A Journey Without Expectations

I’d tried desperately to curb my urges, yet preparation for France owned me.

My kids made it clear they wanted no more of this level of obsession.

“All you think about, all you talk about is France, mom,” my oldest daughter kept saying, deservedly irritated that she got little of my focus.  “What are you going to do when you don’t have France anymore?”

“That’s not possible,” I would always reply.

Really, though, I worried.

For three months, I’d immersed myself in planning and research for the novel research to come. I spent three hours a day learning French, surfed French websites, made appointments with French historians, booked tours, packed twelve times, read every book I could. With two weeks to cram it all in, I had to make sure my focus proved laser-sharp, and I wouldn’t walk away from this experience wishing I’d gone and done something different.

I literally planned every moment of every day. Error, jet lag, language barrier, time—none could be a factor. I had sworn off the need to account for any of them.

Ken said I was the Fort Knox of travel planning. Everything right down to what would happen if I caught a cold had a solution in place or a detailed map and itinerary attached to it.

Then, the day before I left, in the middle of working on Woman On The Wall this popped up. Just a little note. Nothing profound. Nothing more than a reminder sliding in while I pounded away at the story of Elijah, the main character:

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It hit me like a brick. What if no moment I’d so carefully mapped out worked out the way I planned? What if I went to France and found nothing? Or something totally different? Or hated it? Or everything went sideways on the first day and the rest of the trip was garbage? What if I couldn’t keep up with my schedule? What if I missed this or that? What would I possibly do?

This was the first solo research trip of my life, and I’d left no room in it to just experience anything, to see where a lead took me, or listen to the wind and follow it.

I could freak out, unable to control it all. Or, I told myself after recovering from the icky, cold sweat I broke into, I could go without any expectations and have faith that all of the work I put in to get there would lead me to experience France in a way in which stories simply blossomed, taking shape without being forced.

Hmmmm.

I promptly dumped my rigid itinerary in the trash, marked the few things that I could not miss, and hopped on the plane with the mindset that anything I faced in those next 14 days would be transformative.

I’ve tried to control nearly everything my whole life. It was time to just experience it all.

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From that moment, I swear it was like the universe offered up its nod of approval, jacked me into the energy of place, and set me on a path to discovery that even I could never have imagined.

France took me in, opened its soul for me to be a part of, and left me a changed woman.

For the next several weeks, I’ll be posting the tales of magick, time travel, serendipity, and the great confluence of modern-day life alongside that of the Renaissance which defined my French sojourn, deeply reshaped the story being told in Woman On The Wall, and brought me to a place at the edge of the veil where I found far more than details for my novel.

I look forward to sharing this experience with all of you.

 

 

In The Writer’s Studio – August, The Dead Month

Just about every writer who submits their work to agents knows that there is one month every year when nothing happens.

Don’t prep a manuscript, write a query letter, reach out on Twitter, or check in with an agent who has your partial. It’s not gonna work out for you because everyone is at least pretending to lounge on a New England beach.

The rest of the year is stupid crazy busy. August means time for a bit of radio silence.

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For me, it has traditionally proven the month to hunker down and log big hours in the writer’s studio, plotting and crafting.

This year, however, my brain took a break along with everyone else. You can read about my angst surrounding this unplanned standstill HERE.

Today, after a long chat with an editor who just returned from vacation herself, I found myself breathing a bit easier. The conversation revealed her own startling loss of an entire month and her shock at how often lately this similar chat has played out. Apparently, August was a wash for at least half the known universe, and we are all scrambling to realign priorities, carve out time, and make tangible progress on writing projects.

For me, this is all about removal of external distractions.

I’ve planned the hell out of my research trip to France and refuse to plan even a minute more.

Classes and curriculum, mapped out.

Coaching training, done.

Schedules, made.

Now, to snuggle in and get the love letters between Francesco and Aesmeh mapped out.

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Then, to make sure my modern-era antagonist is fully formed and well-rounded. I actually quite love him, such a provocative character motivated by what he is convinced is the only possible road to truth.

Finally, before I get on the plane to start the research and writing marathon in France, I’m going to nail the sequence of the story down and finish the plotting. That way I can move through my time there with exceptionally focused purpose instead of scrambling to figure out story foundations.

I’m coming out of the Augustine black hole, people.

Finally.

Young Author Spotlight – Bonnie Xu on Shadows

Good morning. I haven’t posted much writing from my young authors this summer, as we have been heads-down working on the Summer Reading Challenge and discovering literary elements through the close reading of fiction.

However, this piece by Grade 6 young author Bonnie Xu needed to be shared with the world.

In class this week, I asked her to write a story about being someone’s shadow. Her take on it gave us a startling and moving peek into the shadow world.

English is Bonnie’s second language, yet her ability to transform ideas into provocative stories blossoms with every assignment.

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On Being Distracted

So, I sat down fifteen mornings ago with the intent to pen a tome on the reality that I’m about as focused as a light breeze meandering through the desert these days.

I’m exhausted.

My head is spinning.

I’m almost late for everything (on time is late for me).

My patience for crazy is wafer-thin.

I have lists for lists of the lists I haven’t completed because I forgot to make a list.

My mind drifts and lingers in useless places like the social media dark universe and daydreaming.

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Photo by George Pagan III on Unsplash

I re-opened this draft today and realized the “On Being Distracted” headline proved so valid that I couldn’t even get around to finishing a blog post on the topic.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” I ask myself, beginning the misguided self-talk that leads me deeper and deeper down.

On one side, I am remarkably busy.  My writing coaching business is booming, and I work with students all around the globe almost every day.

I also work with students all around the Lower Mainland almost every day, which means I’m spending a crazy amount of time on public transit. That level of contact with people, in and of itself, is enough to unsettle even the most chill of souls.

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Photo by Hugh Han via Unsplash

There, boom. The coaching part of my life is mapped out and accomplished with only the normal bumps in the dealing-with-other-humans road.

However, in the rest of my writing life, the lack of forward motion proves startling.

I sit down to edit, query or work on the novels – nothing.

I sit down to read (I haven’t read ANYTHING all summer that wasn’t for work) – nothing.

So goes the flow of being, and I recognize it as just that. Sometimes, you can’t squeeze more juice out when one side of your life is at full-speed and requires all of your attention. I will get back to a balance which gives me the time and energy to focus, probably sooner than I think.

Yet, I can’t help but feel like I am failing myself as a novelist.

Where’s the devotion?

Where’s the getting up every day and writing no matter what?

Where’s the “Do whatever it takes” required to make anything of yourself in this world?

I have beaten myself up without end for these times when I am tapped out, and I genuinely believe that I have to figure out how to honour them rather than let them steal pieces of me away.

Meanwhile, I’m still busy berating myself for choosing to finish three seasons of Outlander rather than write, or talk to friends on social media rather than read or research or focus on the craft in personal ways.

I suspect my head is waiting for the novel research trip, which is less than six weeks away. At least I can guarantee a bit of an endpoint for all of this foolish distraction.

 

 

 

The Romance of the Epistolary Novel

I’ve made a huge dent in The Woman On The Wall this week, finally hitting my flow in the balance between the modern-day timeline and the historic epistolary component.

Incorporating the fictitious journals and letters of Francesco Melzi and determining their role in the storytelling process has, to be honest, posed the biggest dilemma for me. How I approached them would determine the entire tone of the novel.

Would it be a thriller?

Would it be a historical drama?

I went with a love story full of magical realism as our adoration of the Monda Lisa is nothing short of a torrid romance.

To drive this level of intoxication, mystery, and obsession, I turned to Griffin & Sabine this afternoon. Nick Bantock may qualify as the grand master of epistolary storytelling with his series, leading us through the mysterious connection between two unlikely lovers.

I’ve made myself swoon. 😉

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On Writing When You Are “Too Busy”

I swear I will take my night-sweaty peri-menopausal level of rage out on the next person who tells me, “You just have to commit yourself to write every day.”

Stop already, writing gurus.

Those of us working our faces off at trying to live our authentic selves through a devotion to writing get it. The getting-words-down part is crucial to literary success.

Dayjob.jpgHowever, I’m quite committed to attaining success at a few other elements of life as well:

  • Raising woke, healthy kids
  • Investing in my relationship with my husband
  • Nurturing and discovering fulfilling friend and colleague relationships
  • Paying my bills

Let’s be real, paying the bills is probably the top of that list. A lack of financial security puts a real damper on creative genius and that whole zen vibe most of us long to achieve in our personal lives.

We are busy, sometimes too busy, paying those bills to want to come home and write.

While my DH and I have attempted the “You go pursue your creative bliss. No worries about working a day job” thing at different points in our lives, money is a real thing.

We live in Vancouver, Canada—one of the most expensive cities in the world. Leisurely creative genius either comes at a tremendous personal price or is the exclusive purview of the already-wealthy.

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Photo by Harshil Shah via Flickr

 

Since the kids want to go to university, we want to live in Vancouver proper, and staying married is a life goal, we both need to work.

Being busy isn’t going away.

I teach creative writing, which is a true personal investment and labor of love for me because I adore bearing witness to creativity emerging from young people. To me, I have the perfect job, where I never actually stop writing.

I love it.

I’m an introvert who forced herself to become comfortable in extroverted situations. In a perfect universe, I’d roam the Earth searching for stories and bits of information, coaxing people into offering up their family tales and cultural tellings, consulting with elders on how to best share those pieces, alternately hiding away to write and then emerging to learn more before returning to hide again. With teaching, I get to do that.

However, when I settle into my writer’s studio after the week of coaching young people through their own storytelling, I find myself a bit unmotivated to work on my own stuff.

I’m exhausted. Plus, there’s so much to do: book research, website maintenance, social media, querying, working with editors, learning how to write better myself through webinars and sessions with my own coaches.

The list grows.

Balancing that with kids, mundane chores such as laundry, and just catching up with my own energy leaves me struggling to get more than a word or two on a page some days.

I want to give you a peek inside how I organize myself, but efore I lay down my process for staying in the writing flow let me just say this:

Some days, writing just doesn’t happen—and that is OK. My theory is that one lost day is self-care. When it starts to turn into multiple lost days, considering a reset of priorities may be in order. 

Here’s how I keep myself from swirling down the lack-of-progress hole, even when I juggle a billion to-dos and know that reaching for another cup of coffee at 9 p.m. involves dire next-day consequences.

1. Plan Ahead.

Oh crap, here she goes telling us to plan, plan, plan.  I agree this tip is annoying. However, I find nothing more satisfying and empowering than mapping out my days ahead of time, waking up in the morning with clear goals, and getting it all done.

This suits my writing style, as I am a Plotter with a capital P. If I don’t plan, I am unfocused and aimless. This is my devotion to leading a purposeful life. It definitely doesn’t work for everyone.  You’ll also see I don’t really “write” every day in terms of novel work. I will blog, work on short stories, edit. Creating silos for work makes it less overwhelming.

 

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My planning calendar is broken down into purposeful days

2. To-do lists.

Make me a list and I will go slay a day. I’ve even started writing little “Yay!” notes or “You kick ass!” comments when I check things off to remind myself how satisfying it is to take care of my business. A big thing here is that I often have one or two things that just don’t get done. I make it a habit to transfer those to-dos to the next day’s list. No excuses.

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Today’s to-do list

3. Plan for breaks.

I break my day up into the following:

5:30-7:30 a.m. – Me time. Catch up with my brother, my friends, my Instagram, my meditation, my cat, my need to sit in silence.

7:30-8:45 a.m. – the epic chaos of getting the kids off to school.

9:15-10:45 a.m. – Yoga or blogging depending on how much my back and spirit hurt, and whether I can interact with humans on any given day. Today, it’s blogging even though I wanted to go to my fave yoga class because, well, humanity is not happening. 😉

11 a.m.-3 p.m. – Kill that to-do list.

3 p.m.-7p.m. – Kids, non-writing bits of life, and dinner on days I don’t work. Teaching on days I do.

4-8 p.m. – Some days I have long editing sessions.

8-10 p.m. – editing, reading, wishing I had the energy to edit or read.

10 p.m.-5:30 a.m. – I am religious about my sleep. Only if I am moved by serious inspiration or Ken wants to talk do I ever violate the 10 p.m. rule.

4. Set goals and be OK with hitting most of them.

Like I said, I aim high and get most of the way there some days. I’ve had to become comfortable with the ebb and flow of making a good life rather than achieving at all costs.

5. Be OK with pieces of your writing life taking time.

We are such an instant-gratification culture. It’s an epic challenge to understand that creativity must bubble and simmer and set. Pieces take time, and you must commit to the long game. Understanding that this sort of life cannot be conjured, but more chipped away at, gives you the drive to keep going.

However, don’t take so much time that you get lazy. Remain driven and go chase those creative dreams.

6.  Understand there will be sacrifices.

Another UGH in my book of advice, and I think you’ll be surprised by what I recommend sacrificing in this quest for creative living.

Creativity takes energy and time. It requires you to clear yourself out and open up to intuition, imagination, ideas, and perspective. You may think the Hunter S. Thompson facade of hard living makes an amazing writer and is the epic life goal. However, HST shot himself. I’m not down with that sort of end.

It was this year in particular that I realized getting clear with writing also meant getting clear with myself.

I stopped drinking. I don’t eat meat. I exercise every day and am working toward dropping all the weight I put on as a result of sitting and ruminating about writing.

I got into meditation, which is incredible.

I rearranged my work situation for balance.

I quit people who’d I’d allowed too much access to me.

My DH and I made big lifestyle choices that allow both of us to partition off work and creative pursuits despite the wonderful reality that both of our jobs are creative.

I am busier than ever. However, this “sacrifice” and push toward self-care has opened up a crazy ton of creative space I never had access to before.

Do I recommend you take my path? Not really. Go do your own thing that works for you. These are simply ways of doing to consider. My only words of remaining wisdom are to not use the “too busy” excuse for not writing, but consider how writing can find its important place on your daily to-do list.

 

Where Are All the Mid-Life Female Protagonists?

So, while browsing Pinterest this morning, I came across a quote that starts, “As I get older . . .” and ends with, “Your late 20s are when you start to figure everything out.”

Late 20’s? Good luck, ladies. Those of us rapidly approaching 50 must report sobering news, we’re still busy trying to figure this life thing out.

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By Brené Brown

Which leads me to another inquiry. . .

If my experience with women all around me moving through their 40s and 50s is any indication, mid-life marks the most profound transformation period of a woman’s life. Yet, I cannot even recall a novel I have read (and that is a whole heckin lot of them) in which the female protagonist strays much beyond twenty-five.

Where are all the mid-life female protagonists?

It’s a big question, people.

Women of my generation need voices of our generation in fiction, particularly in genre fiction such as SFF and historical fiction. Rarely do I find myself in a story where I can relate to the 18-year-old heroine figuring out her life for the first time. I long for characters in which women redeem themselves, come out, or come into their gifts in the middle of their lives instead of having to get divorced and have the whole story revolve around being broken down by a man who left them for, you guessed it, an eighteen-year-old.

We’re dealing with major issues—waking up to the misogyny, homophobia, and racism that permeated our youths; watching our kids cope with tech that exploits them; our own raging hormones and bodies betraying us; careers that were marginalized while we raised children and now we are struggling to reclaim. Many of us desperately wonder what’s realistic to attempt in that reclamation, if we have the time to start over and pursue dreams, if regret will be the devil that derails any enthusiasm.

Yet, we remain under-represented in literature, film, TV. Yes, we show up, but not as leads. What is it about women reaching the middle of their lives that keeps their stories relegated to supporting roles?

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A friend’s response, “A woman at forty or fifty has reached the age that men fear the most—the age of sovereignty.”

Hmmm.

“So go write one,” you shout at the computer screen.

That’s the plan.

Elijah Gale in my WIP Woman On The Wall is 43. She’s got some business to deal with and some life to figure out and the women around her reflect that too. She’s been hammered by her own giant ego, her fear of being ostracized, and a life that has gone sideways. These are the kind of women I want to see in fiction—battle-worn, searching, dealing with their own shadows.

What do you think?  What kind of mid-life badass women of fiction would you like to see in the pages of the next novel you read?