Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience.

Saying Yes to Full-time Freelancing

I’ve been managing this website through its various incarnations since late 2009. Since then, there have been a lot of changes – new web addresses, new business names, and new clients. However, a few weeks ago, an even bigger change happened: I stopped being a full-time, in-house employee.

Apart from the occasional mention of commutes and coworkers, this is not something I’ve mentioned a lot. When I started doing freelance work (and thus started this site), I also worked full-time in a position not related to writing or editing. In the summer of 2010, I found a new job formatting and proofreading web content. It was a wonderful place to work, and I learned a lot there over the following 2 years. However, I found out a month ago that my contract was not being renewed, and my final day at work was two weeks after that.

Although this was unpleasant news, it also helped me decide to make my freelance business my main focus. I am now making the leap from employee to independent professional for hire.

Is this change going to be easy? Not at first. However, I’m ready to hustle. I’ve contacted other editors and writers I know. I’ve contacted companies I’m interested in working with. Most of all, I’ve got the professional training and the family support that made this decision possible in the first place.

Since I’ve made the leap, I’ve gotten many encouraging signs. In particular, I discovered this blog post by John Scalzi about what it was like to become an independent writer, where the following paragraph really stood out:

And this is one of the reasons why I tell people that being laid off from AOL was one of the best things that ever happened to me — because as much as it knocked me for a loop, it made me ask myself who I wanted to be in control of my life — and it made me make a choice about how my life would be. It was the right crisis at the right time; it was something I think was necessary for me. In a very real way, it’s the moment I can point to and say “this is when I knew I was a grown up.” It’s maybe a silly way to put it, but it was important all the same. So: Thanks, AOL, for laying me off. I appreciate it. It’s done more for me than you know.

Speaking of encouraging signs, as I was writing out this very post, a company of editors I follow on Twitter asked me if I wanted to write a guest blog post for them. I said yes – because who in their right mind wouldn’t?

In essence, that’s a lot of what becoming a freelancer means: Saying yes. Yes to change. Yes to trepidation. But also yes to new projects, yes to new skills, and yes to new and interesting people.

So here I am: I’ve said yes. And I’m hoping that when it comes down to it, I’ll be hearing the word “yes” too.

One thing I can’t stand to see in writing

One of the pitfalls of being an editor is that I tend to notice patterns in whatever I read. Eventually, if I notice a trait or pattern often enough, it will stick out like a sore thumb, and I focus on finding new instances of the pattern instead of enjoying what I’m reading.

Sometimes, though, something I read will stick out to me so noticeably that a pattern isn’t necessary. And when that happens, it invariably lodges in my throat and prevents me from enjoying the work at all. So here I’m going to talk about one of the things that will tear me away from a person’s writing – factual errors.

I don’t notice a lot of factual errors when I read – if what I’m reading does contain errors, I probably don’t know enough about the topic to recognize them – but when I do, they irritate the living daylights out of me. I understand that fact-checking is hard, and that some information is difficult to confirm, but…it’s 2012 for Pete’s sake! We’ve got Google. We’ve got Wikipedia. Hell, with my library card, I can download articles from peer-reviewed journals

It has now become ridiculously easy to verify information, which is why I positively screamed when I read a short story that Daily Science Fiction distributed to its mailing list a few months ago. The story in question was called “The Mind of Allah” by Stephen Gaskell. I’ve linked to it here. Take a minute to read it over. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Read it? Good.

It’s a story that takes place in Moorish Spain and involves a Christian mathematician trying to understand a Muslim mathematician’s method for determining the digits of Pi. The conflict between both cultures and religions is shown plainly enough, but the course of the story mentions 2 things (at my count) that just don’t fit.

The story mentions both vanilla and tobacco in passing – at one point, the Christian mathematician thinks to himself that he must be “as sweet as vanilla pods” to curry the favour of his rival, and at another point, both men smoke tobacco from hookah pipes. The problem is that both plants came from the New World – they weren’t brought to Spain until at least a few centuries after the Moors were driven out, not while they were still there.

The upshot is that these errors have caused me to question everything else about the story – should I trust the author’s description of the city? Would a mathematician really be rich enough to afford a robe of pure silk, considering the length of the trade routes between Spain and China?

I know this is a small quibble, but it’s illustrative. Lack of research engenders a lack of confidence in your audience.

What about you? Can you think of  factual error in a book that makes you want to tear your hair out?

2012 Reading challenge, book 8: Beginnings, Middles and Ends

Title: Beginnings, Middles and Ends (Elements of Fiction Writing Series)
Author: Nancy Kress
Publisher: Writer’s Digest Books
Rating: 5 out of 5
Format: Print

I first learned about Beginnings, Middles and Ends from from the same place where I get a lot of my writing advice: Mur Lafferty’s I Should Be Writing podcast. Considering the subject matter and the useful way this book structures its advice, I’m surprised it’s not recommended more by other writers. It fits nicely with the other books about the craft of writing that I’ve read this year – On Writing and Bird by Bird – although I’m sure more will be added to the pile as 2012 progresses.

Overview: Author Nancy Kress identifies three types of writers and their respective weaknesses: Those who have trouble writing beginnings, those who have trouble writing middles, and those who have trouble writing endings. The book is broken up into three  sections and analyzes the types of problems each writer faces during the process of crafting a story.

What I liked: I recognized myself throughout the book. In each section, when Kress described a problem that writers encounter in the process of working on a story, I thought “that’s me!” to myself over and over again .For each problem she provides a hypothetical plot that exemplifies it and suggests several solutions. She never categorically states that a solution “must” or “will” work – just that it has proven useful to others. In addition, she provides examples of existing published stories that have already overcome the same structural problems. On top of this, the book extensively discusses the different problems that short stories face in comparison to novels, and vice versa. I found her acknowledgement of the structural problems inherent to each format to be reassuring.

What I disliked: Almost nothing. I originally gave this book 4 stars out of 5, but I bumped it up to 5 when I realized that I couldn’t name any major problems with it. If anything, it’s overwhelming in its bounty of good writing advice. There’s only one thing I’d change about the book, and that’s a small passage at the end that contains an interview with the author. In the interview, Kress states that the best piece of writing advice she’d ever received was from Gene Wolfe, who told her to “have two different things go on a story and then at the end have the two things impact each other.” Since the book doesn’t go much into the intricacies of subplots, I think it would have been helpful to include this tidbit in the body of the book rather than in an extra at the end, but this is a small quibble at best.

The verdict: If you have the chance to buy Beginnings, Middles and Ends, take advantage of it. The book contains lots of solid, useful advice, dispensed in a clear, engaging manner; Nancy Kress is full of empathy for her readers, and it shows. The structure of the book is natural and intuitive, and the recommendations within it are exhaustive. This book is a keeper – I can certainly see myself referring to it as I progress with my own narrative writing.

Next up: On a Cold Road by Dave Bidini

On Writing vs. Bird by Bird: Franzenfreude? Gender bias?

You may recall that late in 2010, Jonathan Franzen released his latest novel, Freedom, to widespread critical acclaim. Such acclaim, in fact, that two female authors, Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, criticized the book review establishment for their adulation – or rather, the lack of such when female writers tackle the same topics. In the way typical of any sort of internet dust-up, their complaints spawned a new term: Franzenfreude.

Dismissive name aside, they have a point. Vida, an organization that promotes and analyzes the impact of women in the literary arts, does an annual survey of the prominence of female authors in the literary establishment, and the numbers don’t lie. In 2010 and 2011, men wrote the majority of both the books reviewed and the book reviews themselves in established publications like the New York Review of Books and The Atlantic.

In light of this, once I finished both On Writing and Bird by Bird and analyzed my opinions of them, I had misgivings. Was I placing more value on On Writing simply because it was written by a man? Did I dislike Bird by Bird – which I felt was plagued by new-age speak, unvarnished neuroses, and runaway metaphors – because it was written by a woman? I majored in Women’s Studies in university, and I’d like to think that I’d be a bit more self-aware of my critical responses than that.

I’m still not sure what to think. Stephen King and Anne Lamott started writing under different circumstances for different reasons. All I can say is that the difference is illuminating. Let’s take a look at some quotes:

Here’s Stephen King describing his creation of a high school newspaper satirizing his school’s staff:

As all sophomoric humorists must be, I was totally blown away by my own wit. What a funny fellow I was! A regular mill-town H.L. Mencken! I simply must take the Vomit [his satirical paper] to school and show all my friends! They would bust a collective gut!

As a matter of fact, they did bust a collective gut; I had some good ideas about what tickled the funnybones of high school kids, and most of them were showcased in The Village Vomit. Cow Man’s prize Jersey won a livestock farting contest at Topsham Fair; in another, Old Raw Diehl was fired for sticking the eyeballs of specimen fetal pigs up his nostrils. Humor in the grand Swiftian manner, you see. Pretty sophisticated, eh? (Page 52)

Here’s Anne Lamott describing her own writing attempts during middle and high school:

But I was funny. So the popular kids let me hang out with them, go to their parties, and watch them neck with each other. This, as you can imagine, did not help my self-esteem a great deal. I thought I was a total loser. But one day I took a notebook and a pen when I went to Bolinas Beach with my father (who was not, as far as I could tell, shooting drugs yet). With the writer’s equivalent of canvas and brush, I wrote a description of what I saw….My father convinced me to show it to a teacher, and it ended up being included in a real textbook. This deeply impressed my teachers and parents and a few kids, even some of the popular kids, who invited me to even more parties so I could watch them all make out even more frequently. (Pages xvi-xvii)

She also says this a few lines up from the excerpt quoted above:

All I ever wanted was to belong, to wear that hat of belonging. (Page xvi)

There are similarities here – both authors wrote to gain approval of some sort. But when King wrote, it was to entertain his friends. He was doing this all for fun. When Lamott wrote, she used her skill to gain some sort of social standing among her peers. She wrote for herself, but used the success of that writing as leverage. Note that King mentions actually having friends, and Lamott doesn’t.

This lies at the heart of my enjoyment of On Writing on one hand, and my dislike of Bird by Bird on the other: I get the sense that Lamott is trying really hard to prove herself. Whenever she describes her writing process, it sounds like she goes through a lot of emotional turmoil to write something effective and lasting.

I get it – although writing is difficult and unpredictable, sometimes the results are breathtaking. But I’m sick and tired of hearing that writing is an act of Herculean audacity and emotional catharsis. It can be that way a lot of the time. But during the other times, I just want to yank the story idea out and put it on paper so it will leave me the f**k alone. I don’t need advice on the emotional aspects of writing – I need advice on how to transplant the sapling that’s taken root in my head into the fertile soil it needs to thrive.

So, there we have it. I liked the book written by a male author better because it was less emotional and more practical. I guess I’m just as bad as the literary establishment that Vida criticizes.

2012 Reading challenge, book 4: On Writing

Title: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (10th Anniversary Edition)
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Rating: 5 out of 5
Format: Print

The name “Stephen King” has by now become a byword for “successful author.” He’s one of those authors, along with J.K. Rowling, that are always cited as the exception to the rule that most writers won’t be able to live solely off the fruits of their writing. He’s ubiquitous. In light of both this and my interest in fantasy and sci-fi, which often encroaches upon the borders of horror fiction, it might surprise you to learn that I didn’t read my first Stephen King book until nearly 4 years ago – that book was Insomnia and even he admits it was a muddled novel. So, what do I think of a book about writing, written by one of the titans of the industry? Let’s find out.

About the book: Part memoir and part instructional manual, On Writing ties together King’s career as an author with more personal facets of his life. In an unusual move, the instructions about writing – arguably the biggest draw – are placed towards the end of the book, and On Writing instead devotes its first half to King’s childhood, adolescence, and attempts to break into the publishing world.

What I liked: From the start of this book, I felt that I was in the presence of someone who made me comfortable and welcome. More than that even, I felt a tremendous sense of self-assurance when I read it. King’s been there before, knows the pitfalls, and is happy to steer you around his memories with confidence. Every time I finished a section or chapter in this book, I told myself, “OK, it’s time to put the book down now.” And then, of their own accord, my eyes would snake down or over to the next page, and I would be held fast once again. This was, literally, the first book of the year that I could Just. Not. Put. Down.

Throughout the book, I got the sense that although writing was something he put effort into, he didn’t fall into the pretentious Byronic-hero hole that so many other authors, both beginning and established, fall victim to. (It’s a hole that I’m only now learning how to crawl out of.) Instead, he made it feel as natural, physical, and vital as chopping wood. If you have enough wood, your house stays warm. If you crank out enough words, you stay warm.

A lot of the time, I judge a book by how vividly I recall the images later, and no matter how hard I try, I can’t expunge from my mind the scene that King describes of having an ear infection as a child – one so intense that his eardrums had to be repeatedly lanced with a needle to drain the pus. I have tried and tried, with no avail, to stop imagining the looming needle coming closer to perforate my own eardrums. That is strong writing.

In the instructional section on writing, King unpacks the metaphor of a “writers’ toolbox” and runs with it. The advice inside is fairly commonplace – know your grammar, remove adverbs, etc – but they’re relayed in such a matter-of-fact manner that they acquire additional heft. He also provides an extremely useful glimpse into the revision process by including a “before and after” sample of his own writing, and then going step by step through the changes he made to tighten up his prose. Revision is an extremely important part of the writing process, but seldom is it actually demonstrated instead of discussed.

Besides all that, look at the cover. It’s got a Corgi on it! I love Corgis. Knowing that Stephen King owns them just makes him even more awesome in my book.

What I disliked: The length – it’s too short! I could easily have read another 200 pages. In particular, the move away from the memoir section was too abrupt, as it stopped nearly right after the acquisition of Carrie,  his debut novel. King did write about his substance abuse problems, but I would have appreciated greater insight on what led him down that path and why he felt he needed to self-medicate. Yes, it’s not a topic that really lends itself to a discussion of the writing craft, but it is something that a lot of writers end up dealing with anyways.

The verdict: I originally gave this book 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. Then I started reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and that book paled in comparison to this one so much that I retroactively bumped it up another star. Whenever I read this book, I felt I was in good hands. What better can be said about an author than that?

Next up: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.

An eBook-shaped hole in my education

In a recent blog post I talked about my writing and editing goals for 2012. However, I forgot to add one very important goal to the list: I need to learn more about eBooks.

The course I took on electronic publishing in 2010 didn’t help me. In fact, it was downright misleading. It contained absolutely no mention of eBooks or eReaders at all. This is rather odd, all things considered – shouldn’t students entering the fast-changing world of publishing be given at least a rudimentary understanding of eBook formatting, eReaders, digital rights management for eBooks, or eBook piracy? This information is becoming increasingly relevant to both self-published authors and publishing houses. Ryerson will have a course in the summer of 2012 called “Publishing in Transition” which I hope will bridge the gaps in my knowledge, but that’s still a way off, and I want to start paving over the holes in my education right now.

So, here is a very basic sketch of how I plan to do that:

  • Bookmark websites and blogs that discuss ebook production, distribution, and marketing, and follow their content.
  • Buy lots of eBooks. (If there’s one thing that’s wonderful, it’s rationalizing entertainment consumption as a form of professional development!)
  • Understand how eBooks work in action and get a grasp of what formatting issues are unique to them. (I just bought a Kobo, but that’s fodder for another post.)
  • Learn about other facets of the self-publishing industry, like price points, royalties, and budgeting

The plan sounds simple in theory, but the amount of information about self-publishing and ePublishing  is increasing so quickly that it’s easy for anyone, especially a newcomer like me, to get overwhelmed. Here are some sites I’ve found useful so far:

Oddly enough, a number of the blogs I’ve been following have talked about the importance of good cover design for eBooks. Synchronicity or not, the news is welcome.

When a book grows up with you

Happy holidays to all! As you unwrap your presents and spend time with your family, I hope that today’s pleasure has been heightened by the gift of a book. Here’s a story of how a book I received for Christmas had a profound effect on me.

Note: This post was originally published as a guest blog post on October 17th, 2011, for Linda Poitevin’s blog in the wake of her recent book release. It has been reposted here with her permission.

With the recent launch of Linda’s book (Congrats!), I thought it would be helpful to look back on a favourite book of mine. It’s one that took me a long time to get through, especially when I first read it as a child. It’s a book that’s bounded over the walls of “bestseller” territory to become firmly ensconced in school curricula. And, of all things, it’s a book about rabbits.

It’s Watership Down by Richard Adams.

Simply put, Watership Down has helped frame my life. I first got it as a Christmas gift when I was about 10 years old. Over the next 2 years, I tried to read the book multiple times, but stalled before the Sandleford rabbits reached Cowslip’s warren. When I finally managed to gather enough steam to plunge through the rest of the book when I was 12, I was amply rewarded:  Catastrophes, death, cunning escapes, and a poignant ending – everything was exciting!

However, a funny thing happened as I got older and read the book over and over again: It turned out to be much richer than I originally thought. I now firmly believe that it is a masterpiece, and here are some of the reasons why:

Depth of characterization­

Watership Down features a cast easily stretching into the dozens. While some of the characters have little to distinguish themselves beyond a name, the care with which so many are drawn is astounding. Off the top of my head, here are 10 characters in the book who are truly distinct from each other, with a unique voice and outlook on life:

  1. Hazel – Essentially, the every-rabbit who is sensible, loyal, and caring. He ultimately becomes the leader of his warren because he shows bravery, foresight, and consensus-building skills.
  2. Fiver – A rabbit with extra-sensory abilities. His otherworldly talents are disdained by the group at first, but they become increasingly essential to the Watership warren’s survival.
  3. Bigwig – The leader of Watership’s Owsla. Muscular and brave, he eventually learns the value of humility, delegation, and subterfuge.
  4. Blackberry – The thinker. His clever tricks save lives and confound Watership’s enemies.
  5. Dandelion – Watership’s fastest rabbit. He also acts as the warren’s storyteller, and it is these stories that provide the reader with glimpses into the mythology of rabbits.
  6. Holly – The author conveniently sums him up like so: “Sound, unassuming, conscientious, a bit lacking in the rabbit sense of mischief, he was something of the born second-in-command.”
  7. Bluebell – Holly’s companion and the only other known survivor of the Sandleford massacre. He uses humour as a coping mechanism.
  8. General Woundwort – The novel’s antagonist. A rabbit of truly astonishing size with the ruthlessness, political ambition, and fighting skills to match.
  9. Hyzenthlay – A resilient doe in Efrafa. She befriends both Holly and Bigwig during their time spent in Efrafa, and recruits other does to participate in Bigwig’s escape plan.
  10. Nethilta – One of Hyzenthlay’s recruits, who flaunts her status as a rebel before she is detained and tortured for information by Efrafa’s officers.

Of course, what’s interesting is seeing how these characters interact, and what’s really interesting is seeing how they take advantage of power politics.

A fleshed-out and evocative alien culture

By “alien” I mean “foreign” rather than “extra-terrestrial.” In the novel, the rabbits have their own language, political structure, and spiritual beliefs. They also have an elaborate mythology passed down over the generations that helps them understand their world and their relationships to other animals, both predator and prey alike.

Dandelion’s stories provide the clearest window into this, as they explain the antics of El-Ahrairah (the rabbits’ culture-hero) and act as an inspiration for various schemes that Hazel’s group uses throughout the novel.

A reinvention of deeply-embedded cultural tropes

Here’s an extremely rough summary of the novel’s plot:

Hazel and his male comrades start a new warren at Watership Down and realize that to ensure its survival, they must find does to reproduce with. They send emissaries to Efrafa , a neighbouring warren, and are rebuffed after they ask Efrafa’s council for does to take back home. They then send Bigwig to infiltrate Efrafa and escape with as many does as possible. After the escape, Efrafan officers, including the fearsome General Woundwort, attempt to invade Watership Down and are nearly successful before they are ultimately defeated.

Now, here’s an extremely rough summary of The Rape of the Sabine Women, the story of Rome’s founding population:

Romulus and his male comrades found the city of Rome and realize that to ensure its survival, they must find women to marry and start families with. They attempt to negotiate with the Sabines (a neighbouring tribe) for women to marry, but are rebuffed. They then create a fake religious festival and invite neighbouring tribes to attend, during which the Roman men abduct the Sabine women after receiving a signal to do so from Romulus. After the abduction, the Sabine men, including their king Titus Tatius, attempt to invade Rome and manage to capture Rome’s citadel before they are ultimately defeated.

I don’t know about you, but any author who can take a story about the founding of Rome, replace the main characters with rabbits, and turn it into a bestseller is a genius in my book.

Stopping to smell the flowers

Adams takes the time to explore the world beyond the concerns of the warren and goes into detail about the down itself. These passages don’t push the plot forward, but serve as a chance for Adams to walk around and get some pretty prose out of his system. Here’s an example:

We need daylight and to that extent it is utilitarian, but moonlight we do not need. When it comes, it serves no necessity. It transforms. It falls upon the banks and the grass, separating one long blade from another; turning a drift of brown, frosted leaves from a single heap to innumerable, flashing fragments; or glimmering lengthways along wet twigs as though light itself were ductile. Its long beams pour, white and sharp, between the trunks of trees, their clarity fading as they recede into the powdery, misty distance of beech-woods at night.

– Chapter 22, The Story of the Trial of El-ahrairah

So what does all this mean?

There are many more things I could elaborate on – political allegories, morals about the environment, gender roles in the rabbit world – but these themes have probably been trampled to death in various classrooms. All I want to do is talk about why I think this novel has good bones.

So what does all this mean? It means that the best stories often have a lot going on underneath the surface, and grow in meaning as the reader grows in maturity. It also means that a novel meant for children (Oh look, it’s about bunnies!) can be a lot deeper than we give it credit for.

What I’ve learned from NaNoWriMo, Part 1

I’ve spent the last day or so in a haze. This haze has consisted of a few sets of words, combining and buzzing and circling around my head like a cloud of midges:

  • holy crap
  • I’m done
  • 50,000 words
  • I finished NaNoWriMo

So, yes, I actually completed NaNoWriMo (A day ahead of schedule!) and the experience has been extremely illuminating. Here are some of the things I feel I’ve learned by taking part. I’ll add more items to this list in another blog post a few days from now.

Just because I’ve written 50,000 words doesn’t mean I’m done

The rule for NaNoWriMo is that if you’ve written 50,000 words, you’ve “won” the event and have written a novel. However, most novels are significantly longer than this. A typical debut novel published by a publisher is between 70,000 and 100,000 words. At best, writing 50,000 words means your work sits comfortably in the “novella” category. I can tell that my novel will be much longer than the 50,000-word minimum, as there are lots of holes I have yet to fill; for example, I still have no idea how the story will end. I think, at best, that I’m between halfway and two-thirds through.

Despite this, I can understand why there’s such a focus on the 50,000-word benchmark: It’s a nice round number, and it’s probably in the upper limit of what a fledgling novelist can accomplish in a month. Thus, it’s like a good workout: It’s doable, but it still forces you to push yourself in order to build muscle.

This thing is nowhere near publishable

This goes right up there with the story being incomplete. Even if it were complete, though, I would not consider sending it to a publisher – or at least, would not do so without some heavy editing. My goal right now is to prove that I have the discipline to finish a novel. However, just because a novel is completed doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good, and since it’s a first attempt, I seriously doubt it will be. My plan right now is to finish the darned thing and just let it sit untouched for a few months so I can see the flaws more objectively when I pick it back up.

“Pantser” versus “planner”

During November, I did a lot of catch-up listening to old episodes of Mur Lafferty’s I Should Be Writing podcast. Within the show, several episodes mentioned the distinction between outline (“planner”) and discovery (“pantser”) methods of writing. Some writers feel that they need to discover the plot during the act of writing, while others feel that they should plan out everything that happens in the story before they sit down to the keyboard.

I don’t know whether it’s because this is the first time I’ve tried writing a novel, but my attempts to plan out the story failed. I found I was much more comfortable writing in the moment to see where the story took me. A lot of the time, I went down detours I never expected to encounter. Then the fun was in trying to make sure those tributary streams all flowed to the same river. Which brings me to…

Wattle-and-daub, or: Writing like an Impressionist

I mentioned in a previous post that I didn’t write the story linearly. Instead, I would focus on a scene and try to see that scene in my head to fill in the details. Or I would think to myself, “Well, something needs to happen in this scene here. What will it be?”

What amazed me, though, was the sheer amount of the world I had created that remained unknown to me. A lot of the time, when I discussed the story with friends and family, they would ask me things about the characters, plot, and setting, and I would answer “I don’t know.” I didn’t know about where my military commander came from. I didn’t know the span of time over which my story was taking place. I didn’t know whether one of my characters came from an abusive home or not.

In all honesty, it felt like there were images in my head, but they had the colouring and contrast of an Impressionist painting. One detail would be vivid, but the rest were all covered in black. As I worked harder, I either uncovered the black spots to reveal colour, or found places for new black spots to form. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced, because I feel that since this information is coming out of my head, I should know about it already. I was expecting writing for NaNoWriMo to be more like creating a painting than creating a statue out of Lego.

The million-word threshold

ISBW brought another concept to my attention as I was catching up on old podcast episodes: That of the million-word threshold. Raymond Carver is thought to have said that writers need to write at least a million words before they get all of the crap out of their systems and finally write something well.

I have no idea how true this is, but if so, then I’m 5% of the way there. Onwards and upwards!


How I got my writing mojo back

I knew from the age of 7 that I wanted to be a writer. That idea grew with me as I grew up, when it reached its most distorted apex in high school. You see, I didn’t want to be just any writer – I wanted to be that writer.

You know the one. The one who becomes a smash success with their first book. The one whose crystal-clear, vibrant prose would make readers weep and publishers bow in awe. The kind of writer who lives in a trendy apartment downtown, dispensing insightful bon mots in coffee shops, wearing black, and generally living the bohemian dream.

Despite this unrealistic ideal, one family member in particular was supportive of my goal. Too supportive, in fact. She constantly asked to see what else I had written lately, and said I would be famous. I grew very resentful of her constant interest, but still kept on writing – I was a teenager, of course, and this sort of irrational thing is a teenager’s specialty.

I hit my final year of high school and took a creative writing class. In that class, I wrote a short story that I had considered my best up to this point. It was about a high school girl who was incredibly gifted but had a lot of pressure put on her, who nearly got killed in a skating accident and then recovered from her coma by going through some sort of spirit-quest while being guided by a painfully obvious Jungian archetype figure.

In other words, my story was pretentious as fuck.

Unsurprisingly, I eventually grew dissatisfied with it. I tried so hard to sound distant and thoughtful and pretty, but it just wasn’t getting anywhere. I likened it to having a “membrane” separating my mind from the story I really wanted to tell, and concluded that I would never be a good writer, because I couldn’t break through it.

At this point, I finished high school and entered university. This meant essays. Lots and lots of essays. Some of them were interesting. A lot of them were meaningless. But all of them required effort and time spent writing. It was at this point that I concluded I would never really be a writer, because the writing I used to enjoy was fiction and would never amount to anything, whereas this writing – the important stuff – was hard and boring. Besides, my “fun” writing was pretentious and disappointing and distant, right? So much for the downtown dream!

Things stayed like that both throughout my university studies and for a year or so after I graduated. “Leisure” reading was fun, but I was just too burnt out to take the next step.

Then a funny thing happened. I got an iPod and started listening to podcasts. I subscribed to “I Should Be Writing” and “Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing” and “Variant Frequencies” and the “Seventh Son” trilogy. I was exposed to the heroin of genre writing, and it was fun. On top of that, I decided that freelancing would be an excellent fallback plan in light of my current employment situation. And what did I think I was good at? Writing, of course.

I got to networking. I joined organizations. I blogged. And slowly but surely, I started to write for myself again. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m now doing NaNoWriMo. I also got myself out of the “fine Canadian literature” ghetto that I was in and embraced reading non-fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, and horror books. Now I’m writing something that is unabashedly a genre novel, and doing so with glee.

Will I “win” NaNoWriMo? Who knows. Will my writing be good? Who knows! The difference this time is that I know that real writing – satisfying writing – takes time and tenacity.

All that really matters is that I’m doing it again, and that I’m doing it with more realistic expectations. And that’s why I’m happy that I’ve got my mojo back.


This originally appeared as a guest post on the blog of Valerie Haight. She has recently been signed on to Turquoise Morning Press. This post was originally published on November 14th, 2011. It has been slightly altered from the original version.

NaNoWriMo, Days 12 and 13

I’ve hit the dreaded “Week 2 Wall” in NaNoWriMo.

Last weekend I wrote over 8,000 words – 3,000 of backstory and notes, 5,000 of plot – because I knew that the following Monday, I wouldn’t have the time to put anything down because of a WCDR Board meeting. However, the loss of momentum was deadly. Between Monday and Friday, I wrote only 3,700 words, less than half of what I should have been aiming for. Then, on Thursday, a certain special sweetheart and I went out for a birthday dinner. So yes, my week has not been distraction-free, and I have broken the first rule of NaNoWriMo: get’cher bum in the chair!

To atone, I’ve been listening to copious amounts of I Should Be Writing and Writing Excuses. The latter podcast has been particularly enlightening, especially the episode called “Hollywood Formula.” I’m not writing a piece of experimental, literary, Giller-worthy fiction here, so  hearing about some “tried and true” methods behind story structure and characterization has been invaluable.

Yesterday and today have been spent in catch-up mode. Or rather, today has been. Yesterday was the WCDR’s monthly breakfast, which always makes me tired once I come home, necessitating a nap. After that, I got caught up in playing Portal 2 (selfish! I know!). Today has involved a tremendous goal for myself: 5,500 words in one day. So far I’ve gotten past the 3,000-word mark, but it’s been tough.

However, it would have been much tougher without the purchase and installation of Scrivener. I am in love, love, love, with the corkboard and outlining features, as well as the character sheets and drag-and-drop method of organization. I haven’t used the camera/snapshot feature, and I don’t intend to, but I can see what a valuable tool it would be for the revision process. It has made my “wattle-and-daub” non-linear writing process much more manageable. I’m delighted that the Windows version finally came out this week. I was considering purchasing a copy of WriteWayPro instead, but the trial version didn’t impress me. The software was ugly, and the tutorial method was a help file that contained huge chunks of text worthy of a “tl; dr” response.

In addition to the WCDR and the sweetheart business, this week also contained another noNaNo focus, but one that is sufficiently writerly that I think it deserves to get off scot-free: I got a phone call confirming the date of my library lunch with Margaret Atwood. Now it appears that I have a new project in addition to NaNo: catching up on all of her books!