smartygirl work live play shop stuff going out the review

how to write a novel in ninety days.

Oh my goodness!

I first found out from my friend Jill. She had sent me an email:

From jill
Delivered-To: smartygirl
Subject: TAC grants!


I just checked the mail. Did you know we both got the TAC grant?

I nearly had a heart attack. Did she mean email or regular mail? I have had a number of email addresses over the years, including a couple of yahoo ones which don't work anymore, they're just spam receptacles. I called Jill and left a manic message. Then I called Daniel at home to see if the mail had come. Left another message. Then I called Duncan at the gallery downstairs (all of our mail gets pushed through his slot, and he puts it in our mailbox at the back). Yes there had been mail for me: A Lee Valley Catalogue, a bank statement... He offered to bring the mail back in and tell me exactly what was there, but all I needed to know was that the mailman had been. In no time, I was on my bicycle, zooming home, and then zooming to the bank to deposit a cheque! Then, I zipped back to the office to book a room at the Best Western Center City in Philadelphia! I didn't think I could afford it this year, but now I can! I'm going to the 215!

I had practically forgotten that I applied. I have always been somewhat skeptical of the grant system: shouldn't writers be able to survive on their own? I mean, I can see the need for funding when it comes to, say, theatre or film or other big-infrastructure artforms, but all a writer needs is a pen. And I do think it's awful when big successful writers apply for grants they don't honestly need. It would be nice to succeed outside of that world.

But I was (am!) psychotically happy to receive one! More than the money -- it's nice, but it's not a lot -- is the recognition, the validation. To have a jury of strangers read my work anonymously and think it has value. It's concrete proof that I'm not kidding myself trying to do this.

Then, I called and emailed everyone writery I could think of. I looked for and couldn't find a copy of the TAC Press Release online. I bragged on the Briney. I scared a coworker I don't know all that well (well, I guess I know him now) by making him read my Toronto Arts Council letter while I jumped up and down like a lunatic making strange squeaking noises. I made plans to meet people for cocktails. As Jill said: Now that we're officially writers, we have to start drinking more.

Sadly our night of celebratory debauch did not last forever. While I did put off my trip to my parents' place till Saturday, the twelve-hour-days I've been working have taken their toll, and I was ready for sleep at eleven.

Driving up to Almonte was good. I did a lot of thinking, as I always do in the car: I have ninety days to write my novel and spend two grand doing it. Spending the money is obviously not a problem -- in my fevered imagination I've already spent it a number of times. In the real world, I can justify Philly (it's a lit fest, dammit! Maybe I can even convince someone to let me read!). And I can use the money to take a couple of weeks off and hang out in -- yes -- Almonte. The town that drives me crazy is nonetheless the inspiration for the novel I'm working. My weeks here will be a cavalcade of Green-Acres-esque chuckles, tinged with nostalgic visits to my old school and rambles down country roads. My parents, love them dearly, will drive me crazy. And in all of this madness, I will be compelled to write as an escape, same as when I was a sullen teen.

updated 15 september 2003.


No doubt you are wondering what happened. All that grandiose talk about regular updates! Daily even!

Much has happened. Namely that I was offered a great job, and that I realized I have a full year to file my report, not ninety days. The ninety days part was that I have to file within ninety days of completing the project. So, if I finish up next week (ha), then I would have to file before the year is out. But realistically, that's not going to happen.

I am working on it in the back of my mind, though. I'm making plans to set up a writers' group, so we can help and inspire each other. And of course, there's always Philadelphia.

updated 25 september 2003.

So. That novel I'm writing. What have I actually done?

Well, so far I have made the decision to devote Tuesdays to writing: no social plans at all will be made on Tuesdays, other than meeting with the writing group I'm organizing for mutual inspiration and consolation. Our first meeting is next week, and we'll meet once a month.

Last night I warmed up by logging into Zoetrope for the first time in ages and reviewing a story, and then writing a short piece for McSweeney's (I'll let you know when it goes up). I also discovered that the Toronto Arts Council finally put the release online, so I forwarded it to a bunch of places.

Now, time to get down to the real thing.

Since I've looked at my novel, The Garglor has tinkered with my computer. Installed a whole new operating system, and a bunch of other stuff he told me about that I don't remember because my eyes tend to glaze over a bit when people get too hard into the geek.

Now I know what you're thinking, but he backed up every single file onto CDs before touching a thing. All I had to do was find the right CD. Panic. Found it! Oh, the relief. And then, despair when the file wouldn't open. And then relief when I coaxed it into life.

It's a roller coaster, and I haven't even started yet.

updated 30 september 2003.

And so it goes

We had our first Writers Group meeting on Tuesday. Despite a couple of no-shows, and my own freaked-out state*, I think it went quite well. We ate a nice breakfast. We discussed our current projects and goals and problems and achieving them. We discussed what we wanted (critique, not support) and now two of us are on our way to the city of brotherly love for the glorious 215.

This will be my third year attending. Can I say that? It's only the second year as the 215, the first year it was known as the McSweeneys Philly Throwdown. This year, the name stays the same, but the slogan has disappeared; last year, some people took the "Sex, Books & Rock'n'Roll" attitude too much to heart. Um. The organizers are taking no chances this year.

We awake at dawn tomorrow (no, I'm not avoiding packing by sitting here typing, I'm doing laundry as we speak), me and Jill and The Garglor, and drive straight down, theoretically having time for a brief nap before heading out for Whit's P-boz event followed by Neal Pollack madness. Many pints of Yards will no doubt be consumed. We will pass out in hotel beds and awake late on Saturday to consume large amounts of Philly food. Pretzel sandwiches! Cheesesteaks! Scrapple! Water ice!

Not to mention the Chubby Hubby.

Oh, my arteries are cringing already.

updated 9 october 2003.


So, the 215 was a blast. More on that later.

Today has been good. I'm finally getting inspired again, past the procrastination stage. I think large amounts of caffeine are the key here.

I think I've figured out a critical thing. One of the things I've been afraid of is the ending; I know what's going to happen, generally, but there's the whole terror of what the heck does it all mean. What am I trying to say, and how can I say it if I don't really know?

I think I figured that out this morning. Or at least I've made some strides to answering that question.

I wrote a new chapter today, and reread a bunch of stuff I hadn't looked at in a while, and I liked the way I reacted to it, if that makes any sense. I hit upon a couple of things, and figured out where a couple of random chapters I'd written fit into the main scheme of things. I also figured out that, before I started writing today, and not including the random chapters or today's additions, I was already at around two hundred pages, which is more than I'd thought. I can do this! I'm really starting to believe that again.

updated 18 october 2003.

Two hundred and fifty pages down, maybe fifty more to go.

I'm really excited at how well things have been going. I'm back on track, writing in the mornings before work, on the streetcar, on my lunch hour. Dragging my book with me everywhere I go, filling it with notes and ideas and comments and words words words.

As far as the publishing side of things, there has been encouragement and progress tempered with discouragement.

On the encouragement side of things, there have been a couple of offers to read the manuscript and make the necessary introductions: one from a filmmaker who knows a number of agents, and just flew to New York for a couple of days where she sat on a panel with one of Canada's top literary agents, the other from a friend who has edited an imprint for Gutter and has hosted IFOA events in addition to hosting his own reading series. Of course, both of these people are busy busy, so getting a minute or two of time may be easy, but getting enough concentrated minutes to get either one of them to read the whole book may be another matter. But they've both offered, so that's a start.

On the discouragement side of things we have a friend's experience when she met with an agent. She considered her book fairly commercial (sex! explosions!) but it turns out it's not commercial enough. The advice she received: make it more chicklit. Rewrite it as the kind of book you hate.

I hate books where it's frankly obvious from word one what the gender/race/whatever of the author is. I like books that take you beyond the experience of being one person, and take you into the experiences of many.

And frankly, there are too many chicklit books on the market. After Bridget Jones came out, everyone who'd ever had her period on just the wrong day felt compelled to write a book about it. Same thing with incest; now everyone who kissed daddy the Wrong Way feels compelled to share their experiences. And addicts have been boring us with their un-unique lives ever since Under the Volcano.

Not to say that Under the Volcano is anything other than a classic, or that all books about incest or the Experience of Being a Woman are inherently bad. Just that the good ones have led people who are not good writers to believe that their stories need to be heard. When in fact, their stories have already been told, and told well, by somebody else.

This is why I write fiction. I don't believe my life is the single most fascinating thing on the planet, although obviously my experiences inform everything I put down on paper.

I'm trying to think now, how many principal characters I have in my novel – six? Six people getting equal billing? But that's how life is – you can't understand the world one person lives in without experiencing the worlds that each of their friends and relatives inhabit. Without those brought to life, there's nothing but solipsistic storytelling. And who can stomach that for more than five pages?

updated 24 october 2003.

I broke seventy!

I don't know why I am so excited, really. I wrote fifty thousand words in the first month, and now I've completed less than half that in eleven times as much time. Still! The ideas are flowing. And I'm debating as to whether I should try nanowrimo again, or just stick to what's started and needs finishing.

updated 30 october 2003.

I'm going to do it.

Today is the first day of National Novel Writing Month, and I'm going to attempt to start writing a new book, while at the same time continuing to work on Sundowning.

A friend of mine had decided to work around this dilemma by writing a cheesey fluffy romance for NaNoWriMo, so as not to distract too many braincells from the real work at hand.

I had been wembling, maybe I would maybe I wouldn't, and then this morning I awoke with the idea for the opening for a book in my head, a children's book actually (working title: The House of the Broken Musical Instruments), a world away from Sundowning and thus (I hope) not too distracting.

I started an hour ago and I'm now at eleven hundred words. This is fun!

updated 1 november 2003.

Oh my.

I just went to update this page and was shocked to discover that I haven't touched it in the month of February at all. Oopsy! In my defence, I have updated the main page a couple of times. And I have been writing, which is the point. My NaNoWriMo novel is languishing at a mere 7,500 words, but Sundowning rages on. Writing longhand at work at lunch, typing at night, I'm lcose to being finished. Which is good, as early December was my latest deadline. It's looking possible.

Working on two big things at once is odd. On the one hand, it's refreshing -- I can work out my tendencies towards excessive wordiness in the House of the Broken Musical Instruments, while keeping my concise thought trained on Sundowning. It's like a warm up, or play time.

I'll be shocked if I meet the NaNoWriMo goal, though. I've been so busy this month (work is crazy -- I've got a ton of screenings I'm working on, and the Holiday party season is already begun). Still, you can't win if you don't play. And there's no better way to get the creative juices flowing.

updated 24 november 2003.


One of my more astute readers (more astute than I am, at any rate) just pointed out that I typed "February" in my last post where I clearly meant "November." Whoops! That gives you an idea what the weather is like here: an ill wind blowing no good. Earlier that evening, I rode home on my bicycle (how warm and naive I had been that morning to choose the two-wheel commute!), fighting sleety headwinds all the way. I thought I might hide out at The Garglor's place for the evening, but he was not yet home, and his roommate was heading out, so my reprieve was all too brief. Sitting on their couch, I looked out the window into Queen Street, along with a fig tree whose leaves were pressed up against the glass like a house-bound child with his nose against the window, longing to run free. There was another tree on the other side of the glass, and my eyes were tricked for a moment into believing that the tree outside had leaves as well. It took a moment of dusk-sull thought for me to realize it was only the reflection of the indoor warmth on the glass. What an image, I though, this tree bursting to escape into the freedom of the outside world, tempted by its own reflection, unaware of the lifeless cold beyond. I thought of taking a photograph, or maybe paint would convey the image better? But ultimatley there were too many layers, the idea was too complex to convey with anything other than words. And I thought: this is where poetry comes in. This is why we invented language.

updated 27 november 2003.

And now it really is February.

I've not been making a lot of progress lately. A lot of excuses, but not a lot of progress.

Fortunately, I have a writing group to help keep me motivated (i.e., give me hell for being lazy). Believe it or not, this works.

One of my excuses for lack of productivity had been the classic "lack of time and energy" excuse. Which is, of course, rubbish. You have to make time. As for energy, well, in a fit of New-Years-ish-ness, I decided to cut down on coffee. No coffee after one o'clock in the afternoon. In theory, this would mean I'd get better sleep at night, and have more energy all! day! long!

Didn't happen.

I did get an article out of it at least (keep your eyes on the Fact & Arguments page of the Globe and Mail). But it didn't help much otherwise.

So, I drank coffee. Three (four?) cups at nine o'clock last Tuesday. I was up till after two o'clock in the morning (not fun, when you have to be at work at nine the next morning). But! I wrote. Four or five thousand words, no less. And I added another two grand yesterday.

I think what's hindering me now is fear. When I finish it, I have to show it to people. Ugh. And then, I have to start something else. Terrifying!

But admitting you have a problem is half-way to solving it, right?

updated 9 february 2004.

Filling in the gaps.

And there are many.

The weeks I've spent procrastinating haven't been entirely wasted; I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about what's needed, what's missing, what comes next.

Now, it's just a matter of getting that stuff written down.

I took the brave step of giving Sundowning to a friend of mine to read -- she's a writer too, so we've done a swap. It's a scary thing. Now I'll have two people who've seen it bugging me to get it done.

And another friend of mine just had a book published. Yes, and actual book, actually published. Eep!

updated 17 february 2004.

Tuesday is writing day.

And I've actually been writing. I roughed-out a time-line, chapter by chapter, with notes on what's supposed to happen and what's missing. I'm not a big plotter -- I have the big stuff up in my brain -- but at this point it's helpful, so that I can remember what I've already said, and make sure that everything still makes sense. Continuity is getting to be an issue, because I've introduced so many little incidents, and now it's time to tie them all together. I find I'm better at introducing stuff than finishing it up, that's what makes this the hard part.

I also wrote a story on the weekend -- Jill will be so pleased! It grew out of the food poisoning that TG and I suffered as a result of Valentine's Day (not very romantic). I thought it seemed so horrible and unfair that the one time we'd get sick would be our first Valentine's together -- with all of the anti-Valentines-bitterness I've been reading about lately, it seemed almost deliberate. So I thought I'd write about it from the point of view of the bitter single poisoner -- the anti-autobiographical. The poisoner turned out to be a kind of sympathetic character, though. That is my weakness -- or strength? -- as a writer: I empathise with all of my characters, the good and the bad (that was one of Melissa's comments on the novel, actually, that I care about the characters so much). Which is the polar opposite of Jill, who often writes about characters she dislikes, and is then surprised to find out her readers care for them by the end of the story.

We've also been at work on our new reading series, Itch, which will be taking place the last Sunday of every month at the Gladstone Hotel Art Bar. We've already lined up Claire Zulkey to come and read in April, and Book Television is going to cover the event.

Soon, we will take over the world!

updated 24 february 2004.

Another long gap.

What's my excuse this time? Well, Jill and I have been busy putting together itch: the reading series, hosted by us. It will take place the last Sunday of every month at seven o'clock at the Gladstone Hotel Art Bar. We have writers lined up through the end of June, and to kick it off today, Jill and I will be reading from our novels.

Yes, you heard right, I am actually going to be taking Sundowning public.

So, right now I'm in the see-saw mood between panic attacks and excitement, reading over my excerpt, and thinking of all of the things that I've forgotten and should really have done weeks ago.

Like mention it in detail here.

updated 28 march 2004.

Reading, reading, reading.

One thing I learned from reading Sundowning in public (more details on that here) is that I haven't read the beginning bits in a while. It was almost like reading something someone else had written, that maybe I had skimmed some time ago. Oh yeah! That's what the book is supposed to be about! I totally forgot about that detail! Or plot point! Or character! Hmm.

So I've been spending some time reading and re-reading. Getting to know the characters again from the beginning.

My skills at forgetting amaze me.

updated 13 april 2004.

Oh, I'm awful.

Okay, so I haven't been working as hard as I should.

I've always been a master procrastinator, just ask my mum.

But I am also a creative procrastinator, a productive procrastinator. And thus, Sundowning may not have any new chapters, but it does have a shiny new website.

And here's another new endeavour: the postcard project launches at random in a mailbox near you. Feel free to submit your supershort story.

updated 11 may 2004.


Reading. Crossing out things. Marking things with a complex system of arrows. And even reading out loud.

I read a chunk about Keith at Itch last night -- I was a bit hesitant, as I'm no expert in teenage boys (I was such a loser in high school, I never really got to observe one close up), but figured why not -- it's one of the funny bits, full of neuroses and masturbation.

Well, it appears I fooled the experts. Actual strange men I'd never met before asked in seeming amazement: How did you research that? Did you conduct interviews? And I had to confess that I made it all up. TG commented how unlike me Keith is. "He's a completely separate character. You're a real writer."

Actual published authors asked me who my agent is. Complete strangers wanted to know where they could by the book.

Yep, I can make up stuff from scratch and have it come off as believable. Who would have thought that was a skill?

updated 31 may 2004.


Tomorrow I'm taking off for parts known and unknown.

I am taking Sundowning with me, of course. There may be time for reading and revising at the cottage. And, you know, if there's traffic or something. We'll see.

updated 7 july 2004.

What I did on my summer vacation.

Here I am in lovely Halifax, but I'm still managing to be at least a little bit productive.

Yesterday my wanderings led me to a cafe where I had a weird dry crumbly oatcake (I didn't see the butterdish till I was on my way out, and cursed my ill fortune) and did some reading, writing, and revising. It's interesting reading over parts that I wrote long enough ago that I'd forgotten them. There was one line (about Keith's baser thoughts, the ones he struggles to bury, the ones he overcompensates for) that actually made me gasp: how awful! And after I gasped, I remembered gasping when I wrote it, because it had just sort of come out of the pen when I was in that automatic state, the state where you have no idea what you're writing until it is firmly on the page. I remember being quite pleasantly surprised by the fact that I could catch myself off guard with my own writing when I first typed it up, and it's kind of cool to still be able to get that kind of reaction, if only from myself!

updated 15 july 2004.


After another in a series of hiatus, I wrote about fifteen pages on the weekend.


I really like writing longhand. It's the way I started this book; it's more portable than anything (I have excerpts written on restaurant receipts in a taxi); it frees you from the temptation to fret about spelling and try to edit and rearrange before the writing's done (but forces you to re-read and revise with a little distance when typing those pages into the computer); and it just feels good.

All of the classic clichés of a writer facing a blank page disappear when there is no page, only a computer screen that can easily be filled with a game of freecell. I like watching the words unfold on the page. I like going back to them after and noticing the changes in my handwriting: is it frantic scratching, small and precise? Leaning to the left or to the right? A true graphologist could have a field day.

Mostly, I just like the feel of a pen in my hand. There are a lot of things you can doo with a pen that you can't do (well, not easily) with a computer: doodling in the margins, sketching the layout of the building or town where the story is set, scratching your head. You can chew on a pen or use it to put your hair in a bun.

But really, it doesn't make a difference why I like longhand. All that matters is that it works for me.

updated 26 august 2004.


I thought I had updated more recently than this...

I'm finished!

A couple of weeks ago, just before I went to Philadelphia to read as part of the 215 Festival.

The Friday after I got back, an agent asked to read it. That was two weeks ago. I'm going mildly crazy. I asked Jill, "Should I call? Should I email? Should I pester?" and Jill, ever wise, responded that the thing I want to do now is seem easy to work with. As opposed to a neurotic nag. So that's what I'm working on.

I am also, of course, working on some new ideas. No time like the present to start novel number two.

In any event, our long national nightmare is finally over. Sundowning is finito. Until the agent asks me to rewrite, that is.

updated 2 november 2004.

* One more reason to be glad to be getting away from the city. No more twitching every time the phone rings! is hosted by 1&1


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