Michelle Barker's books on Goodreads
Old Growth, Clear-Cut: Poems of Haida Gwaii Old Growth, Clear-Cut: Poems of Haida Gwaii
ratings: 1 (avg rating 5.00)

The Beggar King The Beggar King
reviews: 8
ratings: 21 (avg rating 4.00)

Tesseracts 14: Strange Canadian Stories Tesseracts 14: Strange Canadian Stories
reviews: 4
ratings: 15 (avg rating 4.07)

Tesseracts Fifteen: A Case of Quite Curious Tales Tesseracts Fifteen: A Case of Quite Curious Tales
reviews: 4
ratings: 14 (avg rating 3.79)

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Writer in Training: Find Your Tribe

            Okay, this is going to be hard for some of you to hear, but I’m afraid it’s the truth:

            If you don’t believe me, try it out. Start talking about your run pace, the intervals you did at the track, how tough the 100s were in the pool because you only got a 5-second break in between. Talk about your aerobars. Whoever it is you’re inflicting this on—husband, girlfriend, best friend—if they’re not a member of the tribe, their eyes will glaze over and they will make polite noises and find a reason to leave the room.

            They won’t care about your latest post on Strava, or any of your PBs.

            They won’t care how many cool things your Garmin can do.

            They won’t care that it’s London day on Zwift.

            Which is why it’s so important to find people who do.

            Find your tribe.

            I couldn’t talk triathlon all day long, but it sure is nice to sit down with a tri friend for coffee and discuss running techniques or exchange advice on how to deal with an injury. Not just nice—essential.

            Triathlon may be an individual sport, but having training partners makes it so much more fun. And I believe we train better in a group (at least, I do). The competition makes me work harder. The camaraderie makes it fun.

            I’m lucky to be part of a group of women friends who are committed to triathlon. I  live with one of my sons who is also training for the Ironman—plus my daughter is doing the race. If I get the itch to talk about my latest trainer ride, I can talk to them. It keeps me from driving away the friends and acquaintances who literally couldn’t care less about how many workouts I do in a week. And why should they? For anyone who doesn’t do it, it’s boring as hell to listen to.

            So, how do you find your tribe? Join a Master’s swim group, or a running or cycling group. There are also, of course, many triathlon clubs. The sport has become so popular there’s really no reason to train alone if you don’t want to.

            Spare your friends and family. Find your tribe. Everyone will thank you.

            And if you still don’t believe triathletes are annoying, have a look at this comedian ripping into us poor folk.

            As for my workouts (because I’m allowed to talk about them here), I’ve had an unexplained Achilles injury for the past few weeks that has kept me off the roads. But it was Watopia day on Zwift and I was up for the Three Sisters, so this was my Saturday morning:

Happy training!

Writer in Training: Water, Water, Everywhere

Last week I was away with family in Mexico and got to do some open water swimming (SO much nicer than laps in the pool) and running. As per usual, I have returned with a cautionary tale. This one is about hydration.

            Of course we hear it everywhere, how important it is to hydrate when you’re working out—especially if you’re exercising in the heat. What I didn’t realize was that not hydrating enough can have a cumulative effect. It can catch up to you without you having any idea that your body is suffering—and when it hits at full force, you’d better watch out.

            I had done some speed work on the roads one morning. I’d left a little later than I should have—meaning it was about 30 degrees out, plus humidity—and I’d probably worked harder than I should have. I was hot by the time I got home, but I drank some water and thought nothing of it.

            What I needed to do was drink about ten times the amount that I did, and to keep drinking throughout the day—but I didn’t. It never even occurred to me. I felt fine.

            The next day was Friday, my day off. Still felt fine. I went walking in the heat and still didn’t drink enough water. And then, out of the blue, I started to feel strange—like ‘I’m going to collapse, there’s something REALLY wrong with me’ strange. Turns out I had heat stroke.

            If this had happened in the middle of a race, I would have been done.

            Luckily I’d just picked up my daughter and two of her friends at the ferry terminal. All three of them are doctors. At first they thought I was joking around. When they understood I was serious, they made me sit down somewhere cool, and drink and drink and drink. It all ended well. But it shook me up and made me realize I am far too nonchalant about the amount of water I drink in a day.

            Most of us will probably be racing in conditions where heat is a factor, so hydration is a major concern. Heat stroke is something that really shouldn’t happen. It is totally preventable, but you need to be thinking at all times about what you’re consuming and you can’t wait for your body to tell you that you’re thirsty. By then, it’s probably too late.

            When I looked up some guidelines on hydration, I discovered it’s a controversial topic. Many athletes have taken the drink drink drink mantra so seriously that there is now the possibility of over-hydration.

            I suspect this is, like most things, an individual issue that is best worked out in training. We’re all different. We all tolerate things like heat and dehydration differently. Experimenting with hydration and electrolyte intake, and training in the heat, are probably the best ways to determine what kind of fluid intake will best serve you.

            An easy way to keep track of how well you’re doing with hydration is to pay attention to the colour of your urine. If it’s pale yellow, you’re where you should be. If it’s clear, you are over-hydrating. If it’s darker (the colour of apple juice), you’re not drinking enough.

            In any case, this experience has left me gun-shy. I don’t want to be one of those people who gets pulled off the course because of dehydration. Or worse. Heat stroke can have serious consequences. Triathletes tend to think they can muscle through most things, but this is not one of them. Listen to your body. If you start feeling dizzy or weird, stop. Get into the shade. Sit down. Drink.

            Happy New Year, and happy training!

Writer in Training

For a long time now, I’ve wanted to start a blog about this other thing I do in my life besides writing. This initial post has been on my mind, but I’ve puzzled over how to frame it and what I really want to say in this blog.

            Then this morning I woke up to go on my long run. It was Sunday, the day after my 54th birthday. I got ready—which meant about 20 minutes of activation exercises—then got into my car because I’d already decided the day before that I wanted to run around Stanley Park, and I had to drive to get there.





It was cold out (well, cold for Vancouver), still dark and pouring rain. And I couldn’t help but think: I love my life. There is nothing in the world I’d rather be doing than what I am doing right now.

            I love that I get to go running on a Sunday morning. Strange, I know, but I’ve had to struggle so hard and for so long to be able to run again that every time I do, it feels like a privilege and a gift.

            I hadn’t run around the Stanley Park seawall in probably thirty years. It was something I used to do every Sunday in high school, and then occasionally in my twenties. And then life happened: I had four children, got busy, and developed severe back problems that seemed to be exacerbated by both running and cycling. I was told by a physiotherapist that my running days were over, so I started swimming instead.

            Swimming was the beginning of a miracle cure. After about ten years of it, I dared to get back on my bike and found that my back muscles had been strengthened enough by my work in the pool that I could do it pain- free.

            But running? No way. Even three minutes of easy jogging had me in agony the next day.

            Ironman has always been a dream of mine. Ever since I first heard about it in the 1980s, I wanted to do it. But a life with four children makes things like six-hour rides an impossibility. That dream went on the backburner for decades.

            Then I turned fifty-one. My kids were almost grown up and I’d run out of excuses.

            Fifty-one is kind of old to decide okay, now I’m going to be an athlete. For several years I’d been swimming and riding but not in any serious, committed way. But I decided I would dip my toe in by doing the Victoria 70.3 as a relay. I would do the swim and the bike, and one of my sons would do the run.

            I got injured IN MARCH and I panicked. Laugh if you want to. I laugh now when I think of it. But mentally I guess I wasn’t ready to race quite yet, so I backed out—and then had to endure watching my daughter race the 70.3 in Victoria from the sidelines. It was an appropriate punishment for me and it had the desired effect. Next year, I thought. I will do this next year, and not just the swim and the bike. I’m going to do the whole thing. I was absolutely determined.

            That summer I went to a new physiotherapist and said it out loud: “I want to do the 70.3 in Whistler next summer. But I’ve been told I’ll never run again. Can you help?” It sounded crazy. I was embarrassed.

            But she said, “Of course.” And we began the project of rebuilding a four-time-pregnant body.

            Turns out, it was easier said than done.

            First, I discovered I had no core muscles. ZERO.

            Then, I discovered I had no glute strength. NONE.

            Then, I stumbled upon the mess that was my pelvic floor. (Women, we’ll talk).

            I spent at least an hour a day just doing exercises to strengthen those parts of my body. It required an amazing amount of dedication, but I’d seen my daughter cross that finish line. I was determined to do it too.

            And slowly, very slowly, I started running again.

            There were disasters along the way. I’ll talk about those in another post. But the following summer I did compete at the Whistler 70.3 and I finished it. I did it again the summer afterwards, taking an hour off my previous time.

            And this summer. . . it’s the full Ironman at Whistler for me, which I hope to complete with two of my children.

            This blog will be a weekly record of my journey. I hope it will be inspirational to someone out there. I’m no expert, so don’t expect anything technical from me. But I’ve learned many things the hard way, and I don’t mind laughing at myself if it helps just one person along the way.

Wise Guy

 

As writers, we tend to hear voices. It’s one of the many things that gives us a reputation for being a little, well, odd.

 

There’s the voice of the Muse, whenever She/He feels likes showing up. And of course there’s that nasty Inner Critic we all know so well. But the voice I’d like to talk about today is our inner voice of wisdom.

 

Maybe yours sounds like Siri. Calm, in control, knows all the good restaurants. Or, if wonky grammar doesn’t send you to the nearest bridge, you might channel Yoda. My Wise Guy tends towards Gandalf. Long beard. Impressive magic staff. Never around when you need him, but shows up eventually.

 

Yes, we all have that voice. The trouble is, we don’t always listen to it.

 

You know. When you leave something in your story, knowing it doesn’t quite work but hoping no one will notice? When you try really really hard to make the square plot point fit into the round story hole – to the point where you’re dancing around in metaphorical circles explaining yourself because you just can’t kill that darling?

 

And there’s your Wise Guy all along saying, “That shit won’t fly, girlfriend, and you know it.”

 

Or in my case:

http://www.icge.co.uk/languagesciencesblog/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/you_shall_not_pass1.jpg

 

Or, God help you:

http://cdn.meme.am/instances/23531129.jpg

 

But you do it anyway. That would be you, ignoring your Wise Guy.

 

If you have a Trusted Reader (and please tell me it’s not your mother), no doubt he or she will call you on it. And you will sit there thinking – I knew. I knew that part of the story wasn’t working, but I wouldn’t listen.

 

I can’t say for sure why I don’t listen to my Wise Guy. Sometimes it’s laziness. I just can’t bear to rewrite the scene one more time. Sometimes it’s a strange kind of tunnel vision about the story that borders on toddler pig-headedness: I made it, that’s the way I wanted it, and that’s how it’s going to stay. Sometimes I treat him like the starving man’s banana: the one that’s a bit bruised and no one wants to eat, so it sits in the basket getting browner and being ignored.

 

Is there a way to access this wisdom? I think there is.

 

First of all, like most people, the more your Wise Guy gets listened to, the louder he (or she) tends to speak. So when Mr. Gandalf is telling you your character would never do a particular thing, don’t wait for Trusted Reader to call you out on it. Change it.

 

I’m also a great believer in long walks (alone, and in silence). I don’t know what the connection is. It might have something to do with mindless repetitive action, because dishwashing can also work, or sometimes even the shower. It could just be that our inner Wise Guy has a sense of humour and wants to catch us in situations where we’re unlikely to have a pen and paper handy.

 

Next time that voice tries to say something, get quiet and listen. Chances are it won’t be telling you what you want to hear, but it will have advice worth following.

 

I’m taking a break next week, folks. The Easter Bunny, dressed up as this lovely girl Hawaii 2013 042

 

is taking me away for the weekend.

 

Happy Easter, Happy Passover, Happy writing.

 

This Man’s Art, That Man’s Scope

 

Okay, maybe it’s just me, but every time I attend a yoga class I come away wanting to be the yoga teacher. I don’t mean I want to teach yoga, because I don’t. I’m not entirely sure I even like yoga. It’s a bit like broccoli. You make yourself like yoga because you know it’s good for you, even if you’d prefer to stay in savasana for the entire class, thank you very much.

 

But this is not about yoga. It’s about envy.

 

I want to be the yoga teacher because she has this calm, you can rely on me even in a traffic accident, voice, and she takes way better care of her feet than I do. Her yoga clothes are nicer than my ratty t-shirt and Superstore-on-sale yoga pants. She remembered to shave her legs. I can tell at a glance that her whole life is working better than mine.

 

As jealousies go, it’s pretty harmless. I’ve already accepted that I’ll never be that person, even if I start shopping at lululemon.

 

But when it comes to writing, the envy of other more successful writers is a dangerous practice. I cringe when magazine articles come out about some super-writer who’s had more success by age 25 than I may ever have in my lifetime. I want to find him and run him over with my car. In moments like that, I have to take myself by the shoulders, sit myself down, and have The Chat.

 

The Chat goes something like this.

 

  • You are on your own journey.

 

  • There is no virtue in comparing yourself to other writers. The only person you should compare yourself to is yourself.

 

  • Writing looks like a competition, but it’s not. It’s a community.

 

  • There is enough success to go around.

 

Sometimes I have to use the kindergarten voice on myself for The Chat, although it has gotten better over time.

 

So what? you might be saying. Everyone struggles with jealousy at some point – or almost everyone. Maybe the yoga teachers don’t. But whatever, it’s no big deal.

 

The thing is, I think it is a big deal. Being jealous makes you feel like the spiritual equivalent of unbrushed teeth. It’s an emotion that closes a person off. Jealousy makes me want to hoard things.

 

Whenever I compare myself to Margaret Atwood or Stephen King and say, “Hey, how come I’m not like them?” suddenly a good day turns crappy. I start hating everything I write. I burn my son’s grilled cheese sandwiches and refuse to smile at dogs. And life is too short not to smile at dogs.

Grad Harry & Dallas 008

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 captures it beautifully:

 

“Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,

Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,

Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,

With what I most enjoy contented least;”

 

(Damn, I wish I’d written that.)

 

I’m not a yoga teacher. I’m never going to be a yoga teacher.

 

I’m also not Margaret Atwood.

 

Sometimes, I admit, that sucks. But in my mature moments (there are more of those lately), I can remember that being Margaret Atwood is not the point. I don’t want to be ‘that writer who’s always trying to copy Atwood.’

 

I love being part of a community of writers. I love the diversity of our voices and the fact that we each have something particular that we do well. I love that we cheer each other on, and help each other wherever and whenever we can. It’s so much kinder than competing.

http://tofurious.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/a-rising-tide-lifts-all-boats1.jpg

 

Turns out, there’s enough room on the shelf for all of us.

 

Be Here Now

2015-03-07 09.18.10

 

I don’t know a whole lot about Zen, but there is one part of the tradition that rather appeals to me. Apparently when you’re meditating in the Zendo, there’s a monk called a Jikijitsu who walks around with a long stick, called a Kyosaku. He’s sort of like the Focus Police. If he senses your mind wandering (how does he sense this? I don’t know. They know things, these Jikijitsu), he whacks you on the shoulder with his stick for a little wake-up call. It’s not meant as a punishment; it’s actually known as a blow of compassion.

 

I could use a Jikijitsu standing behind me when I write. Actually he wouldn’t have to hit me. All he’d have to do is unplug the internet connection and I’d wake up. (On the other hand, he would not be allowed to touch my Nutella toast, or he might get a blow of compassion right back).

 

Writing is all about focus. I didn’t fully realize this until I returned to playing the piano and learned very quickly about what happens when your mind wanders: bad, bad music. Many wrong notes. Tenants in neighbouring apartments complaining.

 

I discovered that my mind wanders pathologically when I play piano. The worst is when I start to think, Wow, I’ve nearly made it through the whole piece without making a mistake. Which, of course, causes a mistake, because my mind isn’t where it needs to be: on the notes.

 

Writing is the same, only it’s a lot less noticeable. If you’re fully immersed in a scene, everything around you disappears. You’re there. You can smell it, taste it, you know what your character is going to do next because you are your character. You don’t have her flipping on a light switch in your medieval fantasy. You don’t forget that there are three other people in the room with her. How could you? You are present in every sense of the word.

 

When you’re not present, however, the writing becomes mechanical. It loses that spark, that bit of life that makes it real. You’re thinking about what to make for dinner, or wondering if anyone e-mailed you – and then, well, why not check your e-mail? So you take yourself totally away from the document, thus requiring you to re-focus when you return. If you can.

 

The worst thing about this is, I often don’t even know I’m not present when I’m writing. I’ve only become more attuned to it because of the piano and the stunning realization that I am regularly not where I think I am. This is where a Jikijitsu could have a full and rewarding job standing behind me. I’d get blows of compassion about every five minutes.

 

Check it for yourself. How often, while reading, do you realize you have no idea what the previous paragraph was about? While your eyes were seeing the words, your brain was figuring out how to get from one kid’s soccer practice to another’s hockey game. We think we’re good at multi-tasking, but maybe we’re not. Walking and chewing gum at the same time might well be my outer limit.

 

When you’re fully present in your work, you are not multi-tasking. Life around you shuts down. You forget to eat. You don’t hear traffic. You forget to turn the light on. Your coffee sits untouched (well, mine doesn’t, but whatever). By the time you look up, you are stunned to realize three hours have passed while you were immersed, absolutely part of the world you were creating. Some people might call that inspiration, but I don’t think that’s what it is. I think it’s presence. It can happen every day, every time you sit down to write – if you’re focussed.

 

Turn off the internet. Set your phone on silent. Take a few deep breaths. I bet it will make a difference.

 

Now, to follow my own advice….

 

That Ex-MFA Teacher

 

Yeah, him.

 

Not surprisingly, this blog was motivated by a certain scathing article written by an ex-MFA teacher about his experience teaching writing to students who were, in his opinion, hardworking but hopeless.

 

Now, the inimitable Chuck Wendig pretty much said it all in his response and, thanks to him, there are tons of bees in the world. But still – allow me to add a few bees of my own.

 

Can writing be taught? Yes. Everything can be taught. Piano, carpentry, tennis. You want to teach me some martial arts moves? Bring it on. Writing is a craft. The craft has rules. The rules have exceptions. It’s good to know all of these if you want to write well.

 

Can everyone be a great writer? Obviously not. Not everyone who learns to play the piano is going to be Mozart. Not everyone who learns to play tennis will be Nadal. So what? Just because you might not end up being Mozart, does this mean you have no business taking piano lessons? How do you know you’re not Mozart unless you do take lessons? If you’re not Mozart, are you useless? Will you derive no joy whatsoever from playing piano?

 

Why should the rules be different for writers? They aren’t.

 

Students are, by nature, people who are learning. That means, they might not be very good at it when they start. They might not read the best books. They might not even realize that reading is important. The teacher’s job is to take his or her students and guide them towards the things that will help them improve. To take whatever they start with and shape it into the best thing it can be. Each student is unique. They bring their own material to the table. What they should leave with at the end of an MFA is the best possible version of their uniqueness.

 

I believe talent is a component that is overrated. If I was a gambler, I’d put my money on an average writer who knows how to work hard over someone who is supposedly talented but doesn’t know how to apply the AOC rule (Ass On Chair: with thanks to MFA classmate William Robinson for coining this classic acronym).

 

And, may I put these bees out into the world: books like Infinite Jest might not be for everyone. I’ve come across several prize-winning books that lose me by page 10. Not because I can’t hack it, but because I don’t like it. Doesn’t make me stupid. Doesn’t make me a bad writer. It just means I don’t have exactly the same tastes as other readers (I haven’t read Infinite Jest, by the way, so I’m not picking on it for any reason except that it was mentioned in the article. But maybe I’m not supposed to tell you that. Maybe I’m not supposed to mention that because I write mostly young adult novels, that is mostly what I read. Now you’re judging me, I can feel it).

 

And, may I add a final few bees: not everyone who starts an MFA finishes by embracing the writing life. Not everyone who finishes law school ends up practicing law. I know trained physicians who have decided not to practice medicine. So what? What this means is not that the MFA program is a failure, but that it is not particularly special. It’s like every other program at university. Some people thrive in it; some don’t.

 

Not everyone who teaches is meant to be a teacher, either.

The Muck in the Middle Part 2: Climbing Out

phone 2015 070

 

Last week I was kind of smart-alecky about the swampy middle of a novel, and the sum total of my advice was: rethink your outline, start again, too bad.

 

But then so many people admitted to being stuck in their novel-swamp that I realized I had not been diligent. My blog needed a part 2: practical suggestions for getting out. Questions to ask yourself. Things to try.

 

They might not work for you. But I’ve used them all at one point or another.

 

So, if you’re stuck in the muck…

 

  • Ask yourself ‘What If?’ Allow some major riffing time. Do not be limited by ideas you deem silly or unrealistic. Let your mind wander. Try using pen and paper for this one. Give yourself permission to make a mess.

 

  • Ask: are you avoiding conflict? Things should always be getting worse for your characters. Because I believe Tolkien generally has the answer to everything, I refer you to the Mines of Moria Principle. Remember that part, when Gimli suggests going through the mines, and Gandalf tells him no, that’s the worst idea ever, it’s the one thing we can’t do. And then they have to do it. In the mines, Gandalf says, above all don’t make any noise. And then Pippin makes noise. The Mines of Moria rule is: whatever is the worst thing that could happen to your characters – that’s what should happen.

 

  • Tolkien again: Gollum is leading Frodo and Sam through the Dead Marshes and he warns them: don’t follow the lights. Good advice, as it turns out. The lights in our case being: the sudden appearance of a new character, the addition of unnecessary plot business (if you’re writing fantasy this may include: a map, a key, a prophecy, or a new bit of magic). There’s a very good chance that the answers to your mucky middle are already contained in the opening chapters. Have you searched them yet for clues?

 

  • Your novel might be floundering for want of a subplot. Keep in mind that a subplot needs to resonate with the plot. Consider your theme. Consider secondary characters and how they might reflect the main action. Make sure you’re not repeating the same conflicts over and over.

 

  • Have you lost focus? Try writing a logline for your novel. Write out an elevator pitch. Go back to the bare-bone essentials of the story and make sure you haven’t taken a wrong turn.

 

  • How well do you know your protagonist? Sometimes a book sinks in the mud because you have not yet mined your character for all the gold she’s hiding in her backstory: what she’s afraid of, what happened to her when she was a child, what big secret she’s hiding. Before you start throwing new characters into the mix, make sure you have taken the time to fully befriend your protagonist and see what she might show you.

 

  • Try this: write out a list of the plot points so far. Are they causally linked? Are they logical? Where should the story go next?

 

If you find yourself in total despair, it’s not a bad thing to set the novel aside, as long as you make a solemn promise to return to it. Novels are more like roasts than fried chicken. They need time. Chances are you will see where the story needs to go once you come back to it. But I warn you: this is risky. Momentum is so important when it comes to writing a novel. Step away for two months and it’s possible you won’t go back.

 

Why not enlist Trusted Reader to read the work you have to date? We all know who is, and who is not, Trusted Reader, right? Mom: no. Husband or wife: up to you, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Writer friend: yes. Friend who reads obsessively: yes. Writer/reader friend who is willing to tell you what you actually did when you were drunk: double yes.

 

Or: talk it out. This is a recent discovery for me and it’s huge. Make yourself say the whole thing out loud to Trusted Reader – even the parts you think might be dumb. Especially those parts. Because maybe they are dumb and you know it. When you force yourself to speak your story out loud you find out in a hurry where it’s working and where you’ve been fudging it and can fudge no longer.

 

If all else fails, go for a walk. I mean it. A long walk, by yourself, without an IPod. Bring a pen and a small notebook just in case. Walk for at least an hour. If nothing comes of it, go again the next day. And the day after that.

 

Go through the mines. Don’t follow the lights. You’ll find your way sooner or later.

 

 

 

The Swampy Middle

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Anyone who embarks upon writing a novel has probably heard of the swamp that awaits you in the middle section. You’ve been warned, you know all about what to expect. But no matter if this is your first novel or your fifth, you are probably thinking one of two things: this time it won’t happen, or it won’t happen to you.

 

Forget it. It will. Every time.

 

Outline or no outline, forewarned or not. You will hit the swamp. And you will feel, as writing guru Chuck Wendig puts it so perfectly, like an old man lost at the mall. You’ll sit at the food fair for days. You won’t remember where you parked your car, or if you even have a car.

 

See, unless you’re one of those writers who outlines every scene in advance, chances are you’ve left some bits TFOL (To Figure Out Later). Except that when later arrives, you discover you still haven’t figured them out. And that beautiful house of cards that is your novel comes crashing down.

 

Or, you figure the thinnish story you started out with is bound to gain weight sooner or later. Except it doesn’t. And by the time you hit the middle you realize your thin story has turned into no story at all. Possibly because you don’t have a subplot.

 

But, say you do have a subplot. Foolproof, right? Not necessarily. Because sometimes you wander down that long and winding subplot and it leads you to an unexpected (and obviously brilliant) tangent, and then to another tangent, which introduces you to new characters who have WAY better stories than that poor dull protagonist you started out with. And suddenly your novel seems so much better. Except it’s also a mess.

 

Beware the weird intrusions of business in your story: the map that seems like such a good idea, the arrival of a new character, or – wait – your protagonist CAN speak Chinese.  Next thing you know…yup, there’s the food fair.

 

But it might not be the subplot. You might have wandered down the darkened hallway known as backstory which, oddly enough, turns out to be way more interesting than the story you thought you were telling. Until you realize that the whole novel is being told in flashback, and you’ve put your underwear on over your pants, and what are you doing at the food fair again?

 

It’s going to happen. I don’t know how to prepare you, other than to say: take a deep breath. Rethink your outline. Start again. You almost always have to start again anyway, and it will be a lot easier if you don’t fight it.

 

Sorry.

 

Dear Writer

rejection

Any writers who send out their work are familiar with that refrain. Worst two words in the English language, right? ‘Dear Writer’ not only means it’s a rejection letter, but worse: a form rejection. It doesn’t just say, ‘We didn’t like your work.’ It says, ‘Honey, we don’t even want to know your name.’

 

It’s very hard not to take this personally. No matter what you write, your work is always personal in some very deep way – and that’s leaving aside the investment of precious time you’ve made in it, as well as the fact that most of us have to put in the hard work before we get paid. If we get paid. It’s never a given. This is a job that creates depression, neuroses, and a tendency to drink far too much red wine.

 

Today I want to send love to all of you writers who have the courage to send out your work. It does take courage, as well as a large measure of faith. I also want to share a secret that might help. Yes, the writing is personal. But sending your work out? Pure business. That’s all it is. If you can separate your heart from the business side of things, you will be several steps ahead of the game.

 

And that’s another thing: it’s a game. It helps to remember that. I’m not saying it’s fun. Think the twelfth hour of a Monopoly marathon when your mother-in-law is holding Boardwalk and Park Place, and you’re coming around the board. That kind of game. You’ll want to quit. But hopefully you won’t, because writing doesn’t work so well as a form of communication unless you have readers.

 

In order to get readers, you need to publish.

 

Not every home is the right home for your work. Some poems will feel ill-at-ease with all their piercings and frayed edges, wandering into certain upscale magazines. Part of the business of sending out your work is making sure you target the right places.

 

It’s also worth remembering that editors are people (really, they are). They have bad days. They have preferences. Sometimes their preferences won’t make sense to you. They don’t care. But you wouldn’t want to place your work with someone who didn’t love it as much as you do, so if they say no, consider it at least partially a blessing.

 

Unfortunately, most editors are so busy that they don’t have time to tell you why they said no. This is a shame. You’ll never know if it’s because they read five dog stories in a row and yours was just bad timing – or if your work really isn’t ready. We tend to be eager about our fresh ink. Letting it dry for, say, a couple of weeks and then rereading it, often saves a lot of heartache. Not that I take my own advice. I love my darlings as much as the next writer.

 

Submitting one’s work is such a soul-deadening experience that it’s tempting to give up. After five rejections we throw up our hands and say, “See? I knew my work was crap.” According to agent Noah Lukeman, the throwing-up-hands stage shouldn’t start until you’re at submission #50 at least. Even then, don’t throw up your hands (you should never have eaten them in the first place).

 

I offer a couple of statistics for your consideration:

  •  It took Agatha Christie five years to find someone who would publish her novels.
  • The Chicken Soup for the Soul series (okay, not a personal favourite, but bear with me) went to 140 publishers before it found a home.
  • “Nobody will want to read a book about a seagull,” one editor told Richard Bach. Jonathan Livingston Seagull ended up selling 44 million copies.
  • The editor who finally agreed to publish Harry Potter advised J.K. Rowling to get a day job, because she wouldn’t make any money on children’s books.

 

I give the last word to my personal writing hero, Stephen King. When he was starting out as a writer, he pounded a nail into his wall where he kept all of his rejection letters. Soon the nail was too small to hold them, so he replaced it with a spike – and kept on writing, and kept on sending out his work.

 

The rest, as they say, is history.