So I was having a rough day the other week. I’d received a short story rejection that really stung. No matter how often you submit—no matter how thick your skin gets—there’s always the odd one that still hurts. Funnily enough, the angst hit worse a few days after the actual rejection. I’m not sure what the trigger was, but it sparked a whole slew of thoughts, which I now present in the form of a dialogue.
ME: I’m never selling anything ever again.
ALSO ME: You just sold a piece to Augur.
ME: But I’m not selling anything else. I’m a has-been before I was even an is.
ALSO ME: Why do you say that?
ME: Everyone else is selling short fiction.
ALSO ME: Who’s everyone?
ME: People on Twitter.
ALSO ME: So what? You’ve had a good year career-wise. You have an agent!
ME: Yeah. That’s good.
ALSO ME: You had a story come out!
ALSO ME: You SOLD a story. To Augur. You love Augur.
ALSO ME: So what’s the problem?
ME: I don’t sell many stories.
ALSO ME: Why is that important to you?
ME: Because that’s what you’re supposed to do. You sell short stories, and then people start to know you, and then you sell a novel.
ALSO ME: That’s what you’re supposed to do. I see. Says who?
ALSO ME: Is that what [WRITER FRIEND] did?
ALSO ME: And is [WRITER FRIEND] still doing well?
ALSO ME: Okay, what about [OTHER WRITER FRIEND]? Do they write much short fiction?
ALSO ME: And does everyone still love them and think they’re an awesome writer?
ALSO ME: So it is possible that short fiction is not an absolute prerequisite?
ME: Fine, yes. But what if I’m just not good enough?
ALSO ME: (Deep breath) Okay. Look. You know that’s not the only thing. It’s budget. It’s personal taste versus the publication’s aesthetic. It’s balancing out the stories they bought three months ago. It’s balancing out the stories they’re buying three months from now. It’s publicity. It’s “OMG I love this story like I love every puppy in the shelter but I can only adopt two and my heart is breaking but I still have to leave this one behind.”
ALSO ME: Can I make an observation?
ME: Go for it.
ALSO ME: Generally speaking, your writing does best when you don’t give a f*ck—when you just write whatever makes you happy. Six Stories, for example. Angst-ridden friendship and fairy tales and a ridiculous metanarrative structure? Who does that? YOU do.
Or, okay, Beer Magic. Queer ladies—magic beer—Toronto history—you literally just combined your six favourite words and that’s what finally worked.
This is true of your short fiction, too. Most of the stories you’ve sold were about things that make you angry.
ME: I’m not sure I’m comfortable using anger as my main motivation.
ALSO ME: Yeah, that’s another conversation. The point is, the stuff you feel like you “should” write? Yeah. That tends not to fly. But the stuff that matters to you…that does well.
Let me ask you a question. If you could write anything right now, what would you write?
ME: That Southern Gothic fairy tale novella.
ALSO ME: Then why the f*ck are you beating your head against the wall with short stories?
ME: I can’t just write whatever I want! I have to think about my career!
ALSO ME: Okay, great. Think about your career. When Kim-Mei’s done with Beer Magic, then what? You’ve got to have something on deck. Why not this novella?
ALSO ME: It’s okay. It’s okay to focus on something else for a bit. It’s okay to explore other avenues. It keeps you nimble.
ME: I know.
Then I sold a story to Lightspeed three hours later. Even so, I still want to write this novella?
Everyone says, “There’s no one way to have a writing career,” but we all have our own blocks and unconscious beliefs. Part of me feels really guilty that I haven’t written much short fiction lately…
…but where is the guilt coming from?
I’m not sure. But I think this novella’s calling louder than anything else right now. Maybe it’s time to listen.
What I’m Listening to this Week
Ah, Louise Pitre, I love your music so dearly. It is sad and heartfelt and jazzy.
Today I thought I would give you all some updates on my two plays!
The gang is assembled! We have our full cast and production team. They are all delightful, talented people, and we can’t wait to work with them.
We have a venue! The show’s going up at the Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace. We couldn’t be happier!
We have a fundraiser! Starting on Wednesday, we’ll be running a crowdfunding campaign. The demands of stage theatre are very different than audio drama. We want to bring you the best production possible, so we’ll be reaching out for help.
Plus, Blythe and I have cooked up some awesome rewards to unlock along the way. If you can’t make it to Toronto for the Fringe Festival, this is a great way to stay involved with the show. We can’t wait—if we make our goal, we’ll be firing up the mics once again for a companion podcast. We’re definitely itching to get back on pod!
The Toronto Fringe Festival runs July 4th-15th, 2018. We should be getting the specific schedule for SIX STORIES later this month. We’ll announce it as soon as we can!
A Canticle of Light
Switching gears, this play is being produced by Missed Metaphor Productions. They are also delightfully talented people, and I can’t wait to see how they bring this Southern Ontario Gothic drama to life.
CANTICLE also has its cast! You can learn more about them here!
This play’s going up at the Box Theatre, May 30th-June 2nd. If you’re in Toronto, there is a fundraising event planned for May—more details forthcoming soon!
Life is very, very busy, but I’m also very happy. Both these plays have special places in my heart. As hectic as things are, I’m thrilled they can take their journeys together.
What I’m Listening To This Week
As a composer, Dan Forrest has such a lovely flow. He’s got some stylistic similarities to Ola Gjeilo; probably no surprise I like them both. In this piece, I love the swooping, circling theme that repeats the plea, “Entreat me not to leave you.”
Heavy weekend, my friends. Between the astonishing images from the March For Our Lives, the shattering speech from Emma Gonzalez (if you haven’t seen it, please do), and loss striking several friends, words are a little hard to find right now.
But it’s been a weekend for perspective.
I’ve been so worried. Deadlines and submissions, work and striving. But in the end—well, those things seem small compared to everything else. If nothing else, this is a good reminder to come up for air and actually look around at life—to remember who we are, what we cherish, and what kind of life we want for ourselves.
This isn’t to say, “don’t sweat the small stuff,” mind you. Sometimes, the small stuff is the most important. Having a picnic brunch on the choir room floor is small stuff, but honestly, the fellowship and love fed my soul more than anything else this weekend.
It’s the unimportant stuff that gets in the way. The chatter, the noise, the pettiness that creeps like invasive vines through our lives. And it’s hard, because those things often feel very important. The trick is to find the signal in all the static, and lock onto it with everything you’ve got.
When the chips are down, when the clock’s running out—what matters most to you?
Go that way. We’ll walk together.
What I’ve Been Listening To This Week
A story title got Gibbons’ “O Clap Your Hands” stuck in my head. It’s like clockwork: wind it up and watch it spring forth to its natural end:
The Imposter Syndrome was hitting hard this past week. Hard enough that I didn’t particularly want to blog anything. But I had an affirming chat with my dear friend Aly Grauer and also I have an epic-beyond-epic song for “What I’m Listening to this Week,” and so here we are.
It occurs to me that Imposter Syndrome strikes me when I’m at my most tired and stressed. It’s like all the little soldiers on my mental ramparts drop off, their guard slips, and then the Anxiety-Dragons swarm my castle walls.
However, one must carry on, Imposter Syndrome or no. I’m increasingly recognizing the need to protect myself, to stop the mental guards from slipping in the first place. Sometimes, that means Getting Sufficient Sleep, or Cooking Large Batches of Food to Freeze So I Always Have Something Healthy to Hand, or Taking a Daily Constitutional.
But more, I think I need quiet right now. For me, self-protection is really about protecting the inner life. I keep thinking of a garden surrounded by castle walls.
It’s is an interesting image to play with. Cultivating, growing, but also some solitude, a respite from the chaos of the outside world. For likely related reasons, I’ve also been musing on the idea of hermits. Also, the Lady of Shalott. And monasteries. Anything withdrawn from the world, anything where the focus turns inward to process and mission.
When certain images and preoccupations keep emerging like this, I think it’s important that we listen. The subconscious communicates its needs in peculiar ways, after all.
I think I’m a bit tired.
I think I need to focus on my work.
I think I need to return to the roots of my own practice. It feels like a lot of deadwood has sprung up around my art and craft. By tending to my own little garden, I hope to clear some of it away.
Semi-intentional echoes of Voltaire, here—let us cultivate our garden. I’m also hearing the inscription above the chapel at my church—come ye apart and rest a while.
It all sounds like terribly good advice. And so, I’m trying it. Working hard, yes, but tending my garden all the while. After all, my annual writing retreat is coming soon: I want to be as well-prepared as possible.
What I’m Listening to this Week
This song comes courtesy of my friend Fiona, who said, “Would you like to hear the Ballad of Roland in Norwegian???”
To which I responded, “HECK YES.”
So here it is. It is an incredible piece: driving and epic, with some amazing harmonies. However, my favourite part is the soaring soprano line around 1:18, and again at 1:52. As Fiona pointed out, the line essentially takes on the role of Roland’s oliphant.
I can’t get enough of it!
I think the pre-Raphaelites are my off-season thing. Here we are, two weeks into January, and I’ve already put several books on hold at the library. I mean—I’ve been thinking about creative relationships, which got me reading again about Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal…and Janey Morris…and Fanny Conforth…
Complicated relationships, complicated art. Those are ponderings for another time, though.
But in the course of my wanderings, I stumbled across this quotation by William Morris:
Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.
Which I quite like. I think it’s a little more forgiving than Marie Kondo’s axiom that all our possessions should spark joy. Many of mine do; concentrating on joy helped me purge many more.
But in the end, I also need a screwdriver in the house, and a screwdriver is very useful. (Which is a kind of joy, I suppose? In the end, I think both writers are saying the same thing; Morris just resonates with me better.)
Now, Morris’ quotation is timely for two reasons. Reason the First: the garret is looking a little cluttered. When I moved up here, I purged a TON of stuff. A full garbage bag came out of my desk drawers alone. There really isn’t that much space up here, you see, and there’s nothing like moving to help you decide what’s necessary in your life.
But stuff creeps back in over time. Christmases and birthdays can’t quite match pace with the rate of purge. Also, I got a cat, which is basically like having a furry toddler—he comes with a lot of paraphernalia as well. The toys, my friends. The toys are everywhere.
So decluttering. Focusing on those things useful and beautiful. Cool.
But it’s not just the garret. Here is Reason Number Two. It occurs to me that “have nothing that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful” is a pretty good compass for life and fiction in general.
I’ve been asking myself this as I move through the Beer Magic novel. “Why is this here? What is this scene doing? Where is the conflict? What did these paragraphs accomplish in the overall story?” Already, I know I’m going to have to purge a lot of words. My best guess is that Beer Magic’s first draft is going to run about 110k—I’d like the final draft to hit 100k.
Reading what I’ve got thus far, my prose is cluttered. Extra scenes are gumming things up; some words are neither useful, nor particularly beautiful.
That’s fine for now. It’s a first draft. But I’d like to keep that in mind for the rest of the process: useful and beautiful. Ideally, every particle of our fiction should be both. Each word should punch above its weight; the best prose does three (or four) things at once; you’ve heard this all before.
But if it’s not useful or beautiful—
Why is it here?
Things to ponder, as I charge forward with the draft and sort out my apartment.
What I’m Listening to this Week
I suspect I will not have time for much short fiction until after Beer Magic and the “Six Stories” stage adaptation are done. But the first movement in Gustav Holst’s “Seven Part-Songs” is making me itchy.
Full transparency: on hearing it for the first time, I may have uttered an expletive. The text is just so evocative and entirely my aesthetic.
The other songs are lovely too—it’s always nice to find pieces arranged specifically for women’s voices. I particularly liked the round arrangement of the fourth song (6:10, “When First We Met”).
Editing the HEARTSTEALER audiobook continues apace. As with every new type of project, I’m learning lots: some things about particular voices, some things about my own idiosyncrasies in writing (they’re a lot more obvious when read aloud…).
Blythe’s narrating, of course. It’s been fascinating for me, because the two characters that blow me away are the two I never would’ve pegged her for. Naturally, she’s doing stellar work with the entire novel – but these two broken, fragile, hard-edged women are standout performances.
Naturally, that got me thinking, and I realised something:
I write best when I get out of the way.
I’ve had this nagging insecurity for a while. When I write characters for Blythe to voice, they’re…well, they’re good. They’re funny, sad, scary, whatever. But we’re not getting to that same depth I’m seeing in HEARTSTEALER.
And I finally realise:
When I write like that, I’m not giving her space.
I sing the praises of collaboration all the time. How different artists bring different aspects to the piece. How no one has to carry the entire piece alone, because the others are there, giving their support. How they are some things an actor or composer can do that a writer can’t, and so the words don’t have to try to do everything.
I’m not doing that.
It’s almost like I write to a certain level. There’s a ceiling. This is what I’m giving you; this is what you can do with it. It’s very difficult to rise past that level, because there simply isn’t enough there. Perhaps for the reader; not for the actor. It’s like how in prose, you have to leave room for the reader to bring something: otherwise, you smother them and there’s no engagement. You can’t resolve the chord for them.
So what makes Evelyn and Charlotte different?
I never wrote them to be performed aloud. I never wrote HEARTSTEALER with the intention of releasing it as an indie audiobook. And they are not the well-loved character types I’ve seen Blythe play a hundred times before.
You know that saying, “Dance like no one is watching”? That’s how I feel about them. I wrote like no one would be acting. I wrote them because I wrote them. They are what they are because they are, not because I think it’ll be challenging, or funny, or show off a particular strength.
They don’t have ceilings. There’s room to breathe.
A quick survey of my stable of short stories shows the same. The best stories are the ones I just wrote. Not the ones I wrote to further some grander design, or to vent, or because someone asked me to. I wrote as though no one were listening – I wrote for the story.
It’s hard. I’m looking at Six Stories, Told at Night (Secret Canadian Folklore Podcast: we got OAC funding!), and the play I’m noodling, and I wonder. After this long, how do you not write for a specific voice? Once you’ve seen the basilisk, how do you un-see it?
A line from Eliot comes to mind: “Teach us to care and not to care.” It’s a balancing act: giving the actor enough to chew on, not enough to choke them. Which means trusting more, I suppose. Trusting their art, trusting what they bring.
It also means letting go, a little. Focusing not on the other voice, but your own writer’s voice. Paradoxically, I think that’s how the actor finds theirs: when you half-forget they’re there. You may write assuming one actor or another will play the character, but it mustn’t affect the writing itself.
“Teach us to care and not to care…”
I’ve learned to care. Now, teach me not to care. Teach me to sit still.
What I’m Listening To This Week
I know this clip is 20 minutes long. I’m only listening to the first minute and a half. I looked, but the only recording I found of Eleanor Daley’s “Requiem Aeternam” is bundled into the entire requiem.
This piece haunts me. The choir sounds like passing bells: a hypnotizing chant, over and over. But it’s the words that get me: a setting of Carolyn Smart’s “The Sound of the Birds.” It captures grief and loss so very well, it’s like glass to the heart.
“Each night, I listened for your call.
And I but witness to the end.”
Creating things takes a lot out of you: mentally, emotionally, and physically. This is why you often hear creative-types talking about the need to recharge creatively, to surround one’s self with things that keeps the muse purring and the creative furnaces hot. There usually follows images of the creative-type serenely contemplating a field of wildflowers, or perhaps meandering serenely through an empty art gallery…
Well, I found something that keeps my creative well consistently full, something that energizes me and makes me want to WRITE ALL THE THINGS.
Spoiler: it’s not wildflowers.
I’ve become a fan of Celtic Woman. And also a fan of the High Kings, which are basically the male equivalent of Celtic Woman. It’s been this way pretty much since last summer, when I started work on the Victorian Dark Fantasy. I don’t know what the kids are dancing to in the clubs these days, but you better believe that I can belt out Rocky Road to Dublin from memory, in the correct 9/8 slip reel time.
It’s not something that I can really explain. Sure, I’ve always been a fan of traditional music, but these aren’t necessarily super-traditional. The translation for Celtic Woman’s version of Mo Ghile Mear is…um, well, you can take a look for yourself:
Can you feel the river run?
Waves are dancing to the sun,
Take the tide and face the sea,
And find a way to follow me.
Leave the field and leave the fire
And find the flame of your desire.
Set your heart on this far shore,
And sing your dream to me once more
Vs. the actual words:
Once I was a gentle maiden,
But now I’m a spent, worn-out widow,
My consort strongly plowing the waves,
Over the hills and far away.
Every day I’m constantly enduring grief,
Weeping bitterly and shedding tears,
Because my lively lad has left me
And no news is told of him – alas.
But you know what? I don’t care. There’s something in the drums, the harmonies of their arrangement that ignites that creative spark. Normally, I tend towards classical music, choral things, and musical theatre. But for whatever reason, this music punches some part of my brain and makes words want to happen.
I like ’em.
I worked my way through most of their music while writing the Victorian Dark Fantasy…and now, I’ve got it back on repeat. Plus, their newer members come from musical theatre backgrounds. It shows, and these more theatrical performances are making ideas echo, even if I can’t articulate them just yet:
So yeah. My musical tastes have always been eclectic (I’ve also fallen in love with Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, but that probably won’t end up in a novel for a while), but this is perhaps a bit odd even for me.
As for the High Kings…well, again, they’re basically the male version. It’s more stand-and-sing, but their songs do that same punching-through-to-some-flash-of-idea thing. I think this is one of Mairi’s theme songs:
Although she is not at all a fan of this one, which is hugely interesting. Especially because I start dancing in my seat from the opening chords:
And of course, this song, which is actually Mairi’s theme song:
The things that stoke our creative fires aren’t always the things we expect. That’s ok, though. It opens us to things we might never otherwise find. Besides, this music makes me happy. Then I want to write, which also makes me happy.
And man… those 9/8 slip reels are catchy!
PS. Yes, I totally wrote this post while listening to Téir Abhaile Riú on repeat…
1. Your phone frequently buzzes with reminders and appointments…for authors who are hundreds of kilometres away.
2. In the context of interning, you’re not exactly sure how to refer to the people for whom you’re working. My authors? My bosses? My friends, whom I assist? All of the above?
3. Simultaneously managing four people’s calendars no longer fazes you.
4. There is some wicked cool stuff sitting on your hard drive. It takes every bit of self-control you have not to submerge yourself in it and read it all right now…because hey, you’ve got work to do.
5. There is an increasingly enmeshed set of connections between the different parts of your life—and you love it. Case in point.
6. You’re up to four email addresses and counting.
7. Bedroom = home office + bed.
8. You look at a novel interior, or a video, or a website banner, and think, “I know how they did that! I can do that!”
9. You secretly envision a future in which you intern for all the authors, coordinating the entire publishing industry from the shadows—ALL SHALL LOVE ME AND DESPAIR.
10. You often find yourself thinking, “How on Earth did I get so lucky?”