First Drafts

When I wrote my first novel — not the published one, but the one that came before that — owing to the fact that this was literally my first time tackling such a thing, I adopted a rather brutal style of writing the first draft. Like I said, I didn’t really know what I was doing, nor did I understand how difficult I was making things for myself in writing in the way I did.

My style, if it could be called that, was edit-as-you-go. Doesn’t sound that bad, right? And, to be honest, there are many writers out there who take this approach. I say this because I would be wrong if I said that this was a “bad” way to go about things. However, what it did was front-load a lot of analysis during a part of the work that really (really) should’ve been purely creative, in the playing-in-the-sandbox sense of the word. Editing as you write requires a writer to switch between two hats within the same writing session, which is (among other things) strenuous.

That book, it should be known, no longer exists in any form except for some files I have backed up. It simply wasn’t worth the amount of work that I realized, as I began to take submitting it to publishers/agents seriously, it would need. Like, a lot of work. And I’d just spent a number of years already on it, and its imperfections (and various forms of writerly immaturity) became harder and harder to ignore. So, into the figurative fireplace it went. A few years back my sister-in-law sent me a photo of the manuscript I’d sent her to read, asking if I wanted it (they were moving house and had to ditch things). I told her to burn it.

From the point where I started what ended up being The Society of Experience (originally titled The Improv Class), I chose a much more practical style of getting the first draft down, and that was simply getting it down. Didn’t need to be perfect. Didn’t need to necessarily match whatever chapters came before or after stylistically. The rule of a first draft, as I saw it, and mostly continue to see it, is to get it on paper (or on a laptop) as quickly and painlessly as possible. Then, and really only then, though there are points in the process where this might have to come sooner, will I get the editor’s hat out.

Revising is drudgery. I was at a retreat a few years ago, and was asked by a couple of painters what I was up to process-wise. I attempted to describe what revising was, and inquired what a painter’s version of this might be. They looked at each other and back at me and said: “Backgrounds.” That said, the important thing is that revising is where the magic really happens. The first draft is really just a proof of concept. It could be solid. It could be 70% of the way “there” (wherever “there” is), but it’s just not done yet until you revise. And revise. And revise.

The only problem I encounter with this style of writing is that the prose in my first drafts can end up being very (very) compressed — in the process of getting everything down I will often elect to not elaborate or flesh things out unnecessarily, feeling that this can be done on the next pass. I sometimes describe my first draft style as being “dehydrated prose,” as in “add water and it will expand.” Sounds good, but sometimes I’ll read something I quickly jotted down, and I’ll end up sitting there and asking myself what exactly it was that I was thinking about when I wrote it — sometimes the subtext gets lost when you’re writing in a fast and compressed style, especially when I’m coming back to it weeks later.

I must regretfully admit I notice this a lot with this blog. I don’t have a lot of time to blog, so my style here tends to be of that compressed first draft style, which can lead to comprehension issues in retrospect. I’ve had several incidents where I’ll go back the next day and read something I’ve posted and freak out, namely because what’s there isn’t really clear. Or worse, it’s open to misinterpretation (especially if I’m getting more explicitly political, where I need to add lots of context for rather forward opinions), which can be embarrassing. I once submitted a short story to a publisher, and when I went back and looked at it I went pale it was in sooo much need of revision. Lesson learned.

Writing is work, which is fine because I like writing. I’m good at it. But, creativity aside, it’s also a skill which requires a necessary amount of tradecraft in the process of making your workflow, well, work for you.


January 2024

I hope this finds you well, dear reader. I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately, not all of it (entirely) creative, but writing nonetheless.

I’ve been working on a short story that I put off developing last year in order to get through the last pass of Book Three. What I love about the story is that it takes a familiar conceit — a group of people planning on robbing a store — and becomes something almost meta with the addition of being told as a comedy. Since letting humour take centre stage in Book Three, I’ve been more confident (and inspired) to let loose with it for as long as it needs expression. But boy is humour hard. I mean, humour’s always been hard, but especially when avoiding what’s called “punching down” (ie making sure the laughs aren’t at the expense of a person/group for what are typically classist/ableist/racist reasons). But guess what: if you want to produce at a high level of quality it’s going to take time and effort.

Last post, I talked about pushing a grant application out. One of my other writing projects this month has been –wait for it — working on another grant. A larger, privately funded one that is open beyond North America. Why? Well, for one thing: why not? And yet, I’ll be the first to admit it’s more complicated than this. I hate working on grant applications, which explains why I don’t exactly have an extra-thick dossier of them from the past. But I’ve done it enough to know that it’s a chore, and, because grants such as this (or, to be fair, Toronto/Ontario/Canada Arts Council grants) are often extremely competitive, what with shrinking investment in the arts, it sometimes feels as if I might’ve just as well put the time toward working on a manuscript instead. This time, however, I found that there can be something practical (even therapeutic) about answering questions which prompt you to explain your book. I don’t think it should be required that authors have meditated on the why of our writing ethos/project, but when we do, especially as part of an assignment, I think it can help sharpen one’s idea of what it is that we’re setting out to do. A book/author doesn’t need to have a mission, but…if they did, what would it be? And it doesn’t need to be lofty.

As I’ve said elsewhere, applying for grants makes you better at applying for grants. I might just take some of the material I was able to put together for this one and see whether I can apply it to couple of others, so that it doesn’t feel as if I’m re-making the wheel each time. It is a little stressful, however, because as I touched on earlier, there’s only a finite amount of writing time I have per-week, and I can’t make that pie bigger, so it’s about balancing grant work with the sort of creative writing that got me this far.

Stay warm and dry,




It took someone on social media posting a reminder of an upcoming deadline for me to realize that I haven’t applied for a writer’s grant in the better part of three years. For anyone outside of publishing reading this, while there’s no obligation to do this (unless of course you’re depending upon writing for a living, in which case it pretty much would be an obligation), it can make life a lot less burdensome for those who want to be able to take time off work so that we might devote ourselves more thoroughly to our writing projects. Most of us secretly bend time and space to be able to spend a few hours here and there each week.

This strikes me whenever I’m researching residencies for writers. A lot of the ones I’ve been interested in have a time stipulation of something grand, like “at least three weeks”, and that’s a deal-breaker for me. I pay for residencies out of my own pocket, and typically 5-7 days is the max I can allot. This is where grants come in. The big ones, from the Ontario Arts Council and Canada Arts Council, have the capacity to provide wide financial support (in other words, scalable to the needs of the applicant, depending upon their professional and personal circumstances). The catch is that you have to go through the application process, which necessitates answering a lot of very detailed questions, not only about your project but about things like your budget (which in itself requires a breakdown of living expenses, etc). You have to essentially provide a compelling argument for the arts council awarding your project, as well as providing a reasonably accurate idea that you (the artist) understand what it is that you’re talking about from a financial perspective.

One of the reasons I’m writing this post is that I think it might be easy for outsiders to think that Arts Council grants are easily awarded, as if it were a question of simply hacking an algorithm. Let me assure you: they are not. If such were the case, there wouldn’t be professional grant writers marketing themselves (and paying their bills assumedly with something other than magic beans). Most artists might be able to summarize their projected finances, or describe their motivation for being an artist, or provide a captivating enticement for their current work-in-progress. Not many can do all three. And, just to add a dose of reality, even if you manage to ace all three, you’re still at the mercy of whomever is reading your application and whatever inevitable cognitive biases and preferences they have.

I’ve never received a big grant, though I’ve certainly applied. I supposed I stopped applying for the same reason I begin walking when I realize the streetcar isn’t coming any time soon; I’d rather try to achieve something on my own than be let down by something out of my control. That said, I run a small business. If I take time off, I don’t have any income. So yes, when I see a TWO MONTH MINIMUM on a writer’s retreat, I can get punchy. Truth is, there’s something strangely out-of-date about a framework whose parameters so clearly prohibit those who don’t have careers which allow such long absences.

The grant I mentioned at the beginning of this post is the Recommender Grants for Writers (via the Ontario Arts Council). It’s not nearly as big (or as arduous to complete) as others. I was lucky enough to have been awarded once before, which helped me book a flight out west to the Banff Centre for the Arts for a self-directed residency, so I pushed myself to submit a sample of Book Three to one of the indie publishers who are participating in the program this year, hopefully before their internal deadline (with this grant in particular, which runs from September to January, the deadline for submissions is set internally by the publishers).

One of the benefits of grant writing, and a reason for my writing this post, is that it can motivate (aka force) you to polish/revise/clarify your work for an actual (aka real) audience, even if you never see them or know exactly what they liked or didn’t. It can be a good prod to work on your bio (which a lot of writers freak out about), or the synopsis of your piece. I’d like to think there’s no downside, other than going through a bit of stress.


Writing Adv*ce: Constraints

Someone who is new-ish to writing is liable to want to have every option open to them when it comes to writing — this applies equally to fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry. Get out of my way, this writer says to themselves as they roll up their sleeves, and just let me get to it. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with this ethos (most writing advice tbh is Janus-faced, in that the opposite could equally be true depending upon the context of the individual in question); writing can be (and often is) liberating.

But here’s the thing (because why else would I be writing this in my spare time if there wasn’t a point): sometimes having all the options open to you will have the opposite effect of liberty — it can incongruously create its own roadblock by virtue of being, well, too open-ended. If there are no boundaries it can often feel as if we are tasked with filling an abyss which might lead to a sense of paralysis. Do I write about this? Wait…what about that? The question of what you write about (or the angle you choose to write about it from) can be intimidating if there are no rules, no guardrails, no ceiling and no floor.

When I took part in a week-long writing intensive many years ago, which incorporated fiction and poetry writing, the end goal was for each of us to write a sestina. What’s that? It’s a form of poetry that carries with it very specific rules for how it is to be constructed and it is a massive. pain. in the. ass. Without exception, every person in my group — poet, non-poet, or (like me) something in-between — saw each day that approached the assignment deadline with a sense of dread. The sentiment could be summed as: this is bullshit. As in, this is bullshit, I should be free to write whatever and however I want. What is more freeing than Art, after all!? And yet, when I sat my ass down and began to work out how I would construct my sestina, which I admit was painful, I was also struck by how the constraint of the sestina form forced me to be very specific and focused on what it was that I was doing. Lo and behold, I ended up writing something I never thought I would’ve pulled off — and managed to impress the instructor in the process. It was an inspirational step forward to me, not just as an artist but as someone who reflects on the hows and whys of human behaviour.

A few weeks ago, a documentary was released on the band The Velvet Underground. Its director, Todd Haynes, an artist in his own right, set his own constraints on the project. Rather than having a bunch of present-day intellectuals and music nobility reflecting on the influence of the Velvets (ie how many music documentaries are constructed) he insisted on maintaining temporal and situational context in his choice of subject by only presenting people who were there at the time and place that the events unfold. For example, when the Velvets set out on an ill-fated tour of California he doesn’t interview anyone who was not part of that tour. No Warhol. No Jonathan Richman. Just whatever archival footage was available and/or surviving members of the band and entourage to speak to their experience. It makes for a fascinating and immediate way of telling the story without it being a nostalgic love-in or overly biased hagiography. You should see it.

What are other ways in which we might use constraints to help us focus? How about a police procedural with no police? A mystery told from the sole vantage point of a security camera? A poem expressing your current feelings but using excerpts/fragments from your teenage journals?

Constraints can guide and inform an artist’s work. Note I say can. Sometimes it’s good to go-for-broke and blow the doors off whatever it is you want to get off your chest without care for form. But whatever you do don’t forget that form itself can allow you, if counter-intuitively, to transcend your inner biases and intellectual confines.


Writing Adv*ce: Changing Things Up

Well over two months without a writing project to put my mind to, and I’m still alive and functioning, if sometimes feeling purposeless. I find myself asking what “normal” is after all. Last year, with all my writing haunts closed because of lockdowns, I was stuck writing from home, a 750 square ft shared condo w/ a terrace. I slapped on a pair of over-the-ear headphones, put my head down and pushed myself to lay at least 1,000 words down per weekend, which, given I had nowhere to go, ended up being a successful, if arbitrarily chosen, formula (prior to this, my formula was a little more haphazard: go out, sit somewhere and fucking write for a least two hours — no emphasis on word count or quantitative stuff. I have thoughts on this I’ll share later). By November of 2020 I had the the first draft of Book Three. It felt like I’d gone to a Writer’s Gym, if such a thing existed, and getting so much done in such a comparatively short period of time had a lot of implications on how I saw and approached my craft. In short, it became less magical / alchemical and more about persistence / stamina. I should qualify “magic / alchemical” as to be a figurative way of saying “having the elements and inspiration of your project more or less come to you through a more slacker-friendly means; organic but not undisciplined.”

In 2020 I found that less (choice in where I wrote) begat more (output, inspiration-by-diktat), and I’m happy to have some time to reflect on this now. When I’m lucky enough to be able to afford a week at a writing retreat it’s different — those times are purpose-built, so of course I’m going to be productive (and also I tend to use retreats for revising rather than creating raw material, though that inevitably happens in the process). The question is going to be how I approach writing now that my old haunts are opening up again, or at least the ones that haven’t shut down.

I’m careful to note that epiphanies generated under extraordinary circumstances sometimes only make sense under extraordinary circumstances. I know I can deliver the goods — quantitatively and qualitatively — in a single sitting whereas before I would’ve felt chuffed if I’d been able to do both. Speaking of being careful, I also want to remind myself that I didn’t have a life for over a year, on top of a full-time day job that became exacerbated by my own anxiety and the collective anxiety of clients and everyone around me. I’m not, in other words, championing or abandoning any particular approach, only noting what is possible under certain circumstances, some of which may be more doable and/or replicable than others. Let’s not forget there are also half-ways and acceptable compromises in any art form. I’m happy with what I was able to accomplish with Book Three, but I fear a top-down, capitalist you-should-obviously-write-a-book-a-year bullshit coming into my life. I’m not privately wealthy. I’m not a trust fund kid. I got bills. I need to think about what my life is going to look like in a decade, given that I have no pension, that I’m self-employed, and that any notion of being a Full-Time Author is more than a little naive.

I’m lucky and grateful for the opportunities I’ve been able to take advantage of, but making writing its own career is a bit of a pipe dream when you’re 50. That’s reality.


Wr*ting Advice: A Slight Return

I’ve written before about writing advice. I’ve even created a somewhat cheeky sub-title for certain articles (Wr*ting Advice) about writing advice.

Let’s review the stuff I hate:

    • writing advice ends up being vague because when you write writing advice for a general audience you’re either speaking to someone more advanced (and leaving beginners out) or speaking to someone about basics (and leaving the more advanced out).
    • same as above, but with respect to what type of writing we are talking about; in general, when I’m writing about writing advice I’m writing about writing fiction (though I’m sure there are applications well beyond), but even then, what kind of fiction? Highbrow literary fiction? Genre (romance/horror/SFF)? Something in-between?
    • perhaps most hated of all is the pervasiveness of writing advice, which seems to have become its own cottage industry (not, I wish to clarify, writing workshops, which can be worth their weight in gold). When I see interviews with animators are they asked what advice they have for other animators? No. When I see interviews with performing artists (dancers, singers) are they asked what advice they have for other performing artists? No. Now, I’m not thick, I get it: writing is easier to access (all you need at bare minimum of cost is a pencil and a piece of paper) and so there are always going to be people trying it out, which is cool. It’s the disparate mess those seeking direction have to wade through that I feel bad about.

This all said, I’d like to mention a book that I found very helpful at a time when I decided to begin taking writing — the labour of, as well as the business of — seriously. I’m not sure whether I would qualify it as a “self-help” book, however it’s likely to be categorized as such. It’s called Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, written by David Bayles and Ted Orland. The book was inspired by what its authors saw around them as they entered their 30s, namely that their artist peers were dropping out. The book is, in a sense, an examination of why that was, and delves into matters both practical and psychological without being overly technical in either area.

To this day, I use some of the book’s observations about perfectionism and artistic process in my work with clients (artmakers or not). If there’s one thing I walked away with personally (and I’m happy to say I walked away with several observations), it’s the importance of not getting hung up on any one project to the detriment of others (present or future). When you’re a beginner it’s easy to want cling to any proof that you’re good; this especially holds true for those without the means/opportunities to attend a writing workshop or join a writer’s group. The problem with this — especially with more ambitious (in scope and/or length) projects — is that one might be tempted to continue working on a particular project for a very, very long time (or submitting it in vain to every. single. publisher) and leaving other ideas by the wayside in the process. It’s not about whether that original idea is good/not-good, it’s about how much of your creative life (which, for those of us who need to pay rent for a living doing other things, is finite) you’re expending on one single thing as opposed to moving on to the next idea and, along the way, seeing progress of a different kind; going from “this is good” to “this is different/more advanced.”

It was first published in 1985. I read it in 2005, and I’m sure it’s just as useful for someone in 2021. If you decide to buy this book (or any), please consider purchasing from a retailer who isn’t Amazon, thank you.

One thing I will also say, specifically about any sort of guide or self-help book, is that its inspirational value is typically a combination of its contents and where you are. It can be a bit like match-making: someone you meet when you’re 23 might not be a good fit, however they might be a perfect fit when you’re 31. This brings me back to what I was saying in the beginning: when seeking writing advice, having an understanding of where you are is just as important as whatever ballyhoo’d resource people are recommending.


Writing Adv*ce: Revising

Revising is one of the most important aspects of writing. It’s also the most unsexy, and the hardest to explain (and by explain I mean “gain sympathy”).

You have your first draft done. Could be your second. Could be your fifth. Every project is different, every format is different, every writer is different. No one’s judging here. The thing is, you know it’s missing stuff, or, the stuff that’s there that isn’t missing is maybe not as well communicated as could be. Or it’s out of order. Or confusing.

So, you hit ⌘-P and print that bastard out (preferably on recycled paper, if possible). You grab a pen and go through line by line and find all the guilty suspects — the lazy punctuation, the nebulous internalized dialogue, the parts that should sing but don’t — and you mark it up, complete with thoughts/notes/feelings for future reference.A stylistic photograph of a writing desk, with laptop, notebook, and print outs

The next step is sitting down and implementing those revision notes into the current draft on your computer. Some people might just use the marked up print out as their Bible. I go one step further and re-read from scratch, making changes on my laptop as I go *and then* check the printed copy to see if I’ve missed anything. It’s tedious as fuck (especially on on a novel FML) but it tends to balance, for lack of a better way of putting it, the zealotry that can come with revising on paper. It’s easy to sit with a print out and a pen and go revisit this and skip that. The truth is that sometimes our sentiment during that process can be impatient and ill-judged, which is why I like to re-read and see whether I decide to leave things in that have a way of justifying their existence on second glance.

When you’re revising you’re having a dialogue with yourself. It’s a little different than the dialogue you have when writing new stuff. New stuff is new. It’s sexy and glows and makes us feel good, and we’re happy when we’re able to empty it onto the page, so volume — even if it’s garbled — always feels like striking a gold mine. When we’re revising we step back and attempt to look at what we’ve written within the context of the whole project. The hardest part of revising, for me, is the trifocal quality of how we are reading the text — approaching it as the ideal reader, approaching it as the editor, approaching it as a total stranger. Does it hold our attention? Does the paragraph work within the chapter or am I just trying to shoehorn a smart-sounding insight that simply isn’t meant for this particular project.

Sometimes we don’t know. Sometimes it’s something we’ve been working on for years and we feel like we’ve lost perspective. Does it rock? Does it suck? Does it read like I’ve shoved my head up my ass? It can be difficult to tell when we’re too close. Add some insecurity to that and revising can feel interminable. This is when you take a break (I’m talking days if not weeks).

But here’s the thing: revising is where your piece finds both its soul and its feet on the ground. Greatness is made in the revision process. First drafts are necessary evils. If you are starting out and feel that your first draft is perfect, you’re likely going to need to adjust your perspective. And it’s hard, right, because it’s so easy to construe the weaknesses that an editor or reader might find in our work with the insecurities we might have with ourselves.

If writing was just that — literally just writing new material — then things would be much different. They would be worse. We wouldn’t learn what our bad habits are, we wouldn’t have that opportunity, when we feel we’ve hit a wall during revisions on a particularly hard chapter, to realize how we might alter things so that it finally works the way we originally wanted it to.

Revising is learning. And again, it is a dialogue with yourself. Be supportive. Don’t forget to mark up the stuff you like! Don’t forget to tell yourself what’s funny, or what’s particularly poignant. In many ways, revising mirrors the relationship we have with ourselves, so watch the trash talk. Accept that you are fallible. Everyone’s first draft looks like dog food. Be patient.

Just some thoughts.

(And kindly note a couple of things: I’m speaking specifically about fiction and creative non-fiction; other formats might require other approaches or appreciate different philosophies. And a golden rule: what works best for you is what’s most important.)


Book #3 update

The pandemic has had a deleterious effect on many writers. Whereas it’s affected my ability to hold my concentration on reading (for pleasure), it has certainly proved to be an obstacle on the creative process of others. I’m grateful that I have, somewhat contrarily, thrived.

I committed to starting my third book in earnest, seeing as I had plenty of time on my hands — business was (and is) down, leaving me with large swaths of time during the week. Add to this the lockdown, which has affected my ability to plant myself in my familiar café/bar haunts, given that they have either been forced to close or restricted to only outdoor seating, I found myself working from home. And I’m not used to this, seeing as I share it with my partner. A good pair of headphones have helped.

My writing process is different this time. Typically, in the past, I’ve written most of my first drafts by hand in a notebook, then transposed to laptop. But that style was very much based on walking about town with my notebook and stopping off somewhere to jot down the skeleton of a chapter. This time, I’m staring at a blank screen on my laptop because somehow writing a rough draft in a notebook just doesn’t seem necessary (or, if I am honest with myself, perhaps less efficient). And, as it’s turned out, staring at a blank page on my laptop has become an invigorating challenge. I’ll know in my head the rough outline of what it is I’m supposed to write (i.e. This is the chapter were Marcus and Alex need to connect with one another), but aside from my marching orders I don’t really know what it’s supposed to look like. The advantage of handwriting is that there’s an implicit casualness — if I want to doodle in the margins then it takes the piss out of whatever I end up writing being somehow sacred, if that makes sense. And so I begin filling in the blank laptop page with tidy New Times Roman text and there’s a kind of rush, not unlike pushing off from the lip of a snowy hill, poles in hand, skis firmly strapped to my boots.

I wrote earlier about how I was considering Book #3* as a comedy. This has changed. There is plenty of comedic absurdity, don’t get me wrong, but I think The Point of the book has changed and developed, and clarified. This is the magic of writing: watching something that only exists in your technicolor imagination take shape imperfectly in the real world of the formerly blank page, and the more you write the closer it is you get — not to the technicolor thing you imagined necessarily, but what you learn it should be, if that makes sense. A novel is in some respects an argument for its own existence, and what exists only in your imagination is but an impetus. Once you begin to manifest it you discover that, like a legal argument, characters will demand that you justify what happens to them, what they say in the form of dialogue, so that you are ultimately being fair to the spirit of the material.

I suppose what I’m saying is that my relationship with writing has undergone a substantial shift between Radioland and now, and I think part of it is being more practical with my time/labour, and the other is finding a new way of focusing as I write, which I may write about in another post.

*technically this isn’t Book #3 per se. I wrote a novel prior to The Society of Experience, which I proceeded to put aside (if you read the acknowledgements in SoE you’ll get the story around this). Then, while waiting for SoE to work its way through to publication I began work on a spiritual sequel to SoE, which I also proceeded to put aside (short version: I had a better, more dynamic idea for a novel, and I didn’t want to feel trapped in the same narrative universe as SoE). Thus, my forthcoming “Book #2”, Radioland, came into being. So, Book #3 is really Book #5, which is some crazy backwards Star Wars shit, I know. It’s also, as some might realize, a lot of pages of writing that no one will probably ever see, and if any neophyte authors are reading this and wondering how I feel about that, my answer is that it’s part of the process. Just as musicians practice their brains out before going into studio to record, there’s going to be a lot of effort that your audience is never going to see that ultimately (and quietly) benefits the parts they do see.


Writing Adv*ce: Tools

Welcome to another piece of writing adv*ce (here are some earlier entries), which eschews advice itself and instead asks questions or demonstrates different (not necessarily better but hopefully not worse) approaches.

I want to say, off the top, that however you end up writing your story, poem, book, essay is good so long as you get the work done. I’m against being too precious about my tools, even though, as I show, it can happen easily. Like any art form, writing can be self-absorbing. The trick is to give ourselves enough time, space, care and attention so that we capture the best of it in our work, without losing touch with day-to-day realities (interpersonal interaction, paying bills). So, yes, sometimes we don’t want to write in just any ol’ journal, but something that’s well-made and maybe looks cool at the same time.

I love fountain pens. I love their aesthetic, love the different inks and nibs. And for a while it’s what I used to do my writing. Now, I should make it clear: with few exceptions I go everywhere with a notebook and a pen. It helps me capture things, purge ideas. The problem I eventually found with fountain pens was that, depending upon the paper, the ink might smudge (I’ll come back to this). Or, I ran out of ink in the middle of a writing session. Or, maybe the nib had an annoying scratchy part that dragged against the paper. Ultimately, I was far too distracted by what my fountain pen brought to the endeavour of writing, or, rather, what it interrupted: work. The work is everything, and, though this need not be an either/if, if need be it takes precedence over the more procedural aspects of writing. Performance artists notwithstanding.

My fountain pens sit dejectedly in a coffee cup on my office desk. They are rarely touched. Some day perhaps, but not now. I’ve been using the same brand of rollerball pen (uni-ball deluxe fine) ever since. It just works, and I don’t have to think about it. It serves my purposes as a tool of my trade. As well as the same pen, I use the same type of notebook. Finding a decent brand and staying with it is another way I try to stay focused on the work without being tempted to switch my tools. That said, someone might easily consider this precious (lest I be accused of modelling my habit after Einstein, who owned multiple copies of the same grey suit). Speaking of notebooks, an interesting thing: a couple of years ago I switched brands for the first time in…let’s say, well over 10 years. My former notebook of choice was Moleskine. They’re perfectly fine, except I hold them partially responsible for my falling out of love with fountain pens. You see, Moleskines, despite appearing in a classic style, are a modern product based on the design of a French notebook from the early 20th century; while you and I would think, because of its pedigree, the quality of the paper Moleskine used would be perfectly suitable to fountain pens, they are, as I ruefully learned a couple of years ago, not. I have since switched to Leuchtturm and have no regrets. (I have to admit, this feels like writing about an ex-girlfriend.)

Writer, if you want to use an old fashioned typewriter, go for it. If you want to write diagonally across the page of your journal, go for it. I might suggest along the way you keep an eye on how your tools serve your task, and be open to asking whether simplifying the way you write would allow you to better focus on the work. Try not to get hung up on your tools. I write less and less in my notebook these days, and more and more I send texts to myself w/ my smartphone. All my smartphone is doing, because it’s practically attached to my hip, is making it easier to do what I achieve with the notebook, albeit with less character. Maybe this is my own preciousness coming out, as I do prefer the act of handwriting. But sometimes it’s just not practical.


Writing Adv*ce: Character

I’ve been thinking lately about a couple of short stories I’ve been working on over the last few years that don’t seem able to find a home with a publication. Now, there are a thousand reasons for a story to get rejected, and some of these have little to do with whether or not a story has issues to be worked out: subject matter, “fit,” philosophical angle. The stories I’ve been thinking about felt fleshed out and yet I suspected — no matter how badly I wanted to believe they were “done” — they were missing something that kept them from being as good as they promised to be, and, if I were honest with myself, the sort of work I want to be known for: complex, nuanced, readable.

One clear-headed morning on my walk to work, I was feeling comfortable enough to get over my nearsighted, belligerent writerly arrogance and apply some frank analysis to these two works.

Rather than bang my head against the wall staring at the works themselves, which I’d done previously, I took a different tack and investigated what it was that made some of my previously published work resonate and these current works not. And I realized, thinking specifically about Snowshoe and There Is This Thing About You, that the characters in these works were relatable — you might even despise them, yet there was a rapport with the reader, an “in”. These are difficult characters, conflicted, and sometimes there will be the desire to sublimate these characters onto a two-dimensional plane that makes it easy to dislike them. Yet, though we might grow impatient with their lack of finesse, accomplishment, and patience, the reader can’t help but want to relate to them, to understand what makes them tick. And in the stories I’ve been troubleshooting I discovered this very thing — relatability, respect, empathy — to be at least part of the missing element.

I recognized that each of these problematic stories featured a supporting character who was, to some degree, the bane of the main character’s journey; in each story the protagonist couldn’t possibly move forward without the effort of this unwitting adversary for whom in each story the protagonist lacked respect on some basic level. And it occurred to me that if the protagonist so clearly lacked respect for them on the page then on some level maybe I did too.

Despite this revelation, the work ahead is not paint-by-numbers. If anything, I realize that there’s a deeper layer that’s missing and by nature deep layers don’t just get applied like false eyelashes. It’s going to take some more reflection before I understand the meaning of what needs to be done, otherwise whatever I do is going to have QUICK FIX written all over it and the wily reader will see it a mile away.

Oh, and for anyone reading this who is under the impression that once these changes are made getting these stories published is a slam dunk, think again. Unless your name is Alice Munro you’re always going to find yourself at the whims of an editor or editorial reader — that’s just the way it goes.

(* I hate advice-giving, so rather than doing that, I’m going to provide something more meditative and complex, and maybe useful to some)