Tag Archives: writing process

Running down a dream

Today, I ran my first half marathon. It has been a goal six years in the making. I came close in 2008, but then a stupid injury sidelined me. Illness, a couple of surgeries and pure laziness kept me from succeeding.

Last January, when I was on a trip to LA with my sister, I knew I had to make a big change in my life. My health had to become my priority.

After nine months of training (with a 2 month break because of travel and a mild case of laziness), I ran the Niagara International Half Marathon

After the run, with our hard earned medals.

After the run, with our hard earned medals.

with my husband, who has also been my awesome and patient coach. It was hard. My legs are not fully functional and probably won’t be for days. My head hurts. And I feel awesome.

I finally reached this goal because I had a plan: “do this much running on these days for this many weeks.” I had to start with a walking plan to build up my fitness. Then my running had to increase to be able to run 10 minutes and walk 1. And then my mileage had to build from 3 km all the way up to 20, and finally 21 km today. It meant running when I didn’t want to. There was a lot of swearing, I won’t lie. A bit of whining too. The couch would be calling, but Dave would be in his running gear and I knew I had to get my ass in gear.

At the beginning, I was scared that I would fail again. That it would continue to be this illusive goal. Right up until I went over the finish line, I was afraid I couldn’t do it.

Stickers helped me to celebrate my progress. Apparently, I'm 8 years old.

Stickers helped me to celebrate my progress. Apparently, I’m 8 years old.

But I did it.

And now I know I can apply the same approach to writing. I went back and re-read my notes and outline. I’m pretty happy with a lot of it, but I’ve also forgotten a lot of the direction I was heading. I’ve been intimidated by the historical research I need to do. Intimidated by the character sketches and plot points.

No more. It’s time to at start by walking, not just talking about it. So it will start with dividing the work I need to do into one month chunks, researching one key topic at a time, then developing character sketches, then moving on to those plot points.  I won’t do it if I allow the intimidation to stall me or if I try to do everything at once.

I know today won’t be my last half marathon (not quite ready to commit to a full marathon yet). I am thankful for how it has prepared me to go after the biggest goal of my life.



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So maybe the title is a bit of click bait, but in honour of Valentine’s Day, here are some thoughts on writing about sex.

Also known as “Dear God, my mother is going to read this.”

How weird is it? Well, apparently my phone was so weirded out by the word “sex”, it insisted on changing it to “six”.

I can easily blame my hesitancy on my Catholic school upbringing. Sex was included as part of religion class. That won’t mess you up at all. I remember being in grade 4 or 5 and having our theology teacher show us a film that included a line drawing depicting how it all “fit together”. Afterward, she tried to remain calm while she slowly and oh so methodically wound the projector’s power cord around her arm… over and over and over again. She couldn’t make eye contact with any of us and we were all mildly terrified. She said “Well, that was very grown up, and that’s ok.” Everything about her voice and body language screamed “THIS IS SO NOT OK.”

Contrast that with my experience in grade 7, when my oldest sister was volunteering for Planned Parenthood. Along with stellar birth control talks, I also got a Love Carefully pin… which I proudly wore to school. They had a very different attitude about it all.

So that just scratches the surface of my issues.

As for the business of writing a love sex scene, I played with sexuality a smidge in Sometimes Marco Polo Can Go All Wrong, but for a full novel featuring the life of a young female character, there’s going to be love and sex. The question for any good (recovered) Catholic girl is, how far do I go?

The mom issue is mostly imaginary, but it’s real in my head. I’m going to dedicate this book to her. My mom is 87 years old. Sex was not a frequent topic for us. However, my mother is incredibly well read and is by no means naive. So that is a neurosis I just have to get over.

I will also need to get past the feeling that I’m laying myself out there on the page. Writing is already an activity that leaves you somewhat vulnerable because you are putting a piece of yourself out there. When a colleague mentioned he had read my blog, I felt exposed. So to get descriptive about sex feels very revealing. Heck, I feel vaguely naked when I don’t wear my glasses. Yet, I have a feeling my friends would not buy me portraying myself as shy and innocent.

And then there’s the technique. Writing out a sex scene is not very easy. You run the risk of being clinical, lewd or ridiculous. Proper terminology does not make for inspired reading. I could use steamier vocabulary, but that just doesn’t seem right for a piece of historical fiction. There’s always the romance novel route, with such hot phrases as “throbbing manhood”. I think I threw up a bit in my mouth.

So that’s my challenge: how to be true to my character and her story, keep the reader’s interest and not accidentally cross the line into smut. Clearly I need to read more “literary” sex scenes. And practice. Maybe, I should probably get it out of my system and just write a full on erotic short story. Of course, you’ll never know. I’ll be writing it under a pen name.


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Starting over

About a hundred years ago, I was in fourth year university, working on my thesis. One particularly deflating day, I left my advisor’s office close to tears wondering how I was going to find it in me to fix the problems she’d pointed out. I remember how I had miserably whined to her, “You practically want me to start over.” She didn’t let me off the hook.

A few weeks later I was back in her office, thesis re-written. She gave me the thumbs up that I was almost ready to defend it. I’ll never forget her encouragement, “You were so worried about re-writing it, but you did it. Was that so bad?” In reality, the thought of it was much worse than actually digging in and doing it.

My life this past year has had a lot of starting over. Professionally I took a leap of faith that hasn’t quite turned out the way I thought, but now I have an opportunity I thought I’d have to wait years for. Personally, I’m starting over on a few goals that have been dogging me for years. This is my year not to give up on me. And then there’s writing.

After taking a bit of break from blogging and writing, I’m back, and, I am starting over. Over the last few weeks, I have been working through the mechanics of writing, character development and story structure. I had to admit that my beautifully crafted treatment, was boring and soulless. A great big yawn.

At first, my stomach dropped. I got that mildly throw uppy feeling. My face twitched a bit. In that moment, I had a choice to make. I could go all Hulk and throw my notebook across the room and yell, “I don’t want to play anymore” and give up, or I could get to work. I decided to keep Smash Etta at bay. I’ve learned it’s much more productive to get excited about the possibilities than to mourn what didn’t work out.

Besides, writing is like a constant exercise in starting over. If I can’t handle that truth, I need to put down the pen and step away.

The thought of starting over is a bit like having a big white wall to climb, but it doesn’t have to be terrifying. I don’t have to do it without ropes and steps – that’s what planning is about. It won’t be easy, but it really isn’t impossible. And, unlike any other part of  life, on the page, I can take insane risks and really let loose, without worrying about the consequences.  Giuliana is going on some adventures, some of which may actually make it to the finished product.

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Serafina has come to life (deadlines are beautiful)

I haven’t blogged in a month. There’s been a lot of distraction in my life. A lot of noise.

Despite the noise, I have some good news to share.  With 5 hours and 34 minutes to spare, I submitted my short story to the CBC Canada Writes short story competition.

This blog and the support of my friends and even strangers who have taken the time to follow me or hit the like button, help me to not give up. Each week that I didn’t write here, I felt disappointed. Mostly I took a break from blogging because I could not stand the idea of writing about how I wasn’t writing. That’s a one note song I was sick of sharing.

The block was getting me down, the calendar had flipped forward. I realized I had 2 weeks left to get the story done. The story of Serafina had become something huge. Actually sitting down and writing the story scared the hell out of me. The story is very loosely based on a story my mother’s mother being forced to give away her wedding band for Mussolini’s economic campaign. This story was precious to me. What if I got it wrong?

Then I took a trip to Washington, DC with my husband and my sister and brother-in-law. I had never been before. This trip and the Smithsonian Institute specifically, helped me to finally understand how deep a passion I have for history. Not sure why this came as such a surprise – I have a degree in history. At one point, I terrified my husband by saying I should go back to school to get my Masters in History.

He can relax. I’m not so much intrigued by the dates and the events. I came home inspired and motivated to want to learn more about the people behind the history. And, I want to tell their stories.

So with the deadline looming, I took my time and crafted Serafina’s story. It took me about 20 hours and 6 drafts and the editorial advice and encouragement of 4 people. My favourite tip: “My son is 5 years old and he is significantly taller than a rooster.”

In about six months, I’ll be able to share it with you. I don’t think it will win any awards, but it will tell the tale of a little girl, grief, a gold ring and the kindness and love of a stranger.

Now… I do believe a I have book to research.


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A break through

I love a great breakthrough. My favourite kind is when I’m writing and the ideas fall in to place and it feels like the story is writing itself.

This breakthrough wasn’t like that. I don’t have a finished manuscript in front of me. The beauty of this breakthrough is that it will let me eventually get to that goal.

I took a break from writing. Well, that’s not completely true. It wasn’t as much a  break as it was giving up. I got completely stuck on “oh my god, do I have an adequate concept.”

I spun. I twisted. I fretted. I didn’t t write. I didn’t move forward.

To be fair, there was also a little matter of my mom ending up in the hospital. Between the back and forth and spending copious time in the depths of fear and worry, I didn’t have the time or energy.

While that’s the truth, I also had to ask myself, “Self, do you have the will?”

I was going to give it another week of laziness, using the fact that we’re at a cottage as an excuse. But then I was left alone for a few hours. The book I’m reading wasn’t calling me. I found the perfect place to study.

Instead of moving ahead to the next competency in the book, I reread the  section on concept. Maybe it’s the fresh air or the fact the sun is finally shining or maybe it’s the rice crispie square I ate with great gusto. What ever the reason, this time I was less uptight about the whole thing. This time different words stood out to me:

“At some point”
“During the process”
“Can’t ever know for sure”

You mean I don’t have to be perfect?

With that breakthrough, that bit of permission, I could move forward. I was able to see that I can’t be married to every element of my original idea and came up with a couple of ways  to improve my concept. The rest will continue to unfold. I’m early on and need to take my time – as long as I keep going.


A place of inspiration

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Breathing in Life – Part 1

Last week I warned told you that I would take you with me as I work through what seemed like the drier exercise of learning how to take my idea and turn it into a book. I’m working with a book called Story Engineering. It breaks down the six elements that are needed to turn story into a compelling novel. I like this book because it doesn’t give you a formula, it simply challenges you to make sure that you have enriched these elements as much as possible.

The first element is to make sure your concept is strong. That requires knowing the difference between an idea, a concept and a premise. It turns out that having an idea to write about a story strong willed woman set in Italy is not quite enough. I wrote a treatment for the novel a long time ago, and I have been tweaking it over the past couple of months. Let me give you a peek at what I have so far:

“This yet to be named novel is the story of a woman’s struggle living in a time and place where gossip and superstition ruled. The novel is set in Southern Italy in the early 20th century through World War I and the rise of Mussolini to the brink of World War II. The novel takes us through the life of Giulia Cassatto, who we meet in 1911 when she is 15 and her mother has just died.” 

I’m going to stop there. The treatment goes on to describe the major plot points. It gives me a map for writing the full novel, but there are a lot of blanks that need to be filled in.  I still really like the treatment, which is good news, but the concept needs a bit more work. [Insert weepy emoticon right here.]

Of course, I got the idea for this novel from my mother. When you’ve heard family stories your entire life, you sometimes accept the oddities and don’t ask the really obvious questions.

Mom would often talk, with much affection, about her Zia Antonia, her mother’s sister. Mom would always just casually mention that Ciccio (which is a short form for Francesco) was Zia Antonia’s foster son. I had always just accepted this until one day it finally struck me as really odd that this man, who was clearly her favourite child, was always referred to as a foster son. So I asked the question “Why do you say foster son?” I probably used a slightly snotty tone and was ready to preach to my mom that adopted children are just referred to as children. Well, the answer wiped the snottiness right out of me and I knew that I had to do something with this story.

But I can’t tell you the story now, because what I was given that day was the end of my novel.

While it is a remarkable story, it needs more meat to cover 200 – 400 pages. Not to mention subplots and themes … but I’m getting ahead of myself and will save that panic for a later post. For now, I’ll go back to build out my concept, and hopefully not fall into the writer’s trap of never actually being done.


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Vacation Brain

Normally when I go on vacation, I like to pretend I’m a travel writer and blog the heck out of our adventures. I force my family and friends to experience it with me. I loved sharing the beauty, gelato and pizza of Italy. I tried to get everyone to fall in love with Frank Lloyd Wright.

Highest tides on earth.

Highest tides on earth.

This time we went to the Bay of Fundy National Park, which included some challenging hikes (moderate my ass), incredible lobster, spectacular views and some of the friendliest people on earth. But I’m a week back and I haven’t written about it.

At first I considered feeling angst about it, but there are so many other things to angst about.

In moment of pure laziness after we got home, I got to thinking about how the best vacations are the ones made up of stories.  On this trip, although we did stuff, we spent most of our time talking, telling stories and laughing. The most memorable parts of our “big” trips are never the ooohing and aahing at an architectural wonder or an ancient ruin. It’s everything that’s going on around that makes it stand out in my mind. Getting booted out of a church in Rome by a very grumpy priest who had hit his tourist limit that day, meeting a man from southern Italy who spoke English with an Australian accent, accidentally squaring the far-too-friendly crew member on catamaran trip in St. Kitts. It’s those shared experiences that leave a mark.

Vacation stories don’t blog well, but they do inspire. Let me tell you, Beth and Christian (our travel companions) gave me great fodder for stories. This is good because I need a little inspiration.

Beach combing for inspiration

Beach combing for inspiration

Not only is the clutter of life getting in the way, but research is leaving me uninspired. While stories are the best part of a trip and, of course, a novel, there’s this whole technical side that can’t be ignored. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately reading about how to make a book interesting and quite frankly, it’s boring. Suddenly, I’m back in university in my “What is History” class. But, like sit ups, while it’s not fun, it is necessary.

Time to get my brain back from vacation. I have to get through this part and then start my research on a whole lot of social history in Italy between 1900 and 1939. So I will challenge myself to not only make the technical more fun but to also share it with you! I bet you can’t wait for next week’s post. Now, let’s see how the hell I’m going to do this. Wish me luck.

P.S. Christian’s sister, Carrie Snyder, was short listed for the Governor General’s Literary Award: Fiction for her book The Juliet Stories. Go read it


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August 11, 2013 · 9:11 am