Happier New Year?

Happy New Year! Well, it’ll be happier eventually. So far 2021 looks a lot like 2020: My three teenagers are all home, “attending” school online. My husband is conducting therapy from our basement. Montreal is already in the Red Zone, with rumours circulating of an even more draconian lockdown to come.

I’m struggling to stay positive, to keep the momentum going on my writing. It’s especially frustrating because I’m SO CLOSE to being finished with this novel! After so many years, so many hundreds of hours and thousands of words written and edited and deleted, I’m almost at the finish line.

These days, I’m working through the final edits of my manuscript. I’m nearly done with chapter 24, which is the climactic chapter for one of my characters… I’m almost at the end of this book. I know exactly what needs to be fixed and how to make those revisions. I know which new scenes need to be written and where they need to go. I’ve got all the information, all the tools, and certainly all the motivation to complete this project.

But… it’s such a slog. I’m so desperate for time and space to think, to imagine my way into this fictional world. From October to December, I was able to write at Eric’s office, a few blocks away from our house. Now that’s closed. My own little home office isn’t available either, since my sons need that room for school. I keep trying to be flexible, to find new pockets of writing time: early in the morning, before kids wake up; mid-afternoon, when everyone’s relatively busy and quiet. Still, I’m always braced for interruptions, for a new emotional or tech emergency with my kids. Parenting during a pandemic is hard enough without trying to finish a novel!

Last night, I dreamed that I had another short story accepted for publication. I do have several stories out for consideration, but I’ve been getting nothing but rejections for months. In fact, I received my latest rejection yesterday: After consideration, we have decided that it is not in tune with our publishing needs. We wish you all the best with your writing. So what’s with my dream? Is my unconscious trying to offer me hope?

I don’t like to complain. I like to set goals, to make progress, to feel in control of my work and my life. I know that so many people have it so much worse than me! And yet here I am, throwing this little cri de coeur into the universe: please, let me finish this book! Give me the strength to keep going, to keep believing that I can reach this finish line. Please, let 2021 be a happier year than 2020 for all of us!

100 days

Today is the first day of summer. My kids finished their online classes yesterday, which means my daughter has officially, without fanfare, graduated from high school. My 13-year-old sons have already grown four inches this spring, their voices cracking and deepening. 

What a long, strange spring it’s been for us all.

The papers say it’s been 100 days since the beginning of our COVID-19 lockdown, and it’s true: today marks exactly 100 days since we woke up on Friday, March 13 and learned that the schools had closed.

Like everyone else, we’ve adapted. My husband has taken his therapy practice online. The kids have learned to navigate Microsoft Teams and Zoom and Schoology for their virtual classes. We’re riding emotional waves, from the highs of We can do this! to the deep despairing lows of How can we do this? We’re isolated from the world but on top of each other. We are physically healthy but worn thin with anxiety. We feel helpless in a broken world, stuck in a time loop of terrible news stories of injustice and senseless suffering.

And of course, since I’m a writer, I miss writing.

I miss solitude.

I miss sustained quiet thinking time.

I’m doing my best to continue revision work on my novel, waking up early to chip away at one chapter after another. I wrote about this in a blog post for the QWF’s Chronicling the Days project, which will be published as an anthology next year.

There are still moments when I’m immersed in a scene, happy with the work I’m doing, galvanized about being so close to the end of this novel-writing odyssey… then I close my laptop and my good feelings disappear. Is it crazy to think that I can finish my book under these conditions? Won’t my work be wildly uneven? Why am I pushing myself for a book that nobody’s waiting to read?

There aren’t answers to these questions. I keep writing. I will see this project through, damn it. Even at this pace, I’m hoping my revisions will be finished within another 100 days. Then we’ll see what comes next.

New revision plans

I’m back at it: Novel revisions are officially underway!

I reread my manuscript last week, taking four days to read all 300+ pages. I was a little bit terrified to start this process, but my goal was to keep an open mind as I read through the draft. I’d had positive feedback from the two agents who read my work, so I knew the manuscript wasn’t completely terrible. I’m definitely aware that it’s too long, and that I should be cutting around 20 000 words to get the book under 100 000 words. I also had some vague ideas about changes that might improve the pacing or develop the characters. In general, though, I’m trying to be as objective as possible.

By the end of my read-through, I’d made 20 pages of notes. (I know, I am nothing if not systematic!) The biggest surprise was how obvious some of the manuscript’s flaws were, right from the first couple of chapters: one of my secondary characters was taking up way too much space, and the draft’s pace felt breakneck, without any slower scenes to let the reader catch their breath.

I was, however, happy to find that there are whole scenes, characters and subplots that are working well! I won’t have to do much work on these sections, which is a huge relief. My last draft was nearly a complete rewrite, but I won’t have to use the same approach this time. These successful elements feel like solid pillars that I can build the rest of the book around.

Interestingly, I think the second half of my draft is much stronger than the first half, with more psychological depth to the characters, better pacing and more interesting chapter structures. The shift in quality coincides with my time at Banff, so that experience seems to have made a lasting difference to my writing!

I’m not sure yet how I’ll approach this round of revisions: a checklist? More note cards? I’m sure some kind of diagramming will be involved.

As a first step, this week I went through the manuscript and highlighted all the sections that featured that one over-inflated character, then I opened up Scrivener and deleted these from the draft. When I checked my word count again, I was astonished to see that I’d cut 16 thousand words out of the manuscript! What a great start to this round of revisions!

The creativity drought

It’s been two weeks since my kids went back to school and I haven’t written a word. This comes after a whole month of August of having them home, hanging around the house with incessant needs and demands: “I’m hungry!” “He took my ___!” “Is it screen time yet?”

Look, my kids are great. The summer was wonderful–we took a family trip to France at the beginning of July, then all three kids went to sleepaway camp and I spent those two weeks furiously writing, with the result that I FINISHED MY NOVEL DRAFT (yes, that demands capital letters). But since then: Nada. Nothing. I’m in a creative drought.

At this point, I’m going on seven weeks of no creative writing. That’s a ridiculously long dry spell for me–long enough that I’m starting to worry about it. What if the well has run dry? What if I’ve lost my touch? These days, I’m spending most of my energy on domestic tasks (Did the kids’ school forms get signed? Have their soccer uniforms been washed? What time’s the tutor coming? What are we having for dinner?) and frankly, there isn’t much left over for writing. It’s true that this is a particularly busy September, with my sons starting their first year of high school (!!) and preparing for their double Bar Mitzvah in October (which will be the cutest thing ever)… but I miss my creative side. That’s the part of me that feels the most real, in some ways. When I’m writing fiction, when I’m sucked into a story and playing with language to capture just the right word, that’s when I’m firing on all cylinders.

It’s not like I’m not writing ANYTHING at the moment. I’ve been putting together a grant application for a short story collection, which demands some pretty deep thinking. I’ve been rereading all my old stories, looking at themes that recur and finding ways to tie them all together. This is a challenging process, especially when my last few grant applications have all been denied. Still, I persist. Maybe this time I’ll get lucky.

I tried working on a short story last week, but the words wouldn’t flow. It feels like my mental gears have rusted up. How can I call myself a writer if I’m not writing? If I can’t write?

Next week, I’ll submit the grant app. Then there won’t be anything standing between me and the blank page. Or rather, the 300+ printed pages of my novel manuscript, which needs some serious revisions before I send it out to any agents or publishers. Will my writing instincts come back? Will the words start to trickle forth again? I hope so. Stay tuned.

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.

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.