Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
So help me, I’m making my first “political” post. Forgive me, for I know not what I do, but after reading the most recent musings from Maxime Bernier, I can’t restrain myself.
For my non-Canadian readers, Maxime Bernier is a fairly high-profile federal politician. He ran for the leadership of the Conservative party recently, after the previous leader and former Prime Minister Stephen Harper resigned after the election that saw them pushed out of power after almost ten years. Bernier wouldn’t take his defeat lying down and after make some statements that were at odds with the party he was so close to leading, he left and founded his own party – the People’s Party of Canada. His departure from the Conservatives was ostensibly for reasons that they had lost sight of their core conservative values and his intent to continue to fight for its small-government libertarian values.
Since that time, he’s been building up a profile for himself by putting forth allegedly no-nonsense and hard logic justifications for what are essentially right-wing (and I mean that on in the literal political scale, and not in a pejorative sense) ideas.
For instance, he argues that Canada should pull out of the Paris Accord, but not because he’s a climate change denier, but because Canada won’t be able to make its commitments so why act like a huge hypocrite? Makes sense, right? Except it was only a couple of weeks ago that he tried to use his hard logic to say that a carbon tax is not a pollution tax, because carbon dioxide is not a pollutant … because it’s a by-product of our breathing. You catch all that? About the same logic as “we need water to live, so an overabundance of water can’t be a natural disaster”. Max splitting hairs so fine here he’s about to go nuclear.
So now that his environmental agenda is all wrapped up in a digestible package catered for “moderates” that are chomping at the bit to justify their right wing beliefs, he can move onto something else: feminism.
Recently, Bernier declared that he “doesn’t need to be a feminist” because he believes in people. SO there goes another attractive feature for those who wish to see themselves as moderates, who don’t identify with the rabid dog politics of the alt-right and therefore see themselves as the enlightened middle-ground between torch-bearing racists and the identity politic warriors of the left.
Bernier instead believes “in people”. Bernier has rejected both “positive” and “negative” discrimination. Humanity is all about people and why should we treat each other any differently based on gender, race or sexual orientation? This is a fantastic attitude to have, which is what makes it so attractive. And the world would be a utopia if we all espoused this belief at the very core of our being. But we don’t. And this is where this approach becomes dangerous.
It assumes that we are already where everything should be. But even if Bernier is somehow the single human on the planet who has managed to rise above all pre-conceived notions and manages to treat each individual human as the perfect unique snowflake that they are, that’s not how the rest of the world works. You treating someone identically to someone else does not take into account the journey they have taken to reach you. Take an example from immigration. “Everyone has to immigrate to this country according to our laws and through the proper channels, regardless of sex, race, creed or other circumstances.” On the surface, this looks like an attractive moderate approach, but practice it to a tee, and your descendants will end up apologizing for your destructive obstinacy.
But even without having to resort to such drastic examples, one can see how this attitude simply serves to numb any call to action. What Bernier is advocating is a splendid individual-level isolationism. You no longer care about obstacles, advantages or circumstances that may be created for an individual due to their race and gender based on how society treats them, because you supposedly treat them all equally.
What this essentially does is tries to move us to the end result while bypassing all of the difficulty of getting there. It assumes that identity politics is created voluntarily and individually, and not as a reaction to a society that repeatedly forces an individual to confront and question their identity. Bernier is trying to pacify the discomfort experienced by those societal demographics that have rarely had to confront what their race and gender identity really mean. To them (to me) this feels knew, but for others, this is what they’ve been living their whole lives, and so have countless generations before them.
Bernier is very good at putting a digestible spin on old ideas. He’s not a “breath of fresh air” he’s a spritz of cologne on the same miasma that is refusing to let us move forward from centuries of stagnation. Which is why I believe that his message should be challenged at every turn.
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.
I’m in an introspective mood, which spells trouble for both brevity and comprehension, but in any case, I will try to keep this focused. I’ve recently returned from a conference in Toronto, my first visit to the city since my wife and I moved away seven years ago. In Canada, Vancouver has always been home, but we did spend an amazing three years in our largest city while I attended law school at the University of Toronto.
So T-Dot, the Big Smoke, Hogtown, or whatever outlandish nickname you want to give it (Centre-of-the-universe, as those outside Toronto are apt to call it), is a second home. I’m no stranger to having second or third homes. I was born in Budapest and spent many summers there, and I grew up in Moscow, so I’m used to leaving behind places that have been dear to me. But this is the first time I’ve come back to a place after such a long time.
Everything changes. Whether people or places, change is woven into the fabric of existence. To expect something to preserve itself exactly as you remember it is to deny that someone or someplace a core part of their nature.
Even our Vancouver neighbourhood that we moved into after Toronto has undergone a lot of changes since that time. Stores that had been opened for decades had closed, some being replaced by cannabis dispensaries. A grocery store had a condo tower built on top of it. This all happens so gradually that like the proverbial boiling frog, even though you’re kind of aware of the temperature becoming uncomfortable, the change is just too gradual to truly appreciate.
Then you get dropped into Toronto after a seven-year absence, a city that is known for having two seasons – winter and construction, and pick a random intersection in Downtown and scan your surroundings. The skyline is dotted with cranes erecting ever-higher towers, constantly increasing residence stock without ever alleviating the cost of housing. This never ends, once a building is finished, another one pops up somewhere. So it’s a neat feeling coming across a beautiful light-blue skyscraper, and scratching your head trying to figure out what was there before. But if you can’t remember, it no longer matters, it’s left your life, leaving no impact whatsoever except this vague uneasy feeling that change tends to elicit.
Then there’s the stuff you do remember being there. Our local neighborhood No Frills store (probably one of the most “no frills”, as the name implies, grocery stores in Canada) was replaced by a much shinier looking FreshCo. And the old menacing 1960s apartment block that rose above it is now another glass condo tower reaching above its neighbours. This little visual gentrification of St. James Town was a bit of a shock in a city that, as I already mentioned, suffers from an ongoing housing crisis.
In the eternal struggle between old and new, I also came across a stark example of a Toronto building strategy – incorporating an old façade into a new building. Heck, there’s a building not too far from the Hockey Hall of Fame that is entirely within what is essentially an indoor mall. So here it is, a clock tower of some unknown historical significance that was chosen to withstand the unstoppable march of progress.
Our own apartment building was still there. That was welcome news. The window of our first floor corner apartment, where we spent three years sharing 350 square feet was covered by a clothesline of old towels and sheets. Beyond that impenetrable façade, because how creepy would it be to ask for a tour of the old place, was the first real home we made. Now it’s only accessible through photos and memories, but it’s still there, with the familiar cracks and imperfections we made our own. Which is more than I can say for my second home in Toronto – the law school.
Despite getting a whole new building clamped onto its side, from a certain angle, the two law school buildings don’t look any different. The iconic façade we put on all our hoodies and T-shirts is still there – the view at the end of my morning walks. And when you first walk inside, it still hits you with that smell – the history that has seeped into the walls of so many repurposed Toronto buildings.
But then when you exist the foyer, you’re in a whole different world. Sure, Bora Laskin’s bust still sits on its pedestal next to the library’s entrance, but the entrance has moved. The copy stations where I’d print out freshly warm essays to hand in is nowhere to be found. The study nooks on the second floor where I’d eat baby carrots and watch episodes of One Piece are no longer there.
I tried to track down any of my old classrooms, but had no luck. Either the new layout has completely messed with my sense of direction or it’s all gone. Photos of graduating classes where you’d be able to pick out half the notable judges and federal Liberal politicians of the last half-century have all been hidden away. My law school, the entity that has awarded me my degree, is still there, but the law school that I truly knew is gone.
I would never be able to tell my kids that here is where their mom leaned against that stone pillar while she waited for me and got bronchitis in our first week there. Such a tiny little thing, a silly insignificant story that no longer has the aid of having a live location. Like with the apartment, the memory is there, but the physical space is gone. It shouldn’t really be a big deal but it is. In my early thirties it’s finally creeping up on me. The country I spent the first years of my life is gone. The political ideology that raised my parents is almost extinct. Yet this, a remodeling of a law school is what gets to me.
It brings to the forefront the power of memories. People, places, and things all go, but they all live a second life in our memories. We are faced with a flood of photographic evidence. Something our grandparents and even our parents didn’t have. It’s so easy to whip out the phone and observe, but it’s a very different feeling from experience. Now, I’m now trying to turn this into a “technology is bad” kind of luddite rant, but I can’t stress enough the need to appreciate the moment. To truly sink into the people and the places we hold dear to us.
I know I’m getting philosophical over some pretty basic stuff, but there’s one thing to know something, and there’s another to truly feel it; deep down in your bones kind of feel it. And this, I feel, is something that is one of the goals of my writing: to turn that inward feeling outward. At the end of the day, I want to leave readers with a memory of the story.
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.
There is something to be said about the family road trip, and I’m here to say it. Without hesitation, I would call the experience incomparable. Even for those times when I was in the backseat, when my parents would drive us around British Columbia and down the west coast of the United States, and we would have our share of hiccups, to put it mildly, because some of us didn’t handle the stresses of travelling all too well, I look back on those experiences fondly. We weren’t the kind of family where sullen teenagers would sink into the backseat listening to their own music wishing they were anywhere else but in the family car. The family road trip was an adventure, the chance to experience something new together. It was one of the things I looked forward to the most when I would have my own kids. And this past week, I got to experience it.
Last weekend was my first time behind the wheel of a family road trip, with my wife beside me, my two little boys in the backseat, and sandwiched between their two carseats, the hero of the whole endeavor, my mother-in-law, who insisted on helping us out by going with us instead of flying, and probably ended up saving my sanity. It had all the makings of a romanticized trip that I’ve always dreamed of. A 6 am wake-up call, packing the car in the brisk August morning, rolling the still-warm children out of bed and throwing them in the backseat. There was something that felt very right about it all, heading to the border through the bluish hues of morning with nothing but two thousand kilometers of road ahead of us.
Sometimes you hype yourself up for your entire life only to disappoint yourself. Sometimes nostalgia transforms something in your head to the point that it is no longer recognizable in real life (plenty of my old Super Nintendo suffered this fate. “Hey wait a minute, this game is both terrible and not a little racist.”) But the magic of the road trip could not be understated.
It was everything I was waiting for. Snacks being passed around to the point where kids had little appetite for lunch because they consisted 40% of Doritos. Toilet breaks were demanded in the nick-of-time before the “Next Area – 54 miles” signs. Taylor Swift and Hamilton filled in the gaps between local radio stations. Everything that I have listed so far I met with warmth and fondness.
The family road trip has a bad wrap in media. Or at least that’s what my confirmation bias is telling me as I write this piece. Just look at National Lampoon’s Vacation, or its soft-reboot, Vacation, or even something more dramatic and high-brow like Little Miss Sunshine. Family trips are not whimsical adventures, they’re unmitigated disasters. And that’s unfair. It’s time to romanticize the road trip. And not the Jack Kerouac nightclub-fueled couch surfing bender through an existential crisis. But just one semi-functional family that enjoys the company of each other and a beautiful country.
Two solid days of driving and when I looked at the world map hanging in the kids’ room after I got back, it was humbling seeing what a small blip of it we actually covered. Our world us unfathomably vast, with a myriad people living in it. How can one fail to surrender to such awe as hour after hour get piled on and the landscape changes. Temperate rainforests eventually yield to scrub, to the endless golden expanse of the San Joaquin Valley that is both gorgeous and dangerous with its hypnotizing powers.
I spent four days on the road in total, through backaches and a nagging wrist injury that just refuses to quit. Yet somehow I feel energized and refreshed. My mind is more open to tackling work and my writing. I feel closer to my kids. I feel closer to my wife if that’s even possible after fifteen years together. I have a new appreciation for my mother-in-law whom I had already been appreciating.
All that said about this trip and I hadn’t even mentioned the destination, even though that was the whole point of this adventure. Something can be said about Disneyland as well, but that is a whole different story. We are a shameless Disney family so I can spew corporate propaganda until the cows come home. But this is about something else, about the overlooked journey to the destination.
Now, I won’t double down on the cliché – that it’s about the journey and not the destination. That’s best left as a metaphor, especially when your destination is frickin’ Disneyland. But the journey itself should hold a separate place. Not as a trial, or as a bitter pill that needs to be swallowed before the reward, but as the reward itself. And I count myself lucky as someone who has people close to me to make the journey such a blast.
I have this vague recollection that in a previous blog entry I vowed to update more frequently. Upon recent reflection, it would appear that I’m a shameless liar. Aaaaaaaaaanyway:
In an earlier blog entry I shared with you my mild obsession with my bullet journal – something I use to log, track or otherwise organize various aspects of my life. Some of these trackers, like my words-per-day chart, are geared directly towards my writing. Others; however, have more general everyday application, like my exercise log. It’s because I’ve reached a very significant milestone in my tracking since I first started the practice at the end of 2016 that I wanted to share with you another one of my bullet journal entries. Hold onto your hats, folks, this one’s colourful:
I would like to say the chart is self-explanatory but I’ve made that mistake in the past and I’m not about to do it again. Apparently not everybody can readily understand what’s in the mind of a madman. Each “block” of varying size appears underneath the label for its respective month. As you can see from the very depressing months of November and December 2017, it starts as a blank outlined square. Once I do an activity that constitutes exercise, I fill in one square.
There’s a legend at the bottom of the page that indicates the kinds of activities that make it in here. Some are fairly straight-forward, like running, swimming, and yoga. Others have some caveats. The biking one for instance, refers to actual hard-pedaling for distance (although I suppose calling my pedaling “hard” is being a bit generous). The 30+ minute walk usually refers either to a straight walk longer than 30 minutes, or a couple of intense walks at around 15-20 minutes each. Even if I ended up walking for hours that day, I still give myself only one light green square for that day, otherwise the light green would be too dominant here.
The most flexible category here is “gym”. This has included everything from an actual trip to the gym, to a particularly intensive chore day, to a half-hour session of Beat Jedi on the VR. And if you laughed at that last one, how about you try swinging your arms for 30 minutes to the tune of “Gangnam Style” and then tell me it wasn’t a workout.
So long story short, any time I exercise, I fill in one square on the chart, completing them in a sort of spiral pattern. To better see how the spiral works, look at the following months in succession: May 2017, March 2018, April 2018, December 2016, and so on.
So in the end you end up with a log that not only allows you to see the types of activity you’ve been doing, but also the relative volume of said activity month over month. I like this particular chart also because of how much time is captured in a single 2-page spread. Here we see 21 months worth of exercise, and as you can see, much can change over that time.
Early on in the process, there was a lot of running and swimming, and generally I was pretty active. Then it all kind of fell away for over a year (and there’s reason for that, if you feel like reading up on it). Running was replaced by biking due to another in a string of running injuries, and swimming never went back on the table because I switched jobs and no longer had a YMCA within walking distance of my office. I guess the other couple of things to note is the brief appearance of Yoga, which had to be put on hold due to lingering wrist sprain, and the last ice hockey game I’ve played so far, owing mostly to a busy life with two kids and the rink being a half-hour drive away. But hey, I scored two goals in that game, and was apparently dubbed the “Winter Soldier” by the team captain. And if there’s one thing I love collecting, it’s badass nicknames (it’s a very small collection).
Then after hitting rock bottom late last year, and then slowly getting out and walking in the spring, I finally turned things around, and had my most active months yet. This culminated in the most recent month where I set another record for having times I’ve exercised that month.
Some of you may not see this as a particularly big deal, but between my work and my hobbies, I’ve never been the most active person. A lot of this takes effort for me. Exercise has to be squeezed in before work so most of the time I’m up at 6 am to get this done. Walks are fit in at lunchtime, and thank goodness for Pokemon Go to help me get out of the office for a bit of fresh air.
And I think having this tracker helps as well. Not only does it add that one extra piece of motivation – being able to go home and fill out another square, but it also allows me to see how far I’ve come, and how much I’ve overcome. No matter what life throws at me, whether family tragedies, or injuries, or change in jobs, no matter how much I falter, I end up picking it all up and not abandoning my overall fitness goals.
And I think this one of the important things to accept about life, sometimes goals don’t arrive in the way you expect them to come. Sometimes there will be a drought. And this relates to writing as well. Whether a string of rejections or a prolonged case of writer’s block, life is a marathon and not a sprint. There will be ups and there will be downs and when you’re in a down it’s important to recognize it for what it is – temporary.
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.
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.