Lessons from Banff

There was a moment in Banff when it hit me. I was walking to the dining hall for lunch, hanging my head after a difficult morning of writing. A magpie flew across my path and I looked up, suddenly struck by the miracle of finding myself there, surrounded by mountains and wildlife and other artists, and all because I’m a writer.

It didn’t matter that I’d had an unproductive morning. That’s what hit me, standing there on the gravel road in the spring sunshine: I’m a writer all the time, not just when I’ve written something great or had something published. I don’t have to keep proving that I’m a writer. This is who I am.

For two extraordinary weeks, I got to escape my domestic responsibilities and participate in the Spring Writers Retreat at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. It was amazing; they provided us with meals, with desks and a gym and a print shop and the most beautiful views you can imagine, and then they turned us loose. Nobody was looking over our shoulders; nobody was judging our output or criticizing our techniques. We were there to work, and the Banff Centre was focused on making that as easy as possible for us.

The program was mostly self-directed, but I did have the opportunity to work with the most fierce, fabulous mentor: Cherie Dimaline. She helped me sharpen up several chapters of my novel, plus she gave me heartfelt pep talks and practical advice about the world of publishing. She believes in my novel and she pushed me to send out a query to an agent! Before I got to Banff, I wouldn’t have dreamed that I was ready for that step.

I also didn’t anticipate the community that would form among our cohort of writers. We might have seemed like a wildly diverse group, but every single person at the retreat was kind, generous and completely dedicated to writing. These were my people! In less than two weeks, this group of strangers became friends. It was incredibly hard to say goodbye at the end of the retreat, and I can’t wait to read all the wonderful work they put into the world.

We joked about how everything in Banff seemed like a metaphor for the writing life: Climbing a mountain. Avalanche warnings. Catching a glimpse of the elusive resident elk. Evading the dreaded cougars (death from above)! Above and beyond everything else, Banff taught me the lesson I have to keep learning, the one I hope I can finally absorb and carry with me: I am a writer. An artist. Not just when I’m sitting at my desk, but always.

Writing in circles

I spent the entire month of January working on one scene. One! A whole month of work, and I only added 4000 words to my manuscript.

So what happened? Well, it’s true that this is a pivotal scene, smack dab in the middle of the story. It involves developments and revelations that need to power the second half of my novel. I had to get it right before I moved on.

The crazy part is that I had already written a version of this scene in my last draft! Same characters, same location, same timeframe (the 2004 Hillside Music Festival at Guelph Lake, to be precise). Sure, my current draft follows a different trajectory, but I thought it would be easy to tweak a few details to make this old scene fit into my new draft.

Nope, nope, nope. Too many things had to change! I tried revising the old version, adding and changing and taking away sentences and paragraphs and description and backstory, but it didn’t work. All I was doing was creating a slow, overwritten, stodgy mess.

Finally, I took a deep breath and pressed ‘delete’. (Ok, I actually copied and pasted the whole thing into another folder, just in case I ever want to go back and salvage a line or two.) Anyway, I started fresh. A blank page. And guess what? It totally worked. This time, my writing had energy. The scene came to life! I’ve got my momentum (and my mojo) back. Phew!

Other than my writing struggles with this scene, January involved lots of intense ups and downs. One of my stories won Honourable Mention in Prairie Fire’s Fiction Contest! And our beloved 18-year-old cat developed a seizure disorder that’s going to mean euthanasia in the near future. I was accepted to the Banff Centre’s Spring Writer’s Retreat! And I’ve been dealing with some very stressful (although thankfully not serious) health issues. Oh, and I turned 43! But come on, January, why so much drama? Let’s hope February gets us back on an even keel.

Happy New Year!

As we count down these final few hours of 2018, I’ve been attempting to sum up my work and progress over the past year.

Have I published any new stories? Nope, not since June.

Am I done writing my book? Not yet.

Do I have a publisher or an agent? Ha! No.  (I know this is a crazy question for a first-time novelist, but it’s asked ALL the time)

Let’s make this a broader question: What have I accomplished this year? 

Well, let’s see. The work on the novel is progressing well. I spent the first half of 2018 pulling apart my last draft, figuring out what needed to be changed and gradually hammering together a revised outline. Then, after a couple of false starts, I got to work on a new full draft of my book. I’ve now written about 65 000 words, which takes me roughly halfway through my outline.

This draft is feeling solid, and I’m happy with the work I’m doing. Still, sometimes I get freaked out and worry that things aren’t going as well as I believe. Just like a train crossing an old-timey wooden trestle bridge, I may be rushing across a rickety, unstable structure… but I know I just need to trust this process and keep moving forward! In 2019, I’m hoping to get this draft done, then revise/edit, then proofread… and hopefully finish the book by the fall. Yes, finish! As in, ready to shop around to agents and/or publishers.

Other than the novel, I’ve got a few smaller writing projects on the go. I finished several stories this year and I’ve been submitting these to various literary magazines and contests. I’ve written a couple of book reviews for the Montreal Review of Books. I’m also delighted to have started writing and sending out poetry, after taking a QWF workshop this fall with the lovely and encouraging Shannon Webb-Campbell.

One wonderful thing that I’ve been doing this fall is sharing my work at various local readings. You may have caught me at the Visual Arts Centre in September, at Lapalabrava in October, at the Carte Blanche issue launch in November or at the December Solstice Festival readings at Argo Bookshop. I love reading out loud (one of the reasons I still read to my 12-year-old sons every night), and it’s been fantastic to connect with Montreal writers and audience members at all of these events. I hope I’m invited to do some more readings in 2019!

Overall, I’m still feeling extremely lucky to be writing full time and able to make such steady progress on my book. I don’t want to change much about my writing routine, but I do have one resolution for the new year: I want to get back to updating this blog more regularly! I’m going to aim for once a month.

Wishing you all a happy, healthy and productive year in 2019!

Happy New Year!

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.