Category: Learning Page 1 of 3

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.

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.

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.

The Book Was Written Passively By Me

I’m elbows deep in editing my current WIP right now, and to my dismay and bafflement, I’m seeing a lot of passive language. I don’t know how I fell into the habit, because it’s not my usual style of writing, but it’s all over the place and it’s been tortuously slow editing it all out and changing it to a more active structure. I have to look at every sentence I wrote and find the subject, verb and noun and make sure they’re in the right order. It’s easy enough with short, simple sentences, but complex ones sometimes make my head ache trying to sort it out. This is going to be a long slog, and I’m sure it’ll take a couple more rounds of revisions than usual to make sure I catch it all.

I did write the first draft much quicker than I did my first one – less thought into sentence structure in an effort to just get it all down on paper may account for it. I wonder if subconsciously it’s not a reflection of what my main character is feeling in this story as well – not in control for a lot of the time, having things done to her instead of doing things herself. With that in mind I’m preserving some of it, rules be damned. It’s told in first person, so sometimes a passive structure feels more appropriate. Just not as extensive as what I apparently wrote.

A couple links I found useful when it comes to passive voice:

Seven Examples of Passive Voice (and how to fix them)

Passive Voice: Linking Verbs and Wordiness

Fiction Writing and Other Oddities: Passive Voice

I found the last one especially useful because I’m writing in first-person, past-tense, which means I do use ‘was’ and ‘had’ in the course of my writing. Differentiating between past-tense and passive writing can be difficult when many resources advise to just look for those two key words (plus a couple more) and delete them. I’m definitely guilty of a lot of ‘was +ing verb’ writing this time around though, which isn’t passive, but is wordy and a lot of times can be changed.

The good news is, I’m getting aggressive with my passive writing.

Good Advice (NSFW)

Written as advice for designers, but I think it applies to writers too.


See also The Pledge. I plan to print and sign it then post it somewhere where I’ll see it… but my kids won’t. Cause of the F word and all.


Statistics FTW

Now that I’ve started my next novel I’ve been logging a bit more information about my writing than I did the last time. Whereas before I only kept track of word count by chapter (and only to see how much I was cutting during editing) now I have a spreadsheet made up where I’m recording all kinds of useful information on my daily writing habits. Word count, time of day, location, which scene I was working on, it’s all getting documented. And I’m starting to notice some patterns.

While I try to write whenever I have a bit of time, I’m far, far more productive in the evening than I am in the morning. Literally twice as much. And trying to write in the afternoon, when my kids are home, is pretty much pointless. I also get a lot done – A LOT – if I go and sit in a coffee shop alone for awhile. (I did this last night and wrote more than 2,500 words in about two hours, which while not impressive for some, is a lot better than my average, especially when there are people to watch and eavesdrop on). That doesn’t mean I’m going to give up writing in the mornings or when I also have to entertain the littles, but I am going to go easier on myself from now on when I feel like I should have gotten more done.

I also notice that my chapters (all three of them so far) are shorter in this book than they were with the last. They averaged just about 5,000 words in The Unravelling, but in the Unseeing they’re just over 3,000. I’ll have to write a little further before I can see how this affects the pacing, but so far, I like it.

And, some early numbers are in:

Not too shabby for seven (non-consecutive) days of work! I wish I’d kept track of all this info before so I could see if I’m keeping pace with last time. I would guess I’m going faster. Having an outline is helping to keep me organized a lot.

If you’re at all interested, this is what I was listening to at the cafe last night while I was writing:

Poor Callie and Matthieu. Most of the time I think she’d be the one singing it to him, but then I’ll listen to it again and change my mind.

I’ve got six sentences scheduled to post tomorrow. Enjoy and happy weekend!

The Query, The Quandary

And I thought editing was hard. Writing a query letter, specifically the part of the query that describes the story, is enough to make me smash my head against the screen. I did that last night, actually. Twice. Thankfully my MacBook’s a sturdy machine.

There’s a lot of great resources out there to help writers along the way, but a lot of it’s conflicting. Loglines! No loglines! Reveal the ending! Don’t reveal the ending! Include a bio! Don’t include a bio!

And then there are helpful suggestions like my dad’s for a letter: “Yo bro’….what’s up with THIS??”

Love you, dad, but just no.

Slowly, I’m getting there, but it’s agonizing. I’ve re-written the damn thing ten times and probably have another ten ahead of me before I’ll be satisfied with it. The biggest problem right now, I think, is that I’m never going to know which one is best. And a lot rides on that letter, you know?

Back to head smashing.

Relationship Outlines

I searched high and low for a guideline for fiction writers to plot out the relationships between their characters and couldn’t find anything, so I created my own. Since this tool doesn’t seem to exist (or my googling skills are poor) I thought I’d share it so others might benefit. I find things like this enormously helpful when it comes to tricky parts in a story when I’m trying to figure out why two people are treating each other the way they are, how they might react in certain situations or how to move forward when their relationship is evolving. I also think it would be very useful when trying to define the relationship between a protagonist and an antagonist, especially if they know each other well. These would work best if you’ve already done individual chracter outlines.

Copy into the word processing document of your choice and fill in the blanks.

  • First Person’s name:
  • Second Person’s name:
  • Current status of their relationship (friends, enemies, siblings, lovers, etc):
  • Current feelings for each other:
  • What was the First Person’s first impression of the Second?:
  • What was the Second Person’s first impression of the First?:
  • Describe briefly their first meeting:
  • Have their first impressions changed since the first time they met? If so, how, and why?
  • How long have they known each other?:
  • How often do they see each other?:
  • Where do they usually meet? What do they do?:
  • Describe briefly a typical meeting or encounter:
  • How do they speak to each other? (tone, language, feeling):
  • Is their current relationship what the First Person wants? If not, what would they like to change?:
  • Is their current relationship what the Second Person wants? If not, what would they like to change?:
  • Does the First Person trust the Second? Why/why not?:
  • Does the Second Person trust the First? Why/Why not?:
  • What are some things they have in common?:
  • What are some things they are opposite about?:
  • What does the First Person like most about the Second?:
  • What does the First Person like least about the Second?:
  • What is the First Person’s favourite memory of the Second?:
  • What’s the most hurtful thing the First Person has done to the Second? How did it make each of them feel?:
  • What does the Second Person like most about the First?:
  • What does the Second Person like least about the First?:
  • What is the Second Person’s favourite memory of the First?:
  • What’s the most hurtful thing the Second Person has done to the First? How did it make each of them feel?:
  • What do they fight about?:
  • How do they resolve their arguments?:
  • What bonds them together? (common goal, mutual interest, etc):
  • If their relationship is not already a romantic one, is there the possibility of romance between the First Person and the Second?:
  • If so, why hasn’t it happened yet? What’s holding them back?:
  • If romantic, which one pursued the other? How did he/she do it? How long did it take?:
  • If romantic, how is their sex life? Do they both find it fulfilling? If not, why not, and what would they change?:
  • What will their relationship look like in five years?:
  • Is the intensity level of their feelings about each other the same, or does one like/dislike the other more?:
  • Describe the defining moment in their relationship:
  • Is there anything unusual or unconventional about their relationship?:
  • Are they honest with each other? If not, what are they dishonest about?:
  • Do they keep secrets from each other? If so, about what?:
  • Are either of them jealous of each other? If so, about what?:
  • Would the First Person die for the Second?:
  • Would the Second Person die for the First?:
  • How does the First Person think he/she has changed the Second?:
  • How does the Second Person think he/she has changed the First?:
  • What, if anything, does the First Person see of him/herself in the Second?:
  • What, if anything, does the Second Person see of him/herself in the First?:
  • What is the First Person blind about when it comes to the Second?:
  • What is the Second Person blind about when it comes to the First?:
  • What would it take for their relationship to become the opposite of what it is now? (ie: from lovers to exes, enemies to best friends):

If you find this as useful as I do, please let me know! I hope this writing exercise is helpful to other novelists out there who are trying to better define the relationships between their characters so that their writing can become more meaningful.


I’ve just put all this into a spreadsheet that people can download and fill out for themselves, if they’re so inclined. View and download relationship outline spreadsheet here. Feel free to share it with your other writer friends!

No Poet

One of the aspects I’ve really struggled with while writing this story is the fact that my main character is a songwriter. I foolishly decided (okay, not at all, it’s pretty central to the story arc) to include some of her lyrics, but at the time I wrote the chapter, just inserted lyrics will go here. Well, now it’s time to pay the piper, and I have to write some rhymy bits. Tomorrow’s the day. All I’m going to do is focus on writing some believable lyrics, and with that, my manuscript will finally be finished. I’ve already done a couple revision passes and cut over 10,000 words (!), but this song thing is standing in the way of my being able to say my book is written.

In high school I wrote some truly dreadful poetry. I’ll be channelling that muse again, and hopefully she’s matured and improved over the last 15 years.

A Question:

And I’m hoping as many people as possible will comment with their thoughts. Consider this a bit of research.

When you think back upon your childhood, how do you see it in your mind? Do you remember things as though you’re seeing them again through your own eyes, or more as an omniscient third person in the room watching yourself? I’m writing a sort-of-flashback, sort-of-mindreading scene, and I don’t know how to handle the way it unfolds. My own memories are a mix of both the above scenarios, leaning more toward the latter.

Help a girl out?

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