I’ve never been very good about accepting criticism about my writing, but I’m getting better.
The old me: in writer’s groups or critique sessions, I would agonize over what to bring and end up selecting the piece I thought would receive the least criticism. Then, as the feedback rolled in, I would respond as though the burden of understanding was on the reader and explain/justify every point. Then I would go back in and try to incorporate every suggestion. My in-mind mantra: Why don’t you GET it?! But all right, let me try this and maybe you’ll like it then…
The new me: I usually avoid writer’s groups.
Don’t misunderstand – most of what’s best in my writing is inspired by other writers. Although my instinct is to work on my own, I would be doing myself a great disservice to ignore the ground that has been laid by all the excellent writers who went before – and move now – all around me.
However, what I have discovered is that writer’s groups are composed of as many types of people as the world itself and, like people in the world, there are those who should be listened to, those who should be ignored entirely, and those who should be selectively listened to. In a writer’s group, it’s difficult not to want to please everyone, including those whose advice might wreck a potentially great work. When I was working on my query letter for Aeden’s Wake, a friend over at Backspace warned me against “end-gaining,” a drama term for changing everything to please everyone.
Hence the “usually” in the new me.
I have discovered that I am a good writer. While my craft is – and never will be – complete, I am accomplished and confident enough in my abilities to know that much of the advice I have traditionally received would be detrimental to my work.
As a very concrete and recent example, back in university I wrote a story that was very close to my heart but that my instructor and most of my peers didn’t like. Defensive and disheartened, I put the story in the drawer and didn’t look at it for ten years. This past summer, after a decade of writing and publishing, I dug it up, re-read it, and realized that I had penned a very, very good story indeed (which, given the drivel I typically wrote then, was pleasantly surprising). So, swallowing my disappointment, I submitted it (with almost no changes) – and “Buddy’s Mirror” ended up as a finalist in The New Guard Literary Review’s 2011 Machigonne Fiction Contest.
Sometimes, we need to be really selective when it comes to criticism.
So, in evaluating critiques or writer’s groups, I have the following criteria:
I like Stephen King for two reasons.
One, the first big, “real” novel I read and actually enjoyed was It, a wonderfully creepy tale about a really bad place with a really bad clown. It’s long and gory and scary, and I enjoyed the small rebellion of it all. It was not very uplifting or wholesome, and I knew my folks wouldn’t really approve, which therefore made it awesome (like buying Run DMC’s album Raising Hell just because it had a bad word in the title, which I did. Word.). And it got me away from school-assigned novels or the books my parents were reading, neither of which were not terribly exciting to me at the time (The Red Pony remains, to this day, a book I have no desire to revisit). Plus, my dad was – and is – really into large genre tomes of fantasy and sci-fi, which I’ve never enjoyed much (everything after Tolkien and CS Lewis being a step down, of course).
So, in short, I owe Stephen King a big portion of why I love reading and writing.
But I also admire SK as a writer who demonstrates with every page that he loves his craft, and doesn’t apologize for being prolific, or even publishing work that can be, at times, not terribly great. He said once that his work is “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries,” which is at once a powerful statement of goal and brand. I’ll not dwell on the brand aspect (maybe my Brand-Guru brother Dennis can do so), but I think there’s something to a writer who has the chops to write pretty much any kind of novel he wants, but chooses to focus on work he enjoys writing and knows others will enjoy too.
He spoke with Jian Ghomeshi on Q recently and, once again, reminded me how intelligent yet down to earth this great writer really is. He said that he really writes books that he hopes people want to read, the measure of success being a reader not being able to stop turning pages, even if there are close to a thousand of them. I like that. Less about volume as a measure of quality and more about reader satisfaction.
Could he spend ten years and pen the next great American literary classic? I – and a few others – think he probably could (and I would buy the hard cover, darn it), but he chooses to sit down at the machine every day and work for his readers, focusing on storytelling and craft, rather than just the craft.
I get that. I’m a pretty good writer, I think, but at this stage I’m really enjoying the stories I tell and hope the writing carries them. It’s great to have someone to look up to who does the same.
I, along with a great many others, have been watching the Occupy movement face the imminent eviction from many of the places they have camped out and am wondering what the end result will be. But as a writer, I must confess that I’m a bit mercenary about what I’m waiting for – I’m not terribly optimistic about the movement’s ability to affect any real social change, but I am waiting for the great stories that can come out or be created, regardless of the outcome.
I’m hoping, anyhow. I think about the potential of stories like Dorli Rainey, the 84-year-old who was pepper-sprayed in Seattle, or the overdose victim in Vancouver, or the support of St. James Cathedral in Toronto, and I have the smallest glimmer of optimism for some grist for my storytelling mill. I hope for that moment where the protest takes on more than just the weight of a news soundbite and enters the collective consciousness, where it becomes impossible to ignore.
Enter “The Great Narrative.” You know, the protest story that is treasured and shared for generations. The kind of narrative that emerges when a great many people are willing to put their hearts, families, and indeed lives on the line for what they believe. Think Kent State. The Million Man March. Gandhi’s non-resistance. Tiananmen. Or more recently, Iran, Egypt, Libya, Syria.
Occupy's initial story was engaging enough, albeit unfocused, but it would seem that the movement has become watered down. When the main story these days seems to be either how various mayors are working through the least confrontational way to evict the occupiers or how public support is shifting after a month of almost nothing at all, I think the opportunity for the great narrative – the story I and the world are waiting for – has been lost.
Finally, there is an uncomfortable reality about great narratives – they often come at great cost. And they do so because those involved are willing to risk everything. As the movement winds down, I realize that the opportunity for generation shifting has been squandered because, really, little has been risked or sacrificed. When I hear the protesters compare themselves Egyptians or Syrians in their quest to shed oppression, I’m a little embarrassed by what the rest of the world must think about “our” story and how we view sacrifice.
Are the Occupiers willing to risk everything so the world will listen? I wonder, given that most of the Occupiers can, at the end of the day, go home to their safe, warm homes in safe cities and towns.
Has the freedom we enjoy effectively squashed what the great narrative can accomplish?
The big news first – yours truly is Agented! I have accepted an offer of representation!
As I mentioned previously, the 2011 Surrey International Writer’s Conference was an all-around victory. Hanging out with other aspiring writers and soaking in the excellent workshops provided unmatched opportunity for inspiration and motivation for the conference theme, “Today, We Write!” But, for me, meeting with authors, agents, and editors was the real bonus – I’d been querying the “brutal & faceless machine" for months without success, so actually interacting with industry professionals gave me the chance to overcome the question marks and deliver my pitch to actual faces with actual expressions. Proof in the pudding, perhaps? I think so!
I finished the first draft of Aeden’s Wake (AW) late in 2010. Then I sent it to a small group of trusted readers for their thoughts, allowing the manuscript to sit in a drawer until I had all of their ideas, then made various revisions to the manuscript throughout the spring of this year. In May, I felt that AW was polished and ready enough to start querying, so I put it back in the drawer, where it has remained until now.
I should say I tried to keep it in the drawer. From time to time, in a fit of editorial motivation, I’d pull it out and try to edit – however, each time I did, it quickly became obvious that I wasn’t able to read my work without wanting to change absolutely everything about it. This was not a healthy attitude – there is some wonderful stuff in AW that all of my readers agreed on, and I was threatening to change all of it.
So, back in the drawer it went.
By the time Surrey came around and when representation was offered, AW had managed to remain in the drawer for a few months because during that time a) my wife and I moved our lives back to Canada from Korea, and b) I had begun Old Habits, my second novel (I’m writing this one through the Humber School of Writers under the mentorship of Nino Ricci). It was a little embarrassing, but I had actually forgotten a few details about AW that she picked up and commented upon, things she felt could use fleshing out and developing.
Forgetting was awkward (nothing like being corrected on a detail of my own novel) yet amazingly, none of her ideas scared me at all, which is significant given how horrified and worried I was months earlier about what could or should be changed. In fact, they made a wispy, crazy, back-of-mind kind of sense. Could I dare to believe I might be ready to go back in?
So, with my agent’s thoughts in mind, I re-read my novel. A quarter of the way through, it occurred to me that I was really enjoying the story and my work. This was huge in itself, of course – we can be our own worst critics – but I was also enjoying the potential to make AW even better and found myself run through with ideas for the next revision.
Imagine that – looking forward to the revision. This was certainly a first for me.
(I know, I know, having an offer of representation was a big part of why the re-read was all warmfuzzied and glowy, but this old soul needs to find motivation wherever he can, right?)
Any other writers out there with similar experiences?
I have always enjoyed a good war story.
When I was young, I scoured the shelves and boxes in Ottawa’s The Book Market to find the next soldier’s story, and filled my own collection with the pulp and grist of some of the finest – and worst – writing I have ever seen. Vietnam was a particular fascination, with stories of jungles and paddy and punji-stakes driving me to turn the pages and spend my allowance and meager earnings from Pizza Hut and Bargain Harold’s. I loved every page I burned through and musty-paged breath I took when I was immersed in those stories.
But not everyone honors the war experience – indeed, there are some who think that war literature is little more than reveling in the worst of what humans do to each other. I encountered rolled eyes and even scoffing from others when I tried to explain – in my limited, pubescent way – why I was so drawn in to those books.
I’m glad I read what I read.
Twenty-five years later, I still enjoy reading about conflict – and the Gulf Wars, Peacekeeping, Somalia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Iraq have allowed more excellent material to emerge about what is, perhaps, humanity’s greatest narrative. If the job of the writer is to tell the human story – and I believe it is – war must be one of the most impactful ways to share because war is everywhere, has always been, and likely always will be. (People change, but never so profoundly as to stop trying to kill each other when they run out of constructive ways to disagree – history is very clear on that point.)
I think what I enjoy most about war literature – fiction and non-fiction – is the range of experiences, attitudes, philosophies, and sheer humanity that leaps from those wonderful pages. My teenage desire to read about the steamy and horrific battles fought in places with names like Mekong and Nha Trang has become a pursuit of the human experience of the war, from combatant to bystander to the people back home. And what always strikes me is how amazingly human every character is – I can’t empathize or even sympathize, really, but it is truly amazing how much I feel about what they are feeling.
So, on this Remembrance Day, I’m going to offer up, of course, my encouragement never to forget the sacrifices of those who stood between chaos and freedom. But I’m also going to share a few of my favourite war tales, from the good to the bad, in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, we’ll all listen a little closer the next time a veteran is compelled to share something we can only imagine, and perhaps fear enough to think twice about.
I still wonder, though: what might be the true experience of war?
War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane
The Thin Red Line – James Jones
The Corps – WEB Griffin
Mission MIA – JC Pollock
Fallen Angels – Walter Dean Myers
The War of the Rats – David L Robbins
Run Between the Rain Drops – Dale A Dye
The Wars – Timothy Findlay
The Things they Carried – Tim O’Brien
Shake Hands With the Devil - Romeo Dallaire
Fifteen Days - Christie Blatchford
Gods Go Begging – Alfredo Vea
Matterhorn – Karl Marlantes
Remembrance Day is coming. I will remember.
I almost wept today.
I almost wept for distant, unknown siblings
who packed up most of what they needed, entrusting it
to new brothers and sisters in filthy tent spaces
in places where God shone first.
I almost wept because I forget that there are kindred,
heartbroken souls who picked up swords, shields, pens
and went to war.
They bruised themselves to pay back
what they had not yet earned, and cast down lots
to see which brother would deliver the news
to which mother, father, uncle, son.
Life, they said, is bigger than a sum of actions.
Freedom, they yelled, as they signed on lines
and razored young hair, is more than expecting others to give
when all that gets done is taking.
You, they screamed, mean more to me
than I mean to myself.
That we can love and hate and fear each other
as much or as little as we want
or desire or crave or stand
isn’t a right – it’s a privilege
won by those who guard my shores
even though I didn’t ask,
and keep safe every delicate mote
of an existence I can’t live without
yet often can’t explain.
So why do they stand in places where
steel rain brings agony and the sun
makes dust that cannot bind wounds?
Why do they stand on lines and make war,
humanity’s true negotiation, when all I do
is stare, lost, at numbers and figures
and soft gentle things
and wonder where everything went wrong
when it isn’t going wrong at all.
but only because they refuse to let it be wrong,
although I, bathed in choice, try to make it so. It’s right
because their blood, leaking into soil and paddy
and ground and sand and jungle and hedgerow
and ocean and beach and bamboo prison cage
is the guilty fuel I fill my tank with.
I might want to weep, yet I brush away any tear
that might be seen by anyone, not the least of whom
whose sacrifice reminds me that I didn’t get here
You brought me here.
You wept on ground not yet given a name
and jagged wire not yet holy – you bled
tears and gore and ragged, unheard last breaths
and said that I could work this piece of ground,
if only to borrow it awhile
from those for whom I’d not yet wept.
I'm breaking one of my own rules this year. Usually, I'm quite vocal about how commercial and unsustainable the Christmas holidays have become (I saw Xmas gear up in September this year at Costco *shudder*), and I swear off any sort of holiday celebration until December 1.
This year, though, I'm putting out a little bit of Christmas wonder a month early. I've written a number of holiday stories the past few years, and so I've decided to put out a small collection of my family-friendly favourites. It's called FINDING DECEMBER: CHRISTMAS TALES, and is available right now in e-book format.
As of today, the Kindle version is available at Amazon, and I have started the ball rolling on making it available for Kobo and other e-readers. (Email me if you just can't wait for the ePub version, and I'll figure out a way to get it into your hands, ok?)
...and no, I'm not taunting you.
NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month and it happens each November. The ultimate goal is for someone -- anyone -- to write an entire novel or 50,000 words, whichever comes first, in the month of November. I'll let the website speak for itself in terms of detailed information about the initiative, but essentially it's a self-structured opportunity for the person who has wanted to write a novel to do so, inspired and motivated by the knowledge that lots of others -- over 200,000 in 2010 -- are doing the same.
Right up until yesterday, I was going to do it this year -- I had an outline all figured out, with characters, setting, conflict, and such all eager to appear on my pages.
However, it occurred to me that if I did NaNoWriMo, I'd be undertaking a third novel project to be working on right now. Yesterday I learned that I might be re-immersing myself into Aeden's Wake for further revisions, in addition to continuing creation of draft #1 of my second novel, Old Habits, which sits at a lovely and plumb 30,000 words. The NaNoWriMo novel, which I envisioned as a YA inner-city tale of supernatural craziness, would just be too much to take on.
So, into the drawer it goes. Perhaps for next year's NaNoWriMo, or until I need a break from adult fiction for a little while.