured out of me. The first draft of the novel was complete within a year of my epiphany, after having not even been a quarter-finished six years after I had started writing it.
And that, of course, is when the hard part actually began.
Brimming with excitement over my first finished novel, I subjected my poor supportive wife to it. She read it, but informed me that instead of pancakes I had given her raw pancake batter and to never do anything so horrifying to her ever again. The point was taken, even if it was a hard pill to swallow.
But I believed there was yet a finished pancake underneath all that batter, and so I set to it, reading through it with the most critical eye I could muster. There are plenty of editing techniques other than just rereading that I employed. I’ve already discussed my use of word clouds, and at some point I’ll talk about my plot graphs and dialogue editing. In the first edit I managed to get a 95,000 word manuscript down to 75,000. Just imagine typing out 20,000 words and then deleting them. It felt both jarring and somehow liberating.
It’s that second draft that I’m currently butchering into a stubborn third draft. I’ve added about 10,000 words worth of new chapters while the overall word count has remained steady. Which means now more than a third of the original manuscript is completely gone while the rest is heavily rewritten. Chapters are being cannibalized into three or four other chapters, some getting moved from the last third to the first third of the novel.
It’s like a renovation project for a house – completely overwhelming and just when you’ve torn out all the drywall you think you’ll never be able to finish. But as you move along, and the house starts looking almost habitable, hope blossoms.
I’ve been in the editing stage for almost three years for a number of reasons, and the fact that editing is a whole new beast I needed to learn is one of them. The other is simply life. I’ve got two kids now. My father passed away last year and I’ve gone through three jobs in two years with hopefully having found some stability now. I’m feeling better about Wake the Drowned and I’m ready to finish that third draft and dive straight back into the fourth. I look forward to sharing my work with other people, but I have to be patient and take it one day at a time.
And thanks for joining me on that journey.
I often find that being a writer is a game that involves a carrot and two sticks. One stick dangles a carrot in front of you, the carrot being complete and utter satisfaction with your finished product. And the other stick is self-doubt which flagellates you as you hobble along towards the carrot you vainly try to convince yourself is pointless to reach. Anyway, that was the obligatory woe-is-me artist rant with a further obligatory disclaimer that I don’t think every writer is destined to think their writing is garbage, but we’ll never expect our writing to be perfect, which is fine, because that’s the carrot that takes us to our ultimate destination.
In an earlier entry, I described some ways in which I keep myself motivated to keep writing. In this entry, I want to talk a bit about one of the tools I use to get myself to improve that writing, and that tool is word clouds. My preferred online word cloud tool is WordItOut, but feel free to find your favourite.
There’s two ways in which word clouds could potentially help you, though one of them is less useful for longer pieces.
The first, is trying to see if you’ve used any unusual words more frequently than you intended and as a result lessened their impact. For example, I read a history book a couple of years ago where I found the word “embryonic” used three times within a hundred pages to refer to a fledgling political movement. The first time it was a neat way to describe it. The third time felt like someone’s thesaurus malfunctioned.
The way you can avoid this problem with a word cloud is throw your text in, and then study the words that appear at the bottom when sort by frequency. That way you can pinpoint the impactful words whose use short be minimized. Of course, the longer your work is, the more words you have in that low range, so it might be a tonne of work with little payoff. But try it anyway to see if there’s maybe words you really like, but whose use you should spare. Yes, it will be painful to do, but overall your writing will have more punch.
The second method I’ve come to use for all my writing is using the word cloud to visualize which common words I overuse, and then track the progress I make in freeing myself from them. For example, check out this word cloud from the first draft of a story about the interaction between two Russian schoolchildren.
That “about” sits there pretty heavily in the dead centre of the generated cloud. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with using the word ‘about’ – it’s a useful word, but if it’s appearing in a story so much that it takes centre stage here, then it has become a crutch word or a “junk” word. It’s the kind of word that doesn’t by itself detract from your writing, but if you challenge yourself to reduce its frequency, you may finds yourself writing simple things in more creative ways.
Same with that “like” hanging out in the top right corner. A very useful word for similes, but its heightened frequency could mean either that your writing is turning into simile soup or that you need to look for different ways to introduce comparisons. For instance “he was angry like a raging inferno” could be “he was a raging inferno”; “ash landed like snowflakes on the pond” can be “snowflakes of ash landed on the pond”, and so on. I’ve once read a page of my writing that had four “like” similes across four paragraphs. Believe me, by the third instance, your eye notices it, and the writing no longer sounds polished.
Mind you, I don’t mean that these words have no place in your writing. On the contrary, eliminating all use of them would be both burdensome and risks making your writing gimmicky. These are simply words that require a second look, and sometimes you’d be surprised by the results.
Nor does every large word in a word cloud require a second look. While I eliminate most character names and other plot-heavy words to clean up the word cloud, sometimes you’re left with something like the following word cloud of a sci-fi story about a human writer in an alien publishing business.
“Yes” sits here like a Christmas tree topper, looking completely out of place. But then I realize that one of the characters in the story has a very peculiar way of talking that relies on repeated uses of the word “yes”. I made sure I wasn’t using it so heavily that it might annoy a reader, but I certainly wasn’t going to cut down its usage in half to achieve some artificial goal.
Same goes for “human” in the same word cloud. However, “through” did catch my eye. Apparently a lot of the movement in the story was “through” something, and I’d figure I’d make the movements a bit more varied, or eliminate it altogether where the description of movement didn’t add anything to the story.
So how do I actually get to the result I want here? Let’s take a world cloud from an early draft of a short story about parallel universes and the local housing crisis (name me a more iconic duo …).
I particularly like this example because it highlights some of my archnemeses: “like” (dead centre), “just” (bottom right) and “only” (bottom left). These have been my junk words since I started this word cloud strategy a few years ago.
So what I do after I generate the word cloud is I open my Word document, and use the “Replace” function. Except instead of replacing the word itself I got to the “More” tab and then “Format” and then select “highlight”. By putting in “just” in the “Find what” field and “just” with highlight in the “Replace with” field, every instance of “just” in the story is now highlighted. I go through the list of my words, doing around 6 or 7 of the top ones to not clutter the writing with highlighted words, and then print it off.
Now that the fugitive words have been highlighted, I notice them more during my editing, and eliminate them where I can. After I finish the next draft, I repeat the process. Sometimes the same words are in the top seven, so it’s a similar deal. Sometimes another word sneaks to the top and now they’re on the hit list.
Keep doing this until you’re satisfied with the draft, and then behold, the word cloud for the final draft of the same short story.
In hindsight, I should have eliminated “Glenn” from the earlier wordlist, but even then, you can see the results. “Like” which is in the bottom centre, has shrunk. “Only”, which is now in the bottom left corner, is considerably smaller. And “just”, which is hiding above “like” is no longer even remotely significant. I don’t know what it is with me and that word. Maybe it’s a quirk of my way of talking but it tends to seriously clutter my writing. When I edit, I find that the majority of its appearances can be deleted without editing anything around it, so I’m pretty ruthless.
I’m sure you’ve noticed that between the two clouds “think” and “know” have moved in, and I definitely had those words on my list during later drafts, but sometimes you do have to call it a day.
And you know what the best part about this process is? I know I mentioned “just” as my biggest Achilles heel, but take a look at the first two clouds in this entry. “Just” is not a significant word there despite these being clouds of first drafts. By continuously drawing my attention to those words, I am naturally eliminating them from my writing. I don’t slave away trying to find better ways of saying something without using that word, but rather, I have a decreased urge to write it in the first place.
So that’s my bit of advice to you. It certainly won’t make or break your writing, but I found it a very useful tool, and I hope you will too.
I had a chance to do some reflection this Father’s Day, which was actually pretty easy when you’ve got two great kids and a wonderful wife and spend a few hours at the botanical gardens enjoying the sights and slicing up your hands on some volcanic rocks. Anyway, I digress and I’ve barely gotten through the first sentence.
This was my second Father’s Day where I find myself lonely at the top. My dad passed away last year just about a month before the occasion, so that one I spent mostly missing him, and this year I had a bit more room to look within myself. For those of you who’ve been reading my blog, you understand what an impact his death had, and I think Father’s Day has forever acquired some small shade of melancholy for me, but it’s important to stay focused on my owns kids.
So this Sunday the time I spent with my family, and the thoughtful gift they got me (a framed photo of me reading to the kids before I head off to work) really got me thinking about what a huge part of my life my kids have become. Prior to my eldest being born more than four years, I couldn’t imagine throwing this much of myself into something.
It’s no secret that I have to carve out time for my writing. I have to wrestle with each day to get in my allotted amount of words. I need to steal moments to edit my novel which has been in its editing phase for about three years now. The only time I have left to do reading is on the bus heading home. Writing may be my passion but it’s not my day job. My day job allows me to do some writing. It certainly doesn’t let my mind go to waste and for that I’m thankful. Almost a year ago I’ve also landed the dream job of working at an academic institution, and being steeped in the culture here has provided no shortage of inspiration. So there’s no daylight left to complain, but neither is there time to fully absorb myself in my writing.
But what about at home? Why is it when I look back at my words-per-day tracker, the weekends end up being the least productive days? Well that has an even better answer. No matter what I do, no matter how many hobbies I’ve had and dropped over the years, nothing compares to the two little guys that call me “Bapa”, and occasionally “Daddy” just to annoy me.
It didn’t come easy. I say this honestly because I don’t want to take too much credit and also to emphasize that even something like love and devotion to your kids is a project you should never cease working on. My own wife can attest to the fact that I’m not always the best person at showing the people I love how much I care. I’ve had to learn this with my kids. Together we’ve built the foundation that is now our family and I wouldn’t have it any other way. When I get a FaceTime call on the bus as I’m going to work and see my kid crying because he slept through me getting ready for work, that is what my life is all about.
So if you’re following along with my writing, it may seem like it comes in drips. My novel is taking forever and I don’t exactly produce a steady flow of short stories. Yet with all that, I haven’t given up. I’m thirty one and even though my confirmation bias can pinpoint dozens of examples of writers who’ve already hit it big, I know it doesn’t work that way. Writing is a way of life, it’s a marathon. My writing shines brightly and bursts to get out, and alongside it there’s an even more intense fire in my life.
You can be passionate about more than thing, so don’t dare turn your back on what makes you happy.
I’m flying pretty high right now. I received some good news on the eve of my first week off in eight months and that is that my short story, Ursa Major, got posted on the Passages North bonus content website. I’ve shared the news of its acceptance in an earlier post, but now it’s become a reality so I wanted to let you guys know that you can read the whole thing here.
Once again, a big thank you to the folks at Passages North who saw something in my story and decided to share it with the world. You’ll always have a special place in my heart.
I recommend reading the story before you move on with this entry, as I’m about to write about my writing, which will either be the really easy, or I’m about to have regrets.
Firstly, I want to say, I have no idea how this whole thing started. This is probably the most unusual of my stories, but looking at Nightfalls, the other story that’s scheduled to be published in December, it’s perhaps not entirely out of character. Just one day I happened to be brainstorming and thought of the first line in a form quite similar to the final version. What if someone had an appointment with a bear?
The next natural question was of course why would someone have an appointment with a bear? No, scratch that. My first thought was whether I was losing my mind, and when I reasonably concluded that I was probably still sane, that’s when I went deeper into the story.
The next inspiration came from Babylon 5, my favourite sci-fi television show whose praises I have sung before and will sing again at any given opportunity. Very early in the series, a character named Londo Mollari of the Centauri claims that his people have recurring dreams of their death, and G’Kar, one of the other main characters in the show, was the man he always dreamed would choke the life out of him. If you want to find out more, better watch the series, but I won’t spoil it here. It was just such a delicious plot device to examine choice and destiny, it seemed perfect for a story where a pre-scheduled meeting can be arranged with a wild animal. There’s one more very subtle B5 reference in there. Let me know if you can spot it.
So with the first line and that element in place, the story kind of rolled along. But it’s a prime example of never shying away from seeking inspiration wherever you can find it. The layout of the cabin in my mind was mostly based on this vacation home in Egmont, British Columbia where we hosted my best friend’s bachelor party. The childhood dream sequence was based on the first nightmare I can remember, except there the villain was a wolf (there’s a Russian lullaby that very nonchalantly tells you not to sleep on the edge of a bed or a grey wolf will chomp on your side. Thanks for that, motherland). And that bit where the narrator bites his own arm to fool the bear into thinking he tasted gross, was based on my own night-time ingenuity, except it actually worked while dream-me smirked: “Stupid bear; I’m delicious.”
As much as the mostly nonsensical narrative was fun to write, before it was done I had a pretty good idea of what it was about. And I decided to double down on my interpretation, trying to hammer the point home like a screw. By the time the first draft was done, it was about 25% longer than the final product. It didn’t feel right. So don’t worry, it never does. It’s okay to question your writing because sometimes you produce a block of misshapen stone. But that sculpture is still hiding somewhere inside.
So I trimmed all the parts where I thought I was beating my reader over the head with what I was trying to say. Philosophical thoughts that perhaps sounded good on their own (or horribly pretentious, I guess we’ll never know since into the dustbin they went) sounded shoehorned-in when read in context.
So off I went, murdering my darlings without shame until arriving almost at the version that you now see.
But something still didn’t feel right. Like a picture hung on the wall that’s stubbornly askew. And so it sat, in a form that I thought was final, for a few weeks, with me occasionally reading the last couple of paragraphs trying to figure out not only what it was missing, but what it ultimately was trying to say. The theme was there in my head from early on, but not its essence. Like many of my readers, I too was confronted by a work that just came out me and offered no explanation and apology. It was a different sort of feeling. Normally I’d set out on my writing with a goal in mind and tailor it to that goal. But this was different. The writing came first, and the goal one day just clicked into place.
I can’t tell you how I figured it out, mostly because I don’t want to tell you what “it” was. I’ve got my own interpretation and I think most interpretations are as legitimate as mine, unless completely antithetical to my writing. In any case, I arrived at my own personal version of what the ending was about, and realized that I needed one final brushstroke to bring it completely in line with that vision.
And thus the penultimate paragraph was formed and sealed the oddest tale I have spun to date.
I’ve had people tell me the story made them laugh, others who said it made them pause. Others still who rightfully chastised me for sending them into the dictionary – my vocabulary here was admittedly self-indulgent. It’s been really cool to see people react to my writing. It’s one of the reason why I write, not just for the pleasure of it but to see the effect it has on people.
It’s like being in a relationship and feeling your partner’s body react to your touch. I feel a similar intimate emotion when others comment on my writing. So I hope Ursa Major had an effect on you, whatever that might be.
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.