Sunday, 11 December 2011

Anybody In There?

One of the great things about talking to other writers has been the realization that my ‘oddness’ may not be so odd after all. Or, if I am odd, then I suffer from a common oddness, an oddness shared by many other writers. Of course, as individuals our quirks will vary from person to person, but I think there are many we have in common. One in particular is shared by most, if not all of us.  

No, I'm not talking about neurosis, although that is common. I'm not talking about depression, alcoholism, OCD, or a penchant for the darker things of life. Some writers have these traits, others do not. No, the trait I’m talking about has probably struck most writers before they finished reading this paragraph: 


I’m sure this is a trait shared by musicians and painters, but writers in particular have a terrific time staying ‘here’. I spend most of my life in ‘Birchland’ talking to various fictional characters. Days and weeks and months can pass by without me realizing it. I look out the window and there are leaves on the trees. I look again, and the leaves are gone.

Sometimes, when we are children, we are told to PAY ATTENTION. We don’t. Mystics talk about living in the moment. We try and fail. Our spouses snap their fingers and say, “Were you even listening to me?”

Sadly, the answer is often no, and this can get us in trouble with our significant others/employers/muggers. They don’t understand that we don’t mean to slip off, it just happens. Because of this, we are often tagged with the following labels:  

1. Apathetic

“Look at him, he doesn’t care what I’m saying.”

This certainly could be true. About 99% of what we babble in a particular day can be disregarded without any great threat to mankind. But in the case of a writer, it’s not rudeness. We rather like you; it’s just that paying attention is a little like trying to circumnavigate an event horizon. Whether we like it or not, we’re going to tumble into that black hole. Why? Because the fate of Sir Percival the Dragonslayer trumps your trip to the grocery store. Sure, you found a 10% discount on toilet paper, but Sir Percival just lost the Sword of Truth, and he has only one turn of the hourglass to save the princess from transforming into an ogre!

Now, I know what a non-writer would say in this situation, because I’ve (and probably you’ve) heard it before. “But dude, I’m talking about reality. That stuff in your head is fake--don’t you get that?”

Yes, Sir Percival and the princess do not exist. They have never existed, and they will never exist. I understand that. I’m not psychotic. But do you understand that it doesn’t matter? The characters may be fake, but the urgency is real. These are real dilemmas that must be solved. Toilet paper be damned!     

2. Dull, simple, or slow

“Did you order the pizza?”
“Huh?” the writer says. “Wha?”
“Never mind, I’ll order it.”

“You didn’t pay the bills?”
“Huh?” the writer says. “Wha?”
“Never mind, we’ll pay them tomorrow.”

Sometimes, a clever person who daydreams can give the impression that he or she is dull, simple, or slow. Of course, this is far from the truth. Distracted does not mean dumb. Sadly, many writers do not believe this about themselves. Luckily, I'm here to tell you the truth. Are you ready? YOU ARE NOT DUMB!!! It doesn’t matter if your teachers, parents, best friend or any other person diagnosed you as stupid. You are not.

Think about this for a moment: you create worlds out of nothing. You create people out of nothing. On Monday, you stared at a blank screen. On Tuesday, the tribal elders of Gath prepared for war. On Wednesday, little Hal’teth killed the chief and now must rule his people. You’ve just created an entire race in less than a week, and you think you’re stupid? Don’t be an idiot!

Far from blank, a writer’s mind is a hurricane of thoughts, ideas, and emotions. This is why we tune out so often. There’s only so much mental energy to go around, and reality often loses. But still, the perception of us as stupid continues to rear its ugly head. A co-worker might see Bob staring out the window at a blue jay and think, “Wow, he’s doing it again--not the sharpest tool in the shed, is he?” Meanwhile, Bob is trying to figure out how the genetic sequencing of dinosaurs can be achieved on Mars Station Alpha. At lunch, Jane from accounting isn’t touching her sandwich, again, but that’s because she just saw six warships sunk by the Spanish Armada. She has no idea where Madam Clarissa is, but she could be dead. Unless, unless…

3. Immature

“There he goes again, his head in the clouds. When will he finally grow up?”

This last one makes me laugh. For some reason, there are a handful of memes that continue to be shared about the mythical creature known as ‘an adult’. I’m not sure who started this, but if you are above the age of twenty-five and you spend your days dreaming about wizards, aliens, and werewolves? Well then, you must be some kind of stunted man-child. Why don’t you start thinking about the important things in life, like trade policy and oil prices? Peterson was just discussing how a 6% tax increase will affect foreign bond markets, and you’re wondering if the dwarf’s axe should be single or double headed? What's wrong with you, grow up!

One of the blessings of being a writer is that we get to hold a little golden thread in our hands. And that thread stretches all the way back to childhood. What are now words on a computer screen was once “play time” with our favourite toys. Because we write, the child survives. It’s a special gift, one most ‘adults’ lose because a.) they believe they must, or b.) the world beats them till they let go. Quietly and slowly, their imaginations recede until there’s barely enough for a smirk at the Sunday funnies.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be responsible adults. Of course we should. But what’s wrong with a head in the clouds? Life is a strange sort of daydream anyway. We live on a spinning blue ball in the middle of nowhere. We meet our loved ones, spend a few moments with them, and then they are gone forever. Our own lives are tragically short. Is there a ‘right’ way to live? How will discussing the fiscal budget keep me alive longer than thinking about unicorns? Dull seems like a dreadful way to spend my time here. 

“He is such an odd man.”
“She is a tad offish, don’t you think?”
“There you go again--hello? Anybody in there?”

I think that we, as writers, have to embrace our oddness--this includes daydreaming. If you want to spend your mental life with the elves of the Ember Forest, I say great. It may not get you more dates, and your co-workers may shout themselves hoarse trying to get your attention, but so what? Stop apologizing for yourself. I have. I gave up the fight to stay ‘here’ a long time ago. Is it 2011? Is it 2005? Does it really matter? 

Does it? Whether I PAY ATTENTION or not, politicians will continue to abuse their power, businessmen will continue to choke on their own greed, and Hollywood’s hotties will continue to be arrested for huffing glue and committing “lewd acts” with traffic signs. Mumbling to myself about dragon scales hardly seems like I’m missing out on anything important.  

“You need a reality check!”

Oh yeah? Why?

Friday, 28 October 2011

Good Enough

I think I speak for many writers when I say that the self-publishing boom has been a dream come true. For the first time, writers have an opportunity to publish what they want, the way they want. No more do we have to beg and plead publishers for a tiny fraction of our royalties. No longer do we have to change our fiction to suit the tastes of an editor or agent. Never again will we have to play the rejection game--which, as some of us know, can go on for years. There’s a spirit of “maybe I won’t have to work at my McJob for the next thirty years” in the air. I’m excited about these changes, and I’m glad to be on board.


There’s also a pitfall to this whole self-publishing game. No, it’s not the low book prices (I actually like the low prices). It’s not the hassle of finding a cover artist (a process I’m currently involved in). It’s not even the stink of ‘vanity press’ that still hovers over us.

It has to do with the fact that writing is hard. As Larry David (a writer) might say: It’s pretty hard. Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty hard.

Writing a novel can sometimes feel like you’re scaling Everest with a grand piano strapped to your back. It’s a long, tedious, sometimes maddening process. Robert Heinlein famously said that most people who attempt to write will eventually give it up.

But now that’s changed, because self-publishing is easy.

Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty easy.

With sites like Amazon, anyone can publish a novel. This ranges from the seasoned author, to the stay-at-home mom, to your cousin Bob who never wrote anything until last month when he got really high. You know the story I’m talking about--with the magical Cheetos and the wizard? That one.

With one click, he’s now an author.

So what’s the problem? Shouldnt Cousin Bob have the chance to publish his book? Sure it might suck, but what’s the harm?  
Actually, I’m not worried about Cousin Bob. I’m worried about the writers with real talent.

If Cousin Bob thinks ‘The Wizard of Munchie Mountain’ is good enough, fine. But what’s keeping a talented writer from doing the same? I think this is the potential tragedy of self-publishing. When the going gets tough, a talented writer could squander his/her talent in exchange for relief. Where the impossible odds of publishing pushed us forward in the past, the easy out of self-publishing could ruin a great many books before they reach their true potential.

So what’s the solution? You’re not going to like this. I didn’t like it either, but I see no other alternative:

Indie writers must strap on a second piano. We must make it harder for ourselves. A lot harder. If no one is going to raise the bar for us, we must raise it ourselves. We have to set an incredibly high standard and persevere until we reach it.

How do you know you’ve reached it? Believe me, you’ll know. It’s kinda like the ‘wall’ that marathon runners hit a few hours into the race. You’ll be exhausted. Your eyes will burn from staring at the screen. Your head will feel like a hollowed out coconut, and you’ll be so sick of your novel that you’ll never want to read it ever again. 

That’s when you’ll be ready to click the publish button.

But most writers won’t get this far. They’ll go as far as Heinlein predicted, and then call it a day. ‘Good enough’ will become the standard, and a new generation of “writers” will strut around with a first draft of nonsense for sale on-line.

This bothers me, not because millions of readers will be ripped-off, but because millions of writers will never experience the satisfaction of pushing themselves to the limit. We write for the journey, the exploration of our own humanity. How great is a journey of only a few steps? How far can you explore if you’re only willing to go skin deep?

Friday, 14 October 2011

The Yucky Stuff

Twitter is awesome. I’ve never met so many writers in my life, and I love feeling part of a wide, global community. Through Twitter, I’ve learned that a.) I’m not the only one who worries about fictional people, and b.) I’m not the only one who struggles with the love/hate dance of storytelling. It’s a great feeling, and I hope to learn more from the experience.

Lately, however, I’ve been seeing a tweet that has me puzzled:  

“I’ve finished writing. Now I need an editor.”

Before going further, I want to say that editors are great. If you’ve been thinking of saving up your nickels and dimes to hire one, do it. But the impression I’ve been getting is not one of:

“I’ve written, edited, and combed through my writing a bazillion times. I’ve done all I can do with it, now I need another opinion.”

Instead, I get the sneaking suspicion (and I hope I’m wrong), that “I need an editor” really means:  

I’m done with the fun, now I need someone to handle the yucky stuff.”

If you fall into the first category, then I’d like to pat you on the back (because I don’t have beer money) and congratulate you on a job well done. You ran the race, you crossed the finish line. Bravo. However, if you fall into the second category, then I’m afraid I’ll have to brandish my Mighty Baton of Justice and lay the smackdown. (Note: I also considered calling it my Daisy of Doom, but it just didn’t have the same ring).

Readers of my past essays know I used to have a terrible editing phobia. Paralyzing, really. The very thought of it gave me stomach cramps. Let me put it another way: I’ve finished two novels, and yet I’ve written eight. How’s that for fear? I could write the first draft no problem. It was the second and third drafts that terrified me. I couldn’t even conceive of a fourth draft. A fourth draft might as well have been the seventh level of hell.  

But I couldn’t keep running away from the problem. After all, a first draft has only one function: to sit on a shelf and never be read by anyone. And one of the reasons we write is to share our ideas with others.

But you can’t share a first draft. Remember what Hemingway said: “All first drafts are shit.” You can’t present your friends and family with shit. You certainly can’t send it to a publisher (if nothing else, the smell would alert customs). So what’s the answer?

You sir, or madam, must hit the books. Hard. Yes, I’m talking about grammar. No, the grammar check on your computer isn’t enough (in fact, it often makes it worse). No, you can’t just “wing it” and hope no one notices. No, your disregard for grammar is not some avant-garde attempt at a new style of writing.

“But in your last essay you talked about writing as fun. Have you changed your mind, you crotchety old coot?”

No, I haven’t. But you have to learn the rules before you can bend them.

Look, I know how you feel. Writers like to play. We don’t like to study. But trust a phobic on this one. If you start to study, something amazing will happen: 

Your sentences will start to make sense. 

What a revelation! At least it was for me. I always thought grammar was the literary equivalent of “The Man” trying to keep me down. No no no. Grammar is freedom.

Do you have to learn every grammar rule in the book? No. That would take the rest of your life. You need to learn enough to write clear and clean. Luckily, we are a generation of writers with the Internet. If you’re stuck, look it up. There are many great grammar sites out there (I’ll post a link at the bottom).

Learn as you write. But do learn it.  

“I still don’t see why I can’t hire someone to do it for me.”

Thwack with the Mighty Baton of Justice! Dude, if you don’t study, you and your writing will never evolve. And if you aren’t committed to evolution, then why the hell are you doing this in the first place? To impress your friends? To land a date with that cute librarian? To chase after some foolish notion of immortality? These are all terrible reasons to write (except for maybe the cute librarian one).

If you’ve chosen this journey, then you need to tread the wide flat path and the thorny underbrush. And if you love it enough, you’ll endure the scrapes and bruises. But if you’re not willing to donate the years (yes, years) to this craft, then save yourself the headache and do something else. Seriously. Stop writing this instant because you’ve already failed.

Do I think you can do it? Yes, I do. Persistence is a powerful tool. It’s the real ‘Secret’. Forget about finding a short cut--there isn’t one, and you wouldn’t want it anyway. Many lotto winners are miserable. Most trust fund babies grow into coked up flunkies. They didn’t earn their success, and they know it.

I’m not there yet, but I’m willing to study and push and suffer those slings and arrows until I’ve made it. Are you? Then stop hoping that someone else will make you a great writer. 

Yes, you do need an editor. Luckily, the best one is free. 

My favourite 'how-to' writing books (in order of awesomeness): 

'On Writing' by Stephen King
'The Elements of Style' by Strunk & White
'Self-Editing for Fiction Writers' by Renni Brown and Dave King
'Zen and the Art of Writing' by Ray Bradbury
'If You Want to Write' by Brenda Ueland
'Word Painting' by Rebecca McClanahan
'Getting Into Character' by Brandilyn Collins

My favourite on-line grammar site: Grammar Girl 

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Leavin' On Your Mind

Delton told Suzie he was shipping out on Monday and she stopped talking. The porch swing stopped swinging. A cigarette smoked in her one hand, an orange popsicle melted in the other. Behind them, an open window let out Patsy Cline singing ‘Crazy’ the only way she could do.

It was a warm summer night. The humidity flushed their cheeks.

“Her voice is like water,” Suzie finally said. “I think there’s nobody like her in the whole world.” She sucked on her popsicle.

Delton thought about touching her hand, but they were both occupied. “We’ll go see her one day,” he said.

She replaced the popsicle with the cigarette. “How?” she said. “You’ll be in some jungle on the other side of the world.”  

“I’ll come home eventually,” he said.

“And if you don’t?” she said, blinking through the smoke.

“I will.”

“And if you--don’t?” she said, the cigarette out and the popsicle back in.

“Come off it, Suzie,” he said, “Of course I’ll come back.” Between his good job at Harlson’s Hardware and his great girlfriend, he’d have to come back. He wasn’t a bad person--God wouldn’t let him die overseas.  

‘Heartaches’ came on and Delton thought about asking her to dance. Sure, the neighbors might see, and he might wake his parents with their feet pounding on the floorboards like kettledrums, but he needed to touch her. It might be his last touch for a long while. He still wasn’t sure how long a tour was.

As if reading his mind, she said, “I don’t want to dance.” Her popsicle dripped. Her cigarette curled into ash. “I just want to sit.”

Moths bounced off the porch screen. Somewhere, a dog barked. “Johnny went driving with Claire,” Delton said.

“Claire would,” Suzie said.

“What does that mean?”

She bit off the rest of the popsicle and scraped the stick on her teeth. Her breath smelled sweet. “Claire’s been lonely for him all week. She said she’ll simply die when he’s gone.”

“She’ll die?” Delton said. He wondered what Suzie would do. He imagined her lying on her bed covered in his letters. She’d listen to ‘I Fall to Pieces’ over and over while biting a slip of hair.

“I’ll be back,” he said.  

“I know,” she said.

“I will,” he insisted. He touched her cold, sticky fingers.

Inside the house, the record stopped playing.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Playtime with Chewbacca

I keep a Chewbacca the Wookie action figure on my desk, circa 1977. I don’t do this because I’m a Star Wars fan (I am), or because he reminds me of the dangers of not trimming my beard (he does). I keep him there for a far more important reason.

Back when I was 21, I attempted to write and publish a novel. Until that point, I had written mostly short stories and poetry. It was fun writing short stories and poetry, but now that I was 21 and an adult (seriously--I thought I was an adult), I decided that if I was going to publish a novel, I’d better buckle down and start studying.

So I studied. And studied. I read (nearly) every ‘how-to’ writing book ever published. I created graphs for my characters. I made sure each plot point was broken into a Beginning, Middle, and End. I followed the classic Hero’s Journey to the letter. I even developed an editing notebook stuffed with 50 pages of bullet point reminders.

Finally, after a few years of writing first drafts (six by my mid-20’s), I had failed to finish a book but succeeded in transforming into Buzz Killington. Writing was no longer fun. In fact, editing a single sentence became torture. I saw mistakes everywhere--nothing felt right to me.

So I quit.

Of course, I came back to it a few days later. You can’t just quit writing if you’re a writer, but I didn’t know that back then. So what was I to do? I still had the passion to write, but I couldn’t cope with the ascension of Mt. Edit. I fell into a dark cloud and stayed there for weeks.

Strangely enough, that cloud finally lifted when I read three more ‘how-to’ writing books:

‘If You Want to Write’, by Brenda Ueland
‘Zen and the Art of Writing’, by Ray Bradbury
‘On Writing’, by Stephen King

Wow--what a breath of fresh air! Instead of graphs and charts and outlines, these writers dove in and started swimming. They felt like I used to feel, back when writing was fun, an extension of life, a bit of magic in the otherwise mediocre. 

And this is where Chewbacca comes in. He reminds me why I started writing. My career began with him and Han Solo hanging out in a converted Tim Horton’s box, or Yoda and He-Man storming the pillow fortresses of Cobra Commander, or the unlikely union of Batman and Joker crashing into a plastic Hoth.

Why did I create these elaborate adventures in my bedroom? Because it was fun. And why did I later trade the toys for pen and paper? Because it was “funner”. Writing was a superior way to play. Now I could use anyone for my adventures. Now I could be anyone.

I think every writer needs a Chewbacca on their desk. Some of us take this stuff way too seriously.   

“But I am a writer,” you may say. “And this is serious business!”

No it isn’t, you dope. It’s fun, or at least it started out that way on your bedroom floor.

“But we must study the rules of grammar and style. We can't craft a story without them!” 
That's true. Grammar rules are vital to creating clear, clean sentences. By studying, you’ll learn to spot shortcuts such as weed words, -ly adverbs, and an excess of adjectives. But it doesn’t mean you have to treat every rule as if it were scripture. The rest of your life is weighed down by a plethora of imaginary ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’, don’t bind yourself when you write. Art, remember, is about the freedom of expression.

But I know how you feel. You don’t want to screw up. You believe that if you read enough, and study hard enough, you’ll eventually learn every trick, tip, and tactic to make your novel perfect.  

Well, I have some bad news for you:

Nothing is perfect. Examine the greatest painting in the world, and you’ll find little brush hairs imbedded in the paint. ‘Perfect’ is a human concept. It doesn’t exist in reality. Your book will never be perfect, because it can’t be perfect. Feel better? No? Try thinking of it this way: even if your book could be perfected, and you achieved your goal, what then? You’d have no reason to continue writing. The drive would be lost, or at least severely dampened.

Remember Orson Welles? He came as close to perfection as possible with his movie Citizen Kane, and spent the rest of his life living in the shadow of that one achievement. The man didn’t eat himself to death because he was happy. No one likes Mrs. Pell’s fish sticks that much.

If I can’t convince you that writing should be playtime, that’s fine. It’s only important that I realize it, and that Chewie keeps reminding me when I bind myself in mental knots. But let me leave you with this one, final thought:  

Whether you write, play guitar, run for president, or farm cranberries, you are doing all these things for one underlying purpose: to pass the time until you die. And in the long stretch of years, your achievements will be forgotten. Even Shakespeare will fade away. I’m not saying this to depress you, but to remind you that whether you play or panic, the time will come when the words you struggle with will vanish.

So how do you want to spend your days? Filled with anxiety about the perfect word, or giggling like a child diving into the toy chest?

Friday, 16 September 2011

Writers and "Writers"

I haven't met many writers in my life, but when I do, it is a singular thrill. After all, it doesn't happen very often. Here is a person who speaks my language, understands terms such as word count and dialogue tag, and wants to know if my third-person is limited, or omniscient? They shudder at the overuse of adjectives, cringe when someone is doing "good" and not "well", and share the same forehead wrinkles accrued from hours of worrying about fictional people. They are often neurotic, pasty, and shy. They trip over spoken words, stare into space, and you know what? I wouldn't trade any of them for the world.

I just wish these encounters happened more often, but they do not (with the exception of Twitter, a recent addition to my life). However, I do frequently run into "writers". In fact, I've lost count as to how many "writers" I've met over the years.

"Writer": A person who fancies him/herself a writer, but does not actually write.

If you are a writer, then chances are you've met a "writer". A "writer" is someone who identifies themselves as a writer to anyone who will listen. Their qualifications usually fall within these four categories: 

A.)  They once wrote a poem in high school, therefore they are a "writer".  

B.) They started writing a novel at twenty. They are now thirty-five, and on chapter two. They are a struggling "writer".

C.)  They have a Byron, Wilde, or Hemingway quote for every situation. They are a literary "writer".  

D.)  They are dramatic, difficult, or morose. Their excuse? "I can’t help it if I feel things so much deeper than the average person. I am, after all, a "WRITER"!"

I want to make it clear that I do not hate "writers". I think everyone should write, and one poem in high school is better than no poem at all. But I do think there is a romanticism about writing that is often co-opted as an identity, like being a Goth, Punk, or Metalhead (are there still Metalheads? I hope so).

What bothers me about "writers" are not their affectations. I enjoy a good Wilde quote, and I've certainly been known to be dramatic, difficult, and morose. But I do write. Every day. I sit in front of my computer, and I type out a specific word count. I write when I'm exhausted, irritable, or sick. I've written after a brutal twelve hour shift, and on days off. It is sometimes tedious, sometimes thrilling, sometimes stomach ache inducing.

It is rarely, if ever, romantic.

And I think this is why "writers" will never be writers. What's romantic about hard work? What's romantic about self-discipline and self-deadlines? What is romantic about working at a minimum wage job in order to keep the heat on while you write? These are often the realities of the writing life. Sitting in a quiet room, typing. For hours. And days. And years.

Here is a typical conversation that I (and I'm sure you) have had many times, whether at a dinner party or some other get-together. I'm introduced to someone new, and in the course of conversation, I tell them that I am a writer:

"You are?" "Writer" says. "Me too!"

"Really?" I say, getting excited now. Sometimes, it's like spotting a Northern White Rhino. "What do you write?"

"Oh," "Writer" says. "A little bit of everything. I once wrote a short story about a guy who dies and comes back as a crow."

"Cool," I say. "Did you publish it?"

"Well, no," "Writer" says. "But I did get an A for it in Grade Twelve English."

"Ah," I say, as the old disappointment settles in. "What have you written since then?"

"Um," "Writer" says, swishing wine in her glass. "Not much. You know, life gets in the way. College, marriage, kids. But I once wrote a poem for my grandmother's funeral, and everyone really liked it. Would you like to read it?"

"Sure," I say, now totally deflated. Three days later, 'The Ballad of Gran Gladys' appears in my inbox.

I hope I'm not coming across as snarky, or God forbid, elitist. I don't believe that writers are better than anyone else. In fact, that attitude seems to be the purview of art house "writers", those decadent folks who delight in their clique more than their own output. But this has always bothered me. Call me crazy, but I'm of the opinion that a writer should, well, write. And to call yourself a writer, when 'The Ballad of Gran Gladys' represents your life's work, is unfair to those men and women who take the time, every day, to stare at a computer screen and sweat.

I love Salvador Dali, Norman Rockwell, and Gustav Klimt. I can smear paint on a canvas, but I am not a painter.

I adore Miles Davis, Sigur Ros, and Iron Maiden. I can rock out on my plastic Rock Band guitar, but I am not a musician.

I would never call myself a painter or a musician, because I have not put in the time and energy to earn those titles. Writing, like music or painting (or ballet or acting or stand up), is a craft which needs to be studied over a period of years. It's hard work. You can smoke the cigarettes, drink the wine, and take long road trips to find the "deep well of your soul" (whatever that means), but are you writing? Are you tapping those keys, scratching with that pencil, growing those wrinkles? 

You'd never expect to meet a brick layer who doesn't lay brick. Why are you so different?

Friday, 9 September 2011

When a Man Writes a Woman

I've only worked with an editor once, and that was years ago. Back then, I suffered from an editing phobia (no, seriously, it was a phobia), so I was looking forward to someone else doing my work for me. The results were less than spectacular. Not only was she expensive, but she barely touched the manuscript except to tell me that I shouldn't use the word which too often. Wow, thanks.

However, she did leave a lasting impression on me. As I handed her my manuscript, she flipped open the first page and said, “Oh, your protagonist is female. I look forward to seeing how a man writes a woman.”

I stared at her for a moment, trying to figure out what that meant. Writes a woman? I’d never before thought about trying to write male or female. I just wrote characters that happened to be male or female or ghost or robot or...

Turns out, this is a belief that’s been kicking around for years. And it doesn't stop at gender.

W.P. Kinsella, author of ‘Shoeless Joe’ (later made into the movie ‘Field of Dreams’), came under a lot of heat for writing short stories about a fictional reservation in Northern Alberta. How dare Kinsella, a white guy, write about Native characters? How could he possibly know what it’s like to be a Native kid living on a reservation?

Arthur Golden, author of ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’, has been criticized for writing a first person account of a Japanese girl during WW2.  How dare he, a fourty-one year old American male, attempt to write as a girl from another time and culture?  

Pulitzer Prize winning author, Annie Proulx, wrote the short story ‘Brokeback Mountain’. How can she possibly speak for the gay men of North America?

There are two major problems with this line of thinking.

First problem: How do you write according to gender or race without falling into stereotype? How do you write ‘Native’, ‘Japanese’ or ‘gay’? How do I write ‘female’?

I once read a ‘How to’ book on the proper way to write for men and women. It taught that men are strong and silent, so you should give them very little dialogue. Women, however, are emotional and rarely stop talking long enough to breathe, so give them tons of dialogue. This way, your characters will feel authentic, and your reader can keep track of who has a wang, and who doesn't. 

But does this damage more than liberate? Fiction from the early half of the 20th century is full of female characters who swoon, shriek, and are about as smart as your average doorstop. These were written by male authors trying to “write a woman.” The result is a horrible misrepresentation, a caricature. Yes, I'm sure some women are fragile as glass, but I've met more than a few who could give Rambo a pounding. That’s because, in real life, there is rarely such a thing as a ‘type’.

Second Problem: How can you write with both hands tied? 

Imagine how dull it would be to write only according to your gender or ‘race’? Instead of allowing my imagination to stretch to its limits, I’d be stuck with White Canadian Guy. “Hmm, what should my WCG get up to in this book? Go for a coffee? Watch a hockey game? Try to figure out the appeal of curling?” I would have retired a long time ago. I don’t want to write about myself. I want to escape. Everyone loves a good escape--that’s the high of writing. How can I do that with my WCG?

A slave working on a plantation during the Civil War, a woman living in a polygamist colony, a WCG with a robotic brain ... ah, now we’re talking. Now I’m dissolving into that bliss called imagination.

W.P. Kinsella defended his position with a very simple point. He reminded his critics that what he writes is called fiction. Words on paper, not real people. If his characters don’t meet an expectation of race or gender, then don’t sweat it--after all, they never existed. His native kids aren't living on the Rez, Golden’s Japanese girl never survived WW2, and Ennis and Jack aren't up on that mountain.  

I agree with Kinsella, although I would also add this point:

When a writer decides to create a character, he or she is venturing to create an individual. Wow, imagine that? An individual. Someone with their own thoughts and feelings. Isn't that a good thing? Don’t we want to foster more individuals? Is it okay for a woman to be less feminine, or a man less masculine? Or the other way around? Or a mixture of both?

Strange, that fiction sometimes gives us a better representation of reality.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Why Bother to Write?

There's an upsetting trend among writers these days. With the collapse of the publishing industry (coupled with a disturbing amount of Jersey Shore books), many writers are asking the question: "Why bother?" There's no future in publishing, no one's reading, and the average response to the name Charles Dickens is a snicker followed by, "You said Dickens...Dick-ens...heh heh..."

So why spend hours and months and years and decades doing something that you won't make a living at, and no one will care about, and only a handful of people will read?

I can't tell you why you should write, but I'll tell you why I write. I write because I have to write. That's it. That's the root of my passion. I gotta. And that's why I'll write, everyday, for the rest of my life. Yes, Traditional Publishers are sinking, and people aren't reading, and the idea of a decent screenplay is almost taboo in Hollywood. Still, I write. Painters must paint, dancers must dance, mechanics must...mechan?

I must write.

For me, writing is a very integral part of my sanity. Without writing, how would I get all that "stuff" out of my skull? How do non-writers do it? I have no idea. Maybe they don't. Maybe they just walk around like shaken soda bottles with the cap on tight. Maybe that's why people eventually go postal, or take drugs, or garden.  

I must write. And it turns out, I'm not alone.

Stephen King on why he became a writer: "The answer to that is fairly simple—there was nothing else I was made to do. I was made to write stories and I love to write stories. That's why I do it. I really can't imagine doing anything else and I can't imagine not doing what I do."

Ray Bradbury: "You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you." 

Sinclair Lewis: "It is impossible to discourage real writers - they don't give a damn what you say, they're going to write."

Isaac Asimov: "If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster."

Lord Byron: "If I don't write to empty my mind, I go mad."

And it goes on and on and on. I write (and I hope you write) because to not write would be like trying to breathe underwater. You'd choke. And so, while the craft is taking a beating, I don't want to throw in the towel. There is no towel. 

If you write for the vague hope of fame and fortune, then you may be disappointed in your venture. Times are tough for the storyteller. Maybe you should try accounting, or law, or chicken sexing. But if you keep coming back to writing despite:

a.) being poor
b.) being unpublished
c.) getting rejected by virtually every magazine and/or publisher

then you sir, or madam, are a writer. You do what you do because of the "stuff" that needs to get out, not because of the money. So don't worry about the publishing industry. Let it ebb and flow. Or, if you're feeling a little sea sick, then declare yourself "Indie" and do it on your own. Times they are a-changin'. Self-publishing isn't what it used to be. "Vanity" is a dirty little word we'll learn to forget together. 

Look inside yourself. Is the need there? Do you need to do it, like you need to eat or drink or smoke crack? If so, then let all those whiny writers fill the boards with thier protests of "IT'S NOT FAIR, IT'S NOT FAIR!"

You won't care--you'll be too busy hunting down murderers, conversing with vampires, and piloting spaceships through wormholes. You'll be too busy having fun.

Go play.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011


I finally broke through the fog and the wall. I'm thinking that my Writer's Block may have been a simple case of re-working older ideas. There's nothing wrong with older ideas, but I think they fade with time. Or they stay the same, but the writer changes, and they no longer "synch" the way they used to. In any event, I have a new idea, and it's pretty cool. I got a brand new "what if" question, and am trying to answer it. And my character is quite something special. Very excited. 

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Another one bites the dust

Wow, another novel has fallen flat. I've never had so much trouble getting a new book started! I keep running into plot problems that point to fatal flaws in the overall story. Some of these are understandable--one of the novels I tried to resurrect was over eight years old. Back then, I didn't even know what a gerund was (it's some kind of garden gnome, right?). But there's no excuse for the others. All total, I've lost four books in four weeks. Perhaps my writer's block isn't so much a block as it is a leaky brick wall. Some stuff is getting out, but not nearly enough.  I've thought about quitting for awhile to "fill up the well" again, but I feel strange when I don't write. It's like that sensation you get when coming down with a fever--you just can't get comfortable.

I've been experimenting around with a different method of plotting, so I may have luck with the next book. It's going to be my third attempt at sci-fi. I've reasoned that if nothing is happening here on Earth, I might as well try blasting off into space.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

99 Cents? Yup.

I've been reading a lot about price experimentation. Basically, this is where a writer adjusts the price of his/her e-book to see which sells best. "Gasher Creek" has been selling, but I'd like to see what a price tag of .99 cents does.

99 cents! Yes, it's true, but I have to accept that, although I've been writing for years, I haven't been publishing for years. No one knows who I am outside of a few friends and family members. Do I think "Gasher Creek" is worth more than 99 cents? I do. But what I think doesn't matter. What matters is connecting with readers. If I stumble across an author that I've never read before, I'm going to be very wary about giving him/her my hard earned money. But 99 cents is cheap. You can't even buy a chocolate bar for 99 cents anymore. I can give a new author a try for 99 cents.

In other Birch news: I just passed the first 10,000 word mark on my new novel! I'm still not sure if it's going to end up being a novel or novella, but I'm having a lot of fun working on it.

Will write more soon.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Writer's Block: For Reals?

Up until a couple weeks ago, I would have said, with absolute certainty, that there was no such thing as writer's block. Does. Not. Exist. A pathetic excuse for a frightened writer. I've been writing since I was 11 years old, and I had never experienced writer's block. And then it happened. I got writer's block. 

Yup folks, some boogie men are real.

After publishing "Gasher Creek", I started to have trouble writing new material. I had a pile of short stories, a couple old novels, and a bunch of new ideas. And I couldn't work on any of them. I just couldn't. I tried--I spent hours trying. I even put some of Ray Bradbury's tricks to the test, but nothing happened. It was just gone.

This, to say the least, was a terrifying experience. I felt like I had lost an arm or a leg. It made me think of poor W.P. Kinsella, who lost his writing ability after being struck by a car. But I wasn't struck by a car. So how did it happen?

I still don't know, however I have some suspicions. I think it was either:

a.) The fulfillment of a goal that I'd had since age 21 (finish and publish a novel). Now that the goal was reached, what reason did I still  have to write?
b.) The positive responses of readers. This may sound odd, but I think it gave me a bit of performance anxiety. Could I make my next project as good?
c.) Trying too hard. I think I was forcing myself to write, and forcing yourself to do anything is never a good idea. 

So what did I do to reverse this? Well, I did nothing. Seriously--I stopped writing. I set it aside and watched TV. Went for walks. Got REALLY depressed. And then, a few days ago, it just started again. Snap--just like that, after a three week absence. I got an idea, and I started a new book.

I don't understand it. The creative process is mysterious to say the least, but now it seems even stranger to me. And that's the word, I think: A stranger. A shadowy guest that comes to spend time with you for awhile, and then bids a fond farewell. Where he goes, I have no idea.

I've had plot knots take days to unravel. Sub-conscious symbols from my own life have popped up in my stories without my knowledge. I've even had disagreements with my characters (and they always win), but I've never had my ability simply leave without so much as a note.

Quite rude, this muse.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Oh Well

So, I finished the 2003 sci-fi novel and didn't like it. You know how a movie's first two acts can be great, but then it just dives in the third? This is what happened. I liked the characters, I liked MOST of the story, but then it just fell apart.

With the sci-fi book retired, I'm now free to write all new material. I've been editing for so long now that "new material" sounds frightening to me. However, I have six brand new short stories to write (the other four are re-writes from earlier versions), so I'll have a chance to remember how it's done. It's very exciting, and very nerve wracking.

Some good news! I'm only three downloads away from achieving my second sales goal. I've had a few "maybes" and "I mights" from people, so hopefully the numbers will start to climb. I've also been brainstorming about new marketing ideas, and hope to try a few of them out.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Baking a new batch o' short stories, reading a super old novel

One short story down, nine to go. The first one is a strange, creepy little story--just the way I like it!
I'm also loving the read-through of a sci-fi novel I wrote way back in 2003. Back then, I had a terrible editing phobia, so I just tucked it away and forgot about it. Glad to have re-discovered it!

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Out with the old, in with the new

Unfortunately, I've decided to retire another novel. I had high hopes for my fantasy comedy, but I've lost the passion for it. Also, it sucks. I could try to re-work the story, but it would be like starting over at the beginning again.

Fortunately, this hasn't happened to me very often, but it does happen (most writers have stacks of unpublished books that will never see daylight). It's a bummer, but with a pile of short stories to edit, a six year old sci-fi novel that wants to be re-considered, and a novella in the works, I think I'll keep busy for the rest of the year.

Still, it's always hard to say goodbye...

Friday, 27 May 2011

First week in

Hey everyone,

Almost finished the first week of editing the new novel. Unfortunately, it looks like I'll have to restructure the first thirty or so pages, but this has happened before. I stopped counting how many times it happened with "Gasher Creek." This is a common problem with writers who "shoot from the hip" with their first drafts. I don't outline, so as a result I sometimes run into plot problems during the editing process.

I've tried outlining, but it doesn't work for me. Part of the fun of a first draft is to go on the adventure with the characters. If you knew every plot point of a movie in advance, would you want to go see it? Probably not. I'll take the fun of a first draft over a smooth edit any day. After all, every writer essentially writes for an audience of one. If I can't have fun, why bother? It ain't for the money!

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Back to work tomorrow

After a couple of weeks of final read-throughs and Kindle formatting, I'm ready to head back to the desk for the final draft of the next book. Hopefully people dig it. It's a fantasy comedy, about as far away from the world of  "Gasher Creek" as you can get. But I like it. Will post updates. I'm hoping for an early September release!

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Feelin' the love

Hey everyone, just wanted to pass along a quick thanks for all the great feedback on the book! Hopefully the next one will be as well received.

Saturday, 14 May 2011


So, my book went live, between 8ish and 9ish pm, yesterday, May 13th, 2011. It's been a long road, kids. Almost twelve and a half years of holding onto one goal. And this is just the start. I have one more draft to do on my next novel, and then it will be ready. And after that? A bunch of short stories. And after that? Either another novel, or a much needed stint in a mental health clinic. Or both.  

Almost finished reading Richard Matheson's "Bid Time Return" for the second time. He's my favourite author, and always will be. If you haven't read any of his stuff yet, I recommend "Bid Time Return" (AKA "Somewhere In Time"), and "The Beardless Warriors". Awesome stuff.

Last week I finished reading W.P. Kinsella's "Shoeless Joe" for the bazillionth time. I read it every spring. It's my favourite novel of all time.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Book up!

Well, the book has been submitted to Amazon. Now we play the waiting game (although the waiting game sucks and I'd rather be playing hungry hungry hippos).

Monday, 9 May 2011

Almost done

The book is almost up. All I have left to do is convert the book and put it up on Amazon. Nervous? Oh yes indeed. Having multiple heart attacks? Of course!

Monday, 25 April 2011

New home

Hey everyone!

Excited to have the new web page up. Check back here for all your Birch news, or check me out on my facebook page. A new book should be up on Amazon within a couple weeks.