Category Archives: The Writing Life

On prizes and the writing life

I’ve been lucky enough to win a number of prizes over the years that have let me keep writing. Not prizes in terms of big money, although I’ve definitely received a few cheques when I needed them most. No, I mean prizes with little or no money attached that have nevertheless given me the mental boost to keep on writing.

Let me explain.

The life of a writer is full of doubt and uncertainty, especially when you’re starting out and you’re tying to find your voice, you’re not that good yet, etc. (Some may say I’m still not very good, but that’s a subject for their blog posts, not mine.) There are a few things that help during this time: good reviews, good sales, and prizes. The first two are hard to get when you’re an unknown and a beginner. Every writer dreams of blockbuster sales and starred reviews in their favourite publication, but the fact is most emerging writers are ignored and don’t earn back their advance, if they even get an advance. I’m still hit and miss on that myself.

But prizes? Any writer can win a prize if your writing is good and you find the right judge/jury who sees what you’re trying to say, who understands your voice.

This happened to me a number of times early in my writing career. I think the first prize I won was an award for best story from On Spec, Canada’s long-running and well-respected sci-fi and fantasy journal. It came at a time when I was struggling with a lot of life issues and I didn’t know if it made sense to keep writing. Then I got the good news from On Spec and I learned to believe in myself again, thanks to that wonderful editorial board believing in me. The prize certificate is still hanging on my office wall, and I still feel grateful whenever I look at it. And I still remember to believe in myself and get back to writing.

After that, I won more awards — a university writing prize, an Ontario Arts Council prize for best manuscript and so on. There were writing grants thrown in here and there, which every writer knows are just as important as any award in terms of believing in yourself and your writing. Perhaps my favourite has been the ReLit Award. It came in the form of a beautiful ring, not money, which is just as well. Money would have been long gone by now. But the ring is still with me, and it’s almost either always on my writing desk or on one of my fingers, where I compose secret messages to myself with it.

I’m not writing this post to talk about my trophy list and impress the handful of readers that come to this blog. That’s not what this is about. I will say that I feel incredibly lucky to have received these awards — and to have had a chance at the writing career I’ve had. I know much of that came from happenstance. As a white male who lived in the centre of Canada’s publishing scene for a while and helped run a popular reading series with Paul Vermeersch, I was somewhat within the system, if you want to call it that.

Now imagine that you long to be a writer but you’re far outside of the system, geographically and/or otherwise. Say you’re an indigenous person, or a person from some other group that has been systematically silenced over the ages. How much harder is it to believe in yourself and that your voice matters then? How incredibly important it must be to have spaces to speak and awards to validate you then — likely far more important than it has been for me.

I bring all this up because of an ongoing controversy in CanLit over cultural appropriation. I don’t want to get into all the details here because that’s not my thing — you can Google it easily enough if you’re interested. It’s an ugly situation all around, but some good may come out of it. My friend and fellow writer Silvia Moreno-Garcia has launched an effort to create an Emerging Indigenous Voices Award to “focus on Indigenous writers, on marginalized writers.” Silvia offered up $500 of her own money to start it, and so far other people have pledged more than $4,000 toward the prize.

This is a good thing.

As I think I’ve made clear, prizes are the things that can keep a writer going. They’re not about winning, about being better than other writers. They are about recognizing and validating a writer’s voice. They’re about feeling that what you do matters, that your words matter, that you matter.

I imagine there have been many writers who would not have gone on to write their stories if they hadn’t won a prize at some point or another to give them that boost. There probably have been many writers we have missed out on because of this. We’ll never know. Maybe we need more prizes to ensure all the stories that need to be told get told. After all, when we are all gone, our stories are all that will remain of us.

Help out Silvia with her award if you can, and let’s help more people tell their stories that matter.

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Breathe

I’ve submitted the manuscript for my new book, Has the World Ended Yet?, which is due out this fall. My sixth book! Now I’m waiting for the edits. And taking the time to be present in the world again instead of my mind. I love the writing life, but sometimes you have to close the computer and just step outside and breathe again.

And breathe.

And breathe.

(The photo is of Pitt Lake, one of my favourite places in B.C. You should visit it. There is enough clean, mountain air for all of us.)

 

The red Hugos

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Over at my day job, I talk to bestselling fantasy writer Sebastien de Castell about the time he met George R.R. Martin at the Hugo Awards and it didn’t go so well. Check out de Castell’s Greatcoats series if you have the chance — it’s one of my favourite reads right now, and we have all the same influences.

“He grabs this invitation for the Hugo losers party,” de Castell said, referring to the annual party that Martin hosts for those nominees who don’t win a Hugo Award. “He says, ‘I may as well give you this now because it’s safe money you’re going to lose.’”

“I’m burning books right now to stay warm”

My publishers at ChiZine did a reddit AMA to talk about life at a Canadian publishing house. They have some useful advice if you’re looking to publish a book or if you want to see what the super-sexy life of editing and bookselling is like. (Spoiler: It is neither super nor sexy. But there is scotch.)

Also, NSFW.

Arrived home safely if not sanely

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I was sorry to see the end of Ad-Astra. I had a great time on the panels and the ChiZine reading I took part in — pretty funny to see six authors try to read in an hour, but we pulled it off with time to spare! It was lovely to see some old friends and meet some new ones and just to generally soak in the amazing creativity that was everywhere — the events, the costumes, the questions and answers, the readings, the games, the dealer booths, etc. I’ve actually been trying to do less events as I focus on my writing and family, but damn, Ad-Astra kind of made me want to do more!

The airport part drained me, though. The pic above is from the underworld of Pearson airport, where I found myself wandering aimlessly for a time while searching for a flight. I felt like Sisyphus….

The girl is in the ice cream truck! The iiiiccccceeee ccccrrrrreeeaaaaammmm trrrrruuuucccckkkk!

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Late in The Apocalypse Ark, there’s this real twist where….

Yeah, this is probably the point I should talk about spoilers.

I have a spoilers story I always like to tell people.

A couple of years back, I was watching a season of The Walking Dead on Netflix. I have two children, a full-time career in the media, and I try to write when I can, so I don’t tend to watch things when they first come out. I usually get around to it a year or three later. So I was catching up on the episodes of The Walking Dead that everyone else in the newsroom had already watched.

You can see where this is going.

I mentioned to the photo editor that I had just started Season 2, which focuses in large part on the survivor group’s attempts to find a girl who was separated from the others by walkers early in the season.

“Oh, that moment where she drives the ice cream truck into the house had me crying!” she said.

OK, that’s not really what she said. I’m not going to tell you what she said, because spoilers. Some of you may not have seen it yet, like I hadn’t when she told me what really happened with the missing girl.

A great deal of the season’s drama arises out of the characters’ search for the missing girl. Where is she? Will she ever be found? Did the walkers get her? Etc. The whole season, as I watched the drama build, I could only think: “She’s in the ice cream truck. Just listen for that unholy jingle and track her down.” Well, that’s not exactly what I was thinking, but you know what I mean. All the anticipation and excitement and anxiety and everything else of the season was lost for me because of that one slip by a colleague.

Of course, when I mentioned that to my other colleagues, they thought the situation was quite funny and now they openly discuss plot twists and turns around me whenever they can. It’s enough to make me watch House of Cards instead. There are no surprises there, right?

Anyway, this is a long-winded way of saying I have a new book out and please don’t give away the secrets. No spoilers! Unless the person you’re talking to wasn’t going to buy the book anyway. Then they deserve to have their day ruined.

Dear PLR: Thanks for helping me to create

I recently received a payment cheque from the Canada Council’s Public Lending Right program, which compensates Canadian authors for the free public access to their books in libraries across the country. I always love receiving this cheque, for a few reasons. One, I always forget it’s coming, so it’s an awesome surprise! Two, it comes after Christmas, when I need it the most. Three, it keeps me writing.

The third reason is perhaps the most important one. The stated goal of the PLR program is to pay authors for works they’ve already written and that other people get to read for free, courtesy of our great library system. But it’s more than just compensation: it’s also an investment. Those cheques that get sent out at the beginning of every year help writers across the country keep writing. The books we’re getting paid for? Those books are already done and published. The PLR money we get for them helps buy us time to write our next books. Every spring, I get a cheque in the mail that makes me think, “To the writing cave!”

So thanks, PLR and Canada Council! And thanks to all you readers who keep buying books and checking them out of libraries! Without you, I’d just be a crazy person locked in a room arguing with imaginary people.

 

I could have been a contender, I mean, professor!

I just received some more photos from my time at the Surrey International Writers Conference. Thanks to photographer Sandra Vander Schaaf for the great shots! I didn’t even see her taking these pics, so they’re nice candid moments from the conference. Check her out if you need some photos of your own — looks like she takes a pretty good author shot.

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I think this was from my dialogue class — that’s a little Ian Weir on the white board there.

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“Bueller? Bueller?”

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Doing the Blue Pencil stuff was a lot of fun. I think my advice here was “You can never have too many orcs!”

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“Have you thought about more orcs?”

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“I like what you’ve done with the orcs here. Now let’s talk about dragons.”

#swic15!

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Thanks to everyone at the Surrey International Writers Conference for putting on such a great event! It was truly one of the best conferences I’ve attended. Great list of presenters and topics, excellent staff who took care of everything — and an absolutely amazing community. I was inspired by all of you!

If we chatted at all during the conference, do keep in touch. I had a great time hanging out with you!

Pic courtesy of @geekyscientist, who caught me explaining how putting the Gaudi church in your books makes everything better.

 

Writing Advice: Always read your work aloud before submitting

I’m currently finishing the edits to my third Cross book, The Apocalypse Ark, and I realized I never read the book aloud to myself before sending it off to the publisher. How do I know this? Because of all the editor’s notes that say “You just said this in the line above.”

For example:

I woke to find myself in an open grave, my clothes still wet with blood.

“Not again,” I sighed.

I looked up at the edge of the grave and saw a man standing there. No, not a man.

Da Vinci.

“I don’t know what this is about, but I’m sure I can explain,” I said.

Da Vinci rubbed his hands together and grinned. His teeth were like the blades of a saw.

“That’s what you said the last time,” he said.

I sat up and noticed my clothes were still wet with blood. So I hadn’t been dead that long.

“You couldn’t even spring for a coffin?” I asked.

“Coffins are for people, but you’re not a person, are you?” Da Vinci said. He grinned, showing off teeth like the blades of a saw.

“Let’s get on with it then,” I sighed.

OK, I’m exaggerating a little here. Also, Da Vinci isn’t in this book, although I do have plans for him.

It’s not uncommon for things like this to happen as you go through the drafts. When I write my first drafts, I tend to burn through them pretty quickly these days. First drafts are mainly for plot and character — the actual story of the work. My main goal with the first draft is to finish the book, not polish it, so I have something to work with. It’s also important mentally to have a complete book by a certain stage in the writing process, so you don’t fall into the Whirlpool of the Endless Draft. Seriously. That whirlpool really sucks about two years into a book. So my first drafts can be a little sloppy.

In later drafts, I tend to hop around the book working on the parts that need work, or that I feel like working on that day. So I don’t always move through the book in a linear fashion, starting at the beginning and working my way patiently through to the end. In fact, sometimes I resemble a drunken university student who’s just discovered Wikipedia the night before an essay is due: I’m cutting and pasting like mad. So it’s inevitable that mistakes, repeated words and the like creep in. Plus, most writers just have stylistic tics they’re not even aware of — until an editor points them out.

The way to catch all these problems is to read the book aloud. For whatever reason, you can sometimes hear things that you can’t see when you’re staring at the words. So I usually read each book to myself before I send it off to my publisher. Pro tip: Try to do this at home, as you get funny looks on public transit when you do it there, and people tend to hit those security strips. No one appreciates the arts anymore.

I realized I’d never done this with The Apocalypse Ark, so it was a bit embarrassing to get the edits back and find all these basic beginner problems. I’m going to blame my children, because what’s the point of having children if you can’t blame them for everything that goes wrong in your life? And I’m pretty sure that for every time Cross sighs in the book, I’ve sighed at my kids in real life.

In a way, it’s turned into a valuable lesson for me. It’s not only a reminder to be more diligent in my editing, but it’s also highlighted some of my writing tics for me. That’s just good stuff to know at any point in the writing process.

Also, now I’m kind of wondering how and why Da Vinci threw Cross into an open grave. Hmm….