Thickening the plot

The kids are back at school and I’m back to work on the outline for my novel. I don’t know why I have to make life so difficult for myself, with my two main characters and their complicated, interwoven story lines, but that’s the shape my book has taken. Luckily, I’ve learned to enjoy the process of planning out scenes and tying together plot threads!
Creating a scene-by-scene outline for the whole novel is a very thinky, time-intensive process. If you’ve been following my blog (or if you’ve read my archives), you’ll know that I tend to use a colourful, cue card based system that lets me shift around scenes quickly and easily.
This time around, though, I’ve been trying a different type of outline. I’ve still got bare-bones information on cue cards, but I’ve also been creating a more narrative-based outline, where I describe each scene in order, with one paragraph per scene. This is helpful because it lets me trace the threads of my story arcs from one scene to the next, which will hopefully result in a less episodic draft of the book.
All told, it looks like I’m going to have about 75 scenes in the novel. For some of these, I’ll be able to adapt work from last year’s draft, but the majority of the book needs to be rewritten. (Gulp!) I’ve been making good progress on the outline, so I should be able to get back to writing scenes by the end of September.
And if you’ve read this far, I’ve got a little bonus content for you! This Tuesday, I was invited to participate at a reading series at the Visual Arts Centre in Westmount. It was a great evening with some wonderful local writers and musicians. I read excerpts from “Tag,” a short story that I wrote this summer. Hopefully it’ll be published at some point, but in the meantime you can watch my reading here:

On rejection and resilience

There’s not a lot of feedback in the novel-writing trenches. Maybe that’s why today’s news – that my latest arts grant application was rejected – is hurting so much.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m used to rejection. It’s part of the process. Every story I’ve had published was first rejected from multiple places. According to Duotrope, I have a 13% acceptance ratio; that means my work is rejected eighty-seven percent of the time. (And that’s pretty good! Duotrope congratulates me on that stat every time I log on.)

Of course it stings every time a rejection lands in my in-box, but it doesn’t feel like a massive tragedy. I spend a few weeks working on a short story, then I send it out into the world; if it comes back to me, I send it out again. And again. If it comes back enough times, I do some revisions, then out it goes again. I don’t take those rejections personally.

Today is different. Today it’s my novel that’s been rejected. This big, sprawling, multi-year project that occupies most of my writing time, that’s closest to my heart: rejected. I sent in a detailed project description, a 25-page excerpt from my draft-in-progress, my writing CV, a breakdown of how this project will help me progress as an artist – and my application was turned down.

That’s painful.

Look, I’m not saying I’m giving up. I’m still working on the book! (Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post on my current writing process.) In a couple of days, I’ll get in touch with the granting agency so they can give me feedback on how to improve my next grant application. Besides, I’ve heard that only 20% of arts grant applications are successful, and I know that there are tons of factors that decide which ones are funded.

So much of this writing life is about cultivating resilience. This rejection is getting under my skin, but it’s not going to stop me from pushing forward on this novel. I’m way too stubborn to give up now.

Renovations in progress

“How’s the writing going?”
I have a love-hate relationship with this question. On the one hand, it’s great that people are interested in the progress of my book. On the other hand, writing is such solitary, immersive work that it can be hard to explain what I’m doing on a day-to-day basis. I sometimes spend ages struggling with a scene or a character detail, but I don’t think this minutia is as interesting to anyone else as it is to me!
Luckily, we’ve just (finally!) competed six weeks of home renovations, and this has given me the perfect metaphor for this stage of working on my novel.
If you follow me on Instagram, you know that we just remodelled a big part of our second floor: bathroom, hallway, closets and office. Every day for six weeks, workers showed up at 7:30am and spent the next 9 hours hammering, sawing and drilling, along with dozens of other noisy tasks that drove me out of the house. From the beginning, they kept the finished product in mind, tearing out precisely what needed to go, framing new walls and fitting modern fixtures and tiles, so we ended up with a harmonious blend of old and new.
In terms of my writing, the draft I finished last summer has now become a house in need of major renovations. Like a designer/architect, I had to spend several months creating blueprints for my changes, then I jumped in to demolition mode: half the narrative was ripped out entirely, with the remainder set aside for later.
Since March, I’ve been writing new scenes for one of my main characters, gradually rebuilding that missing half of the book. I’m working on one chapter at a time, leaving spaces for the other character’s story in between these new sections. I want to build a strong new foundation for the novel.
Sometimes I’m able to reuse an old scene or description or moment from my last draft, but it usually needs to be shaved down or rearranged. Just like with our house renovation, I’m trying to be thrifty and smart with my time and energy, recycling and adapting when I can.
I’ve now reached nearly 15 000 words on this new draft; the work is going slowly but so far everything is fitting together well. I’m aiming for a finished draft of 90 000 words this fall; it’ll be much shorter but hopefully much better than last year’s draft of the book. Then I’ll be ready to revise the finer points of writing, just like workers leave baseboards and finishing touches for the last stage of renovations.

Progress update

Greetings from Southern Ontario! I’m currently on vacation, staying at my parents’ cottage near Collingwood. My kids have March Break this week, so we’re here for a week of skiing at Blue Mountain.

Although I’m not writing this week, I’ve started 2018 off right by getting back to work on my novel. I’ve nearly finished a 6-week online UBC course, called “How to write a novel: Edit and Revise.” This has included video lectures, assignments and practical suggestions for how to analyze and prioritize all the changes I need to make in my book for this next draft.

Accordingly, I’ve spent the last few weeks unraveling all the narrative strands from my last draft and examining each character and story arc; some beloved characters and scenes had to be ripped out in order to strengthen the overall book, but most of the main plot points remain intact. I’ve been working on character development and backstory, transferring my scene ideas onto cue cards and laying out various plot lines to make sure they intertwine in a balanced way. I’ve probably got another couple of hours of this type of planning work before I feel confident that my novel’s framework is solid. Then I can transfer this new outline into Scrivener, ready to expand into written-out scenes.

Since I’m a highly impatient person, I keep wanting to skip all this planning and dive straight into drafting new pages! One thing that’s held me back, though, is the technical debate on what kind of tense to use for each of my two main characters, Helen and Anna. In my last draft, Helen’s story was told with a first-person past tense voice (with a little second-person flair that’s definitely gone for this next version); Anna’s story was written in third-person present tense. My question now is: do I change these voices? My beta readers told me that using first-person for Helen “anchored” my book with her, but I’m also aware that Helen was a much more developed character in that last draft. Now that I’ve done lots of work to understand and develop Anna, should I also write her scenes using first-person? Or should I change Helen’s scenes to third-person? Should I keep Anna’s parts in present tense, to emphasize the impulsivity of her character? Or should I streamline the voices for both main characters?

Decisions, decisions. I wish there was a clear path forward! I think I’ll just try out different options as I draft my new scenes, and see what feels most natural.

In other news, my story “Foreign Bodies,” which won the Malahat Review’s Open Season award in 2017, has been nominated for the 2018 Journey Prize. This is a prestigious $10 000 prize for the “Best Short Story” published in a Canadian literary magazine by an emerging writer. Obviously, I am utterly thrilled with this nomination! I should hear by May if my story has made the long list for the prize.

I’m also waiting on news for the Quebec Arts grant I applied for in December, and I’ve submitted various short stories to literary magazines and contests. It’s strange to think about all these decisions being made on my work by different juries and editors while I’m at home on my own, inching my way through progress on my novel.

Project description

Happy new year!

It’s been nearly six months since I completed a draft of my novel. As thrilled as I was to finish that draft, I always knew there was lots more work ahead. Sure, I’d planned out a scene-by-scene outline and followed this faithfully, but that didn’t mean I ended up with a polished manuscript. When I sent the draft out to a handful of readers, I asked them for constructive criticism: what was working? What did I need to fix?

Some of their feedback was very positive. They told me that the overall story worked well, with compelling characters and conflicts. There were lots of areas to improve, though: Inconsistent pacing. Too many secondary characters. One protagonist more developed than the other. The whole draft was hampered by too much explaining, too much backstory, too much “scaffolding.”

All of this is true. I reread the draft this fall, taking my own notes. There’s lots of work to do. I feel as though my finished draft was a jigsaw puzzle, and now I need to pull the whole thing apart and examine each piece to see what should stay and what should go. Ultimately, I’ll need to rebuild the puzzle to create a new and improved draft.

Where to begin? Well, first of all, I applied for an arts grant. Now that I’ve published a few stories, I’m eligible for an “emerging artist” grant from the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec.  I’ve never written a grant proposal before, so it took me weeks to put together the application. I had to submit a writing CV, a portfolio of my work, and a project description; not just a plot summary for this next draft, but an artist’s statement of intent. I had to examine my own motivations for writing this book and justify the project: why this book? Why me? Why now?

It was all very intense, but I got it done and submitted my application in December. Now I have to wait until March to find out if I’m successful. Cross your fingers, please!

In the meantime, I’ve started planning my revisions for this next draft. I’ve organized my notes and feedback into categories for various characters and subplots, and I’m doing a lot of free writing to explore and connect my ideas.

I’ve also signed up for another of UBC’s online courses, which starts next week. This one is called “How to write a novel: Edit & Revise.” Perfect timing, right? Stay tuned to see how it goes!

P.S. In case you didn’t see my posts on social media, I’ve had another story published! I wrote “Click Bait” nearly two years ago, but it’s just appeared in the latest issue of Hamilton Arts & Letters. If you read it, I’d love to know what you think!

The productivity trap

What is productivity supposed to look like?

Last year, that was an easy question. I had my daily word count goals, my scene outlines to follow, my printed-out chapters and my regular writing routines. All those metrics provided concrete evidence that I was moving towards my goal, and those hundreds of hours and thousands of words added up to me finishing the draft of my novel “on time” this summer.

Now, though? When people ask “how’s the writing going?” it’s harder to answer.

See, I’ve been focusing on short stories for the last couple of months. Daily count goals don’t apply when I’m putting a story together, since it takes multiple weeks and multiple drafts to write and polish a story that’s less than 3000 words. Measuring the number of hours I spend at my desk is also meaningless, since I’m often working through ideas or recording snippets of dialogue while I’m out for a walk or doing things around the house.

I can say “I submitted a story to a contest!” but that reduces all my work to that one tiny moment of pressing “send.” Or I can say “I had another story accepted by a literary magazine!” (which is true–hooray!) but publication is one part of writing that’s almost completely out of my control.

I like tracking my progress. I like checklists and numbers and schedules. I just think I need to loosen up a little on my goals and expectations. I’m still working hard, but for the sake of my sanity, I need to stop trying to “prove” that I’m being productive every day.

More and more, I find myself rebelling against the idea that productivity needs to be a constant. Maybe it’s ok if I work in fits and starts. Maybe I should factor in time to read and reflect, to knit and cook and daydream. Maybe I should even (gasp) take a day off, now and then.

 

Getting back to work

September. The leaves are starting to change, the kids have gone back to school, and I’m getting back to writing. If you follow me on social media, you know I had an eventful summer. My brother got married! We went to Ireland and England! A tree fell on our house during the NDG micro-burst! A great summer with an unfortunate ending.

So, what have I been up to, writing-wise?

At the end of July, to very little fanfare, I finished the draft of my novel. Yes, I really did. I printed it out, all 320 pages, and sent off copies to a small handful of beta readers, then I turned my attention to other things. I wrote my first professional book review for the Montreal Review of Books. I also learned that another of my stories has been accepted for publication, over at the online journal Hamilton Arts & Letters.

Now that summer is over, I’ve been trying to reestablish a writing routine. I’ve been working on some short stories, revising a piece to submit to a literary contest as well as drafting something brand new. I’m making progress with both, although I miss the structure of my 1000-words-per-day novel writing.

Which brings me to the next item on my to-do list: rereading the draft. I still haven’t actually read the book since I finished writing it! I definitely don’t want to start revisions until I’ve received feedback from my beta readers, but I think it’s time I sat down and looked over what I’ve accomplished so far. I know there’s still lots of work to be done, but I’m ready to get started with this next phase.

The end of the beginning

This isn’t really the end. I’m still writing everyday, still aiming to get this draft of my novel done by the end of July.

I started this weekly blog back in August 2016, right at the beginning of the school year. As I switched from teaching to writing full time, I wanted to keep myself accountable in terms of productivity and time management. I also thought it would be interesting to document my new career as I muddled through this first year. (Can I call it a career if I really don’t make any money?) All year, I’ve slowly adjusted to working from home. I’ve learned to tolerate solitude and fine-tuned routines to keep me focused and creative.

Every Friday, all year long, I’ve written a blog post to record the week’s progress (or lack thereof). I’ve charted my ups and downs, from publication (woohoo!) to rejection (far more common, sadly).

Now the end of the school year is in sight. All my teacher friends are cleaning up their classrooms and marking final exams, while my own kids are finishing grades 4 and 8 and coming home for the summer holidays.

I’ve spent this blog writing about writing, and now I’m going even more meta and writing about blogging about writing (Inception! As my daughter would say).

Although this year has gone by incredibly fast, I really feel like a writer now. I’ve nearly finished this draft of my novel, and I’ve also completed several more short stories. I’ve gradually gained confidence and patience with my writing process. I am deeply satisfied with this shift to writing full-time, so much so that I’ve decided my teaching days are officially behind me. (unless I end up teaching writing workshops at some point!)

I am an introspective person by nature, so I’ve enjoyed using this blog to analyze my time and my development as a writer. That being said, I’m not going to keep posting every Friday; just when I’ve got news or something interesting to share.

This post marks only the end of this academic year; the end of the beginning of my writing career.

Multitasking

I’ve spent this week juggling projects.

As always, I’m plugging away at my novel. Scene by scene, I am advancing through my outline, with The End slowly becoming discernible, way out in the distance. I’ve reached a highly dramatic section of the book, featuring a main character’s drug overdose and subsequent hospitalization. Rather than take the time to research medical details, I am making things up as I go merrily along. This is very freeing, and I figure I can always check with the experts if I keep these scenes in my next draft!

Another priority this week has been finishing a short story to submit to an upcoming contest in a literary journal. This has involved revamping the plot, adding a new ending,  developing the characters and polishing the language. It’s a fairly dark, satirical little tale, so it’s been lots of fun to write. I am going to find some time this weekend to work through feedback from a couple of writer friends, then I can send it off on Monday. I also need to come up with a better title before I submit this story!

Finally, as if two simultaneous projects weren’t enough, I’ve started a brand new short story. It’s my turn to submit a piece to be critiqued by my monthly writers’ group, so I’m trying to finish a decent draft for next week. This will be my first story with a male protagonist, which is also kind of fun.

Overall, I’m happy with my progress on all three projects. It has helped that they’re in three completely different stages of the writing process: drafting something new, writing from an outline and editing/revision. Considering that I’m also house-training a puppy, I think I’ll call this week a success!

Dog tired

The good news is that Samson is the cutest puppy ever. He’s smart and affectionate and hilarious. Our family loves him and I’m sure he’ll grow up to be a great dog.

The bad news is that I’m sleep-deprived and cranky. My work schedule is shattered and my productivity has tanked.

I’ve been through worse, of course; I have twins! I know this is temporary. It’ll get better once Samson is housetrained and sleeping through the night. At the moment, though, I’m mired in frustration. All my carefully-established routines are out the window.

I’m trying to stay positive. I am getting some writing done everyday, so the novel is moving forward. I’ve been revising a short story for an upcoming contest. I also got an incredibly positive rejection letter for one of my older stories; the editor gave me specific feedback on the piece, signing off: “Best of luck with your writing, I’m sure you’ll have no trouble publishing your work elsewhere.”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s that I need to be more flexible. I need to accept that all my writing schedules and outlines and goals represent an idealized version of my time, an attempt to structure my inherently unpredictable, messy life.

For years, I kept this quote above my desk, and maybe it’s time to print it out again:

“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word to paper.”

E.B. White