Michelle Barker's books on Goodreads
Old Growth, Clear-Cut: Poems of Haida Gwaii Old Growth, Clear-Cut: Poems of Haida Gwaii
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The Beggar King The Beggar King
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Tesseracts 14: Strange Canadian Stories Tesseracts 14: Strange Canadian Stories
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Tesseracts Fifteen: A Case of Quite Curious Tales Tesseracts Fifteen: A Case of Quite Curious Tales
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The Muck in the Middle Part 2: Climbing Out

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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.

 

The Wand Chooses the Wizard

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If friends and family happen to know you’re a writer, you’ve probably had this experience. Mostly it happens at Christmas parties. Inevitably it’s an uncle, probably the one nobody likes. You’re standing alone, because you’re a writer and Christmas parties are the very last place on Earth you want to be, and said uncle (possibly drunk) corners you near the plate of shortbread and says, “I’ve got this great idea for a novel.”

 

After fifteen minutes of telling you the great idea, he says, “You’ve gotta write about it.”

 

Well. Maybe.

 

If all the hairs on your arms stood up while he was talking. If, as Emily Dickinson describes the experience of poetry, the top of your head came off. But only in those cases. Otherwise, my advice would be to steer clear.

 

See, I don’t believe we choose our work. Our work chooses us. Our minds and bodies react to an idea in a way that is unmistakable. You know if it’s right for you, no matter how crazy it seems. It’s the story only you can write.

 

George Saunders has a slightly different take on it, but better (obviously) because he’s George Saunders: “I love that Flannery O’Connor bit about how a writer can choose what he writes but he can’t choose what he is able to make live. So you find out that you write well about leprechauns. Well, guess what? You’re the leprechaun guy. You probably didn’t want to be, but if that’s the only thing that has energy, well, there you go.” (Check out the full interview from Salon.com here)

 

We writers are obsessive creatures. Once we discover our little mountain, we circle it, over and over for the rest of our lives. It’s like worrying a loose tooth that will never fall out.

 

One person’s great idea is inevitably another person’s story-disaster. That’s why editors and publishers seem so fickle. They’re just human. They like what they like. And so do you. Haven’t you ever picked up a Booker prize winner only to scratch your head by page ten and wonder – what were they thinking?

 

It’s also why trying to follow the market or discover ‘the next big thing’ is destined to fail, unless it’s your next big thing. Try writing a vampire story, if you don’t think vampires are the coolest thing since the man bun. Or a dog story, if you’re a cat person. It will be like giving Harry Potter the wrong wand. Shit gets broken. It’s messy. People will ask you to leave the room and not come back.

 

George Saunders again: “I’m going to admit that there’s four or five things in my life that are really important to me. I’m guessing it’s the same for you.”

 

Those are the things that choose you. And they’re the ones you write about – most likely over and over again. You hold them up to the light. You lock yourself in a dark room with them. You take them out to dinner and find a way to make them talk. For your whole life, you’ll probably be working out those four or five things, and they will be enough.

 

Never apologize for what you write about. Vampires? Cool. Dogs on surfboards? Why not?

 

Also, free advice: stay away from Christmas parties. Small talk shrinks the brain.

If It Sounds Like Writing…

In 2001 Elmore Leonard gave the literary world ten rules of writing and then one rule to sum them up (the writer’s equivalent of One Ring to Rule Us All). The one rule that (should) bind us is: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

 

You might not completely grasp the importance of this rule until you come across a book that will make you groan out loud with its pointless pyrotechnics. Then you’ll get it: those long pretty sentences that are full of abstractions and nice little balancing acts in language that, nevertheless, do NOTHING to advance the plot or character or setting or any other worthwhile objective that fiction writing might reasonably expect from language.

 

In the novel I’m writing at present, there are two traders, and they have a code: “Beautiful or useful.” A thing must be one or the other, else you leave it by the road. That, however, is not the writer’s code. Beautiful AND useful. In a pinch, just useful. That’s it, friends. Does the language serve a purpose? If you’re very clever, you might even find a way for it to serve two. If it can serve two and be beautiful, you’ve found the pot of gold. If it serves no purpose whatsoever but really does glitter nicely in the sunlight… sorry – out it goes.

 

Glittery writing tends to call attention to itself. It forgets all about the story and says, “Here, watch this trick.” Which runs directly counter to Leonard’s additional advice: “It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing.” A story is a fictional dream that readers want to lose themselves in, without ever being reminded of the writer. If he’s in the background waving furiously and saying, “Hey, look at me!” the readers wake up.

 

I have nothing against beautiful language. Lead me out into the surf, Man With Impressive Pectorals, buy me a drink, be a jerk – but if all you’re going to do is flex on the sand and expect me to admire you… well okay, Man With Impressive Pectorals might get away with it, but pointless pretty writing in a story does not.

 

The Seduction of the Unwritten Word

This idea comes thanks to my wonderful writer friend, Nikki Vogel (whose awesome short story, The Past, Of Course, has just been nominated for the Journey Prize).

See this?

You’ve all heard about the horrors of the blank page, but that is not what I want to talk about today. Because the blank page can start to look pretty good when you’re in the middle of a much more terrible horror: the mess that is your present novel.

 

Compared to that, the blank page is so, well, clean. No mistakes yet, or characters that don’t belong. No plot ideas that dead-end by page 20. It’s tempting, isn’t it? Especially while you struggle through the soggy marshland that is the middle of your novel. You’re wearing boots, but they’re leaking. It doesn’t smell good. You’re lost, no map or compass, and you’re hungry for a big bowl of Alphagetti (because writing a novel makes you crave weird things). I know. I’ve been there.

 

So, what do you do? Do you slog it out, repair your plot holes, redo your outline – in other words, finish your shit? Well, if you’re anything like me the answer is probably no. Chances are you succumb, and start thinking about that next idea. The one that’s still perfect because you haven’t really thought it out yet. The unwritten word is seductive. It’s a Siren and it sings to you. So much easier than cutting characters and rethinking your subplot, right?

 

Yes. But no. Get some headphones, plug your ears and ignore it. That way lies folly, friends. Because if you succumb regularly enough, you will be one of those writers who starts novels and doesn’t finish them. Unfinished novels are like warts you can’t get rid of. They’re ugly, and even if no one else can see them, you know they’re there.

 

The trouble with thinking about new work is that you can trick yourself into believing it’s not really procrastination. You’re working on a new project. That counts, doesn’t it? Probably your floor is already washed, the laundry done, and you’ve eaten your way through half the fridge and feel too guilty to actually finish the bag of Oreos.

 

Writing a novel is hard work. There are clear stages, and when you get to the computer-smashing Hulk stage (#11), you want to do pretty much anything except finish the job. Do yourself a favour and step away from that blank notebook. Get back to the hard work of making a story sing. As Henry Miller put it in his Writing Commandments, “Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.”

Now, what are you doing here? Get back to work!

Roald Dahl, Revision…and Peaches

So this guy moves in across the street. Says his name is James.

 

Yes, Roald Dahl has been on my mind lately. Recently I came across an old (1988) interview with him by Todd McCormack about his writing process. Mr. McCormack asked him what it was like to write a book.

 

Mr. Dahl: “…rather like going on a very long walk, across valleys and mountains and things, and you get the first view of what you see and you write it down.” (Check this out to hear Mr. Dahl’s complete answer, spoken by the man himself.)

 

But that, according to Dahl, was only the beginning. You keep taking that long walk, day after day, “getting different views of the same landscape really.” He calls it a “very very long slow process.” Which about sums up the revision work I’m doing on my novel these days. Very long. Very slow.

 

There are a few things I love about Dahl’s answer. First, he speaks to the word ‘revision’ in a specific (and poetic) way. Revising a piece of writing is not just a matter of adding in a few commas and correcting your spelling mistakes. It is a re-visioning of the landscape of your story, seeing it with new eyes. Coming at it from a different angle, perhaps.

 

Second, his answer is honest. Revision is not a slapdash job. It’s not a question of being satisfied with ‘good enough’. You want to get it right. And that takes time, patience, and focus.

 

I know when I’m not focussed. I’ll look back at the page I thought I’d just read and realize I hadn’t been paying attention. Not good. So I do it again. Revision involves inserting oneself into the real time of the story and replaying it, in detail, with every sense alert. A strategy that works surprisingly well is to read one’s work out loud. If there are faults in diction, rhythm or logic, they become immediately apparent. So do pet phrases and outright mistakes.

 

In his excellent book, A Passion for Narrative, Jack Hodgins includes a chapter on revision that is worth looking at. The bottom line: don’t be lazy. And don’t be afraid to get blood on the floor. Darlings will die. It hurts, but chances are you won’t miss them once they’re gone. I know I never do.

 

Now, back to that giant peach to figure out who this new neighbour really is.

Happy New Year!

Okay, so it’s January 10th, I’m a little late, or maybe dyslexic, but I’m here at last after a long time away from this blog with no excuse except a thesis to write (okay, that’s a pretty good excuse, you have to admit). I come armed with Writers’ Resolutions, which I share in the hope that a public admission will encourage (humiliate?) me enough to actually keep them.

Here goes:

  •  Be here – I mean, HERE at this blog – once a week.
  • Read outside of my comfort zone. Why? Because it’s easy to stick with what you know, and it’s safe – but it’s not the best way for writers to read. Yeah, I’ve started the year with a Stephen King novel which means both feet are firmly planted in said comfort zone, but whatever, I’ll get there.
  •  Send stuff out. By far the most boring part of a writer’s life – but kind of essential, if you want to have readers. As I’m fond of saying to others (and then not doing myself): better on an editor’s desk than on mine.
  •  Write a poem every day. Ouch. This is going to be a tough one to keep but I have done it before. I’ve taken a long hiatus from poetry and I approach it cautiously, like a dog I’m not sure will remember me. I don’t know how we’ll get along this time around, but I plan to bring treats.

There. I am officially accountable, and you all have permission to hound me mercilessly if I disappear or pretend to have forgotten.

But I’m curious: have other writers made resolutions specific to writing? If so, what are they? Please weigh in. (Ha, yes it’s a trick: I’m making you say it out loud, and then you’ll be obliged to follow through).

 

Review of milk tooth bane bone, poems by Daniela Elza

 

I have always responded to Daniela Elza’s poetry in a visceral and immediate way: she makes me want to sit down and write. She makes me look at the world differently. Which is to say, her words are a force of inspiration in my life.

 

The guiding image in this beautiful volume of poetry is the crow. Crows fly in and out of these poems and become interchangeable with words themselves, as well as with the process of creation. The book begins with an image of the poet dropping words the way a crow drops mussels – to see them crack.

 

Elza takes the reader through many winter landscapes where the crows create a stark contrast of black on white that is anything but clear-cut. These are the birds that know death but do nothing to prevent it. They are the ones that eat words in a book and then the words become crows, and the crows become ink, and the ink belongs to a beloved grandfather’s printing press.

 

Crows took the narrator’s first milk tooth in a bargain her six-year-old self did not understand. She threw it on the roof for them, chanting, here crow is my bone tooth!/ give me one as strong as iron! And the crows have pursued her ever since.

 

Elza explores the challenge of getting to the truth of things with words, getting to the essence of something as simple as rain, which the crows speak of effortlessly. She weaves personal history into her narrative, difficult stories that live inside all of us and which we tell over and over as if it will help them to make sense.

 

Why crows?

 

“I notice  crows –/ the pin-point of light/ in the eye/ that watches/ me/ watching.

 

Ultimately I think Elza’s answer involves the process of creation itself. The crows settle so easily on the trees, “…ink in white birches…” as the poet watches from her window, pen in hand. The crows are both words and the silence between words. The poet wants to know how close she can get to meaning before it startles and escapes her.

 

One of the things I love about the way Elza structures her poetry is her ample and intentional use of space. These poems have room to breathe. There is silence built around them that allows each word to resonate.

 

Whatever readers might think of the lowly crow, whether “…lofty messenger or noisy trash bird,” these birds live in the poems as little black mysteries we have not yet solved – like words themselves.

 

milk tooth bane bone is published by Leaf Press.

For more about Daniela, please visit her website, or go to my interview with her.

The Interview: Daniela Elza

Daniela Elza, author of milk tooth bane bone, answered some of my questions in a recent interview.

Tell us something most people don’t know about you:

Perhaps most people do not know that I have little tolerance for gossip, or that I am allergic to small talk. Those give me a nasty spiritual rash that sometimes only poetry can cure. Most people do not know that I think poets are magicians of sorts, alchemists even. It does not mean we all will succeed, or that any of us would.

Most people might think I come from somewhere when I come from many somewheres.

Barbara Hurd in her book of essays, Stirring the Mud, says: “We are shape-shifters, all of us, liquid mosaics of mutable and transient urges, and we give ourselves headaches when we pretend otherwise, when we stiffen ourselves into permanent and separate identities unsullied by the drifting slop, the very real ambiguities of ourselves and the world.” What is affixed to one is instantaneous and brief, an illusions of sorts. But we tend to want definitions, and fixities. We crave such comfort.

Sometimes even my closest people make me feel like they are most people. In a poem somewhere I say:

 I know it is an illusion who I appear to be

 to be who I am.

 

How did you become a writer?

I realized that writing was my default mode. It is what I did when I was not doing anything else. Perhaps I was a writer and I did not know it. Perhaps the work was in the discovery of what I was, and the permission to be that. Eventually, I gave it more direction, more discipline and training and applied the appropriate labels.  I have written poems and played with language for as far back as I can remember, in whatever language was available or meaningful at the time. Eventually English won.

 

Tell us about your most recent project:

This year I was glad to see the completion of an undertaking that probably took a decade and culminated in my latest book milk tooth bane bone. I can best describe this book as a haunting. The crows made me write it. They did not leave me alone. I did not know it was going to be a book. Now that it is a book, it still haunts me. I was intrigued with the voice that came through. I wanted to get to know that voice better.

 

What is the most valuable piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

Perhaps the realization that I should write what I do not know, what I am wondering about, what I am curious about. It was not advice given to me directly by one person, but one that precipitated through what many writers said. Most recently I saw another quote to that effect, this one by Doris Lessing: “I see every book as a problem that you have to solve.”

 

Give us your Desert Island Reading List (the 3 books you’d choose to be stranded with):

The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (including his Duino Elegies), the collected works of Wislawa Szymborska, The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram? This question makes me uncomfortable because it suggests a world with very few or no books. I cannot imagine living in a world like that unless we all have three books and have an elaborate way to exchange them.

 

The thing you like most about writing:

The space it provides me to think, to discover what my mind is mulling over when I do not instruct it or purposefully focus it on something.  It is like finding out what you are truly preoccupied with despite what you tell yourself otherwise.

 

The thing you like least:

When writing is made subservient to the ego.  When it is co-opted for purposes other than in the service of the mystery, alchemy and discovery that it is.

 

What’s next on the writing agenda:

This summer over the course of 2 months I wrote over 90 pages. I have never done that before. When time permits I might be working on putting the next manuscript together, amidst more readings, workshops, amidst all the things we do to keep the business of writing going.

 

About Daniela

Daniela Elza’s work appears nationally and internationally in over 80 publications. Her poetry books are milk tooth bane bone (Leaf Press, 2013), the weight of dew (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2012) and the book of It (2011). In 2011 Daniela earned her doctorate in Philosophy of Education from Simon Fraser University. She will be the 2014 Writer-In-Residence at the University of the Fraser Valley.