The Hardest Part is the Best, Obviously!

It’s when I think my novel is shit that it’s really on the brink of gold. This is what I tell myself in the hardest moments, and I have come to believe it is true (though I have no evidence, really, except a feeling). Actually, there was a Facebook meme going around the other day that said “All great change is preceded by chaos.” So it’s true!

Here are some potential reasons why the hardest part actually produces the best material:

Maybe it’s because if we push through the hard stuff, then when things start getting less hard than they were moments ago, it seems like they are incredible.

Maybe it is I who is changing rather than my writing. Maybe every few months I have a lucid day where I just see my writing for what it really is. And it those days of insight that get me anywhere. Consequently, maybe I’m just sometimes very cynical (unlikely).

Maybe it’s because it’s true that all change is preceded by chaos. You can’t get a chapter re-written if you don’t throw all the pieces up in the air and then try and rearrange them. It’s those moments where they have just fallen that you think you’ll never find your way, but really, I don’t know, maybe you will.


Maybe it’s because every day I’m getting smarter. And my novelist inside of me is growing. And it’s realizing that this thing I wrote yesterday is so much less wise than who I am today. So I’m judging past “me”s, but it’s okay, because today is a better me than who I was yesterday.

Basically, when you get to a hard part in your novel-writing process, mourn about it for a minute, then work through it. I would think taking a short break would be okay. But then power on through. At the moment where you feel like you’ve broken through, then write a blog post, in order to keep that feeling alive inside of you until you return to your work tomorrow and realize, no, you’re still in that rut! Darn! Darn it!

I Ate a Book!

Not really, but reading fast! So fast!

The Blue Light Project is the latest book by Timothy Taylor, the Vancouver-based author who wrote Stanley Park.

(photo taken from

I will tell you nothing about the book except for this:

I will do a review once I’m done, but I’ll probably just post another Youtube video of parkour.

Timothy Taylor was previously nominated for the Giller Prize  for Stanley Park so I will take this as an opportunity to tell you that as you were busy reading and thinking about my blog posts from a few weeks ago about how I am doing two self-made, self-entertaining challenges where I read a Pulitzer prize-winning book from each decade and also a Governor’s General prize-winning book from each decade, I changed my mind.

I am doing the Pulitzer thing, because I want to read some American classics I haven’t read, but I am a lot more interested in modern Canadian authors. So I am going to choose from the past ten years of Giller-prize nominees (not necessarily winners) one book from 2001 until now.

First up: Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje.

Check out an excellently written review of my first Pulitzer book, The Age of Innocence, and then also a series of poorly-written book reviews I recorded in a journal of mine that is on paper not blog.

Anyway, I have to go sit in a hammock and read this thing.

Badly Written Book Reviews

I have a Moleskine book journal in which I write terribly-written book reviews.

(By the way, on the cover of this journal is a confusing set of titles (look closer), some of which I know are books, some of which I think, okay, this must be a book, but it’s written in Chinese characters, thanks. I’ve tried to find a forum where someone has asked what this list is all about and someone else answered it but of course I’m not going to start a forum discussion about this (I will instead write a blog post with this as my hidden intention). I think I want to know really badly because I secretly want Moleskine to dictate my reading curriculum. I miss English class!)

Parentheses aside, I keep a book journal mainly because Moleskine made this available for me. Also because it helps me to recall what I thought of books and it feels good to flip through and be proud of how many books I’ve read. What makes me less proud is the level of my book reviews.

Here are some of these convoluted reviews. If you would like my opinion on a book, you can post a comment, and if I’ve read it I will give you something similar to what you find below. If I haven’t read it yet, maybe I will read it now! Thanks for your interest.

(Disclaimer: I got this book journal for Christmas 2010 so this is sadly not me writing as a child.)

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery:

“So wonderful … This book and its movie (of which I’ve only seen bits) breathe romance. The book, and Anne herself, are a dream, but touch my emotions like they must be real.”

Bossypants by Tina Fey:

“This book is inspirational, and so exciting. I loved the description of her father, and of her job at the YMCA.”

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville:

“I love the form of the book, and how the book always comments on the form of the book, which is: how can I best tell you about the whalebut the person telling it is very, very tangential.”

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy:

“I like Cormac McCarthy’s writing and though I don’t feel like I relate to it, I’d read more, at least to feel like I do for a moment.”

An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin:

“I loved this book for its use of language, its ability to take me in and display to me with everything it has another world I knew nothing about: art possession in New York City.”

On the Road by Jack Kerouac:

On the Road runs along like I’m dreaming, but then I reread a sentence and realize that no, someone else wrote this down. Someone wrote, “and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear?” on the last page of his novel.”

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce:

“I am happy I have read this book, but I’m not sure I was happy all the while that I was reading this book … I wish I could be more thorough when reading, but alas, I’m not always or ever that way.”

A Time Monster

“How much have you been writing everyday?” no one asked me.

Still, I feel I am answering to someone. Maybe it’s that I have recently begun to feel like I am a part of a writing community, where one of my new writer friends might call me up to ask me how much I’ve been writing and compare or something. Most likely it’s not that, it’s that there is a time monster that lives inside of me and is so mean to me.


My family is never late for anything. I don’t know if they meant to raise me this way, but I grew up absolutely dreading tardiness. I had nightmares about packing up my books for too long after school and leaving my lonely dad waiting for me outside until it went dark. I am dressed and ready to go one hour prior to any pick-up time. I leave an extra fifteen minutes for traffic wherever I’m going. I don’t mean to do it. I have a time monster inside of me.

The time monster channels himself through things like iCal and new Moleskine daily planners.
He feeds off of these. The time monster does not do well with to-do lists on my hand or trying to memorize acronyms to remember errands. He gets nervous – he taps at the insides of my stomach with one of those old hanging time pieces.


I have learned to use the time monster for good purposes. Some people ask, well, how do you have so much discipline to sit down and write everyday? I pretend I’m just a really good person with good values, but the truth is I have this sacred, horrible time monster inside of me who eats away at me if I’m not doing something productive and I’m not doing it now.

So, in answer to nobody’s question, I’ve been writing four hours a day for the past five days (Monday-Friday, Time Monster likes weekdays) in response to the incredible energy my writing retreat on Denman Island gave me. Every night I plan my shifts for the next day (mostly 9:30-11:30 and 1:30-3:30, like a particularly lazy part-time employee) and then put little check marks or rearrangements next to the previous day’s work.

It’s as if I’m reporting to someone, it’s as though I’m going to post minutes on a website for other board members to poke holes in. No, I’m obviously not someone with good morals. I’m someone who is deadly afraid of this gnawing anxiety that eats at me when I’m not on time for something or I’m not filling my time with things of value.

I’m glad that me and my monster have agreed that playing around with characters and words and having no more clear an end goal then “book” is a good use of my time.

A Short Story in Ten Short Steps

Here’s how I wrote my first short story:

1. I came up with five story ideas by looking at various objects around the room. One was a photo of a group of bridesmaids at a wedding (I was one of them). I thought, perfect. A bridesmaid wrecks a wedding. What a story.

2. I put the list of five topics – all engaging, all suspenseful – aside for a day.

3. I did a version of eenie-meenie (in which I use letters from a word I come up with to pick an answer, like p-a-r-r-o-t) to choose which topic I would actually write about. The first topic about a bridesmaid got chosen. I reread all five topics. All were now ridiculous, trivial. But now I had a challenge: make this shit into a story.

4. I wrote down five questions to ask myself to figure out who my main character was. I made up a name of someone I thought sounded like a bridesmaid (though I’ve been a bridesmaid, and it’s not my name).

  • What is Kylie’s biggest fear?
  • What does Kylie have to lose?
  • What does Kylie have to gain?
  • Whose support does Kylie need?
  • Why does Kylie do what she does?

(from I think I wrote a story about the one behind the one on the left, the only bridesmaid you can’t see.)

5. I only answered one of these questions because I tried to do it with my left hand (my new friend ElJean, an excellent writer, taught me this exercise). The left hand is supposed to be your more honest hand. It took so long to scrawl down the answer that I was overcome with energy and momentum to tell Kylie’s story legibly.

6. I changed pages and wrote down in sequence a series of statements about Kylie, about the other characters in the story, about what Kylie does and what the story does.

7. I put that aside because I had to go eat or something. I was excited. I put flashcards into my notebook at that page as though I was later going to make scenes on the flashcards (something I learned last week and subsequently blogged about three days ago).

8. I went out for a drink with a friend and came home with a beer and a story in my head. I hadn’t thought an ounce about Kylie but I had let the story sit for a day and think itself up. I opened my computer and a Word document from yesterday pre-emptively titled “Bridesmaid” (it sits next to the Word document from the previous day pre-emptively and confidently titled “Vancouver Writers Festival Short Story Contest”  – okay, it’s titled VAnWRContest).

9. I wrote the goddamned story! All of it! It’s about 1,600 words and I think it’s beautiful and exciting and moving and has touched upon something all people or all bridesmaids have felt.

10. The tenth step hasn’t happened yet. It will be to read it. I plan to wait a few days. If anything of this list holds up, it’s that stories/ideas get stronger when you let them sit, but they also appear more stupid. I hope to return to the story with a look of disdain on my face but also a really good story somewhere in my left hand.

I Made Scenes

There was a time about a year ago when I wrote a book. It was this book, the very novel after which my blog is named. I thought, “There! I wrote a book.” I wrote it straight through and I printed off pages and I stuck them away and I didn’t read them until I got to the end. The end, of course, was horrible. The book, of course, was horrible. But it was the feeling that was wonderful. I wrote a book.

You see, when you write a book in six weeks, when you write a book just to get a book written so you can have something to eventually write a book with, you forget about the basics of fiction. At least, I did. I forgot about plot. I forgot about “scenes.” I forgot about language (I meant to, it was a “shitty first draft” on purpose, after all). I forgot about character motives and dramatic tension and suspension of disbelief. I thought I would do all that later.

Well, now is later. Much later. Too late?

I guess I spent the last year rereading my book. I changed a lot, certainly. I am four drafts lighter (heavier). I did plot, I did character motives. I tried for suspension of disbelief. But it took a transformational week at a writing workshop (my first ever) to understand things from a different perspective. Yes, first you have to write a book. Then you have to write a story.

So I made scenes. I was told the following (by the excellent, excellent Steven Galloway):

Each scene must answer

A) What does the character want?

B) What happens if he/she doesn’t get it?

C) Why does it have to happen now?

It was with these simple guidelines that I set about writing an index card for each scene with these responses on the back.

I feel like I wrote a new book. A book that makes sense! Now to implement this new sense into my nonsense, there is the rub.

Living in a Greenhouse

Am I growing, in here? I took over a greenhouse; all the plants are outside.

I’m alone in a greenhouse for a week, which could be a science experiment, prison, or the life of a writer. I’m attending a writing workshop on Denman Island (it takes place in a regular building) and I return here, to a greenhouse, every night to sleep. Before I sleep I wait out the setting of the sun by reading, by writing; sometimes I do yoga.

The format of a writing workshop, I’ve come to learn, is one that is infinitely helpful but still doesn’t simulate the life of a writer. It’s a group thing, a workshop. But I write alone. I’ve shown my work to others and heard their kind and helpful words. But, I think, I’m supposed to write alone.

I do love this, this writing community. I’ve found people who are writers, who tell me, you’re a writer, who understand that all that it is to be a writer is to sit there and write, not produce, not publish, but write. To be writing.

And I love this other community too. Denman Island has 800 people, the amount of people you might find on 3 city blocks, but such a high concentration of them are artists, writers, jewellers, sculptors, gardeners, musicians, potters and creators. Everyone here comes home to a greenhouse. Everyone comes home to become something. They do their work and  they come home and they don’t do their garden, they don’t do their writing: they garden; they write.

I’m growing, in here, through this glass, in this heat. I’m here alone but I’m surrounded by plants, by water and sunshine and people who are telling me, grow! You’re growing!

I don’t know, I’m not writing much, but doesn’t it sure feel like it?

Reading The Age of Innocence

I like to review books before I’m done them, not because I’m a lazy journalist, but because I’m not a journalist, I’m a person reading a book.

The thing is I forget about a book once I’m done it. The book doesn’t lose its impact on me – I think I am probably shaped in one way from every book I read, whether it’s that I learned a new word or I changed the way I live my life – I just lose the book. I put it away or I return it to the library or I lend it to a forgetful friend and I simply don’t think about it for a while (unless I am recommending it or talking about it at Book Club). I certainly don’t ever remember a book’s ending.

I would rather tell you about a book when I am fully immersed in it, when I am breathless about it. And this way I won’t tell you the ending. I will only tell you the middle, which is by far the worst part of any book, and therefore okay that I spoil it for you.

Well, here’s the middle of The Age of Innocence: Tension is rising! Maybe Newland and Ellen will get together! Where the heck is May, Newland’s bride-to-be anyway? Oh yeah, she’s in Florida! Newland just had a pillow fight!

(from Wikipedia – not my cover, but so cute! It looks like she stapled it together.)

Yes, I know: Edith Wharton sounds like a hoot. I say this somewhat sarcastically, somewhat with honest surprise. This is a woman writing in the 1920’s about the 1870s. I haven’t ever heard the word hoot next to Edith Wharton’s name, a name I hear often in articles I breeze by in The New Yorker and other literary sources (sure, I’ll give it to you, what am I talking about?). I thought Edith Wharton was a crotchety lady writing about crotchety people. But no – it’s all about escaping crotchetiness. And Ellen Olenska is awesome!

I am actually so excited to be reading this book right now. I like reading three books at once because I like to be braggy and also because I like to discover the merits of books by seeing how much I want to read one over another.

For example, right now I am also reading The Wealthy Barber Returns, and a light-hearted French novel called Les Yeux Jaunes des Crocodiles. I’ve read enough in French that French requires equivalent brain-using skill as English does to read, so this means that a novel should win out over an old novel I am forcing myself to read through a Pulitzer Challenge, and a non-fiction book about money. All the credit goes to David Chilton from London, Ontario who is hilarious and just feels like my best friend, and also to Edith Wharton, this awesome lady from the 20’s.

My favourite lines so far from The Age of Innocence:

1) I already mentioned the pillow fight, which takes place in a brief re-telling of a party where I couldn’t quite figure out if all these things actually happened in the literal sense. If yes, so fun:

“And finally, about midnight, he assisted in putting a goldfish in one’s visitor’s bed, dressed up a burglar in the bathroom of a nervous aunt, and saw in the small hours by joining in a pillow-fight that ranged from the nurseries to the basement.”

2) Ellen says this to Newland. Ellen is from Europe!:

“Is there nowhere in an American house where one may be by one’s self? You’re so shy, and yet you’re so public. I always feel as if I were in the convent again – or on the stage, before a dreadfully polite audience that never applauds.”

3) And a few things I think apply even today:

“He arrived late at the office, perceived that his doing so made no difference whatever to any one, and was filled with sudden exasperation at the elaborate futility of his life.”

“Winsett was not a journalist by choice. He was a pure man of letters, untimely born in a world that had no need of letters.”

So, if you are following along with me in the Pulitzer Challenge, or in my Governor General’s Award challenge which I have yet to begin according to my rules, then I would recommend choosing this book!

If you are doing the challenge, I would love for you to comment about it, or to tell me which book you are choosing instead of this one. I will continue to write blog posts as though everyone ever is doing this challenge I made up. So congratulations, guys!

PS: I am writing to you from a beautiful converted green house on Denman Island, British Columbia. More on THAT to come.

So Scared about Formatting

I’m leaving tomorrow for a week-long writing retreat on Denman Island. I am attending a five day group writing workshop with Steven Galloway, where the first chapter of my first novel will get its first critique (sounds like I’ll probably make it big time), and then staying for the Denman Island Readers and Writers Festival.

I didn’t get nervous until yesterday, when I had to print out seven copies of my first chapter. And then I got so nervous. I stood over my printer as it ejected double-spaced, Times New Roman versions of the sentences I wrote. Why is there so much dialogue? I asked out loud, sweating. Such simple words, such petty subject matter.

The worst was my title, which I had to format four double-spaced lines down the first page (according to the first website Google generated for me). I previously thought my title was neat, but now with my name underneath it (with “by” before my name), isn’t it a little pretentious? A little too trying?

Then I had to write a summary of the rest of my book. I didn’t know whether to make it sound gripping and suspenseful, like the dust jackets of novels that have actually been published, or analytical, like I was really telling people what was going to happen and wanted to get their advice on whether it made sense. I remember doing it wrong in elementary school – I was supposed to write a book report, and instead I made it sound like a book trailer.

Why is it the formatting that makes me want to curl up in my bed and throw my novel away?


I think it’s because formatting makes immediately evident the serious writer who has before sent things out to agents and editors, and me, who is only calling this a novel because it took me a long time. I’m also afraid that now that my book will look like everyone else’s – with the same margin and page formatting (I hope) – it will be clear that I am nowhere near the stage I need to be at, that I am not yet a writer.

I’m scared about formatting because it replaces other things I could be scared about. Instead I could be scared about imagining people laughing at my writing. Instead I could be scared about the way I will react – maybe I’ll pretend this was a first chapter I just threw off and I don’t have any more than that, I’m just trying this writing thing out. Instead I could be scared that I’m going to leave this place thinking I’m not a writer, I don’t fit in with writers, and I’m never going to get anything published.

So instead of being scared of any of that I keep glancing at the pages I printed off and worrying about the way it looks. I hate Times New Roman! I hate my name!

Fiddle Music to Write

My sister and I saw this duo play in Baddeck, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia when we drove around the East coast last summer. That trip and this music inspired a large part of my book. This is the music I listen to when I write it. I listen to it partly because I hope it influences my writing, partly because it’s just a good kick in the butt.

What do you listen to when you write? When you work?