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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.