Ottawa U Writing Workshop

So I’ve been taking this creative writing class/workshop at the University of Ottawa as part of their continuing education curriculum.  I was very excited to start the course in September, but alas it has failed to impress me.

Why? Well a few reasons:

  1. The teacher likes to talk about himself. A lot. 

Everything manages to get tied back to him somehow.  Talking about Margaret Atwood? They’re friends! Giving out an example of a poem? Just happens to include one of his! Talking about Madeleine Thien being nominated for the Governor General awards? He was on the jury for poetry one year!

I get it.  Writers tend to be a little self-involved.  I can say this because I am one.  They like to talk about themselves and their work.  It makes sense.  But man oh man this guy needs to stop for a bit.

  1. There is no actual “teaching”.

There’s a bit of an intro to every class but then immediately it launches into workshopping individual pieces.  Ok fine, it is labelled a workshop, so all is fair blah blah blah, but I had hoped there would be *some* actually teaching. Even just on how to critique a piece would be good! But no. And the pieces we present to one another? They are short pieces of text based on weekly prompts we are given.  It’d be nice if we had the option of bringing in short bits of longer term projects we’re working on.  Not that I’m working on anything, but others are.

But there are good points.  The second class we were lucky enough to have Madeleine Thien come to talk to us. Thien is currently the writer in residence at Ottawa U, has recently won the Governor Generals award for literature, and has been nominated for the Man-Booker and the Giller for her novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Not only was it amazing to hear her take on writing, I decided to pick up the ebook after class.  I have started reading it and so far I can say that all the nominations are well deserved.

So that has been my experience with Ottawa U’s writing workshop; overall, rather disappointing. But I’m glad I gave it a shot regardless.  It’s good practice and keeps the writing muscles moving.

In Which I Respond to Advice by Chuck Wendig: Part One

So I’m reading this book – or PDF rather – called “250 Things You Should Know About Writing” by Chuck Wendig. I follow Wendig’s blog, terrible minds, but I can’t say I’ve ever read any of his books.  At least not until now.  So what prompted me to start now? This post.  It’s absolutely phenomenal and funny and actually has some good tips on writing. I heart it.  So that made me peek around the site and I found his book bundle on writing and gladly paid for it and here we are, checking out the first of eight books.

And this post shall be my thoughts on that book.

“You must always be learning, gaining, improving”

I agree with this heavily.  Mostly because a lot of the work I’ve been doing lately has been about honing my craft.  And it is a craft that is for certain.  When I haven’t been writing (which isn’t as often as I should be, alas) I’ve been reading.  I’ve been reading about writing in books like this one.  I’ve enrolled in a creative writing workshop. I’ve spent hours on Skillshare (have I mentioned how much I love skillshare?) looking into creativity.  I am learning so very much it makes me giddy with glee.

“Stones Are Polished By Agitation”

Or put another way, you learn via criticism and editing etc.  I am admittedly terrible at this.  I hide my work away, showing only others who will praise it.  That’s not good at all. Hopefully my writing workshop will help with that.

“Quit Quitting”

Damn.  Another one I’m terrible at.  I have two works in progress I guess you could say.  One I haven’t touched in months, the other in weeks.  Mostly because I think they’re shit.  But if I’m doing this the right way, that should matter.  I should give myself the permission to write shitty first drafts.  That’s what rewriting and editing is for.  I see this piece of advice so much, everywhere, that it just might get me to go back to my story about a girl who is the next grim reaper, but she doesn’t know that.  It might. Maybe.  The story is really shit so far.

“The storyteller operates best when he’s a little bit of a dick”

I need to embrace my inner dick.  I tend to wrap things up too neatly and take the obvious path in a story, and that’s not always good.  Sometimes you need a twist in the story.  Sometimes you need to push your characters off a cliff.

“Beginnings Are For Assholes…”

Or, begin as late into the story as you can. This I’m good at.  I like dropping the reader into something that’s been on-going off the page somewhere.  Plus I’m kind of shit at all the beginingy stuff.   It winds up very “And then THIS happened, and THAT happened, and WHOA THAT happened.” And then we get to where I want to be.  So I just cut out the front end. Sometimes a little too much. Because then there’s this:

“Go all high-karate-action and we have no context for the characters who are in danger, and no context means we don’t care, and if we don’t care then we’re already packing our bags in the first five minutes or five pages.”

Yeah.  That’s the problem with grim reaper girl.  There’s nothing to her.  I don’t care about her, so why should the reader? But that’s a problem for the rewrite, right? Right?

You give us a great character, our only desire becomes to lick him like he’s a hallucinogenic toad and take the crazy trip-ass ride wherever he has to go.”

I definitely need more hallucinogenic toads these days.

“Describe only what matters to the story. If the reader must know something, then ensure she knows it. I don’t give a fuck about your lamp. Or what leaf-rot is on the oak tree outside.”

This is highly, highly reassuring because I kind of suck at detailed description.  Like, I don’t even tell you what colour my character’s hair is.  I should probably do that, but it doesn’t come naturally to me. I need more description but not too much.  This is good.

“good writing sounds good when spoken. Great writing is as much about the ear as it is about the eye”

This I am neither good nor bad at.  I don’t think I’ve ever really given it much thought.  But it’s certainly something I need to start taking into consideration, and it ties nicely into the standard advice that you should read your drafts aloud.  Of course that is usually when I decide they suck hard core and stop writing.  Must get through the draft before I do this in the future.

“Passive Constructions Were Killed By Me, In The Study, With A Lead Pipe”

My number one weakness right here ladies and gentlemen, the passive voice.  It’s not that I overuse it, it’s more that I don’t even know how to *recognize* it.  Wendig explains it, and I’ve heard about using the phrase “by zombies” or something, but I still don’t get it.  At all.  Someone help me?

And that leaves me at the end of the book! There are lots more tidbits in there and it’s only 99 cents!  Highly, highly recommended.

Cultural Appropriation in Fiction

So I happened upon this transcript of a speech given by Lionel Shriver (Author of “We Need to Talk About Kevin” amongst others).  While initially invited to discuss the theme of “community and belonging”, Shriver instead decided to discuss cultural appropriation and identity politics as they relate to fiction.

To bring it down to one over-generalized sentence, it seems we’re all just too sensitive.

Sigh.

So, here I am reading this article as not only a person of incredibly diverse backgrounds but also as a person who works in the field of diversity.  Diversity is my profession.  And while I agree with a lot of Shriver’s points, there are several that get my back up.

Shriver states that without so-called “cultural appropriation” that there would be no fiction at all because the author would be restrained to their own lived experience.  “The ultimate endpoint of keeping out [sic] mitts off experience that doesn’t belong to us is that there is no fiction.”

And she certainly has a point.  Fiction is about telling a story that isn’t true.  It uses characters who (usually!) aren’t real people.  If every white person never told a story from a black POV, yes, we would definitely be worse off in the end. But that is not what people who talk about “Cultural Appropriation” mean.  Ok, it’s at least not what I mean when I talk about the phrase.

Shriver says that cultural appropriation says “you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. Yet that’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.”

No one says you can’t try on other people’s hats.  But it’s about doing so with the proper respect those hats deserve.  Because sometimes a hat isn’t just a hat, it’s a symbol, a tradition, a memory or a gift. Yes, fiction writers are paid to try on other people’s hats.  Try on all the hats you choose to. I am not saying writers shouldn’t or can’t write about another cultural or identity.

But have we ever thought about the fact that maybe it’s time to let the people with those identities do some of the writing too?  Or even first? For years white, privileged authors wrote about the Other with good will and good intentions.  Hurray.  But I must question why there weren’t more authors discussing their own identities? Maybe because writing and publishing is still such a game for the privileged.  It’s only fairly recently (from a historical POV) that women started writing under their own female names, for crying out loud.

“Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived” (Shriver).

I couldn’t disagree more with this passage.  Being Asian IS an identity.  It may not be the only aspect of a person’s identity, but it is still a valid one. I am disabled.  That is one of my identities.  And to have Shriver attempt to take that away is insulting.  I have pride in my identities, don’t try to diminish them because they aren’t “enough” for you.  It’s not our job to make sure our identity is interesting or “enough”.

Shriver’s perspective is thus: “both as writers and as people, we should be seeking to push beyond the constraining categories into which we have been arbitrarily dropped by birth. If we embrace narrow group-based identities too fiercely, we cling to the very cages in which others would seek to trap us.”

That is easily said by someone who appears to be of a white, privileged background (yes, I could very easily be wrong).  It’s easy to say “Don’t let your disability, race, etc. define you!” when you haven’t actually worn that hat.  You may have tried it on, but you haven’t worn it for decades like many of us have.  Any hat can get heavy.  And besides, I prefer this perspective:

“Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armour yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”

Cynical? Perhaps.  But also true to my lived experience.

All that to say, no one is stopping you from writing about the Other.  But maybe those of us in these marginalized groups want to hear and see our own voices out there, to see more diversity in the publishing and writing world. Is that so wrong?

Can-Con 2016!!

So in about three weeks the awesomeness that is Can-Con will be here in Ottawa once again. And once again it’s downtown so I can actually go. I have bought my tickets and am armed with my notebook and ready. These are the panels I’m interested in:
Nothing jumps out at me for Friday, so on to Saturday we go.

Saturday

How to Build an Amazing Reading List from the Juried Awards
Different Ways to Pitch a Novel to a Publisher or Agent
Getting Your Work Noticed
Our Monsters are Us
Rewriting Fairy Tales
Beyond the Coming Out Story – New Queer Narratives in Speculative Fiction
Want to Dominate the World, but Don’t Have a Writers’ Group?
Writing a Novel in 30 Days (workshop)
Making Literature Out of Spam emails
Witchcraft, Druids, and the Occult

Sunday

40 Creative Choices that Drive Away Audiences
Bodies of Difference: Disability in Spec Fic
Emerging Issues in Publishing Contracts
Same Old Story
Guest of Honour Tanya Huff and Special Guest Charles de Lint talk about fantasy and writing

So that’s quite the lineup. We’ll see if I make it to all of them. I may end up down in the hotel bar because I love the Albion Rooms very very much. But I love this convention as well. There’s so much to learn about writing and I want to soak it all up like a sponge.

And then hopefully fucking write something because this dry spell is bad.

Dear Imagination:

Hey! How are you? Gods it’s been a long time since we talked last. I fear we may have been neglecting each other. You see, it’s awkward for me to say this, but I’ve missed you. It feels like it’s been years since I saw you last. Hell, maybe it has been, I can’t keep track anymore.

Where have you been? What have you been up to? Because you certainly haven’t been hanging out with me that much I do know. I feel bereft, my old friend. We used to be so close, especially when we were kids, and now I reach out to you and get nothing in return.

Is there a way I can work on winning you back? I’ve tried many things already, meditation, writing prompts, typing out other people’s stories, reading encyclopedias of mythology, anything I can do to get myself an idea of what to write about, because I desperately want to write, my friend. Desperately.

It’s what I’ve done since I could pick up a pen. I have always written. It’s the only thing I’ve really got going for me. I have no other discernable talent, we both know that. And writing, when I’m really into it, is my best friend when I am friendless. There’s been plenty of times I’ve needed writing to fill that hole in my life, and you were there.

But now I just stare at the screen with no ideas and you’re nowhere to be found. I cannot think of a single interesting idea to save my life. Ok, I had one idea. The girl who is destined to become the next Grim Reaper. I thought it was a neat idea, kind of like Buffy meets Death Takes a Holiday. But as I was writing it I realized it was crap. Craaaaaaaaap. Not the idea itself, that was kind of cool. I mean, what WOULD happen if suddenly people stopped dying? But my writing was complete and utter shit and thus so was the story. I just couldn’t get into it. I’ve had fanfic that I’ve written that I was more passionate about.

I guess I just miss you, Imagination. I need you in order to be able to write. Please come back to me?

In the Margins

So I recently (as in half an hour ago) discovered the website The Establishment. And now my mind is blown.  How did I not know this site existed? I may never leave it and lurk there forever.

What’s so great about this website, you ask?

The Establishment is “a multimedia company run and funded by women that’s predicated on a simple, yet radical notion: the world is a better, more interesting place when everyone has a voice.”

This shouldn’t seem so radical, but it is.  The Establishment has on their front page right now articles about

And that’s just the short list.  There’s even a specific section for arts and creators.  I am fully blissed out. The Establishment focuses on the margins of society and I love it to bits.

It’s funny because I often walk the line of marginality (is that a word?) and the cultural “norm”. I am white appearing, upper-middle class, employed and those are all privileged positions.

But I am also a woman, a person with a disability, queer, and mixed race.  I am the very definition of a marginalized voice.

But I often struggle to find that voice.  Even though I am all these things I am certainly not unique.  I often allow other writers to be my voice about these things, which is a shame really.  As a writer, I feel I should be mining the feelings evoked by being all these things.

And let me tell you, there are some serious feelings.

I feel like I could write a book just about being me, but I struggle with where to start.  Is this blog representative of who I am? My marginalized voice? Probably not.  Do I want it to be? Most certainly.

So maybe it’s not about finding my voice but more about having something to say. It scares me to think that maybe I don’t have anything to add to the current discourse.  It worries about my fictional work, too.  How can I be a writer without something to say?

Maybe I just haven’t found the right topic yet. Lord knows I’m certainly full of opinions.

Camp Nanowrimo 2016

So just over a month ago a friend told me about Camp Nanowrimo.

What is all this nonsensical madness you ask? Well, Nanowrimo is NAtional NOvel WRIting MOnth which takes place in November and the challenge is to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.  That’s 1,667 words a day.  Ask me how I know. I have tried and failed at Nanowrimo multiple times.

Which brings me to Camp Nanowrimo.  What’s the difference you ask? Well with Camp Nanowrimo (which takes place in April and July) you can set your own word goal! I found out about this near the end of March and I was pretty excited.  Maybe I could succeed at Camp Nanowrimo if I could set my own word goal!

So I decided to take part and write 25,000 words in the month of April.  That’s 834 words a day. Yes, I counted.  Knowing your daily word goal is vitally important.  Going past it is always fine.  Not meeting it can be a bummer. But you need to know what you’re aiming for.

Another key difference for Camp Nano is that you don’t have to write a novel.  You can write fanfiction, poetry, short stories, whatever, as long as it meets your word count.  I decided to flesh out one of my characters via a series of short vignettes.

Here’s the synopsis:

Landon Bradbury is a man in survival mode, and has been all his life.  Retired from the military because of disabilities, he seeks to find meaning in his life and his new circumstances. As he struggles with past trauma and unwanted romantic feelings, Landon will learn who he is and where his place is.

Ok it’s kind of a shitty summary, but you get the point.  Landon is our hero, and he has Issues.  So I took the month of April to explore who Landon is.  It was a lot of fun, I have to say.  And I happened to win! So go me!

25,000 words in a month may be easy for some but it is not easy for me, especially when I have no real plot. That’s why the vignettes were so handy, I could write about

  • Landon at a funeral for his mother
  • Landon at the Therapist
  • Landon getting diagnosed
  • Landon and his love interest

and none of them had to actually connect or weave together! Mwahahahahaha!

I don’t know if I’ll take part in July, but I’m definitely glad I did this one.

My Problem With Writing

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about how and when I write.  I’ve already covered the ‘why’ of it all. But the simple fact of the matter is, I haven’t done any writing in the past few days.

So I asked myself why that was, and I came up with a list:

1. I am easily distracted

Any sort of emotionally wretched day, week, month and I’m lost.  I am not one of those put-it-all-in-your-writing types, although I certainly wish I was.  No, if I am having a bad day I sit on the couch or sleep a lot.  That’s about it really.  Everything else, including writing, seems like far too much effort.

2. I am indescribably lazy

I don’t say that to create a false sense of modesty.  I really am simply that lazy.  Imagination takes effort, of which I am loathe to dispense.

3. I wait for inspiration to strike

Waiting for the muse to visit means I never, or rarely, get anything substantial written.  I know approaching writing this way is … irrational, at the very least.  I know it’s wrong.  Everyone agrees on one thing, that writing is a craft, it takes work and it takes practice.  You have to put in the time, even when you don’t feel like it.  Take my friend and fellow writer S.M. Carriere.  I know that she aims to write at least 3000 words a day, and very often succeeds.  I *should* do this, but I don’t.

4. The Internet

See #1 on distraction.  But the internet is its own special hell of distraction.  There is so much to do! And often I can pretend that it’s “networking” or “platform building”  HA!

So what is the solution?  I’m not sure.  I think I need to set myself a daily word goal, at least.  Likely not 3,000 words, because I know myself.  If it’s too hard to achieve I won’t do it.  Maybe 1,500.
I also purchased some software to deal with the internet, specifically Freedom and Anti-Social.  Got them both for $20.  Here’s hoping I actually use them.

Unfortunately the laziness problem is typically only solved (for me) in one way.  External accountability.  I am incredibly bad at holding myself accountable to only myself.

If any of you have a solution or suggestions I am very open to hearing any and all!

Canada Day

As it is Canada Day today, and I sit here in my apartment in Ottawa feverishly avoiding all things outside, I thought a blog post about Canadian Writers would be appropriate.  Which of course leads to the inevitable problem — how do we really know who the Canadian authors are?

There are the ultra-famous of course – the Margarets (Atwood and Lawrence), Leonard Cohen, Farley Mowat, Mordecai Richler, Pierre Berton, Michael Ondaatje.   These are the ‘greats’.  Or so they say.  I’ve read something from every one of these authors.  I’d say most Canadians have, if only because our education system forced them to.  I’ve loathed, and loved, and liked in equal measure (for example, I suggest you spare yourself “Beautiful Losers” by Cohen.  The man is a master of poetry, no doubt.  But whatever drugs he was on when he wrote this novel were clearly the good ones).

There are also the ‘middle-weights’, or so I like to deem them.  While the stranger next to you on the bus may not have heard of them, chances are your book-loving, voracious reader friends have.  Douglas Coupland, Vincent Lam, Terry Fallis, Miriam Toews, Yann Martel, are just a few of those names.

While it’s damned near impossible to even imagine becoming one of the greats, achieving something in that interesting middle area is really not so far out of reach.  Just look at Terry Fallis for example.  His debut novel “The Best Laid Plans”  was originally self-published due to lack of publisher interest.  It went on to win the Stephan Leacock Medal in 2008, got picked up by a traditional publisher, and is now being made into a CBC mini-series.

Success like that is every writer’s dream.  Well, it’s mine at least.

So while this post began as a way to pay tribute to the Great Canadian Writers on this lovely Canada Day, it has also given me hope, and motivation.  I can’t get a CBC mini-series if I don’t write something first!

The Standard Question

People always ask writers that one question – “Why do you write?”

I know I’ve been asked it hundreds, if not thousands of times.  Ironically, I always answer the question in the most non-creative fashion possible.  I respond with something like “I can’t *not* write.  It’s just what I do.”

Which is total BS, if I’m being honest about it.  It’s the thing you say because it’s what you’re *supposed* to say.  Because writing is supposed to be the thing that drives you, your unending passion, your beating heart and all that.  Which is utterly false for a lot of people, including me.

I can go months without writing, and frequently have. It doesn’t keep me up at night.  I’m not overflowing with ideas and stories that I simply must get on paper or I’ll die.  I’m not saying that scenario isn’t true and real for very many others.  In fact, I’m sure it is! The commonality of the feeling is probably why I felt the need to buy into it for so many years.  I repeated the myth because I wanted it to be true for myself.

For me, writing is work.  It’s not difficult – not precisely.  When it all comes to together it tends to come together very well, and I can write poems in minutes that I actually love, or stories and chapters can come and go in an evening or two.  When it falls into place it’s like magic, so much so that I often reread things later and have a hard time believing I wrote them because I simply don’t recall much of the process.

It’s the in between times that make me feel like Not A Writer, and those times are far more frequent and lasting than the aforementioned magic.

So in the end, saying “I can’t *not* write!” is sort of a lie.  Today could be the last day I ever wrote anything, and I’m not sure it would kill me.  Yet at the same time, the magic of the story wouldn’t end. I’d still be creating worlds and characters and living there for a while with them and growing to love all of it.  But it would all be in my head instead of on paper.

If you never put pen to paper, are you inherently not a writer? It seems so obvious, right? That to be a writer you have to write. Of course you do.

And yet, for whatever reason, I remain unconvinced.