My bookshelf is happily groaning like a gourmand after Thanksgiving dinner.

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About three years ago, in one of our overstuffed bookcases at home, I started a shelf dedicated to books written by people I know — teachers, writing group friends, former fellow students in UBC’s optional residency MFA program and the Humber College Creative Writing program. I mostly read on my Kindle these days, but I make a point of buying these books in print: there’s something about having the bright, shiny, physical evidence of friends’ work right there in front of me. My collection has since grown to two shelves and I fear I’m going to have to find room for a third (SOMEHOW), but this is thrilling to me, too: I’m always happy to add to the collection. Sometimes I’ve followed the progress of the book so closely (with Melanie Schnell’s gorgeous While the Sun is Above Us, for example) that it feels like having my own book in hand.

This month, two more are going in (as soon as they arrive via El Mailman), hurrah!

1. Catherine Bush’s Accusation. Catherine was the first teacher I ever had at UBC in the summer of 2006, and I booked her about three years in advance to be my thesis advisor (luckily for me, she graciously accepted, despite being insanely busy with other duties). I’ve heard her read from bits and pieces of Accusation over the years, as she was working on it, and I can’t wait to read it in full (and get her to sign it when she visits as part of the Ottawa Writers’ Festival later this month!). Her writing is always so smart and beautiful. Here’s a taste from the “inside flap” on that Amazon page: “The best of intentions may still lead to disaster. An Ethiopian children’s circus. An intrigued journalist. An accusation. From such slight beginnings momentous events may grow, as renowned novelist Catherine Bush boldly examines the devastating domino effect of accusations.”

2. Kim McCullough’s Clearwater. I got to meet Kim via mutual friends, and she’s part of the awesome Calgary community of writers. She went on to complete the UBC MFA as well. Here’s a brief description, from a review: “Kim McCullough’s Clearwater tells the story of two young people at the end of the 20th century who are struggling to make sense of their fractured worlds.  Claire and Jeff meet when Claire’s family moves into the other side of Jeff’s family’s duplex in Clearwater Lake, Northern Manitoba.  McCullough juxtaposes the teenagers’ relationship against the harsh North, the violence inherent in Jeff’s home life, and the violence that comes to define Claire’s.  Jeff and Clair’s desire for one another is real and complicated and drives the narrative.” I love that it’s described as “difficult” subject matter — “difficult” is so my bag, baby.

Planning A Stay-At-Home Writing Retreat

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Funny how blog posts sometimes fall into your lap at exactly the right moment! I was visiting Susan Toy’s blog and reading her weekly round-up of writing and editing tips , and my eye went to this post from the BookBaby blog: 6 Essential Tips for Your Own Stay-at-Home Writing Retreat, by Beth Barany.

With my Other Half about to head out of town for a couple of weeks, and a new project burning in my brain, and very few vacation days left at work (*sob*!), at this very moment I’m planning a stay-at-home writing retreat, so the BookBaby post was perfectly timed for me!

Along with the excellent advice to set manageable goals, plan in advance, and tell your accountability partners, from past experience I’d like to add (and I think these tips apply to any writing session, extended or otherwise):

1. Get off the Internet. If you write longhand with good, old-fashioned pen and paper, you’re golden, but if you prefer working on a computer (like me), try to use one without Internet access, or one that’s so slow that surfing the web is just a completely miserable experience (I thank my 5-year-old Samsung Netbook for this: it’s light and tiny and great to take to coffee shops, but completely useless for anything except Word and Scrivener). Or figure out how to turn off your wi-fi, or sign yourself up for productivity software like Freedom.

2. Put the TV remote control in another room. I’ve just started Season 3 of “Lost” on Netflix, after starting Season 1 about a week ago (BINGE-WATCHING, ANYONE?). I have a problem. The only cure for me might be to toss the remote out the window altogether, but I’m sure you have better self-control.

3.  Get a writing talisman. I have a NaNoWriMo t-shirt that says “Writer”‘ on the back. If I wear it, I have to write; no letting myself off the hook. I have a couple of (next link slightly NSFW) writing mugs that I’m only allowed to use if I’m writing. 

4. TREATS! BookBaby mentions this as well. My treats are usually cheese-based. I have a writing friend who gives herself gold stars on a chart whenever she achieves her goals. She likes to be able to see what she’s done.

5. Writing soundtrack. Make yourself a mix, maybe on iTunes or Windows Media Player, or burn yourself a CD, or find a music-only radio station (although that might mean logging on to the web, so WATCH OUT). For a new project, I need instrumental music — I have a “Writingscapes” mix on my iPod, with a lot of Miles Davis and Godspeed You Black Emperor! and Sigur Ros and classical (sometimes these are uneasy bedfellows, mind you). When I’m deeper in and I know my character(s), I make him or her a mix. Yeah, weird, I know, but you’re a writer, you get it.

6. Naptime. I find writing incredibly draining (in a good way). Make sure that after a good, long writing session, you have time for a good, long nap.

So what other tips and tricks do you have for getting your writing done, whether it’s a short or long stint? Help me, O Wise Ones!

21 Days of Writing 21st Century Fiction: Donald Maass’s full list of prompts

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I’ve been meaning to do this for a while: here’s a compilation of the 21 tweets that agent Don Maass sent out on Twitter for 21 days from the end of August, beginning 21 days before the release of his brand-new book on writing craft, Writing 21st Century Fiction. I’ve preordered said book, because judging by the taste I got at the “Writing 21st Century Fiction” workshop in Colorado Springs back in April, it’s going to be amazing.

To steal a line from this sneak peek over at Writer’s Digest:

The notion of writing fiction that is highly personal and filled with conflict, emotion, and intensity is at the core of Don’s book. His approach to fiction writing is one that encompasses both those authors seeking commercial success, as well as those who write for the love of the craft; that is, literary writers.

My goal with my own writing is to try to nail this combination: novels that have both a plot and emotional resonance.

So here are the tweets, in order (the numbers follow on from his last set of breakout prompts — go read ‘em all! I collected Don’s Writing a Breakout Novel prompts here, last year):

Day 1
81 What does your genre get wrong? Fix it. What do fans of your genre expect? Sell them something else, or add something extra

Day 2
High impact fiction springs from your insights, convictions, righteous anger. And so–
82 Computer crash! House fire! Your WIP is gone, all backups fried. Write why your story matters, give that passage to your MC.

Day 3
The inner journey can start with a secret, shame or regret. Try this…
83 What was your MC’s worst mistake? What has she never told anyone? Who was wronged? Weigh down your MC with that.

Day 4
The inner journey can involve other people. Here’s one way to do that…
84 Whom does your MC most need for forgive? Following a catharsis, make forgiveness possible then enact it with a symbol.

Day 5
The inner journey also finds outward expression. Here’s how…
85 What’s your MC’s strongest emotion in your story? Imagine your MC is mute. How does she physically express what’s inside?

Day 6
A true inner journey takes us to larger truths. That’s true in your story too…
86 What larger truth does your MC learn? Earlier, make it a mystery, an impossibility or the opposite of what your MC believes.

Day 7
Strong story events require digging below your MC’s surface. Try this…
87 In any MC scene, ask: What does your MC not want to admit, acknowledge or face right now? Force it on him. Let it hurt.

Day 8
Build drama by making your MC’s screw ups even more painful. Here’s the method…
88 When your MC makes a mistake, who’s let down? Earlier, build up that character’s high regard of your MC.

Day 9
You don’t have to write horror to make a climactic setting a place of dread. Try…
89 What’s the place your protagonist must enter at the end? Earlier, make it a place of fear.

Day 10
Few push their MC’s to true extremes. Lots of ways to do that. Here’s one…
90 What does it mean in this story to die? What’s worse than actual death? Have your MC suffer that.

Day 11
Standout characters are sharp and observant. Here’s an approach to that…
91 What does your MC see, know or get about people that few others do? Create three demonstrations of that.

Day 12
Standout antagonists aren’t all-powerful or all-knowing. And so…
92 What’s your antagonist missing? What hasn’t he yet seen, figured out or found? Plant that discovery.

Day 13
Standout characters face hard truths about themselves, so try this…
93 What does your MC most need to know about herself? Give her 3 reasons not to care…then tear them down.
And in response to a question from a follower: “Plz clarify? 3 reasons why MC SHOULD care about MC’s own self-truth(s)?”, Don said: “Suggesting MC *doesn’t* care–then changes.”

Day 14
Secondary characters often are under-utilized. A suggestion…
94 Pick an ally of your MC. What’s their shared history? What’s their unshakable trust? Shatter it.

Day 15
Strong story events spring from inside. Here’s a way to work on that…
95 Who in your story has been cast under a spell? What locks that spell in place, never to be broken? Break it.

Day 16
Most ms need more story events, more middle. Try these tools…
96 Something’s wrong in your story world. It’s a whirlpool. Who else can be sucked into its vortex? Do it.

Day 17
97 In your story what love is forbidden? Make it more impossible in 3 ways. Then make it happen.

Day 18 and 19
Strong stories are built of big events and dynamic scenes. Two tools…
98 Imagine that a more fearless writer than you creates an event for your story. What is it? Use it. [I LOVE this one!!]
99 Blah scene? What changes here? Exactly when? How would an outside observer know? Add that.

Day 20
Beautiful writing is more than pretty words, it’s the play of ideas too. Try this tool…
100 About what is your MC utterly right? Pull the rug. Prove her utterly wrong. Force her to rebuild.

Day 21
Today Writing 21st Century Fiction ships. Included are 380 tools to enhance your WIP. Here’s one…
101 What’s a moment when everything could change? Pause. Explore. What does it feel like to be weightless? Add it.

I has an agent.

 

So this week, I’m overjoyed to tell you, I got to sign a contract with the lovely and hilarious Jennifer Udden of the Donald Maass Literary Agency!

It kind of began right here on this blog, if you read this post below. (That’s also, for some reason, the post that has attracted the most amount of spam ever. Most peculiar.) Alas, Pikes Peak Writers isn’t running their contest this year, but if you get a chance to go to their fantastic and well-run conference, you really should.

Learning #writing lessons from baseball (via @mincontro)

If you follow me on Twitter (@VictoriaMBell), you’ll know that my tweets are pretty much equally divided between writing and baseball — mainly, my beloved Blue Jays.

So I was thrilled to come across a blog post that combines the two beautifully. On her website, Mary Incontro (a Yankees fan and writer I’ve just started following on Twitter) writes about Five Things Baseball Teaches Us About Story and Life.

I also think there’s got to be a structure to play with there: the inciting incident at the home plate, three bases/acts, the denouement of coming home… I might just look into that a little further ;-)

You’re Fine: Leaving Pikes Peak

It struck me last night that I haven’t been outdoors for 3 days, which is kind of shameful, but look, man, I’ve been busy. A few weeks back, I was stunned and thrilled to find out that I won the Mainstream category in this here contest run by Pikes Peak Writers. I entered for the critiques; the prize turned out to be free tuition at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference; I decided to deploy my air miles and venture to Colorado Springs, CO. I’ve been in the Colorado Springs Marriott (where the conference is held; where I’m staying) for going on 4 days straight now. And it’s been an unbelievable experience. I’ve kept comparing it to the two AWP conferences I’ve been to, which I loved and found inspiring in an overawed kind of way, but I’m leaving here feeling like I’ve made new friends: I met so many cool, sensible people, and different ones every meal time — you just kind of plunk yourself down at a table and introduce yourself, which I, The Introvert, have never been very good at doing, but by day 2 I realized just how lovely and friendly everyone actually is. They do not seem to be faking it. Just as importantly, I’m leaving here feeling like I’m more equipped with practical, concrete tools (the kind of thing that I need, that work for me) that will help me sit down and do the damn work.

In the Read & Critique session, I got feedback on the first page of a new new new project, which made me see things in a whole new way. Linda Rohrbough gave a dynamic, hands-on workshop (also good exercise — anyone who’s been to her workshop will know what I mean, but I don’t want to give it away) on how to write a log line, which made me a little less tongue-tied when I had to describe my book at the lunch table, and while pitching it. If you ever get the chance to see Linda in action, DO IT (also, you guys: LOOK AT THESE WRITER’S CLOCKS!). There were so many more sessions I loved, on writing memoir/a novel of your life; first chapter lightning; effective dialogue; productivity tips — and there were so many sessions I had to miss. I have a full notebook and a tangled brain and hand cramp, and as soon as I can get a chance to straighten it all out, I’ll try to put down some nuggets in here.

But I do have to mention that I bookended the conference with 2 sessions by the seemingly indefatigable Donald Maass – one was a full-day workshop based on his new book coming out in September, “Writing 21st Century Fiction,” and the other a 2-hour session. I don’t really know what to say about what he taught me; maybe it’s enough to say that in total I (hand)wrote 54 pages of notes, and I left with nearly full-fleshed scenes for my new novel and a new, deeper understanding of its emotional heart. I love teachers  who ask questions. Catherine Bush is self-deprecating about how many questions she asks: questions about the work, about your vision for the work, and about what you’re actually trying to say, and what-if questions that make you see things a whole new way. Donald Maass does that. He also surprised me into tears 3 times (the sudden, shocking emotion that one of his questions brought up — I’m paraphrasing, and badly, but “what’s the thing you cannot say to anyone? Write it down”; the deeply personal things he shared; the encouragement he gave us in his keynote address. I mean, I’ve had encouraging words said to me before about writing, but I often forget how goddamn important writing is — like, ask yourself what are you going to leave behind for a child who’s just learning to read). I’m British, I don’t take well to tearing up in public, but I thank you anyway, Don.

Is it a regional thing to say “you’re fine” to mean “that’s OK”, or “no worries”? I’ve only ever heard anyone say it here. I dressed up as Arthur Dent from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for Friday night’s costume party, and “don’t panic” and “you’re fine” became my mottoes for the weekend. Don’t panic: you can sit and talk to these people you met five minutes ago. You’re fine: you made it through the pitch session and got a request for a partial. Don’t panic: you can go deep enough, put that stark-staring terrifying emotion on the page, write something that makes other people feel what you do, be a little unrestrained for a while.

Lastly, thanks to Michael for both talking me down and pumping me up. Cynthia, send out the damn short story. And to everyone who put together the conference — just… wow.

The Writing Doldrums (to steal a blog title off Nerys Parry)

To update you all on my last post, an approximate aeon ago, I didn’t make it any further in the Mslexia novel competition, but I wanted to wish the best of luck to those ladies who hit the shortlist. Looking forward to hearing who won!

And then I wanted to talk about my friend Nerys Parry’s blog post, “The Writing Doldrums”. Nerys has just released a gorgeously written novel titled Man and Other Natural Disasters, which I loved for its cool twist and insight into a piece of Canadian history that I previously knew nothing about (and don’t want to tell you about because I don’t want to spoil it, but trust me, you should read it).

Anyway, Nerys, in her blog post, talks about times when you’re stuck in “the writing doldrums”: “periods when I just can’t seem to catch any inspiration, even a breeze of it, and the writing on my page appears lifeless and flat.” I loved this description, and completely related to it. It’s exactly what I’m going through right now. I have ten thousand ideas but no inspiration and no follow-through. I’m in a kind of exhausted, stuck, “what’s the point?” phase of my feelings about writing, which I think is bloody sad. I’m miserable because I’m not writing but I can’t/won’t/don’t want to write. (Yes, all of those contradictory and self-sabotaging things.)

But this paragraph in Nerys’ blog (amongst other advice on getting through the doldrums) in particular resonated with me:

4. Pretend it’s the first time: A shaman I met used to talk about ‘practicing beginner’s mind’, to always approach your life and your passions as if it were the first time. This is a handy trick when facing the doldrums, to write as if it were the first time you ever attempted a story, with no expectations and with all the excitement of something new.

This resonated because that’s what I miss: that  feeling I used to have, when I began writing, of being enthralled, in love with what I was writing (LIVING in my head, even more than writing), unable to think about anything else. I haven’t felt that for a long time. I think I stopped feeling it once I got some edumacation under my belt, if that makes sense: not that I know everything there is to know about writing (ha ha ha, far from it!!), but in the days when I had no clue what I was doing (and producing terrible fiction,  great 200,000-word swathes of it within a couple of months), I was blissfully happy. Once I started to realize everything I didn’t know, it stopped me dead. Kind of like learning to drive a car. At the beginning, you’re trying to remember to change gears and use the pedals correctly and not kill any pedestrians, and trying to do everything at once feels overwhelming. Eventually of course, as you drive  more,  it becomes second nature, and you don’t have to think about it much. So I know that the only way to get better is to practice (i.e., write more), but everything I write seems like utter shite, so I don’t want to write. I come in with expectations blazing (“I have an MFA! Of course I can write like Jhumpa Lahiri right from the get-go!” or, to go back to the driving analogy, “I have my driving license! Of course I can drive the British Grand Prix this weekend!”) and promptly fall flat on my face.

So I think that above, Nerys is onto something. You have to take a step or two back. Approach it like it’s the first time. Maybe for me that means forgetting everything I do know, at least for the proverbial shitty first draft, and just trying to channel the blissful ignorance I used to have, then fix the resulting awfulness in revision. It sounds so doable, doesn’t it…!

I’ve been longlisted for the Mslexia novel contest. Squee!!

Well, hey! All the mad novel redrafting over the last several months (hence my quietness in here — also, I discovered baseball; that’s where the summer went… curses upon you, Blue Jays!) might come to something: I just heard today that me novel has been longlisted for the Mslexia Novel Contest! Shortlist announced in January. Will try not to chew my nails off before then.

Luckily, the National Novel Writing Month, the ultimate distraction tool, starts on Tuesday, and I’ve a new novel to commit to paper! Are you in?

Jane Friedman’s/Kathleen Ortiz’s Basic Pitch Formula for Novelists

I was following @Jane Friedman around on Twitter for a bit yesterday, re-tweeting some of her messages from Kathleen Ortiz‘s session on Perfect Your Pitch/Synopsis 101 at the Midwest Writers Workshop. And now Jane as put them all in one place — hurrah! Excellent, succinct advice here for those, like me, in the pitching/querying stages of novelling.

As an aside, yesterday was one more reason I love Twitter — there I was, sitting in Ottawa, virtually “attending” a conference miles away…

Speaking of social media, I’m checking out Google+ , too. Circle me! (Is that a verb? Do we have Google+ lingo yet?!)

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