Category: Just Keep Writing Page 1 of 4

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.


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.


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.

History Repeats Itself

I think I’ve mentioned before that the series I’m writing right now came about because I heard a couple songs together while I was driving one day. Sometimes when I’m listening to music, especially in the car or on the bus when my head is only half-focused on it, a verse or even a line will catch my attention and my mind is off and running. So that was that, but I’ve been struggling for awhile to make the end of the story come together and wrap up all the loose ends. The solution I originally came up with felt less than original and had some holes that I knew I’d have to fill.

As a result, it was difficult to get motivated to start writing the final installment in the series, and after mocking up an outline riddled with holes, I idled.

Ahh, but then. Once again, whatever literary muse that seems to live inside my iPod struck again. One verse of one song, a song iTunes says I’ve played dozens of times, fixed my porous plot problem. Not only that, but my new ending sort of flips the bird at some genre conventions.

The funny part is for a long time I was actually mishearing the lyrics, and it wasn’t until I learned the correct words that the idea was born. Oops.

Posting the song would be a huge spoiler so I’m keeping it under wraps, which is too bad because I love it. Someday, maybe.

But that’s not all, folks. Not long after, while navigating a traffic circle after dropping the kids off at school one morning, the iPod muse hit hard. One line was all it took. New book, could be a series. Completely different from what I’m working on right now. And I’m so excited to start writing it, so much so that I’m conflicted on what I should be working on right now – finish the series I’ve been writing for the past two years, or new project? I’m terrible at making decisions so I might literally pick one out of a hat and run with it.

While I’ve been waffling over that decision, and now that I’m starting to climb out of the dark hole I was mired in (yay), I’ve finished the ninth (!) draft of The Unraveling and I feel like I’m ready to start querying again after my less-than-successful results last year. With my new opening scene I hope to get some positive feedback this time around.

I often turn to music for ideas when I write, but my favourite moments are when the iPod gives me an unexpected gift, a real moment of inspiration, and it’s encouraging to know that I still have that spark despite the pall of depression that is thankfully starting to dissipate. I’m excited about life and about writing again. It’s good to be back.

Decisions, Decisions

I have about 24 hours to decide if I want to do NaNo. I do have a new project that I’m mostly ready to start, provided I can drum up the second half of the outline I’ve been putting off for weeks. It’s been awhile since I’ve worn my writing hat – when did I finish the first draft of The Unseeing, July? June? Since then I’ve been alternating between edit mode and query mode.

It’s hard to switch hats sometimes.

So, because I’m a write-out-loud-to-solve-my-dilemmas kind of girl, here’s my pros and cons list.


  • Will force me back into a regular writing habit. I tend to start and stop projects when I don’t have deadlines.
  • Something to focus on. November is a hard month for me, mentally and physically. I hate the change to winter.
  • I miss my characters. I want to finish their story.


  • I have to drag myself kicking and screaming through NaNo. I’m an edit-as-I-write person and that will never change. It can take me hours to make my daily quota.
  • Next week I leave for Montreal for four days, for a much-needed girls’ weekend. There is 0% chance any writing will get done, which puts me at a huge deficit early on.
  • November is also a month I want to focus on querying, since I imagine the slush piles grow tenfold in December with NaNo winners submitting their unedited first drafts everywhere. This could be my last chance to query until the new year. Or is there a polite way of saying “this is not a NaNo 2013 novel” in my query? I’m only half-joking. Is there?
  • I’m not sure I want to rush through this book so quickly! It’s the last of the series and writing half of it in a single month somehow feels like I’m cheating myself out of a slow, sweet goodbye.

Yep, when I write it out, it looks like the answer’s pretty clear. Even if the only con was that last point, it’s still enough for me to say no thanks to this year. Or is there such thing as NaNo-Lite? Maybe I’ll make it a goal to start writing November 1, and see how far I get without pushing myself. In the meantime, tomorrow’s task is to finish my outline, and set up the myriad spreadsheets I use when I write to track everything under the sun – word count, time spent writing, location and all the other vectors I love to analyze when I’m finished.

Good luck, NaNoWriMo participants! I’m over here, cheering you on from the sidelines.

Like Mother, Like Daughter

Kid 1 has decided she’s going to write a book, “just like you, mom.”

Not sure if this is a genetic disposition or if I’m just a positive influence. If the former, I don’t know where I got mine from – my own mom worked in poli sci and later, accounting, and my dad was a computer software consultant – not much of the creative in either of those fields.

Thing is, for a six year old, her story’s actually pretty solid. It has two likeable protagonists – talking trees!, funny dialogue, a conflict and an antagonist. She’s only got the first act finished, and I’m genuinely looking forward to reading the next installment. I can tell that all the reading she does is paying off when it comes to story structure. She instinctively knew what elements a good story needed and made sure they were all present from the start. And she ended it on a cliffhanger! I’ve read a lot worse from people five times her age.

When she’s finished it, I plan on tucking the manuscript away so she can see her first effort when she’s an adult, like my mom did with the newspaper I self-published and some of my other masterpieces. I’m a proud mama.

An Important Reminder

Because everyone was at Chapter 1, once.


I crossed the 100,000-word mark on the first draft of The Unseeing the other day. Woooo!

It was a nice feeling to check my word count and see six digits for the first time. I’m past my uninspired funk and I think I’m about 5,000 words away from the ending. Between here and there I’m not quite sure what’s going to happen though – my outline has been stubbornly vague and my head isn’t filling in the blanks either.

However I’m heading on an extended road trip tomorrow – 9 days of exploring the Pacific Northwest and northern California – and I’m sure all that time in the car will lend to some daydreaming and idea sifting. It’s our tenth wedding anniversary this month! Also the first time we’ve gone away without the kids – our last trip alone together was to Paris almost seven years ago, when I was pregnant with Kid 1. I ended up setting the books I’m currently writing in that city after I fell in love with it – I wonder if Portland or Seattle will become the inspiration for a new story?

And if you’re into that sort of thing, stay tuned for some exciting typewriter posts. I have four to pick up at a shipping drop point once we cross the border, and have been busy restoring another one at home for the past week. I don’t know if I want to introduce them one at a time, or all together, but the blog is going to get a little typewriter-heavy in the next while.

Lastly, I decided that rather than knocking down walls in my house to make space for a small office for myself, I’m going to build myself a little outbuilding in our backyard, insulate it and make it my writing headquarters. If all goes according to plan, construction will begin next month.

Big achievements accomplished, and big things on the horizon! These days it feels like everything’s coming up Nicole.

On Being a Writer When You Have Young Children

Way long ago, when I was a young person fresh out of college, I started thinking about perhaps writing a book. That quickly turned into ‘perhaps writing a book someday.‘ For I had a full-time job and a blooming freelance career, plus an active social life and was newly wed to boot. Where on earth would I find the time to write an entire novel?

Fast-forward a couple years. “When are you going to start writing that book?” people would ask me. “Oh, someday,” I’d reply. “Maybe when I have kids and I’m on maternity leave. I’ll have lots of free time then. A whole year of no work!” My dad bought me a software program and said there was no time like the present. I fiddled around with it, plugged in a few ideas, but never got past a few quick character sketches and a two-paragraph outline.

Fast-forward a couple more years. I’m holding my newborn daughter in my arms. Time to start writing that book, right? After all, I’m collecting government benefits for the next twelve months. I don’t have to work!

Who reading this is laughing right now? A baby’s a hell of a lot more work than a 9-5 job. Somewhere along the way, I had a second kid to double the fun. He was even more of a handful than the first. New plan: I would start writing that book when my kids were in school. Finally, all that time during the day would be mine to do with as I please.

Fast-forward to today. Kid 1 is currently in school, and Kid 2 starts in September. I’m back at work part-time in the meantime and have less free time than I have ever had in my life. And yet in the last year and a half, I’ve written two books and am almost finished the first draft of my third. Here’s how.

  1. Sacrifice. What are you willing to give up to find time to write, when your days are busy with work and/or the needs of the offspring? I gave up virtually all television, as well as other hobbies I enjoyed, like knitting and sewing, that would usually fill the time after the kids went to bed. For some people, that time is best found in the morning. I’m not coherent before 10am, so that’s a non-starter for me. I’m at my best after 9pm and so now that’s when I write. Sometimes I stay up too late so I can finish a scene, and Kid 2 winds up watching TV in the morning because I can’t peel my eyes open. He doesn’t seem to mind, as long as he doesn’t miss play gym.
  2. Stealing time. The kids are playing in the yard for half an hour or watching a movie on a rainy afternoon? That could mean a few hundred words. To hell with less important things like “making dinner” or “vacuuming.”
  3. Free childcare. About once a week, we go to Ikea after I pick up my daughter from kindergarten, have $2 lunches and then I drop the kids off at their supervised play area for an hour, go back up to the restaurant to get myself a plate of fries and gravy and use that time to write. There’s also an indoor play structure at one of the markets in my city, next to a food court, and we often go there when it’s not nice outside. The kids play, we all get a smoothie, and I sit, quasi-supervise them, and write. And as often as possible I’ll trade childcare days with friends. I take their kids for the day one week, and they take mine the next. That means five or six hours – after a nice lunch with my husband, some of it always gets eaten up by non-child-friendly errands, but I make sure there’s writing time too. All this can eke out three or four hours a week. Doesn’t seem like a lot, but it adds up.
  4. Dating my laptop. I have one night a week where I take my laptop out for coffee and my husband puts the kids to bed. My favourte cafe is also one of the ones that’s open late, and I park myself at a table and stay until they dim the lights and start mopping the floors. On a good night, I can knock off 3,000 words or more. I actually get more done those nights than when I write at home.
  5. Vacations. The last time I took the kids out to visit my parents, I wrote more in one week than I had the last two months combined. Maybe this one should go under free childcare.
  6. I saved the most important one for last. A supportive partner. None of those things listed above would be possible without my very understanding husband who has entirely taken over some household things so I have a bit more time in the evenings.

I think the point is if you’re really committed, obstacles that previously seemed insurmountable, like having kids/a job/two jobs/two jobs and kids, can be overcome. I might only have the chance to write a few hundred words a day, some days. A lot of days, I write nothing at all, and that’s okay. But having kids shouldn’t be an excuse not to write.

Do You Ever Really Stop Rewriting?

I was just minding my own business, looking for some new books to read online (Amazon recommended this one for me and I think in this case it’s very smart) when out of the blue I thought up a way to rewrite my query letter. I’ve sent out around 15 and gotten no bites so far, so I’m actually glad this occurred to me because I think it’s way more interesting.

But then it got me thinking, do you ever reach a point where you’re just done? Like 100%, time-to-file-this-bitch done? I work as a freelance journalist part-time, and I never agonize and rethink my articles the way I have been for this book and this letter. I write them, proofread once and then submit them. With fiction there’s always just one more little thing, and then a few days later, a what-if-I moment comes to mind and I’m back to fiddling with things. It’s never anything major like changing a character’s gender or switching from paranormal to a Western-inspired historical cozy mystery (well once it was, but I thought hard about it for quite some time before I actually made the change and it wasn’t quite as crazy as either of those examples) but these little lightbulbs keep going off in my head. Recently I made two characters related when they hadn’t been previously. Sometimes it’s something as trivial as a single word.

And speaking of rewriting, I’m already almost at my Camp NaNo goal of 20,000 words for the month, and we’re only at the halfway point. It was shockingly easy to achieve, and now I’m feeling like I should have set my goal higher, maybe 30,000. BUT close to everything I’ve written during this time is going to need a massive overhaul in the next draft. What I’ve got now is the roughest framework, a dirty rented scaffolding shoved up against a building that’s about to undergo massive renovations.

Wait, that metaphor isn’t quite right, is it. The book should be the building, so I’m the dirty rented scaffolding? Or maybe my laptop is? Yeah I think it’s the laptop. I’m the bricklayer who spends more time wolf-whistling at all the ladies with the nice getaway sticks than working.

It’s too late to for this shit, I should be in bed.

The Midpoint Blahs

I haven’t felt like blogging much lately. Writing is hard, thinking about writing is hard, everything is hard.

I have the midpoint blahs.

Is it a coincidence I recently crossed the 50,000 word mark? I don’t think so. This happens to me every time around this point, and it doesn’t help at all that I’m working on a collection of scenes with crazy POV issues that are probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write. Does any of this sound familiar?

I’ve been writing this story foreeeeeeever. How can I still have so much to go?

Nothing in this chapter makes sense.

I don’t feel like writing today. Or tomorrow.

I have no idea what comes next.

Everything I’m writing is absolute garbage. Why do I even bother?

I’m forcing myself to work through it, even if it’s only a thousand shitty words a day that I’m sure will be completely re-written in subsequent drafts. That’s okay. Every crappy sentence gets me further from the midpoint and onto something new. I’m also considering taking a break from this part of the story and jumping ahead a few chapters for a change of scenery before coming back. What I’m not going to do is stop writing! It’s BS to give up every time things get a little bit difficult. As a very wise fish once said,

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