I’m number two — or my beer mat story is


storm crow beer breakfast image 2015-10-15 at 7.32.46 PM

Vancouver’s first and most wonderful nerd bar, The Storm Crow, had a fiction-writing contest  last summer, and the twist was that the story had to fit on a beer mat (that means less than 200 words).

Pretty appealing idea, right? And an excellent challenge, too.

The contest happened during a drought, when things were feeling a little apocalyptic around here with all that wildfire smoke drifting into town, so the little story I wrote and submitted reflects that. It’s called The Serpent, and it won second place!

Thank you, Storm Crow, for putting on such a cool contest, and for awarding my story such a great prize.

I’m not sure I’m allowed to post the story, but I am sure about one thing: you should go by the Storm Crow and order a drink. There’s always a chance you’ll get to read The Serpent on an actual beer mat.

storm crow coaster photo by MA Kempthorne

Novembers are difficult, but NaNoWriMo helps.

November is always a tough month for me. The days get dramatically shorter. My weird leaf-mould allergies come out just as the most beautiful orange and red leaves are all over the ground in this city, just when I most want to kick through their crunchiness and inhale that scent — that scent that is probably the mould that makes me sick. There’s Remembrance Day, which is serious business and gets me thinking big serious thoughts about the costs of the wars we just keep on fighting, no matter how often we say we know better. There are also some important birthdays of people I care about. (Five of my social media friends have birthdays today alone. What is it about November? Or more accurately, what was it about February for their parents?)



In 2011 and 2012 I did NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing month, which means trying to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. The first time I did it because I was starting a new life in a lot of ways and wanted to remind myself I could write, and it looked like a really tough challenge. I remember how hard I had to work to get to the 50,000 word mark, and that my apartment got messier and messier as the month went on, and I got stiff and pudgier, from hunching over the keyboard all the time and living on a diet that was mostly Hawkins Cheezies.

I opened a bottle of Champagne when I hit 50,000 words and came to the ending of my book, late one night. I might even have cried a little into my keyboard with relief and pride at finishing.

In 2011 I was a “pantser” — that is, I wrote by the seat of my pants, with no plan or outline. I just had one initial scene, and went from there. It was intense and scary and satisfying to try to write a whole book that way, and to my surprise, it didn’t come out all that badly.

In 2012 I decided to try something different. About four days into the process I started to outline some scenes I would need to get me through to some kind of ending. I made decisions about alternating characters’ points of view. And I managed to get to the end again, and once more opened Champagne and shed a few tears over the keyboard.

In 2013 I took a break. I was just tired that fall, and I didn’t have ideas. I decided I didn’t want to start something if I didn’t feel like I could finish it. I just didn’t feel like it. Okay.

This year I decided to do it again. I warned people in my life, I knew my place would get really messy. I stocked up on Cheezies. I spent most weekend days in my pyjamas hunched over my laptop.

And I didn’t outline, and I didn’t have a first scene either, when I started. This time I only had the end I wanted to get to. It was going to be a lot like the ending of NaNo 2012, but this time with some different characters and in an alternate reality, a modern-day Canada with a better political and social makeup than what we have in real life. This was my big idea after a year of worrying and feeling very discouraged about poverty and injustice, about climate change, about pipelines coming through my neighbourhood, my own deep unhappiness with different levels of government in my country, and then — light bulb! — reading  the latest Lev Grossman Magicians novel, followed by Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.

So here’s what I asked myself: What if the world was pretty much as it is right now but Reaganist and Thatcherist type economics had never caught on in Canada? What if the west coast First Nations people had real ownership of Vancouver Island? What if we had a few different technologies, like driverless cars? What if Wicca was just as accepted a religion as Christianity in our country? What if sea monsters really had been seen, but not lately? What would that look like?




Today is November 29th, and as I write this at 2:00 pm I have hit my 50,000 words with this new story about an area on Vancouver Island I’m calling Seadragon. The premise is that a family and some old friends are going there for a holiday, and like everyone else who visits, they hope to see the sea monster that gave the place its name. The difference is that this group: three kids, some parents and a couple of other adults, might be the ones who bring back the Seadragon that hasn’t been seen for more than fifty years.

The first draft is done, and I’ll come back and read it again in about a month and see what if anything is worthy of revising and saving.

You never know. It just might be possible to build a better world.

Screen Shot 2014-11-29 at 1.00.04 PM

Writing or music, but apparently not both at once

I think rule number one of blogging is supposed to be that you don’t make excuses for not blogging, so I’m not supposed to try to explain about work, life, playing music, and all the other things that have been happening lately in the little bits of time that could possibly be going to writing this thing.

But not having time to blog isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it means something good is happening, and being busy with music is definitely something good. The band I sing and play guitar in, The Diviners, is playing on May 2nd at a place called LanaLou’s. We’re opening for the Wonderful Diving Horses, and I’m pretty excited about that.

wonderful diving horses and diviners


And a few days ago Rod Matheson posted a video of my songwriting partner Don Delano and me (the “small version” of the Diviners) doing an REM cover on Valentine’s Day at Chapel Arts — part of his very cool and impressive Every Day Music project (http://www.everydaymusic.ca/). Ours is the 734th video in his series of 1000. Wow. You can see it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AVKP2XZN-Hs


everydaymusic diviners screenshot


Music and writing have always had a way of balancing each other out for me. When I’m writing I usually don’t have time for music, and when I’m playing music I don’t get much writing done (except for songwriting — but I put that in the music category). More than that, I find I experience writing and music in nearly opposite ways, and bring nearly opposite sides of my personality to doing the work. With my fiction writing, it’s all about solitude, long hours, obsession, struggling for perfection, endless revising and discarding drafts, never being satisfied — which no doubt explains why I hardly ever publish anything. With music it’s about experiencing the moment, collaboration, friendship, the fleeting joyful or awful or joyful/awful forty minutes of the live show, playing that’s good-enough, singing that’s expressive but flawed, immediacy and imperfection, the risk of public failure and the rush of cheers and applause, and not trying too hard — which is why I’ve never been particularly good.

I guess this all makes sense in a way, because I studied writing formally, and I learned to play music in front of people in a post-punk anti-formal-training kind of setting, where courage and camaraderie counted more than technical skills. So I’m not happy in the recording studio, because that requires accuracy and care, something that goes against my learning. And I’m not good at doing readings, maybe because my writer self just doesn’t know how let go of control and just put on a show.

But I’m not going to philosophize about all this any further right now. There’s a show coming up. Hope to see you there.



Finding old junk — dead projects from long ago

I just happened to rooting around on my computer looking for something else when I came across the files I kept from an old online zine a few of us published way back in the early 2000s, called Uh Oh Canada. I remember us being pretty clever and amusing (and the visuals were great), and indeed, rereading the stuff now, some of it’s still pretty good. (Not my contributions, but some of the other pieces.)

It is funny to think now that we founding Uh Oh Canada members held a very serious meeting in the Railway Club before our first issue came out, and talked about what we would do if this thing really took off. We didn’t want to be surprised by overwhelming success, to have some kind of bad scene over all the money that might come our way. It is also funny to think how much work we put into this project. In the end — of course! — we put out a few issues which probably no one read, and then the whole thing fizzled out. But in the short time that Uh Oh Canada existed, I learned a lot, and developed huge admiration for the other contributors.

I’ll check with the old gang to see if they’re okay with me reposting their work here too, and meanwhile here are a couple of my own pieces. Both of these come from Vol 1 No 3, The Great Outdoors Release.

The first, under a pseudonym, is a review of the video release of the classic Canadian film, Goin’ Down the Road:

Like a lot of other Canadians, I’ve been waiting for years for this film to come out on video. After all, it’s a classic, even immortalized by an SCTV parody. But now that I have, at long last, got my own copy, I’m kind of sorry. I mean that in the best possible way. I really think is a compliment to say that it hurts me almost too much to see this brilliant, horrible movie. Apparently even director Don Sehib couldn’t understand why anyone would want to watch Goin’ Down the Road again, since it is about such a couple of “losers.” But what an examination of losers! These aren’t over-the-top characters like those in Midnight Cowboy. Pete and Joey, the two pathetic Maritimers who move to Toronto in search of a better life, are all too real. It’s 1970 and they have 1960 hairdos. (Like the hair, their car is similarly out of date, and represents the men’s belonging to a past era more than just being unfashionable.) They’re not good-looking. They’re attracted to women with mile-high ratted hair and white lipstick. They have no money, no education and no skills, but somehow believe they’ve get great jobs, apartments, and girlfriends. Put simply, they’re clueless. I don’t know about you, but move things forward a few years, say Pete and Joey are from Oshawa or Red Deer, and I could swear I know these guys. Or at least I used to. It’s been quite a while since I’ve spent as much as 90 minutes with anyone like them, and this film reminds me why. Too many moments in this film take me back to my own painful down-and-out youth a dozen or so years later. There’s the sad, drunken wedding, and the subsequent tiny run-down apartment that the newly married Joey and Bets have to share with Pete. There are the desperate attempts to have fun even while the furniture’s being put out on the sidewalk. There’s the constant smoking and bitching. And then there’s the constant feeling that the rest of the world is having an easy and wonderful time of it, and doesn’t care in the slightest that you don’t have food to eat or a place to stay. Yes, I winced almost all the way through Goin’ Down the Road, but only because it’s so true. I believe that this really was Toronto for one brief moment. There really were whole generations of unskilled, uneducated men who replaced pins at the bowling alley for a shitty wage. (No doubt these are the old guys you see at the Legion nowadays, resting their heads on the terry-clothed table tops as last call approaches.) Want ads specified whether men or women could apply, and how old the applicants could be. The world truly was clearly divided between the hipsters and the folks who had completely missed the cultural boat, even more than now. The next time some old fart starts telling you how society has changed for the worse, how the availability of contraception, federally-funded job programs, sexual harrassment laws, and the pogy have turned our country into a mess, you might want to sit them down with this movie. If these were the good old days the old-timers like to talk about, you might want to reconsider believing anything else they have to say. –Tracy Black

goin down the road

From http://www.canuxploitation.com/review/downroad.html


The second is a bit of an opinionated rant about music (and I guess was intended to be the first installment of a regular column?). It brings tears to my eyes not only because of the annoying tone, but more than that, because it is a reminder that David Wisdom used to be on the CBC, and he isn’t any more.


Get an Earful: 

Music Reviews, Opinion, and Unvarnished Truth

This Month: Stop Complaining and Learn to Love New Music. Here’s How.

Kenny G, muzak, Celine Dion, the wimpy MOR crap so often heard in cheap sushi restaurants, Bob Seger being played at weddings (apparently as unavoidable as death and taxes). These things seem sent to torment me. But what I hate most of all is hearing otherwise sensible folks proclaiming that there isn’t any good music anymore.

Usually, of course, this comes from some jolly person I’ve only just met, on discovering I write a music column and host a campus radio show. Since I’ve promised in recent years to be on good behaviour in social situations, I refrain from slapping these ignorant souls, however possible that it might knock some sense into them. Instead, I smile stiffly and move away in a hurry.

Well, this column isn’t about avoiding confrontation, so here goes, you naysayers. I’m about to set you straight.

 First of all, the obvious. Think back to your beloved, generation-defining music. Remember what the parents, teachers, and other old farts in your life used to call it? Is it possible that you’re saying the same things now? Notice a pattern?

Another question: when do you ever actually hear music that’s been produced in the past year or two? It ought to go without saying that if you haven’t heard it, you should keep your mouth shut about whether it’s good or bad. On the other hand, if all you’ve heard is what generally passes for new music on commercial radio and MuchMusic, I’ll cut you some slack, because most of it is indeed crap. (There are some exceptions. More about this later.)

Amazingly, a lot of people believe that music was shit before they were around twenty years old, at which point a glorious renaissance of sound took place, only to burn out forever when they turned twenty-five. (The ages may vary, but you get the picture.) We’re all guilty of some level of sentimentality toward the music of our youth. It was the soundtrack to our adventures of self-discovery, after all. We made both friends and love with this stuff playing in the background. For me it was the first two REM albums, the Hoodoo Gurus, Young Fresh Fellows, and the obscure sixties garage/psychedelic bands revived by the Nuggets and Pebbles compilations that came out around the same time. All of these still give me a pleasant case of the shivers when I hear them. I’m still convinced that this was and is good music, but what makes it magical to me is that I discovered it when I started university, met new, intelligent, and exciting friends, and left my nasty, miserable teenaged years behind me.

What most people don’t realise is that this can happen to a person more than once. When I started seeing the man I eventually married, he introduced me to the Buzzcocks, who now qualify for magical status on my personal soundtrack. Similarly, when I went back to campus radio (and graduate school) after a few years away, I discovered some of the exhilarating new music that had come along in my absence, and was especially moved by indiepop, the likes of Stereolab, and naughty girl garage bands with names like Kittywinder, Sit ‘n Spin, and The Rondelles.

This can happen to you too. If you join a conversational French class and meeting that special charming someone while Piaf is warbling in the background, you know perfectly well that Piaf will become a favourite of yours (at least until you break up!). 

But you don’t need to leave your house to discover new music that you will actually enjoy. Watch The Wedge on MuchMusic a few times and see if every tenth or twentieth band doesn’t give you hope for the future. (If this is too difficult, turn it on while you’re doing the dishes. It won’t kill you.) It’s also possible that your local commercial FM rock station runs one lonely program, probably at an inconvenient time, that plays independent artists that will never make it into regular rotation. Again, don’t expect to be thrilled by more than a small fraction of what you hear.

But for sheer musical variety, nothing can beat campus or community radio. These low-wattage stations, found in almost any reasonably-sized city, aren’t masterminded by professional (read commercially-minded) programmers and music directors, which is, depending on your point of view, either the best or worst thing about them. Instead, legions of music-crazy volunteers haunt CD stores, thrift shops, and their stations’ eclectic record libraries to produce reggae, raga, worldbeat, jazz, new classical, electro-acoustic, hip-hop, folk, roots, hardcore, klezmer, and gay-themed shows, among others. If you can find these stations on the dial (and it isn’t always easy), you’ll also hear country, metal, and pop music that is a very far cry from Garth Brooks, Led Zeppelin, or Britney Spears. (And thank the gods for that!)

Not quite as varied, but available from sea to sea to shining sea, is our national broadcaster, the CBC. You may be surprised to hear that Radio Two doesn’t just play classical music, but (especially late at night) offers up loads of the new stuff. If the amateurishness of campus radio makes you squirm, you’ll be pleased to hear that the programs are hosted (with a few exceptions) by announcers with great voices and a professional style that is much nicer to listen to than anything on commercial radio. (The exceptions? Well, let’s just say that your humble writer had the honour of hosting a late night show for six weeks a couple of years ago.) No matter what else you do, make a point of listening to one of David Wisdom’s programs. He hosts both the new music RadioSonic and the disarmingly eclectic Pearls of Wisdom, and he’s a genius.

I’ve offered you plenty of options, so get out there and get informed. You’re guaranteed to dislike a lot of what you hear. You’re likely to hate some of it with a passion. (You hated some of it when you were twenty, too. Remember?) But leave your radio on a campus or co-op station for a good two weeks, and I promise you will hear something that can change your life.





The brilliant and wonderful David Wisdom, from http://jinglebellrocks.com/character/wisdom/ 


On frustration and giving up (or not) — the writing edition

If the definition of finishing a novel is that you’ve written a work of fiction of a certain length, and for even one moment you have decided it was done, I have written at least six. (Probably more that I have mercifully forgotten about. For that matter, sometimes I wish I had forgotten about some of these six too.) One was my master’s thesis, two were written for the 3-Day Novel contest (and later revised), two were written for NaNoWriMo (and I’m revising one of them now), and one of them was workshopped with brilliant and endlessly patient writing group colleagues* over many many hours and glasses of wine.

None of them have been published. But I haven’t really tried, either.

That’s because unfortunately so far every single one has met the same fate. At some point — usually while I’m revising — I’ve fallen out of love with them. I’ve become worn out, disenchanted with the characters, the plot, the setting, the tone, the whole shebang. Like any other failed relationship, the very things that I once thought were wonderful become the very things I can’t bear. And once that happens, I can’t find much that’s worth saving, and then, well, it’s just a matter of time before it’s all over.

Usually by then I’m really excited about starting a new book anyhow.

I know, I know. This is normal. It’s just part of the process. Everyone has doubts. The only difference between finishing and not finishing is pushing through. Bum in chair. Perseverance. Never give up. There are loads of inspirational quotes about this stuff; you can see a few here.

But here’s the question that’s hard to shake: What if it really isn’t any good? One of the (many) dangers of reading about writing is the chance of coming across smart, helpful advice about how to know if your idea just isn’t worth the effort (books like this one, and articles like this one), at just the moment you feel most like giving up. Then there’s the Total Perspective Vortex kind of despair that can come over librarian-writers when they glance around the book stacks (or the tottering piles of publishing catalogues) where they work and start to think about just how many books are published every year. 

There are so many reasons to give up, and they are so rational.

A couple of weeks ago I decided I needed help to keep going with my current project. I asked a writer I know** if he could give me a deadline for overhauling my outline. He agreed, and we set a date. Then we shook hands on it. So now I have to keep going, right?


Fortunately there are always small things that can console us at times like this.  (Check out this CBC Radio documentary on Cheezies, another thing to love about Canada.)



*Including Christy Goerzen, one of my favourite people and also a brilliant writer. (Two of her books have been published by the fine folks at Orca.)

**My generous writer friend is the talented David Jones, author of several books including the YA novels Baboon and Meltdown, and North American Wildlife. (At least two of them are available in Canada, too.)


Circle of procrastination

One of the things about having a lot of interests (or hobbies, or whatever), is that whenever I’m doing one thing, it means there are other things I’m not doing. So working on my novel means I’m not practicing the guitar or piano. And practicing guitar or piano means I’m not doing anything about the clutter that’s piling up all around the place. And picking up the clutter means I’m not answering email. (Or it would, if I were someone who actually got around to picking up that clutter.) And if I just meet up with some friends for dinner or a drink, then I’m not accomplishing anything at all that I feel like I’m supposed to be doing.

All this means no matter what I’m actually getting done, there’s always something to feel guilty about at the same time.

That’s one way of looking at it.

But this circle of procrastination is also a powerful engine for accomplishing things. Because when I just don’t feel like playing the guitar, I can be a complete bad-ass and put it on its stand and then move on to something that I was procrastinating about before. So not only do I get the naughty pleasure of slacking off, I’m actually accomplishing something.

Ha! Take that, universe.

Note: Apparently I didn’t invent this system. (What?!) For further reading, see for instance this New York Times article, which refers to the Stanford philosopher who wrote this Structured Procrastination post (and a book about it, too). And of course The New Yorker has published a piece on what it all really means. Or, you know, you can google “positive (or productive) procrastination” and see what you find. When you’re supposed to be doing the dishes.


On not knowing how to outline — and the universe

I have never learned how to outline. My favourite part of writing has always been when my characters run away with a story, and besides, Stephen King says he doesn’t believe in outlines, but more to the point, I just never wanted to.  Somehow it just seemed hard, or not fun.

But if the universe does indeed try to tell people things, I’m pretty sure it spent a few days in the middle of May sending me messages that it’s time I finally got around to writing an outline for my work-in-progress.

First, I spent a Wednesday evening in a local pub with a few writing friends, including Lynda Williams (who has created a whole science fiction universe), and she gave me a rousing pep talk on plotting. The very next night I happened to meet a famous author whose works I am crazy about, and I got the chance to ask him some questions. Could he tell me a little about his process? Being a kind and tolerant person, he actually answered me — and outlines were in there, of course. A few days later, there was this Flavorwire post with pictures of famous writers’ handwritten outlines. (The Order of the Phoenix outline was originally posted back in 2010, but the universe was saving it to show it to me now — just waiting for a time when I was willing to listen, I suppose.)

The weird thing is, now that I’ve surrendered to the idea, I’m kind of liking it.

Yesterday I went for a long walk, just thinking about different plot points. What would happen if Person X did Thing Y? Hmm. Would it make sense if Kim did Thing Z? Hmm. Hmm. It was like a jigsaw puzzle — although that is a cliché and I don’t really like jigsaw puzzles — but it was like the part of a puzzle I actually enjoy, where the end is almost in sight, and more and more pieces are fitting into place.

My walk took me to a pub I almost never get to, and I sat down and had a fine locally-crafted beer and kept thinking.

Not a bad day of writing.


This illustration is taken from Wikipedia’s entry on Conflict (narrative)Conflict in narrative comes in many forms. “Man versus man”, such as is depicted here in the battle between King Arthur and Mordred, is particularly common in traditional literature, fairy tales and myths.[1]


P.S.: If you haven’t already seen it, you might enjoy this short video of Kurt Vonnegut talking (and doodling) about storylines. I wish I could have met this man.


On monkeys and typewriters and Lynda Barry


Lynda Barry, the brilliant writer and artist and cartoonist (her books are now available through Drawn and Quarterly), has also been teaching writing workshops for the past few years. (You can get a little feel for the the workshops through her YouTube videos; see also her “Six Minute Diary” video, and what she has to say about kids and play.*)

One of the things Lynda Barry tells us is that we can all write (and draw). And I know some people will say, “Sure I can, but what I write is total crap.” Or, “I have no ideas.” Or, “Yeah, whatever you say. I’m going to be the writing equivalent of that kid at the back of the choir who opens her mouth without making a sound so she doesn’t wreck it for everyone else.” And Barry knows all about this internal editor, this nasty little voice we carry around that tells us we can’t do whatever it is we want to do. She describes it better than anyone else I’ve ever heard, and workshops like hers are designed to crush that voice. They work, too.

National Novel Writing Month is another way to get past that internal editor — a marathon-length approach. The idea is that if you have to hit a near-impossible word-count every day for 30 straight days, you simply don’t have time to worry about details or perfection. Forget about adverbs and passive voice and the fact that your main character just changed gender or country of origin or whatever. Like the infinite number of monkeys with the infinite number of typewriters, you will get something out of it, somewhere, and your job during NaNo is just to keep typing and let those monkeys do their work.

What surprised me is how much I liked that feeling. There were times when it really pained me to leave cliches on the screen and just keep going, but it was a delicious kind of pain, like tearing your jeans and scraping your leg on a nail as you jump over a fence running away from the authorities when you’re a kid. Or so I hear.

And once things were really moving along, it was easier to leave the garbage where it was in the manuscript and just let the new unspooling words come by themselves. Weird things started to happen in my story, and some of them went nowhere. But some of them got me thinking.

I don’t know why Kim headed down the stairs to the school’s basement, where there was nothing but the boiler room and the janitor’s closet. But once she did, I started to wonder if she might be a ghost. And so did my main character, Joni.

nearsighted monkey

*You also need to read her Tumblr. Here’s a good place to start: http://thenearsightedmonkey.tumblr.com/post/48753650294/keys-to-creativity-cartoonist-lynda-barry-talks. I could go on. She’s my hero.


My “What Happened to Kim” novel — how it started.

I’ve been working on this novel since November 2011, when I tried National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for the first time. On October 31st 2011 I was just doing Halloween things and wasn’t even thinking very seriously about trying NaNoWriMo. Trying to write 50,000 words in a month, and a 30-day month too — it felt like such a crazy idea. After all, I have a job that I love, that is very full-time. On top of everything else that needs to happen in any given month, like family, picking up groceries, going out to see the occasional band, basic hygiene, everything.

But on November 1st I started anyhow. I had no plot in mind and no plan at all, just one scene with two girls who are standing in their high school smoke pit on the first day of Grade 10, talking about how they spent their summer holidays. One of them, the school bully, is bragging about working as a prostitute over the summer, and all the money she’s made. The other is shocked and a little scared.

That’s all I had. But somehow I managed to write almost every day, did a few crazy catch-up days here and there when I fell behind, and more characters showed up and did things, and this turned into a whole book.

To my great surprise, I hit the 50,000 word target on the evening of November 28th.

I felt pretty great.

IMG_2447.JPG - Version 2

The photo doesn’t show it, but at the end of the NaNoWriMo process, when they confirm that you are a “winner” (have achieved the 50,000 words), a video comes up that shows a lot of people cheering for you. I admit, it made me cry a little.

At that point I didn’t want to think about what would come next.