Plotters, pantsers, pokers, poppers

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Yet another thing J.K. Rowling and I have in common.

In the writing world, there is often only one p-word that matters: published. But to get there, you actually have to write something. From beginning to end. Sometimes in that order! And while the path to published can have many different bumps, brusies and (hopefully) breakthroughs, the approach you take to getting there falls neatly into one of two camps: pantsers or plotters.

Writers who are pantsers fly by the seat of their pants. They start with an idea, nothing more, and just write until eventually, hopefully, miraculously, it turns into a fully realized story or novel. Margaret Atwood is considered a pantser. (As a writer. I’m not sure if Margaret Atwood has, you know, pantsed someone. But who can be sure.)

Plotters, on the other hand, work with an outline. They have plot structure, characters sketches, and perhaps even a planned novel ahead of time. I think of complex works when I think of plotters (like J.K. Rowling), but I’ve heard many writers of every genre tote the merits of plotting, just as I’ve heard many authors swear only by pantsing.

I first heard these terms debated at a writing conference in Edmonton last May. I was attending a session on structure, and the accomplished panel of authors began by outting themselves as pantsers or plotters. I immediately identified my free-flowing style of writing as pantsing. Then I considered the pages and pages of outlines, character sketches and plot structure I had developed for my manuscript, and I thought, “No, I’m a plotter.” Then I realized the session had ended and I was sitting alone in a hotel conference room talking to myself.

(Of course, because everyone loves making up words, even writers, there are indeed plantsers. Those who both write by the seat of their pants and follow some sort of writing plan.)

It’s now a year later, I’m still working on that same manuscript, and I’m no longer sure what type of writer I am. Flying by the seat of your pants seems to imply some sort of accelerated motion forward, as if you’re writing at great speeds. That’s not me. That’s definitely not me. And sure, I plot (usually against people who have wronged me). But plotting doesn’t seem to increase my word count where it matters. Instead I’m spending time revising my very detailed sketch of a tertiary character. (This may actually be called procrastination.)

I think I’m a picker. I slowly pick away at writing. Or a poker. My story just pokes along. Or maybe I’m a potter. I plant a great idea, fail to find the time to water it and hope to the high heavens that it will eventually grow on its own. If there were a magic pill I could take to finish writing this book, I would be a popper. (Oh how I wished for this while writing my masters thesis.) Maybe I’m a prayer-er. As in, when it comes to finishing this novel, I haven’t got one.

Who knows. I’m starting to realize that how I write isn’t as important as what I write. And you’ll never get to the what if you don’t make time for the when. It seems simple so I will treat it as such, and just keep writing. Eventually, I’ll get there.

At least I’m not pessimistic.*

*It’s quite possible that I am also pessimistic.

Blockhead

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Hoping for a triple word score.

I like to read about writing. (I even blogged about it.) And while I enjoy reading about writing for the simple sake of reading about writing, most often I’m reading about writing because I’m having trouble writing about… anything. That sounds like writer’s block, you say? Yes, I’m familiar with the term.

During a recent writing rut, I came across some interesting advice that compared writing a shitty first draft to running a marathon. Of course my first thought was, I have never actually completed a marathon so this comparison is completely useless. My second thought was, I have never actually completed a first draft of book-length proportions, so any and all advice will do. Also, I’ve tried running and I’ve tried writing and attempting to do too much of either almost always ends in me collapsing on the floor. So in the midst of my writer’s blah (when you’re writing, but it’s all very blah) I decided to give it a try.

The gist was this: you run a marathon from start to finish (I’m told). Considering this, you wouldn’t turn around and re-run sections of the race if your pace wasn’t perfect, now would you? (Would you? I dunno.) So, when writing your shitty first draft, write from start to finish. Don’t stop, turn around and re-write certain sections of your work. Perfection is not the point when it comes to finishing your first draft. Head down, forward motion and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. (Can you hydrate during a marathon with red wine? Again, I dunno.)

This made sense. And a few wavering edits notwithstanding, this is what I’ve attempted to do. The funny thing is, it’s starting to work! The further I ramble on into my story, the easier it is to keep writing. (This is not my experience with running long distances, however, where the further I ramble on, the harder it is not to die.)

I still stumble, stop, and sometimes fall. I often have to force myself to keep going, no matter how slow the going is. Much like running, I find the anticipation of a scheduled writing hour or two much more anxiety inducing than the act of writing itself. But now that my ideas are flowing more freely, I’ve started to look forward to each new run at this writing thing.

Who knows what this means for me. Maybe I’ve found a solution to my writer’s block? Maybe I can finally finish this first draft? Maybe I should run a marathon? I don’t know, but I’m excited.

(Actually, I do know, and the answers are maybe, hopefully and not bloody likely.)

The elevator pitch

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Going up?

A funny thing happens when people learn that you’re (attempting to call yourself) a writer, and that you’re currently writing something specific. They tend to ask, “What are you writing? Is it a book?”

Of my many rambling responses, the following usually make the top three:

-Uh, I’m not sure what it is.

-It’s just silly.

-It’s nothing, really.

Then, perhaps as some form of torture, they ask, “So what’s it about?”

-Uh, I’m not sure what it’s about.

-It’s just silly.

-It’s about nothing, really.

If this sounds stupid, it’s because it is stupid. And not just because I should probably know what it is I’m writing about. (My husband says I need to work on my ‘elevator pitch’, which is apparently not the same as my desperate barrage of apologies when my kids press all the buttons in the elevator.) It’s stupid because if I can’t comfortably call myself a writer, if I can’t even talk about what I’m writing, and if I can’t imagine eventually sharing what I’m writing, then WHY AM I WRITING?

The other weekend, my husband came home from our daughter’s hockey practice and said that we should probably teach her how to accept compliments. One of our daughter’s coaches had approached her after ice time and said, “Wow, your skating has come so far!” to which she said, “Blerp-dee-blee-doo.” She may have also said, “You’re welcome.” I don’t know, I wasn’t there, but that awkward feeling of being acknowledged in any way is all too familiar.

Of course, writing isn’t exactly like receiving a compliment. It’s like punishment, actually. Someone saying, “Wow, you’re writing a book? Cool!” is like someone saying, “Wow, you’re sticking your hand in a garbage disposal? Cool!”

But still, I need to develop some level of comfort when it comes to talking out loud, to people, about writing. Keeping it bottled up inside will only lead to an explosion of sorts, like the time I met my writing mentor for the very first time. She said something like, “Hi, are you Shannon?” and my mouth erupted with every thought I’d ever had about my plot, subplot, my protagonist’s hair colour and (bizarrely, truthfully) cell phone towers.

It was like the time my husband and I took our ten-month-old to a fancy restaurant and she barfed all over the table, but instead of a seemingly endless stream of regurgitated breast milk, I was spewing random words. Either way, It’s just not healthy.

Thankfully, astonishingly, my mentor has agreed to meet with me again, in public, word spew and all. Maybe she can even help me work on my pitch.

(Our family is never, ever allowed back at that fancy restaurant, though. Like, ever.)

Mindfulness-ish

About a year ago, at the suggestion of someone much wiser and balanced than I, I started reading a book on mindfulness and meditation.

You may have heard of it. It’s considered a classic introduction to the practice of mindfulness, and it’s called Wherever You Go There You Are by John Kabat-Zinn.

“Sure,” I remember saying, while simultaneously thinking there is absolutely no way in the Four Noble Truths that I’m reading that. But upon further insistence that this book was essential to a life well-lived, I downloaded a digital copy to my tablet, which is what I do with books I don’t really care about.

(I was later told that this book is not meant to be stored as an electronic file on your tablet like that series of selfies your kids took with your unwilling cat. Instead it’s meant to be held and highlighted and dog-eared, so evidence of your many epiphanies is much more tangible. My bad.)

It may be surprising to some that I found this book exceedingly helpful. To others, likely those who have read the book or who are aware of the witchcrafty-powers of practicing mindfulness*, it may not be surprising at all. Mindfulness, in its simplest explanation and in words that I’ve trickily avoided plagiarizing from most articles on the internet, is a mainstream technique with Buddhist roots that involves being actively engaged in the present.

It’s about observing and not criticizing. It’s about being self-compassionate. It’s about improving your state of wellness. (And with a little concentration, contemplation and discipline, it’s eventually about becoming a “full human being!”)

Sounds great, but I was much less motivated by becoming a “full human being” than by using mindfulness as a method of stress reduction. And it did work. But it does take some pretty dedicated mental training that, ironically, sometimes stresses me out. (ONE MORE thing on my to-do list!)

I do return to this book sometimes, and I try to use some tricks** of the trade*** when I’m feeling overwhelmed. It’s especially useful when I’m with my family, but not present with my family. If I catch myself drowning in a river of negative thoughts or worries that are ultimately beyond my control, I drag my floundering body out of the current and onto the shore. That helps me concentrate on the puzzle we’re building, or the dough we’re rolling, or the episode of Full House we’re watching for the billionth time (more likely).

I keep waiting for the week, the month or the season when life starts to slow down, but I’m getting the impression that just won’t happen. But I can slow down to engage more with the present, and mindfulness is just one more tool in my dusty toolbox that helps me do just that.

I may never reach the state of “full human being,” but maybe it will get me as far as “somewhat functioning wife and mom.” I’ll take it.

*Practicing mindfulness has not given me witchcrafty-powers. Yet.
**Mindfulness is not a trick.
***Mindfulness is not a trade. Or is it??

Log jam

When I applied for the Writers’ Guild of Alberta Mentorship Program, there were very clear expectations of time.

As far as I’ve been told, this is a competitive program for serious people. (I’m still waiting for the note rescinding my acceptance: “It seems as though your submission fell into the wrong pile. Please return any hopes, dreams and congratulatory messages you may have received due to this error. Our apologies”

This program also requires a lot of time. It’s quite specific, actually. So when I was estimating my capacity to make time, to have time available for this project, I did what I always do. I didn’t get too specific.

(It’s like pouring wine or managing our household budget. These things aren’t meant to be exact. Right?*)

Well, we’re three days into this writing thing, and I’m already running out of time. I’m also probably running out of money (I dunno, I haven’t looked at the budget lately) and I’m definitely out of wine.

But I am serious about this. (And very competitive.) So today I completed one of the program recommendations and created a time log. For the next month, I’ve identified several pockets of time for writing, revising and meeting with my (awesome) new mentor. Who, by the way, has already handed me her thorough, thoughtful, relevant edits for my first submission. And is currently editing my second submission as I type this post. Which means I’m officially out of words.

Time to get writing.

(Authors note: I would use this time to write, but according to my newly created log, the next hour is reserved for Internet research. Unrelated to writing. So if you need me, I will be refreshing #MakingAMurderer on my Twitter feed. I LOVE being organized!)

*My husband informs me that apparently yes, budgets must be exact.

A year in words

I’m not really one for resolutions, or regrets, or radicchio. (Although I am one for alliteration, at all costs.)

But I can’t help but look back on 2015 and think it was a raging success. I had some ups, some downs, and some life-turned-upside-downs, and (lucky you) they were all documented here for your reading pleasure. Here’s a snapchat:*

This year, I said yes. A lot. Like joining my husband and daughters for a family run instead of standing in my pantry eating handfuls of gummy bears. (I did that, too, and it was amazing.)

I said no. There were times, especially in the last few months, when I felt overwhelmed. On top of stumbling through my day job and dreaming of my dream job, I felt the pressure of the four million other things I should be undertaking. I had to slow down, practice self-care and say no to some less important things, so I could eventually say yes to more important things.

I pushed myself to write. And to call myself a writer. And to share my writing with you and a bunch of discerning five-year-olds. I pushed myself to run. And even though I fell short of a few running goals, and some writing goals, I’m still standing. (Which is the anthesis of running, so that should be obvious.)

I said goodbye. I found myself traveling alone to Nova Scotia twice this year, once to say farewell to a wonderful woman, and once to be together with my parents and siblings at a difficult time. These times were hard, but they made me forever grateful for everything.

I was surrounded by love. Lots of love. So much love. I learned a lot about my daughters, and they learned a little about me. (Mostly good stuff.)

And despite a few close calls, I made it into the New Year without losing a single person. Ok, ok, I did technically lose a person, but she was found relatively quickly and is now tethered to my body with rope and glitter glue. But I can proudly say that I made it into the New Year without losing a single person for a period longer than five minutes.

It was a good year. And I have a feeling 2016 will be even better.

Happy New Year!

*Possible new years resolution: Learn what snapchat is.

Good expectations

People often ask me, “How do you do it?” And although these people are my small children and they’re usually referring to complicated board game instructions, I thought I would take the time to share my recently discovered secret to success: good expectations.

I like to set my sights high-ish. I have goals-ish. My expectations are good, not great. That way, I hardly ever fall short of life’s seemingly endless challenges and spiral down a rabbit hole of failure, fear and regret.

It wasn’t always this way. As a teenager, I had laughable, lofty expectations of life, love and prom. I blame American television shows. But as life, love and prom (and my vocabulary) proved to be a bit less glamorous than that of the sesquipedalian kids of Dawson’s Creek, I adapted.

For example, when I was a new mom at home alone while my entire family lived on the East Coast and my husband travelled for work, my daily expectation for myself was pretty low. The lowest of the low. Did my baby attempt a nap? Yes? Success! Is her belly full of breast milk and her bones still intact? Seemingly so? Success! Did I shower today and remember to rinse the conditioner from my hair? Who can be sure? Success!

Aside from the tears, fears and unsettling hormone imbalance, my year-end parenting performance review was outstanding. (So much so that I promoted myself to mother of two. Then tree. With each new newborn, my expectations lowered even further. Does everyone have a pulse? I think so? Success!)

Now, as my youngest daughter approaches age three and my mind, body and soul emerge from the trenches of tantrums and toddlers, I’m slowly starting to raise my expectations ever so slightly. But there are levels to this sh**. And since you asked I’ll share with you my approach, which involves a tertiary goal system and exactly zero accountability. (You have to find what works for you.)

Level One: Daily life.

While some people might call this category a routine, or universal parenting responsibilities, or simple mindless tasks a monkey could do, I call these goals, simply so I can give myself extra credit when we make it to the bus stop on time or I remember to pack my daughter’s lunch. Bus, lunches, dinner, drop-offs, pick-ups, these are all my daily life goals. (In addition to these daily life goals, there are also what I like to call add-ons, like permission slips, library books and special events. If I can successfully accommodate these add-ons at a frequency of three out of five, I pat myself on the back.)

Level Two: Nice to haves.

These goals are less things I should accomplish and more things I pull off somehow. Like hitting (and surpassing) 100 posts on my blog. Applying successfully to the WGA Mentorship Program. Showing up on time to hockey / piano / dance with equipment / homework / all three children safely in tow. These are nice to haves. Did the sweet teacher receive her gourmet chocolates on the last day of school before Christmas break? No? My daughter forgot them in her backpack? Oh well. No biggie. Appearing as a put-together, appreciative mom of a girl who had a great beginning to the school year was a nice to have. Besides, who doesn’t love getting chocolates in January, four days into their resolutions?

Level Three: A girl can dream.

Here’s where I store the unmentionables. Goals that seem about as achievable to me as winning the lottery. Run five miles. Publish a book. Win the lottery. These are the loftiest of all my goals, so lofty that acknowledging them at all makes them even more elusive, like a birthday wish or another Jays pennant run. Raise three happy, well-adjusted, independent kids. Retire early and travel the world with my husband. Retire at all. Find a job from which I can eventually retire. Have perpetually manicured hands. Overhear my daughters’ friends say, “Your mom is so cool,” and my daughters say, “Yeah, she’s pretty great.” Like I said, a girl can dream.

So there you have it. The anatomy of ‘good expectations’ provided by someone who managed to shower this morning and make the kids lunch. In that order. You’re welcome. And good luck. (Or, should I say, great luck.)

My mentor, my self

I still remember the October day that I got the email from the Writers’ Guild of Alberta because it was also the day that I took my two youngest daughters to get our flu shots. I had been forced (due to my lack of parallel parking skills) to park blocks away from the flu clinic in a disorienting maze of Crests and Coves and Crescents and was forced (due to their sudden affliction of ‘sore feet’) to carry my needle-poked toddlers in my own needle-poked arms all the way back to our lost van. But I was happy, because while waiting the obligatory 15 minutes après injection (ok, 9 minutes), I got this email from the Writers’ Guild of Alberta:

Dear Shannon, 

I’m so pleased to let you know that you’ve been chosen as one of our apprentices for the 2016 Mentorship Program…

Just hours before, I had also received an acceptance email for the Correspondence Program for the Humber School for Writers. I had applied for it and the WGA mentorship program in early September, hoping for a long shot at either. I remember thinking both programs were prestigious, intense and probably for people much more serious than me, but hey, what the hell. Why not apply?

I was surprised, even giddy (due slightly to flu shot) to be accepted to both.

I declined my acceptance to the Humber School for Writers (another time) and gladly accepted my place as an apprentice with the Writers’ Guild. I’ve been a member of the WGA for a few years, but I haven’t felt a part of it. I’ve met great people and attended great events, but I can’t wait to feel a part of it through this program.

Of course, there’s more to this commitment than just the acceptance part. I actually have to work. I was linked with my mentor, author Lee Kvern, whose credentials, I learned that day, were as long as my sore arm and who I’m already afraid I’ll disappoint. I’m one of five apprentices* who will work with mentors to create and shape and (hopefully) complete our writing projects by the end of the program in May.

Work begins in January.

*Note that the seemingly least qualified in this list of friendly writer faces is yours truly. Can you tell by my photo that I spent over an hour in my living room trying to snap something without a toddler photo bomb? I look tired. Do I always look tired? (I am always tired, but that’s beside the point.)

A book obituary

There are many casualties of moving. Furniture. Drywall. Marriages. My husband and I have boxed our belongings and moved homes six separate times during our life together. It’s a consequence of living in three different provinces in 10 years. And each time, it gets harder and harder to unpack each and every box. Even important items are forgotten, replaced and left for dead in a plastic bin labeled, “Computer Junk.”

Most of the time these abandoned items are just that, junk. I don’t think we’ll ever again need that snake pit of cords from our apartment in Southwestern Ontario circa 2005. But sometimes, these abandoned items are treasures, waiting to be remembered and returned to their former glory.

On a particularly thorough hunt for a pair of ice skates, I came across one of my precious treasures: my boxes and boxes of books. I hadn’t unpacked them since our most recent move, in anticipation of the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves I would build. Well, it’s been more than two years, and my extravagant bookshelves exist only on my Pinterest board titled, “Bookshelves.” And today, when I opened one of these boxes of beautiful books to let them breathe, I made a horrifying discovery.

Mildew. Mold. Moisture. Everywhere.

I even shoved my nose deep into the binding of book after book, for a whiff of hope that these books could be recovered. I’m not sure they can. I think my books are too far-gone. And now, I’m in mourning.

So in memory of my moldy books, I thought I would compile a list of titles that I read, and loved, and that deserved so much more.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

I’ve read this book three times, and each time it’s held a different meaning. Joan Didion is one of my all-time favourite writers. A giant. An inspiration. A legend. This is a gorgeous book about grief and loss, which is ironic, because now, it’s gone. Goodbye, beautiful book.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson

Without a doubt, this is the funniest book I have ever read. Gut-busting. I don’t remember each individual story in this book (even though I’ve read it multiple times, each time as funny as the last) but I remember the experience of reading this book. Which at one point involved me falling off my bed in a fit of tearful laughter. I haven’t read her long awaited follow up, Furiously Happy, but I’m furiously curious if it will end up in my Christmas stocking. Cheerio, funny friend.

February by Lisa Moore

This book killed me. Seriously, I lay dead. It was just so beautifully and captivatingly written. I loved every line, every passage, every expertly elicited emotion. Its characters and setting and sentimentality gave me the deep, deep feels. Fair winds and following seas, February.

The Sweetness At the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

No, no, not Flavia de Luce! This unassuming book got me hooked on the genius that is Alan Bradley, and I fear that when I open the other four boxes of books in our basement, I’ll discover that several other Falvia adventures will also be marred with mildew. If only I had the wit and wisdom of this tenacious eleven-year-old to have properly stored these treasures in the first place. Alas. Until we meet again, young Flavia. Until we meet again.