Category Archives: Writing

CBC Interview: My Appearance on Fresh Air

Well that was certainly something: an interview on CBC Radio. After listening for so many years, I’ve finally been on there to say a few words myself.

I’ve known Ralph Benmergui for a few years, and have been honoured to be a guest at his table on a number of occasions. The conversation with him (and his wife Cortney) is always engaging; Ralph and I differ on many subjects but I always enjoy speaking with him.

Ralph works from time to time as a host on various CBC shows, most notably Fresh Air, the Ontario weekend morning show. So I was thrilled to accept his invitation to appear on the show to discuss my book Brendan’s Way, as well as other topics related to publishing and self-publishing.

Of course, it’s never fun to listen to an interview you’ve done after the fact – about ten times I wanted a do-over to give a more useful, intelligent, or accurate answer to his questions. But the interview itself was nothing but enjoyable: just another pleasant conversation with Ralph.

Many thanks to the CBC and to Ralph Benmergui (and his producer Sandy Mowat) for getting it all together and putting it on the air.

If you missed it, I’m going to post a recording of the interview here (although be warned, there are a couple of blips in the sound). Listen soon in case the CBC lawyers get wind of it and I have to take it down.

The Punk Book

punk-book-coverAs you might remember (or not), I’ve written the Toronto Novel Marathon charity event a number of times (three). Each time I finished a novel. The first one was my longest: The Punk Book, which is a fictionalized account of my early years in a punk band in Hamilton’s 1990s music scene.

Well, the time has come to put this one up on the shelf. So I’ve printed up a few dozen copies and I’m launching it on Saturday, November 19.

It’s a fun book, but it took me a long time to figure out how to write it. Many of the stories in the book are based on my own very memorable experiences; but fictionalizing one’s own life is a difficult process. It’s hard to make it about the people without making it a navel-gazing exercise. But I think I figured it out, and the result is this book. The names have been changed to protect the innocent. Except for Larry, because screw that guy.

I’m lucky to be in a band with such great guys as Jonny Palmateer and Derek Fivehole. It’s really tough to write about this kind of thing without being arch, or cloying, or – much worse – boring. But according to Jon, it’s the best book ever written, so I figure I must have hit close to the mark.

What’s it about? Tom is a young guy who gets into punk music and tries out for a local band. He’s brought in as the bassist. The band gets a bit too big, a bit too fast. The band is run by a punk-savant songwriter and pathological liar named Larry. Tom has a thing for a girl in another band. He’s balancing the band and his job as a delivery guy for a Chinese restaurant. Almost all these things are true. (Especially about the pathological liar. Holy crap is that ever true.)

So why am I launching this particular book on Saturday? Mainly because of this:

The Stephen Stanley Band and The Goalies

Yes, my longtime punk band the Goalies has a rare opening spot for the Stephen Stanley band. (If you’re not familiar with that name, Stephen Stanley was the lead guitarist for the Lowest of the Low, which was a band I was fairly obsessed with in the crazy early-90s music scene.) It’s going to be a big, crazy show. And book launch.

In the end, I’m not trying to sell a million copies of this book. It’s punk: fun and crazy and who cares about rules. But I’m proud of the book, too, and I want to get it out there on this night of nights.

Because as I said at the start of the book:

This book was written as part of the 2014 Toronto Novel Marathon. It is therefore short, crude, and a lot more fun for the person yelling than for the audience.

And also the Author’s Note:

Absolutely nothing in this novel is true.

Which is definitely the case.

Except for the stuff about Larry. Because screw that guy.

Writing Sprints

cheetahWant to get something done? Have you got 15 minutes? That’s a good place to start.

This is how I’ve been doing a lot of my writing lately. I gather with a few friends in an online chatroom, and one of us sets a 15-minute timer. When it starts, we write. When it stops, we stop and compare word counts.

It’s an excellent system.

The approach is often known as the Pomodoro Technique (the name comes from the originator using a timer shaped like a tomato). Francesco Cirillo popularized the technique by working in 25-minute bursts, with five-minute breaks in between. While the timer is running, you write (or do whatever work you want to). When the timer stops, you check your e-mail, browse twitter, see if anything new is posted to reddit.

The idea is that your brain works better with a nearing deadline, but also only works at full speed for so long. So you find a balance between the two by setting a timer periodically and working repeatedly towards it. (I know that many writers do something like four “poms” in a row, and then take

For me, 25 minutes is too long; I find that my mind wanders around the 15- or 20-minute mark. The same goes for my lunch hour writing compadres. So we do 15 minutes at a time.

We used to call them Word Wars, and would actually compete to get the highest possible word count. But I have two problems with this: one, I’m not a huge fan of unnecessarily martial metaphors; and two, the competitive element should be internal – we’re competing with ourselves, not each other.

Even the idea of competition with yourself is too much, really. The important thing is that you get the words down, keep up the forward momentum. That’s why we now call them word sprints; they are really exercises, a chance to stretch and build your muscles.

You might not want to write only with word sprints; you might find that you’re losing a lot of writing time between them. But for jump-starting your writing engine, this is a great technique.

If you don’t have other writers to do sprints with, you can check out MyWriteClub – they have writing sprints going on all the time, and you can create your own there too if you like.

Writing Longhand

HandwritingRecently a friend tweeted this article, about how taking notes by hand helps you to learn and retain information better.

It turns out that handwriting engages your brain in different ways from typing:

The benefits of handwriting — though it’s a disappearing skill — have been documented by lots of educational psychologists, who have found that handwriting engages parts of the brain that typing neglects, especially areas associated with memory formation. For these reasons, the arguments go, kids come up with more ideas when they’re writing in cursive versus typing.

But I knew this already.

When I was first thinking about writing novels, I made a lot of false starts. This was in the late nineties and early oughts; at that time, there was no wifi, and e-mail wasn’t something you had all the time–if you wanted to take a file off one computer and put it on another, you put it on a floppy disk and used the walknet to transfer it–that is, you carried it from one place to another. I didn’t get a USB drive until 2006. I didn’t even have high-speed internet till the end of 2000.

But I started having ideas for novels, so I would sit down at the laptop (if I had one at the time) or desktop, and started to write.

And stopped.

I quickly learned that the keyboard and screen were not a source of creativity; everything was a false start. Usually I couldn’t get more than a paragraph written, and never more than a page.

I found a similar effect when I was working, as a technical writer at the time. I could write user manuals and technical documents just fine, but if I had to figure out the structure, or put together an outline, I reached for pen and paper, and put it together there first.

So when an idea for a novel hit me hard, I bought a notebook and tried writing it there. And it worked. I finished the (short, very poor) novel. After that, I was clear: creative writing was to be done by hand; non-creative work could be done on a keyboard.

That’s what I did from then on. I wrote my first published book, L.M.F., entirely longhand. I even started a novel for NaNoWriMo on the keyboard, stalled, and then went on to finish it longhand. The sequel as well. And two other novels since.

There were a couple of real advantages to writing this way. One was the security of it: the notebooks wouldn’t get corrupted, wouldn’t get obsolete. I’d never open an outdated file and work on it. I was forced to write at least somewhat procedurally: I couldn’t jump from scene to scene (not that I like to write that way anyhow).

And one of the extra tasks in writing the first draft longhand was to retype the book once it was finished; that turned out to be a positive, not a negative. It forced me to give a very close read-through and light edit along the way. This was a good way to identify contradictions and inconsistencies, as well as find poorly-written sentences.

One interesting effect I found in retyping: I would start typing a handwritten sentence, and halfway through discover some kind of flaw in the way I had executed it. I would start to change it… and then by the end of the sentence would realize that I had been right the first time. Sometimes it was a little linguistic twist, sometimes it was a way to bring in some idea I wanted to connect up. But I was surprised how my writing would take me in one direction, and then land somewhere I didn’t expect.

Then two things changed: I started outlining, and I had an idea.

They started at the same time. I bought myself an Android tablet, one of the Asus Transformers. The tablet had a detachable keyboard which was actually a joy to type on despite its slightly smaller size, and was very easy to carry around–that is, out of the office and down to the coffee shop without people noticing. A few days after I got the tablet, I landed on an idea.

A book had never thrown itself open to me in this way before. It was a science fiction book–a genre I hadn’t read much in the preceding 15 years, and had never written–and the idea quickly became an outline that spilled out in a torrent.

I finished the 9,000-word outline in two days. I started writing immediately–on the tablet. I wrote it in five months. My previous record for finishing a novel was closer to a year and a half.

I noticed something else, too: I wrote much, much faster on the keyboard. Part of that was the outline, surely; I wasn’t sitting and trying to think of what came next. But longhand, I would write at most three 175-word pages in an hour. On the tablet, I averaged about 1200 words, and in more productive sessions, I could top 1500 without straining myself.

But I noticed another thing: I wasn’t as interesting a writer. Granted, it was genre fiction, but in re-reading the stuff I wrote, I found that my writing wasn’t as coloured as it could have been; I was missing opportunities. The writing was functional, but lacked energy.

It’s taken time to get used to the keyboard. But over time, I’ve modified my writing style to better handle the words through my fingertips rather than the nib of a pen. Still, when I really want my writing to count, my first draft is often a handwritten draft.

Your tools are important; the medium might not be the message but it inevitably shapes the message. And my creativity is best captured with ink and paper. That’s laughable to some, abhorrent to some, but next time you’re stuck, give it a try. As it was for me, it might be a way to open up something new.

 

* Check out Kaarina’s site, OnPoint Writing and Editing!

Rushed Scenes

Seems RushedIn editing work – my own and others’ – I often come across scenes that feel rushed. The action swings by so quickly that we don’t feel like it really happened; instead we have an uncomfortable feeling that we have missed something.

When I feel that a scene is rushed, I find that it’s usually because I haven’t grounded it in the real world enough. This isn’t just a matter of adding description; it’s writing the scene so that it is experienced from the given point of view.

So what do I do?

Eliminate Reported Dialogue

First, I look for reported dialogue, where the narrator summarizes what a character said. The characters need to say their words; readers can sense when you’ve taken a shortcut.

Of course, we also don’t want reams and reams of uninteresting dialogue in the scene, right? If that’s your worry, though, then why did the narrator have to report that something was said?

So our options here are to remove the reported dialogue completely, or find a way to make it into interesting dialogue that’s actually on the page.

Use the Senses

One of the most easily missed opportunities in enhancing a scene is looking for ways to bring in the senses of your characters – especially senses other than sight.

That doesn’t mean the point of view character needs to touch and smell everything in the room; it’s a matter of being aware of the environment the character inhabits. Is the air dry, moist, warm, cool? Is there any background noise? (We are very rarely in a completely silent environment.) What is the light like? Is there an unfamiliar smell?

Put yourself in the point of view, and describe that experience.

Inhabit the Point of View

The sensory descriptions are a good start; but to really make a scene feel right, the narration needs to truly inhabit the scene.

This can be hard work, but I find it gives the biggest payoff for readers. It goes deeper than just sensory description, too; you need to not only feel what the POV character feels, but think what the POV character thinks.

Imagine your character walks into a study in a stately home. What does she notice? If she’s a bookish character, she would scan the volumes on the shelves to see if there’s anything interesting. If he’s the son of the owner of the study, he might look at the desk–what was dad working on? If she’s trying to find the dead study owner’s will, she’ll be on the lookout for hidey-holes and secret spaces in the furniture. If he’s the study owner’s mortal enemy, he might notice–disgusting!–the elephant’s foot wastebasket and stuffed tiger head on the wall.

It’s not a matter of describing everything in the room; it’s a matter of making choices about what’s worth describing, and making those choices based on the character whose eyes are actually viewing the scene.

 

Scenes seem rushed not because they’re short, and not because things happen too fast; they seem rushed when the scene doesn’t have enough relevance for the reader. Look for ways to truly inhabit the scene, and it will be not faster, not slower, but right.

Outlining – Why Bother?

Finding time and energy to write can be difficult enough. If you’re going to add a step to the creative process–one that itself has some disadvantages, as I discussed last week–you’re going to need to get some serious benefits from it.

But in this case, outlining has a ton of things going for it, and some of them directly counteract the effects of the disadvantages. A good outline makes a better book, and makes it easier to get the damn thing written. An outline is a good deal all around.

The number one advantage of an outline is that it is the number one way to defeat writer’s block. Now, I’m one of those who refuses to buy that writer’s block even exists; it’s a convenient excuse, and one that I’ve readily used myself in the past. But when your writing is stalled, I think it’s a sign not that you’re blocked, but that you need to do more thinking.

And that is exactly what the outline forces you to do: get your thinking out of the way early on. You have already gone through the process of figuring out who does what, and when, and why. You’ve already got those scenes mapped out, to some level. And by separating the thinking from the writing means that instead of getting blocked, you can get to the fun part of making the scenes come alive.

But an outline can do even better than this. You have probably had the experience of sitting down to write, and watching the cursor blink for a few minutes before you really get down to the business of making another cup of tea. And maybe petting the cat for a while, and doing some dishes, and painting the porch.

What I’m saying is that writing is often a matter of momentum. When you sit down, it can be really hard to get back into the scene, and to remember what the next paragraph, the next line, the next word was going to be. Each time you return to your manuscript, you’re resetting your mind completely.

An outline gets you past that. It was written by you, as a guide to writing the book; it’s probably the best possible way to get your mind back into the groove. I found that my writing speed picked up immensely without having to wait for the right idea to reintroduce itself to my frontal lobes.

I’m not the only one, either. An outline is the number one piece of advice from SFF Rachel Aaron, who created a sensation a while ago with her blog post (and later e-book) about going from 2,000 to 10,000 words a day. Read it, and check out her e-book as well. If you’re struggling to increase your output, you’ll definitely want to take a look at her advice.

So outlining helps with the day-to-day task of putting words on the page. But it is also, of course, a big picture tool. How many times have you found yourself halfway through a novel, wishing you’d taken just a slightly different approach to that character? How many times have you had to go back and shoehorn a brand new scene into an already completed part of the book?

If you’re outlining, it’s easy to do those things: you go back to the earlier part of the outline and change it. Add a chapter, add six chapters, move things all around if you like. And if you discover that you could add something awesome but that would need wholesale changes throughout the manuscript, you can do that too.

So the outline has a lot going for it: it can make you a better writer in many, many ways. However, as we’ve discussed before, an outline can also have its disadvantages. So next time I’ll tell you the secret to outlining, the thing that made me the outliner I am today: finding your outlining level.

Outlining – Why Aren’t You Already Using One?

So I’ve already admitted to being a planner, not a pantser myself. But even if you’ve never written with an outline before, you have probably wondered about it. You might have read an article on it or heard a talk from a successful author about it. Lots of authors swear by the technique. Why don’t you?Plan1

For myself, some of my first few attempts at writing novels started with an outline. Sometimes the outline was a point-by-point breakdown of the plot of the novel; sometimes it was just a couple of paragraphs explaining what would happen in the novel, and when, and why.

These novels never got written – and in many cases never even got started.

In my experience, and for many other writers I’ve discussed this with, this is the primary drawback to writing with an outline. They rob you of momentum. They steal the magic from the process of writing.

And you can even lose that momentum halfway through writing the plan for a novel. By the two-thirds point, you hit the wall and there’s no coming back. You don’t care about the characters any more, you don’t care about the ending, you just want out. And you file that outline away, and never look at it again.

Sometimes, though, you’ll actually finish an outline, and maybe even draft the book from the outline. It might be a short story or a novella, and maybe you did it for an event like a novel marathon or NaNoWriMo. But the book lacks something; it’s too rigid, too mechanical.

I know a novelist of some fame who is an avid outliner; he writes extremely detailed breakdowns of each part of the novel, to the point where every single scene is described in detail before the first draft starts.

I’ll confess that I don’t like his novels. For me, they are clockwork novels; everything is so formally constructed that the twists and turns aren’t interesting and the big reveals are always telegraphed. It feels like a slog to get through the books. I like the author very much, but his books leave me a bit cold.

His novels strike me as the product of too much planning and outlining. And that’s the second major problem with outlines: sometimes the novel feels like it was built to serve the outline, not the other way round.

So these are what I see as the major drawbacks to writing outlines. We can all agree that a non-fiction book needs an outline – especially publishers, who don’t offer a contract without reading an outline first. With fiction, there needs to be a little bit of the unknown, a little bit of magic – a little bit of art – in the books you write.

And if an outline dims that spark of magic, you’re better off writing without one.

Although there are many advantages to writing with an outline. We’ll talk about those next.

Outlining Your Novel: Yes, I’m an Outliner

Plan1The argument about whether you should outline your work before you write it or not has almost become a religious war. Both sides are utterly convinced of their correctness, and both sides are in fact correct.

Creative writing is difficult enough without deciding in advance what will work or not work for you. There’s no magic bullet, nothing that will get your book written except writing words, nothing that will get your books to improve except editing and learning and writing more. Those are the only absolutes.

However, the argument about outlining has become so polarized that it’s worth considering whether either side is completely right. In fact, up to a few manuscripts ago, I was not an outliner in any serious way.

I had a rough outline for my novel L.M.F. that was about twenty lines long – I listed where each chapter took place and what major incident took place there. And that one had a fragmented timeline, with two timelines presented in parallel, and the earlier one ending at the point where the later one began. It was complicated enough, and I was new enough to novel-writing, that I needed a rough guide.

But for the novels after L.M.F., I didn’t even put that much thought into what would happen. I would sometimes make some notes when I was done about what would happen in the next scene, or in the rest of the current scene, when I was finishing my writing session and putting the pen down. Otherwise, I relied on the novel’s premise and my own understanding of my characters to figure out how to push the story forward.

The first change, for me, was when I embarked on a novel that had four different points of view. (Not published yet – but someday.) With four interlocking stories, I had to make sure I was balancing them well enough; was Stan in too much, or Zsolt in too little? When did I need to have this crisis, or that one? It took a bit of care and planning, and an outline was absolutely crucial. I ended up making a few handwritten pages of notes in the back of a notebook to get that one done.

Around the same time I was struck with an idea for a science fiction novel. (Not published yet – but someday.) The concept, the characters, and the entire story hit me all at once. I sat down and over two days completed a 9,000-word outline for the book. I started working on it right away, and in five months, writing only on lunch hours and coffee breaks, I had finished the 90,000-word manuscript.

That was the point where I became an outliner, for every book I wrote. I even plot out the general points of a story when I’m writing a shorter piece. But everything has its own document somewhere in Google Docs or Evernote that I can open up, skim through, and figure out what happens next.

So in the religious war, you can put me on the side of the outliners. But I’m still agnostic enough to accept that it might not work for everyone. So if you’re an outliner, what drawbacks do you have to keep in mind as you work? If you’re not, should you consider doing it?

Next time: the problems with writing an outline – all the reasons you haven’t done it before.

Access Copyright’s Payback Program is open

This year’s Payback Program is now open for registration. If you are a Canadian writer, and have print publication credits to which you hold the rights published from 1993-2012, you can collect royalties from this program.

Don’t know anything about this program? Read the FAQ [PDF].

Here’s where you get into the Payback program.

To be part of the program, you need to register with Access Copyright — and if you didn’t register with them as of the end of last year, you’re not eligible for this year. But that means you should register with Access Copyright today, and be ready for next year.

The reason to get into this program is because you actually get a real, live cheque in the mail every fall. Even with one book in print, you are eligible for a portion of the royalties paid out to writers. It’s pretty nice to get a cheque for a couple hundred dollars every year — it’s not a lot of money, but it feels good.

If you qualify, get registered. If you’re not sure whether you qualify, find out.

Don’t worry about your network, worry about your friends

Accordion Guy’s advice (and the article he’s referring to) for people who mess around in the high-tech sphere is perfectly applicable to writers, too:

If you have successful friends, you will be successful. It’s pretty much that simple. If you hang out with a bunch of losers, you too will adopt their loser ways and not achieve anything. Regardless of whether or not you go out and network, please make sure that your friends are ambitious and hard working people who you admire.

The writers I hang out with, work with, swap editing with, and read all have one thing in common: they write. Usually they write a lot. And when they write, they’re serious about getting their writing out there, one way or another.

I used to describe them as people who were working to get published (and I appointed myself as judge of whether they were realistic in that, for better or worse). Now I look a little more widely, realizing that there are many paths, and many measures of success; now I look for writers who have defined useful goals and work to achieve them. (Again, whether the goals are useful is something I judge for myself.)

But people who talk about wanting to write? They aren’t people I talk to about writing. People who have been working on the same novel for ten years? People who have this one idea they’d like to turn into a novel? People who do nothing but “free-writing”? People who don’t want feedback on their work?

Those are good people, fine people. I have no problem with those people. But they aren’t people I talk to about writing. The people whose opinions I value, whose stories I hang on, whose work I seek out and ask to read and offer to help with and whose signed copies I display on my shelf with pride: those are writers.

And there’s another side to this: why would those people want to hang out with me? They are perfectly capable of judging my goals, and whether I’m working towards them realistically. And there’s no doubt that plenty of them have considered me and found me wanting, by their standards. And that’s fine, too.

In short, to be a peer of other people whose work you respect, work like hell and make sure that what you produce is at least approaching the same sort of quality. If you want to hang out with great people, start by being one of those people.