Chapter 34

This morning I awoke to a city covered with a fine layer of glistening frost, like the clouds had dusted my surroundings with icing sugar. It was a beautiful way to open my 35th year, with everything looking sparkling and crisp.

I’m now, as a friend pointed out, halfway to 70.

Thirty-four was, for me, a year of extreme ups and downs. Maybe the most extreme year of my life.

When I was 34, I visited six countries on three continents over multiple trips. I traveled with friends, alone with my children, alone with my husband and with my husband and kids. Before 34, the thought of getting on a plane left me fraught with terror, often paralyzed and numb. Before 34, leaving my children behind so I could see the world with my beloved made me so sick and anxious I couldn’t enjoy the places I was visiting. When I was 34, I boarded a four-seater single-prop airplane without so much as a tremor. 34 was the year I conquered a fear that has dogged me since early adulthood.

When I was 34, depression kicked my ass. It left me lower than I’ve ever been, so low that I stopped caring about climbing my way out of the pit I’d sunk into. And then, while I was still 34, I kicked depression’s ass right back. The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was force myself to slog through those days instead of just giving up. When I was 34, I battled my own brain for the will to live, to accept help. That help came in many forms – family, friends, love, support, pharmaceuticals and counselling. I’m grateful for every one of them.

When I was 34, I started my own business, something I had always sworn I was never interested in doing, until I found something I realized I couldn’t not do. It started out as a very part-time hobby, but the more I worked at it, the more it’s become something I want to grow and nurture. 34 saw me try on a new hat – that of entrepreneur. And I think that hat fits me pretty well.

When I was 34, I sent my youngest child off to school for the first time. He ran from me toward his classroom with unreserved joy – and then ran back to give me a hug, maybe understanding the way only kids can that it was harder for me than him. It will be at least another ten years before I have a child out of school again. I miss their company during the day.

When I was 34, I became truly comfortable with who I am, and stopped seeking approval from others for my life and my choices. I stopped feeling guilty for doing things that made me happy, and I stopped putting my own needs last, realizing that sometimes the best way to help others to be their best is to make sure I’m at my best first. I will never apologize for doing that. I wore bikinis. I got another tattoo. I built a shed/office/clubhouse that’s just for me to read in or write in or drink cheap coolers in or just stare up through the sunroof at the stars in.

When I was 34, I changed. The high points brought me joy. The low points taught me about my limits and about who’s got my back. I am grateful for every moment of 34, because it’s what’s made me into the person who’s ready to tackle 35 with a joie de vivre that I haven’t felt in a long time.

Disordered Thinking

It’s rare that I get all the way to the end of a book before discovering I hate it. It happens (I’m looking at you, Veronica Roth) but usually I can tell if it’s not going to work out in the first couple of chapters. And that’s fine. I don’t mind walking away if all I’ve given is a quarter-hour of my time. But when a book disappoints with its ending, leaving me with the sense that I’ve wasted a good three hours, I get cranky. And that’s starting to happen more than I like these days.

I’m finding that there are far too many books relying on the old trope of “s/he did it because s/he’s nuts!” as an easy solution to the story. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth. First off, because it’s weak. It’s the easiest way out, out of countless easy ways. Readers deserve better. We deserve something original, something that will make us think, leave us questioning what we thought we knew. You can’t achieve that if your entire plot rests on some caricature of mental illness.

And that’s my second reason. Why does it seem like every villain does what they do because they’re batshit crazy? And not even a specific type of mental illness. I’m talking generic looneytunes. Where’s the motivation? Where’s the complexity, the subtle character nuances that really get the reader deep inside their head?

Because here’s the thing: mental illness does not a villain make. There’s this huge stigma surrounding it. If you sit down next to a stranger and tell them you have cancer, you get sympathy and compassion. Probably also some half-baked medical advice. If you tell that same stranger you have a mental illness, they shift themselves a little further away. They shelter their children from you. They have important things to check on their phone.

The reality is, one out of four people will suffer from some form of mental illness in their lifetime. That puts you at 25% odds, whether you like it or not. If not you, maybe one of your kids, or your partner. Some of your friends and family members are mentally ill. And I’m guessing they don’t go around attacking people on the street or stuffing them into trunks of cars.

The trope of using mental illness as a crutch in fiction to explain negative actions isn’t going to go away as long as we keep fearing those who are mentally ill. We need to talk about it, openly, the same way we talk about our diabetes, our heart disease, our oddly-shaped mole that keeps growing. It should be just as acceptable to say “I can’t make it into work today, I’m going through a period of depression,” as it is to say “I can’t make it into work today, I have the flu.”

I address mental illness head-on in my fiction, and I plan to always do so. But you’ll never see me ending a novel with the bad guy being carted off to the psychiatric hospital. No, the characters in my fiction that have mental health issues are protagonists. That’s right. They’re the good guys. My current main character has a severe form of aphephobia, the fear of touch. Maybe in my next book one of the players will have an anxiety disorder, or bulimia, or PTSD. And maybe the people who read it will come away with a little bit of a better understanding of how a mental disorder is only an aspect of a person – it does not define him.

…And We’re Back.

I forgot to compose a blog post for the last two months, it seems. Writing has just been writing. Sometimes I do it. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I query. Sometimes I don’t. There have been no major revelations or hurdles in my authorial life lately.

I had surgery at the beginning of September and thought I’d spend my prescribed weeks of recovery at home with my feet up, writing thousands of words every day. It turns out I can’t even comprehend reading on morphine and Percocet, much less writing. I haven’t produced a single word in a month. Yes, it’s my old familiar friend, the midpoint blahs. I’m familiar enough with my routine now to know that the stretch from about 30K to 60K words is rough going even when I’m clear-headed.

I’m also indecisive as hell. Sometimes choices paralyze me and I end up doing nothing at all while my brain parses every single pro, con and outcome in an endless chain of inactivity.

Case in point: I find myself preoccupied with what path to take my writing time on going forward.

  1. Continue writing The Unknowing until I’m finished my first draft. I have about 35K words now and I’m aiming for 100Kish. At my pace, this represents another 4-5 months of work. Complete the trilogy and put it to bed, while continuing to query for it. Pros: the satisfaction of finishing something that’s occupied me for close to three years. Cons: those midpoint blahs. Spending more time on a project that so far has not resulted in any promise of publication.
  2. Put The Unknowing aside for now and begin a new story that so far has only a two-page outline and some scattered ideas in various notebooks. Pros: That new book glow writers get. The excitement of developing new characters and plots. Cons: The fear that I’ll lose the voice of my current project. The self-imposed perception of quitting or giving up.

I’ve been mulling for the better part of a month and I just can’t decide, so I’m going to put it to you, the reader, with the aid of the handy poll function I just discovered I can use. I will wait a week and then base my decision on the results.

A Side Project/Shameless Plug

If you’re a regular reader, you probably know that one of my other pastimes is canning and preserving.

My cold room.

My cold room.

I spend a great deal of my free time from May-October putting up anything and everything in season to feed us through the winter. This past week, for example, I canned 75lbs of tomatoes into pasta sauce, turned a case of apricots into jam (with amaretto and vanilla, yum!), went foraging in a couple parks in my city for saskatoons and sour cherries, which I made into a juice concentrate for smoothies, and bought a further 15lbs of Lapin cherries to make into preserves. In short, I’ve been busy. Oh, and I scored this lot at a small-town thrift store today:

That's around 100 jars. YOU CAN NEVER HAVE TOO MANY JARS.

That’s around 100 jars. YOU CAN NEVER HAVE TOO MANY JARS.

It only made sense then, for me and my canning partner-in-crime and longtime friend Lindsay to open our own store supplying canning products and accessories.

The Cannery - Now Open!

The Cannery – Now Open!

We supply the Canadian market with hard-to-fnd products like Tattler reusable lids and Pomona’s Pectin as well as your favourites from Bernardin and more. We also strive to make mason jars more useful by offering products that will turn your jar into a cup, a coffee- or teapot, a soap dispenser or even a martini shaker! And if it’s recipes you’re after, we carry a large selection of books on canning, pickling and dehydrating. But wait, there’s more! We’ve also just started up a blog, Pretty Little Jars, focusing on skills, tips, recipes, stories and more. We hope with these two sites to become one of Canada’s leading sources for canning supplies and information. And now back to our regularly scheduled content 🙂

A Writer Writes. Except When She Doesn’t.

I’ll admit it. I commit the cardinal sin of writerdom.

I don’t write every day.

I know, I know, I know. Get into the habit, blah blah blah. Writing requires dedication, blah blah blah. You’re not a writer unless you’re writing, blah blah blah.

Good for those people.

I prefer the words of one Burton Rascoe:

“A writer is working when he’s staring out of the window.”

Or perhaps this quote from Donald M. Murray:

“Even the most productive writers are expert dawdlers…”

Here’s the thing. I don’t think sitting with my fingers on the keyboard is the only way to write. I am writing all the time. What I call ‘future-writing.’

I think it’s fair to say that about 75% of my writing happens in my head. It’s collecting experiences, bits of emotion or imagery and filing them away to use later. Jotting a few words in a notebook that will form the basis of a novel. Remembering the rawness of receiving bad news, the delayed shock and feeling of betrayal that follow. Taking an extra few seconds to really look at a piece of graffiti in a foreign city, or the way tree roots crack through the mortar of an ancient stone wall. These things are all writing, to me. They inform the words that are yet to come. I think they’re just as important, because they make the words feel real.

That’s not to say that the actual word-writing part isn’t important too. I go in fits and spurts between the two – sometimes I’m only at the laptop, sometimes I’m taking in the world around me. These past six months have taken me all over the world – to Iceland and Vancouver and California and Hong Kong and Japan, and I’ll see Belize and Wales and Scotland and Amsterdam before the year is through – and the things I’ve taken away from those places, whether they’re specific to a location or just an encounter with someone who I wouldn’t have met had I stayed home, make the words that I have written brighter. Last year I visited a coastal town that’s going to be the inspiration for my next novel. Could it feel half as real if I’d never been?

Now that I have a bit of a lull before I hit the road again (two whole weeks!) I’m eager to reconnect with my laptop, for although I’ve lugged it around the globe, I produced nary a sentence. Who would want to travel such distances to keep their nose buried in front of a screen?

You can’t write unless you’ve lived. Right now, I’m doing a whole lot of living, word count goals be damned.

On the Benefits of an Honest Critique

As a writer, probably one of my least favourite things to do is share my work with others and ask for a critique. Not because I’m worried they’re going to tear it apart, but because I’m afraid they’ll just say “I think it’s great!” and hand it back.

A critique like that is exactly 0% helpful. I don’t want my ego stroked. I want to know what doesn’t work so I can make it better. Whether it’s something I know needs work but I can’t figure out how to fix it, or feedback that takes me entirely by surprise, a good critique can only be helpful, if you listen to it.

This article from the Huffington Post sums up how I feel about the subject nicely. It’s worth a read by anyone who strives to improve themselves, whether at work, at a creative pursuit or even aspects of their personality.

I’m not saying critique doesn’t hurt. My dad is a particularly thorough critic of my writing and some of the stuff he says makes my cheeks burn when I read it. Instinctively, my reaction is always along the lines of “well you’re just wrong.” And I vow to ignore it.

Via http://sweetochii.deviantart.com

A few days later I read his critique again. And even if I don’t take every word to heart – there’s no rule that says you can’t stick with your original thought or plot device or whatever – I still consider his reaction and why he might feel that way. You can’t make everyone happy, but you can listen to everyone’s complaints and assess them. All feedback is useful in some way, as long as it’s constructive. I often end up coming around to the critiquer’s point of view and make some changes.

I kind of love critiques. Like in a sadistic, “hit me ’til it hurts” sort of way. I mean ultimately, even if it makes me squirm, my goal is to be a better writer, right? I used to hate it in school when I’d get a paper back all marked up with red ink and I didn’t have the opportunity to re-write based on the feedback to improve it. It was just done. With the long editing process and multiple drafts involved in writing a novel, I finally get to do that. You’re damn right I’m going to listen to someone who has an opinion if they’re willing to take the time to offer it to me.

The Art of Words

As a person who finds herself inspired by words, I surround myself with wordy things. Books by the hundreds, typewriters of all shapes and sizes, even a writing-inspired tattoo (and another to come soon).

And then there’s artwork. My favourite pieces I own (apart from this painting by Brandon Bird which is the first thing you see when you walk into my house) all have to do with books and writing. There’s the large-scale print of a couple embracing under a tree that’s actually made using the entire text of Wuthering Heights, and the vintage typewriter ads, including this one which is pretty much exactly what I look like when I get on a real tear.

This is what I hung in my dreamy little writer’s shed tonight:

Tragedy #388 by Benjamin Dewey

Tragedy #388 by Benjamin Dewey

It makes me chuckle every time I see it. The poor wolfman! No one will ever read his comedic space opera.

I love the Tragedy series, btw. We have a bunch of them and I’ve gifted several more, but this one has been stored away until my retreat was complete. You can see them all, and buy your own prints, from the Tragedy Series Tumblr, which I strongly encourage you to do.

Why Wait Until New Year’s?

I’m going to throw down some mid-year resolutions. And I’m going to put them on post-it notes and stick them all over my desk so I have to stare at them all the time.

In no particular order:

  • Finish my query letter
  • Send out ten query letters for each of June, July, August and September
  • Finish the first draft of The Unknowing
  • Re-read Writing 21st Century Fiction and post-it note the shit out of the tips I feel best apply to me
  • Write up an outline for the new book idea I have stewing

I think that’s a pretty solid start. I encourage everyone to join me in making a few resolutions as well!

Mutiny!

I’ve often heard other writers say their characters are in control of the story and they’re just along for the ride, that every day writing is an exercise in finding out what they’re going to do next. That is so not me. Even when I was technically a pantser with no outline on paper, I still knew the complete storyline in my head and spent a great deal of time every day plotting out what the next day’s writing would look like.

So imagine my surprise when I realized this week that I, too, don’t seem to have much say in what some of my characters are doing. Two of them keep making out. In my head, I’m all, “okay, here comes a suspenseful and dangerous bit,” and then my fingers hit the keyboard and they proceed to try and take each other’s pants off. I’m at my wit’s end over it. I need things to happen, and those things don’t include kissing. I mean sometimes they do, but only when I say so, dammit!

The last couple books I’ve read have been rather smutty. Maybe that’s the cause. Whatever it is, I need to get things back on track, and I fear my delete button is going to be putting in a lot of work this weekend. Or maybe I’ll just run with it and see how things pan out, because you never know. Maybe sometimes the characters do know best.

“Nothing I like doing more than spanking rocks with my baby.”

And so began construction of my little office, with the shoveling and pounding of two yards of gravel.

"Yeah baby, spank those rocks. Spank 'em good."

“Yeah baby, spank those rocks. Spank ’em good.”

August 2013. The back story: For the past two years if I wanted to work from home I had little in the way of options: the couch, my bed or the kitchen table. None of those are spaces that are conducive to focus and concentration. We live in a 1,000-square-foot house, so space is at a premium. My old office got turned into a bedroom when Kid 2 was born, and my husband’s office is eligible for an episode of Hoarders.

We looked at converting our spare bedroom in the basement, but we do have company from time to time, and frankly, that room is grim. Dark, cold and devoid of sunlight. Then I went a bit crazy and started thinking about building an addition on the house, but spending $100k is a little outside our budget. Then I thought, why not insulate the space above the garage? But as it turned out, building a habitable space up in the rafters would require raising the roof by several feet.

So obviously the only logical solution is an outbuilding.

I don’t want to call it a shed, but it’s a shed. A cozy, furnished, heated and powered shed, but a shed nonetheless. We bought a prefab kit that looked like it would suit the job. The reviews online said two people could put it together in about eight hours. Neither of us are particularly handy people, so we figured a weekend of hard work could get it done.

This is what we accomplished the first day.

This is what we accomplished the first day.

I’m not sure even Mike Holmes (sorry, Americans and overseas readers – I don’t know who the US equivalent would be. Pick the star of your favourite home reno show) could put this together in eight hours. Maybe day two would see more progress?

End of Day 2. I have a floor and one corner.

End of Day 2. I have a floor and one corner.

Screw this noise. We are working until we drop. Long past sundown, into the wee hours of the morning, we had something that was starting to look like a small shed.

And then I dropped.

And then I dropped.

So my husband and I are lying there on the floor, looking up at the stars, when the same thought crosses our minds:

"I wonder how high those power lines are?"

“I wonder how high those power lines are?”

It’s funny because we genuinely have no idea and will find out when we attempt to put the roof on.

Monday saw us both back at work so we only had a couple hours in the evening. We put part of the roof together and installed the skylights. Skylights! We had to stop when I started wearing one of the gable pieces like a hat and the husband told me I should wear it to bed because it made me look like a sexy roofing nun.

Tuesday I tried to assemble a door (yes a door) by myself and it brought me to tears.

Wednesday. Installed two doors and a gable all by myself. Used pieces of furniture in place of helping hands to hold things steady. Broke my middle finger hitting it with a hammer. Total drag. I use that one a lot.

Saturday. We call in reinforcements. In other words, my father-in-law. It’s together… sort of. The doors don’t close. We have to re-level it and shim it and possibly sacrifice a small animal to the ancient ones.

Some weeks later, after multiple calls to the manufacturer, the doors close tolerably. Only it’s the end of fall. There’s frost on the ground in the morning. Winter is around the corner. Winter in Canada. No point in working on it now…

Spring 2014. We have had a hellish winter. I’ve been writing in coffee shops and my bedroom and airport departure gates and everywhere but my little shed. So I’m like, let’s get this shit done. We start cleaning out the winter debris and moving furniture in as time permits.

Today: the husband takes Kid 1 and Kid 2 camping for the weekend and I am free to move things into my shed uninterrupted. I’ve been collecting various things for the past year, and they finally have a home.

A wordsmithette's home.

A wordsmithette’s home.

My desk.

My desk.

A few typewriter friends... from left to right: Ivy, Casper the Haunted Typewriter and The First.

A few typewriter friends… from left to right: Ivy, Casper the Haunted Typewriter and The First.

Awesome, right? It still needs to be wired for electricity – currently I’m making do with an extension cord – and I have a couple more pictures to frame and hang, but for all intents and purposes, it’s finished.

I love it. It’s my own place. Everyone knows the famous quote from Virginia Woolf: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” This is my room of my own. I will do great things here. 

(with inspiration from My Cool Shed.)

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