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.