Tag 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.

Coming Very Soon – The Taste

thetaste-800I have spoken once or twice about writing my merry little novel marathons. (Hey! The next one is coming up in August! You can support me here!)

Last year, I went in with an idea of some bad things that could happen, and a couple of disturbing images in my head. By the end of the weekend I had the awful little novella you see here.

I’ve never written horror before – I’m not even much of a horror reader. I even got slightly uneasy making the fake blood you can see on the cover. But I like the book, and I hope others will like it too.

It releases on Friday, April 29, coinciding with my appearances at the Ad Astra convention. If you’re there, come say hi. And feel free to buy the book

  • On Kobo
  • On Amazon
  • On Barnes and Noble, Apple iBookstore, And whatever other purveyor of fine e-books you tend to shop at. (If you don’t find it at your favourite ebookstore, let me know so I can get it up there!)

Oh, and by the way, if you sponsored me for the Toronto Novel Marathon in the past, I will gladly send you a copy of The Taste absolutely free. Just contact me and I’ll get you a copy in the format of your choosing.

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.

On writing what you know

Dismiss that woefully misguided maxim ‘Write What You Know.’ Instead, and I emphatically believe this, write what you don’t know. Write about what confuses, enrages, haunts and confounds you. The writer who has the answers is penning propaganda; the writer on a quest for them is the one I’d rather read.

Apparently this is from a speech by playwright Doug Wright, though I can’t find a source. Whether he said it or not, he’s absolutely correct.

From a good thread on r/writing about dodgy advice for writers.

(I also weighed in with my least favourite, but almost ubiquitous, writing advice too.)

New work posted: At the Barricade

My short story “At the Barricade“, recently published in the Windsor Review, is now available in the Sample Work page.

Show me the &c.

Ask any published writer in Canada: today was a good week. This is the week the cheques come out from Access Copyright. Me, I got over two hundred and fifty big ones.

(By “big ones” I mean, of course, dollars. Every dollar earned through writing is a big one. And “over” I mean in the most precise possible sense: my cheque was for $250.01.)

Where does this money come from? There’s money set aside by the federal government for this purpose, and places like schools and universities pay into it as well. The idea is that since the public (in the form of library patrons and students and such) benefits widely from these published materials, a small amount is paid into a pool of money and, based on each writer’s publications, a form of royalties is paid to the writer. Everyone wins: the public gets nearly-free access to the books and articles and the writers receive a small stipend.

Access Copyright is a great organization, by the way,and if you’re a writer in Canada who jas published works or hopes to do so in the future, it would be worth your while to check them out. You could one day be a two-hundred-and-fiftyaire, just like me.

Lester Dent’s Master Plot Formula

Lester Dent was a pulp fiction writer in the first half of the 20th century. He was insanely prolific, typically writing 200,000 paid words per month. He seemed to have this whole writing thing all figured out. Dent’s master plot formula (later used and endorsed by Michael Moorcock) is probably his best-known work in the modern writing world. On the starting point for a story:

Here’s how it starts:

1. A DIFFERENT MURDER METHOD FOR VILLAIN TO USE
2. A DIFFERENT THING FOR VILLAIN TO BE SEEKING
3. A DIFFERENT LOCALE
4. A MENACE WHICH IS TO HANG LIKE A CLOUD OVER HERO

The rest is well worth reading, but Moorcock sums it up very nicely:

Part one, hit your hero with a heap of trouble. Part two, double it. Part three, put him in so much trouble there’s no way he could ever possibly get out of it. Then — now this could be Lester Dent or it could be what I learnt when I was on Sexton Blake Library, I forget — you must never have a revelation of something that wasn’t already established; so, you couldn’t unmask a murderer who wasn’t a character established already. All your main characters have to be in the first third. All you main themes and everything else has to be established in the first third, devloped in the second third, and resolved in the last third.

Dent’s “formula” doesn’t work unless you’re a pretty competent writer already; it’s more about organizing your work rather than actually writing the story. But it’s good stuff, and I’ll be referring back to it the next time I start an outline.