We did it. We came, we saw, we camped. We ate, we hiked, we left a teensy bit earlier than planned due to the blistering heat in Alberta’s badlands. Overall, it was a successful summer memory. Our kids, who complain in the best of times, somehow slid pretty effortlessly into a camping state-of-mind.
The day we were heading out, I made a discovery that proved invaluable: podcasts for kids. I downloaded a few modern fables from Storynory and a couple TEDTalks for Kids and Family. My intention was to play them during the long drive from the city, but I forgot. It worked out for the best, though, because we listened to them together at bedtime, as we lay in the tent in the dark. It was the calmest our family of five has ever been in a 100-square-foot space.
My concerns for our kids’ sleep had been unfounded, since they melted into a deep, blissful slumber around midnight. My husband and I, on the other hand, lay awake until about 5am, nodding off just in time for what the Alberta Parks staff call the dawn chorus—a fitful, morning cacophony of birds and insects and I’m assuming tortured frogs.
Fortunately, there was coffee. Enough to make the dawn chorus seem special, even cheerful. When we packed up our things at the end of our stay, the birds were resting in the very little shade and for the most part, spared us from their melodic squawks. Still, I think we left on a high note. Who knows, we may even do it all again.
We were rummaging through a bin of old belongings when my daughters unearthed a (somewhat scandalous) photo of my husband and I. It was taken in the summer of 2003, sometime in the early days of our bourgeoning courtship. We were cuddled, tightly, in a tent during a small town folk festival in Nova Scotia’s eastern-most tip. The photo had made its way among the junk during our moves as a couple from Nova Scotia to Ontario and eventually Alberta.
My girls were agasp at this photo. It wasn’t our tangled limbs and locking lips, or the bottle of Alexander Keith’s dangling in my hand. It wasn’t even the unfortunate khaki bucket hat my husband was wearing without shame. They were shocked. Incensed. Stunned.
“YOU WENT CAMPING??!!”
I’m proudly Canadian. I know and accept that camping is a thing. But here in Alberta, camping is a thing. It’s the thing. I was not prepared. I was also not prepared for my three daughters to make it their thing. The last time I went camping was exactly that time in the photo, when I was falling in love with an older boy who invited me camping. Nine years of marriage and three kids later, I was finally being called out on my bullsh*t. If I could go camping for their tall, dimpled father then I could go camping for our little, dimpled kids, because EVERYONE IN THEIR CLASS GOES CAMPING AND WHY CAN’T WE.
Ok, ok, we’ll go camping.
Since the total sum of our equipment equaled one French Press and nothing else—in our family, coffee is a camping essential—I had a lot of work to do. One of my first lessons on this wilderness journey: camping ain’t cheap.
You’d think it would be, but starting from scratch for a family of five meant collecting everything from a tent, sleeping bags, stove, right down to the matches. (Thank God I had already invested in a French Press.) I stockpiled our inventory over the course of a year, and the day that Alberta Parks opened its site bookings in early Spring, I was finally one of those Albertans who was part of the buzz. I picked our date and site in one of Alberta’s super popular Provincial Parks. Which lead me to my second lesson: camping is a culture.
Convinced we would stick out like sore (city) thumbs, I did a little research about camping etiquette. I practiced pitching our massive tent, I assembled and test-ran our cute little stove. I may have even roughed up our cooler a bit, so everything didn’t look so, you know, shiny. Which was completely unnecessary, due to the third lesson that I’ll likely learn very soon: camping is dirty.
As I’m gathering our equipment, planning our meals and packing our bags for our extra-long weekend in the wilderness, I’m also preparing myself for our time in the great, dusty, bug-filled outdoors. Our kids are ecstatic. My husband is relaxed. My breath is shallow, my to-do list is long and my internet search history is filled with tips for identifying rattlesnakes. But I’m now totally confident that we’re fully prepared and fully equipped to have some fun (and maybe a few Keith’s). If I have time, I may try to find that old photo before we leave to remind me of those early days. The bucket hat, though? Sadly, the bucket hat did not make it.
If you’ve been to Calgary, chances are you’ve been to Banff. I’ll never forget the first time my husband and I drove towards the mountains, enveloped by one of the most beautiful horizons in the world, on a highway littered only with ‘wildlife crossing’ signs. Since then we’ve been back several times, and as promised, we’ve spotted many furry friends along the way. But it wasn’t until this month of this year, at the Banff Centre for the Arts, that I finally came toe to toe (toe to hoof?) with a deer.
A few deer, in fact. It was my last day of a writing retreat and I was walking along the wooded trail into town to get some fresh air (and fresh fudge). A small, furry herd was grazing in the middle of the narrow path, without care or concern for my dire fudge needs. Since I’m super nature-y, I knew just what to do: text my husband who would know what to do.
Me: Do I walk by??? I don’t understand.
Husband: Should be fine
Me: They won’t move!!!
Husband: Just don’t be between baby and mother
Me: *eye-rolling emoticon / photo of deer who, like my husband, were unmoved by my contempt*
Husband: Very pretty and calm. Breathe it in.
The idea of doing a writing retreat at the Banff Centre became a dream of mine the minute I learned there was such a thing as a writing retreat at the Banff Centre. It seemed like the most incredible thing. Five serene, inspired days in the mountains with nothing to do but write. (And eat and drink, because, writers.)
Last fall I finally found the courage (and resources) to make that fantasy a reality, and I registered for the Writers’ Guild of Alberta winter writing retreat. Characteristically, I then spent the following few months fantasizing about how to back the hell out of it.
It loomed so large, the overwhelming idea of my ‘retreat.’ This experience was something for serious writers, not unserious me. I wouldn’t measure up. I wouldn’t belong. But when that February departure day finally came, I packed my laptop, my notes and my gym clothes (unused) and with a little gentle nudging from my husband I headed off to Banff. It was serene. I did write. I definitely ate and drank. It was one of the greatest privileges I’ve been afforded as a writer, serious or not.
When I came across the deer on the trail, I was genuinely hesitant to keep moving forward. It was too steep to go around the herd, I was too underdressed to stand there all day in the frigid mountain air, and, frankly, I really wanted that fudge. So I walked, slowly, towards the animals until they parted just enough to let the frumpy human through. I made it to town, bought some fudge, and sent my husband my favourite apology emoticon for my previous profanity-laced texts.
On my walk back to campus, the deer were gone. (Or they were in the trees? I don’t know much about deer.) I stopped on the trail in my tracks, in the same spot as my previous impasse, and looked around.
Years ago, I could never have imaged we’d still be living in Calgary, that I’d be writing professionally again, and that I’d have my chance to attend a retreat in Banff. I stood there in the snow and decided to let myself believe that I belonged there. And then, after I ate all my fudge (sorry, family) I decided to breathe it in.
Note: Yes, those were my husband’s actual texts. No, I can’t be sure he wasn’t high.
Just one year ago, I polished off my applications for writing programs at the Humber School for Writers and the Alberta Writers’ Guild. I was accepted to both and chose the latter. I even received my notice of acceptance for each on the very same day. It was thrilling.
And it must have made me feel pretty damn good about myself. I must have thought, “Damn, Shannon! You have this application thing DOWN!” because when it came time to apply for another wonderful writing opportunity this week, I goofed. I totally goofed. I won’t go into details, but it comes down to the golden rule of DOING ANYTHING: I didn’t read the instructions.
Unfortunately, I realized this little (big) error just minutes after I hit send, submitting my slightly tone-deaf-but-hopeful application to the adjudicating bodies who will read my application and surely ask themselves: Did she read the instructions?
Sigh. There were several parts to the application so I’m daring to hope that my one little (big) goof is shadowed by the strength of the application as a whole. The way I see it, I have three options. I could change my name. I could send the panel a couple of LOLs and maybe a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Or, I could just sit, wait and hope for the best.
I don’t like to be brave. I don’t even like pretending to be brave.
When I was kayaking with my kids this summer, an army of earwigs invaded the crowded hull of our tiny, tipsy vessel. I didn’t notice until we were far from shore, and my daughter didn’t notice at all. I calmly picked them off her lifejacket, one by one, successfully avoiding her screams and our eventual death-by-earwig. That was me pretending to be brave in a life-threatening situation. But when my life isn’t threatened by earwigs, I don’t like to be brave.
So it was a bit out of character for me to submit the first page of my work-in-progress for a Live Action Slush. This weekend I attended an amazing local writing conference, When Words Collide, and some of the must-attend sessions were the Live Action Slushes. During these sessions, writers (anonymously) offer their first page to a panel of authors, who read the submissions aloud to the entire room and then critique them. The idea is to learn how well (or not well) your first page would do in an editor’s slush pile. The panel gives their feedback after each page is read. Since the submissions are anonymous, the writers in the audience don’t have to identify themselves. (Some do, because they’re masochists.)
Sounds fine, you say? What’s the big deal? Well, what if that panel of experienced, empathic authors was actually a panel of 9-15 year-olds, who were much less empathic, much less patient and much more particular with their tastes. Kids know what they like, and what they don’t. Also, imagine that this panel of young, discerning readers had been instructed to raise their hands during each anonymous reading if they’d completely lost interest.
Yeah. That’s the panel I chose for my very first Live Action Slush. I entered the conference room, placed the first page of my Middle Grade novel on the anonymous pile of papers, and took a seat to await my fate.
These kids weren’t messing around. Hands were raised, plots were questioned, and when the 13-year-old on the end said, “I like the writer’s use of exposition in the opening paragraphs,” I knew I was in way over my head. Had my body not been numb with fear, I would have crawled up the aisle towards the table and slipped my page out of the slush pile. But then, I heard the opening line of my story being read for the next round of judgement, and I knew it was too late.
I won’t bore you with the details of my immediate, physical reaction to hearing my page being read to a panel of kids in a room full of writers. Let’s just say it was akin to sitting in a kayak full of earwigs. What I really wanted to do was scream, but I sat there silently, calmly, practically motionless. (Any person in the room could have guessed that I was the author, though, since I didn’t exhale for three and a half minutes. Luckily, blue is my colour.) When my page was finally read, the kids had their fun.
The good news is, none of the young panelists raised their hands to signal that they didn’t like it. In fact, they did like it. They said so! Their feedback was articulate and positive and useful and once I saw them smile, things didn’t seem so scary after all.
In fact, it was kind of fun. And not just the kind of fun that people say is fun, but is not actually fun, like kayaking, but a real, honest-to-goodness thrill.
I may even do it again next year. Actually, I can’t wait.
*I do like kayaking, a lot, but only the earwig-less kind.
I’m not sure if packing for a family of five has become easier, or if I’ve just become numb to the entire process. Tomorrow we leave for our yearly pilgrimage to the East Coast, and even though I’m not quite ready to go, I’m more than ready to get there.
In many ways, it’s been a super sweet 2016. But in others, life feels a little unsure. We have lots to be grateful for, lots to look forward to, and lots of hard work ahead (gulp!).
In the meantime, there’s packing to do! Today, on our wedding anniversary, my husband reminds me that all we need is each other. Which is good. Because I have a feeling I won’t get around to packing much else.
It’s been a little more than a month since I finished my mentorship with the Writers’ Guild of Alberta (and did my reading at Puke Fest Edmonton 2016) and I’m only now starting to absorb some of the important lessons I learned. Which is pretty good, since I’m also only now starting to absorb the allegory of the Cave, fifteen years or so after I studied Plato’s Republic. (Disclaimer: I still don’t get it.)
For your enlightenment, here are five things I learned, over and over and over again:
1. Scene and be scene.
This was my first epiphany. Stay in scene! When my mentor (gently) pointed out that I was bouncing from action to memory to unrelated backstory to a random vignette about pond frogs, I had an awakening. Novels are about scenes! And I had been abandoning my scenes faster than a mother of three who’s littlest one just collapsed a pyramid of pickle jars in aisle four. (Metaphorically, of course.)
As a reader, nothing loses me quicker than losing my place in a scene. “Ok, where are we now? I thought we were in France, how did we get to Germany? Who’s Werner?” Ok, maybe I shouldn’t use an example from one of the most stunning books I’ve ever read, but my point is I will never win a Pulitzer. So don’t try to be cute, Shannon. Stay in scene.
2. Show, don’t tell.
When I was young, I loved this cheesy movie about a washed-up hockey player who reluctantly partners with a cranky-yet-feminine figure skater for one last shot at an Olympic medal. As he’s learning how to move in his new figure skates, his partner keeps yelling, “Toe pick. Toe pick. TOE PICK!” (If you’re wondering, yes, they eventually hook up. Come on.)
“Show, don’t tell” is the mantra of all writing instruction, fiction or otherwise. I’ve been taught it for many years. So I’m as surprised as anyone to admit that sometimes, I still don’t do it. It wasn’t until my mentor wrote, “Show, don’t tell. Show, don’t tell. SHOW, DON’T TELL!” all over my first, second and third drafts that I started to finally nail that triple sow cow.
3. “I get it!,” said the writer, finally.
Dialogue! Writing dialogue is new to me, since inventing things people say is not really a thing we learn in journalism school. At first, I was a little shy to attempt dialogue, but once I tried it, I quickly became addicted. Like sushi. Or meth. Of course, you have to be careful not to overuse it, which I have a tendency to do in real life. (Dialogue. Not meth.)
Dialogue was actually one of my favourite methods to show, not tell in my writing. It helped me showcase my character’s voice, her personality, and her relationship to other characters without the buffer of a narrator. And, just as importantly, dialogue is sometimes the quickest way to move the story forward.
“Shall we move on to the next point?” she asked.
“Sure,” they said with forced enthusiasm.
4. Advance the story.
Much like leaving the scene, I also had a tendency to add a lot of extraneous information in my writing. So much so, that it was a distraction to my reader. Here are a few of my mentor’s actual notes, which were emphasized in red ink, from just one page of one draft of one chapter:
“This comes out of nowhere. Need to explain.”
“I’m a little confused here.”
“Can you figure out a way to insert this organically?”
“Do we need to know this?”
Every detail needs to advance the story. I’m sure you’ve heard that, “In writing, you must kill your darlings.” Well. My first draft endured a bloody massacre. It was Tarantino-level. But it made my story better. Throughout my mentorship, it would sometimes take me weeks to finally let go of a superfluous character, scene or plot line that may have seemed brilliant, but didn’t really belong. But it made the story better. Cutthroat!
5. Stuff is hard.
At the end of almost every meeting with my wonderful, supportive mentor, I would plop my head onto my mounting piles of red-penned pages, overwhelmed by the things I still didn’t know, and I’d sob, “HOW do people do this?”
It seems as though, if there is something you want very badly, getting it should be easy. Not so. Never so. In fact, it’s the wanting it so badly that makes the getting it that much harder. Writing isn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever done or will ever do. Having kids is hard. Seeing them get hurt is hard. Having to explain the anatomy of a very invigorated German Shepard is hard. (Super hard.)
Nevertheless, embracing this ambition to be a writer has been a challenge, and frankly, I don’t like to be challenged. I don’t like to be brave. I don’t like to be scared, I don’t like getting my feelings hurt and I don’t like getting my ego bruised.
But what do I tell my kids, aside from, “Maybe you should pet the dog another time, honey.” I tell them, “It’s in the trying. It’s important to try.” It doesn’t always work, especially not with “odd” coloured vegatables, but maybe it will work for me. I hope. We’ll see.
Four weeks, three trips to the emergency room, two crutches and one dose of IV fluids later, and I can’t help but count my blessings. April was crazy and May has been kind of cruel, but now that my oldest daughter’s ankle has healed and everyone’s stomachs have un-queased, I can come up for air and reflect on the weeks that were. Because a lot has happened.
Last month I finished my mentorship program with the Writers’ Guild of Alberta. I crammed as much writing as I could into April, and on a sunny Saturday in May I did my first fiction reading ever at the Five New Alberta Voices event in Edmonton.
I read the first chapter of my middle grade novel, which has come LEAPS and BOUNDS since I started my mentorship with the Writers’ Guild. My amazing mentor, Lee, was there to introduce me and cheer me on. My husband arrived separately with our three girls in tow, including our oldest daughter who was nursing a fractured ankle. (And by nursing, I mean refusing to use her crutches.)
Our plan was for my husband and daughters to stay only during my reading, then duck back to the hotel before the show was over, leaving me to get drunk with the other writers enjoy myself. Which was a good plan.
But when you’re dealing with kids, you can’t really have plans. C’mon! We know better. We should have assumed that a nasty little bug was churning circles inside our three-year-olds’ intestines just as a I took the podium. It happened exactly then. My husband held our puking child against his chest as I stuttered through my reading in my lilting Maritime drawl.
Afterwards, my husband sent me the following text: “Quinn just threw up on me.”
(On the bright side, only one person threw up during my reading, which I think is pretty good for my first time.)
I didn’t actually know that my darling girl was sick until two glasses of wine later (ok, three, I was super nervous) when I thought to check my phone. I thought my wingmen had exited as planned, just in time to miss the reading that followed mine, a very racy (and masterfully written) NC-17 novel that made even my ears blush. But when my giddy self read my husband’s text, my heart and stomach sank. And I hopped in a cab for the hotel.
And that’s about it. The days that followed my little literary high have been filled with a whole lot of retching and not a lot of writing. But I’m ok with it. Because now, finally, we’re happy and healthy. And I have time to reflect on my opportunity to write, and to read what I wrote to a smattering of light applause from the Alberta literary community. And even though it was gut-wretching at the time, I love that we have yet another story to tell. About the time my writing made my daughters puke. All night. For weeks. See? Gold.
Only one month remains in my apprenticeship with the Alberta Writers’ Guild. And while I’ve learned a lot, and wrote a lot, and cried a lot, I have so much more to do before the program ends. This is not the time to be distracted.
So naturally I find myself totally, utterly, inopportunely distracted. Now is the time for attention and detail. Now is the time for focus and fastidiousness. Now is not the time for Facebook. (Oh look! More Easter photos.)
I need help. And since I can safely assume you’re also distracted from something much more important (since you’re reading my blog) here are my top three distractions and how I deal with them:
1. Social media
The other day my husband and I wanted to research some summer flights to Nova Scotia. I opened my laptop with this fact-finding mission in mind, but by the time my screen illuminated I was elbow-deep in a Twitter thread about the verdict in a certain Canadian trial. This is the sinkhole that is social media. Time evaporates (as do brain cells), you achieve very little and your husband eventually gives up and searches the flights on his phone while you mumble something about the justice system.
I used to think I could temper myself when it came to social media, but for me it’s like a chocolate Easter bunny. I can’t just nibble on the ears. In fact, I can’t eat just one. I eat one and then another and another until my gut is grumbling and my kids are crying because all the chocolate is gone and it’s only 9AM.
I can’t just slip into Twitter for a quick refresh when I’m supposed to be writing. I have to log off, hide the chocolate bunny deep inside the pantry and go completely dark. (Mmm, dark chocolate.) There are lots of helpful apps for keeping you on track and off social media, but I’ve been using just an old-fashioned timer. I glue myself to my work for a determined amount of time, then take 5-10 minute breaks to check my email and newsfeed and watch videos of sloths giving really slow hugs.
2. Real life
I wish I had the time to myself during the day to write (or watch sloth videos) but that’s not my reality. My reality is that I have three young kids who seem to rely on me for stuff. Like, a lot of stuff. They have needs, and I am their need-meeter. Along with the million other responsibilities that come with being a full-time human. That’s not to say that stay-at-home parents can’t write full-time. Many do, and many do very successfully. But these people are super-human and I a mere mortal.
For me, any leftover items on my to-do list, any outstanding chores or commitments or bathroom disasters take precedent over my personal time to write. Otherwise I’m far too distracted, or feel far too guilty to find a creative, peaceful space.
What helps me with this is routine. During the week, I follow an exact routine, cornering pockets of time to slip into writing between drop-offs, pick-ups and laundry. (SO MUCH laundry.) I also track my writing progress, which led me to discover that I am most productive in the wee morning hours. This has challenged me to get up before dawn each Saturday and Sunday, drive down the street to my local coffee shop, and plop myself in front of my laptop before the baristas have even made their first brew. I write for two hours and make it home in time to join the rest of my family for breakfast. Not only do I feel superior to everyone who’s still sleeping, but it also gives me an excuse to drink lots of coffee. (Does anyone really need an excuse to drink lots of coffee?)
3. Inner demons
Even if I’ve weaned myself from Twitter, even if I’m kid-free at the coffee shop or library, even if every other element is in place for me to have a productive writing hour, there is one more distraction that seeps into my brain, my thoughts, my screen: self doubt. This is the biggest distraction of all, and it can be more crippling to my creativity than my three-year-old yelling from the bathroom about a “big, big mess.” After almost every sentence I write, there follows a chorus of “boos” in my brain. Sometimes I’m stuck on the same scene for weeks, praying that someone else will say that it’s good enough because I can’t even tell anymore.
I don’t know how to fix this one. I try to deal by simply moving on. Switching between scenes, switching between projects or just taking a break all together. Reading really good writing helps when I’m feeling really bad about my own. I lose myself in a book or a blog or an article. I pick myself up from under the crushing weight of my own expectations and dust myself off. I try to forget my biggest fears by remembering my little wins. And then I start writing again.
So there you have it. Now tell me, how do you overcome your distractions?
More importantly, have you seen any good sloth videos lately?
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.