#LiveActionSlush rush

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.

5 things I learned about writing while trying

 

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Nothing says, “Kill your darlings” like red pen.

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?” 

“Relevant???”

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.

Laws of Distraction

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?

Trying, at times

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You can do it!

I have many recurring thoughts. Some of them are pretty banal: “I need coffee.” Sometimes they’re rhetorical: “Should I have another coffee?” Other times they’re a bit more existential: “Who am I without coffee?”

When I have thoughts about my writing career, however, they usually hover around one recurring, discouraging theme: “HOW do other people do this?” (Also but less often, “HOW do some people do this without coffee?”)

Which always leads me to my least favourite, most threatening thought: “Can I do this?” And inevitably: “Am I good enough?”

I try really, really hard to avoid comparing myself to others. It’s toxic and useless and altogether artificial. But when I do fall into that trap (there’s just way too much bait out there to avoid it all together), I remind myself of how lucky I am. I remind myself of how hard people work for their successes. And that I can be successful, too, if I work hard.

That being said, could someone please tell me exactly how hard? No, really, give me a formula. There are days when I’ll write for an hour, file a few hundred words (I write sllooooooowww) and instead of feeling relief or accomplishment, I’ll feel incredibly guilty for not writing more. (Don’t even get me started on revisions.)

Every minute of my time is scheduled, squeezed, synergized, capitalized. (Just call me Mom Corp.) And writing between chores sometimes makes writing a chore. I’m exhausted. My brain is fried. Coffee doesn’t even work for me anymore and I can’t help but think HOW DO PEOPLE DO THIS? CAN I EVEN DO THIS?

Maybe I can’t. That’s a terrifying thought, but that’s ok if I gave it all I’ve got. I have a bad, bad habit of listening to my fiercest critic. And my fiercest critic (me) is starting to have doubts. I sometimes need 10 supportive voices for every one negative thought I have about my own abilities. (I’m so lucky to have those 10 voices.)

But maybe I am capable of doing this, and doing it well. I’m halfway through my writing mentorship, I am working hard and my work is getting better. There MUST be a reason I’m chasing this writing life, that I feel compelled to chase it.

I don’t know where I’ll end up, I don’t know what working even harder will bring, and I don’t know for sure if I am good enough.

What I do know is, I’ll never forgive myself if I don’t try.

In the meantime, there’s more coffee. (I’ll always forgive you, coffee. You’re the best.)