From the heart

Word count: 342                                    Reading time: 2-3 mins. 

When our last beagle died two years ago she was the last of many animals with whom Alan and I have shared our lives. It was only when she was gone that we realized how much time and effort we had poured into our pets over the years. The joy our adopted friends gave us could never be explained to people who weren’t animal junkies like us.  

Isn’t that how it should be with all things we love, including – maybe especially – writing? We’re meant to throw ourselves into the commitment without measuring the cost in time or dollars. Melissa Scott said, “Even at the worst of times, when nothing goes right, when the prose is clumsy and the ideas feel stale, at least we're doing something that we genuinely love. There's no other reason to work this hard, except that love.”

Like any obsession, this cuts both ways. Writing isn’t glamorous. It’s a path to fame and fortune for very, very few people. It involves long hours of isolation followed by nail-biting moments waiting for the critiques.

Wait a minute – why am I doing this again? Ah yes, the sheer love of it. Just like I forced myself out of bed for pre-dawn dog walks on cold winter mornings, only to have the pack ignore me until dinner time, I frequently sacrifice long hours to writing and produce nothing more than leaden scenes that have to be scrapped. At such times I remind myself that today’s effort is part of a journey.

We met the needs of our animals and they rewarded us with sweet dispositions and good health. By meeting the demands of writing I hope to produce a story well told, one full sound and fury, one that is highly publishable.

So tomorrow I’ll brave the forecast snow and freezing rain and go downtown to a seminar at the Vancouver School of Writing. People who choose to lie in bed and watch the bleak weather pass by won’t understand. How do you explain love?




Searching for answers

 word count: 233                          reading time: 1-2 mins

Australian writer Shane Maloney said, “Watching someone write is about as interesting as watching a mime feed hay to an invisible horse.” That horse has hollow legs and it takes many long hours to satisfy its appetite. So what is the perfect answer to the inevitable question, “How’s the writing going?”

In a society geared toward immediate gratification, there is an expectation of measurable results after weeks, months, and even years cloistered with a computer. Yes I know that writing fiction is just making stuff up but really that’s the easy part. Fitting tangents of imagination into a flowing story is the hard work. How many people really care that a scene was laboriously revised five times before finally being deleted because it just didn’t work? That’s not what friends are asking. They want to know how soon they will have a copy of your bestseller in their hands. They don’t realize how much hay that horse craves.

Maybe it’s this inexplicable nature of the effort that led Robert Heinlein to say, “Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.”

How do you answer those questions about the state of your work-in-progress? Do you flip out your cell phone and mime astonishment at what’s on the screen? Oh look! It’s a message from the stable! My horse has run out of hay.


photos: Sad444

Don't Look Back

 Word count: 297                                Reading time: 2 mins

Years ago my friend Valerio, who was a bit of a petrolhead, used to joke, “I don’t need a rear view mirror because it doesn’t matter who’s behind me.”

 When I write, I look back often to see how I arrived at where I am. Sometimes this is a pitfall that stops me from advancing the story. Maybe that’s why other writers, probably all of whom finish NaNoWriMo in five days, don’t touch their work until it has reached SFD status.  

 Editing is just another part of writing so it’s a non-issue, right? Maybe not. Some people will revise a scene five or ten times while major parts of the book hang like a giant blank canvas. Editing allows them to avoid the steep hills in the road: advancing the story, pulling together the threads of the plot, and developing a compelling denouement.

Still I can’t imagine starting the next part of a novel without reading some of what I wrote the day before. This practice invariably sparks some tinkering and often proves that editing, when done properly, can take more effort than writing. When my rolling revisions stop the work dead, I know it’s time to consider ways to start it again.

At the 2010 Surrey International Writers’ Conference, the marvellous performance artist Ivan Coyote led a session called Writing Boot Camp for Procrastinators. One of her suggestions was to either cover the screen as you type or to change the font colour to white so you can’t actually see what you’re laying down. Her point was that creative potential shines strongest when it’s unfettered, particularly when it's unfiltered by fear.

Do you throw away your rear view mirror and ignore what you’ve already done? How do you push through to the end of your story?


Photo: Drew Hadley

I can sea clearly now. Or can eye?

Word count: 254          Reading time: 1-2 minutes

When I was a teenager I discovered the wonderful word irregardless. I thought it made me sound articulate and worldly, at least as smart as Denny J. who regularly challenged teachers with words like differentiate and prevaricate. It was Denny who, with the arch of an eyebrow, pointed out that the correct word was regardless. I slunk off and checked it in a dictionary only to discover that he was right. Yet again.

As a kind of self defence these days I keep two dictionaries beside the computer and lives on my favourites bar. I make enough mistakes by using the wrong homophone not because I don’t know the difference between there and they’re but because my brain delivers the sound to my fingers and sometimes they have a will of their own. Those errors I can only hope to pick up in revision or when my sharp-eyed writing partner (thanks, Allison) sees what I mean instead of what I’ve written.

So I try to avoid the bigger mistakes of using words like nonplussed to mean unworried or untroubled by an event, or cache when I mean cachet. Every day I check many words, words that I thought I knew well. And now, with new words and meanings creeping into the language almost daily, the Online Slang Dictionary has made its way onto my favourites bar as well.

What words trip you up? How often do you reach for a dictionary or dig deeper for clarity of something you thought you already knew?


Photo by: Maggie Bolitho