Yearly Archives: 2014

Train Wreck

A Conference of Train Wrecks

Just back from three days at the Surrey International Writers Conference. Three days of sessions on the craft and business of writing, as well as keynote speakers (Cory Doctorow! Chuck Wendig! Laura Bradbury! Others!) and a whole lot of networking. I listened to Don Maass describe how to write settings that readers will want to live in. Robert Wiersema gave his ideas on how to make readers cry and drove his point home by bringing his audience to tears. Chuck Wendig made his case for how to develop kick ass characters (we ended up outlining a story about a missing child whose parents opt to cope with the tragedy by CLONING the child). David Corbett steamrollered my brain with his rapid-fire erudition and thoughts on how writers can use various types of moral argument to develop plot and character. Larry Brooks and I had a wonderful chat about story structure and character (my notes from his book Story Engineering live on my office wall). Peter Rubie discussed voice and how you can make yours better (hint: practice the right things). By Sunday my brain was ready to hesplode.

The last session I attended was Liza Palmer’s “Your Voice, Your Career.” I expected another class full of tips, and there were plenty of those (including creating a Pinterest page for your characters!) but, for me, much of what made the session work was just Liza herself. She stood in front of her audience, laughing, digressing, talking a mile a minute, sometimes forgetting her place but then getting on with things anyway. None of the hiccups mattered.

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Lonely Road

Insight is a quiet beast

Many of my life’s epiphanies happen when I’m busy doing something other than looking for the meaning of life. Showering, cooking, driving, jogging. Things that require a bit of attention but not total focus. In fact, I’ve had so many personal epiphanies while hiking and folding laundry that I’ve become curious about it. Why is a little distraction good for insight?

My best guess is that activity quiets the mind – that conscious, thinking part of the mind that is usually humming like an air conditioner through our every waking moment (I’m talking here about executive function in the prefrontal cortex for you science nerds). For example, if I’m busy chopping carrots, I suspect that my brain hands over more control to the motor control regions of my brain and less to the self-conscious, idea editing part of my brain. While I’m still free to think, it’s likely to be a little less structured, a little more freeform. Like a child on the beach, rambling around in the sand, looking at all the foamy surf, the pretty stones and seashells, the smashed bits of crab. There’s no agenda here, except to keep rambling.

In this way, distracted thinking is a bit like meditation. A regular sitting practice not only enhances one’s powers of concentration, but focusing on the breath for long periods frees other regions of the brain to rest and loosen up. In other words, to get quiet.

A 2012 study from the University of Leiden revealed that meditation can positively affect two key components of creativity: divergent thinking (which generates new ideas, like the kid finding trinkets on the beach) and convergent thinking (which figures out how to use those ideas, like the kid realizing that sea glass might make awesome jewellery). Put these two kinds of thinking together and you end up with novels, lightbulbs, antibiotics, and iPhones.

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Squirrel Dance

3:15 am: Revenge of the Squirrels (Or how to be more creative)

Picture yourself voluntarily waking up at 3:15 am every morning for an entire month. Now imagine lurching around in the dark to find a notebook, flipping to a blank page, and writing whatever comes to mind. And now suppose I said this exercise could supercharge your productivity and make you more creative.

I know, I know… about as likely as a break-dancing squirrel. Right?

When I first heard about the so-called 3:15 Experiment, I shook my head. I mean, seriously, I have enough trouble sleeping as it is. Why on earth would I intentionally wake up in prime dreaming time just to scribble in my journal? What could possibly come of it, other than grumpy moods and a medical need for coffee? On the other hand, I’m very often awake at 3:15 anyway. So why not give it a go?

For the first few days I remained unconvinced. Sure, it was interesting to wake up and see what my semi-conscious mind had oozed in the wee hours. But the result was usually nonsensical drivel or a series of cringe inducing cliches. My heart longs for trampoline freedoms… Shudder.I stuck with it though and, after a few days, I noticed something unexpected and kinda cool.

My daytime writing was getting better.

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It’s called, um, Faerieworlds.

The border guard can barely hide his smirk. “You’re going to fairy what?”

“Faerieworlds,” I say, deepening my voice a little. “It’s a three day festival down in Eugene, Oregon.”

“And what happens there?”

“Well, there’s music and craft vendors and performers. And people dress up in costumes.”

Now the guard is just plain smiling. “So you’re gonna dress up as a fairy for three days?”

“Um, no. I’m going as a steampunk tinker.” My voice is now so deep I’m veering into Barry White territory.

“So those aren’t your wings, then?” He points at some black, lacy dragonfly shaped wings on the seat behind me.

“No, those are mine,” my partner says. “Made ‘em myself.”

To my relief, the guard hands back our passports. “Ok. Have a nice time.”

I say thank you and hit the gas. In my side view mirror I can see him doubled over, laughing.

I don’t blame him. The first time I heard about Faerieworlds I had my own misgivings. Why would I want to go traipsing around with people in Faerie costumes for three days? It didn’t take long for me to change my mind though. Faerieworlds is not about fairies (the Disney sort of winged nymphs with no waist and big tits) but about Faerie: an imaginary and enchanted land.

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Hopped up on blog hops (plus squirrels)

Last week the amazing Danika Dinsmore invited me to participate in a “blog hop.” After much consideration (.00257 seconds), I said, “Abso*****lutely! What’s a blog hop?”

A blog hop, it turns out, is a themed pass-it-along blog post. The theme for this one is Writing Process and, specifically, these three questions:

  1. What am I working on?
  2. Why do I write what I do?
  3. How does my writing process work?

Well, gird your loins folks because here are my fascinating and informative answers.

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Long Beach, 1932

On a stormy afternoon in December 1932, a ship leaves the port of Long Beach, California and disappears into a curtain of rain and fog. The boat, a ramshackle 100 foot yacht, veers and pitches over rough seas while a small group of people gather on her port side. They hold tight to railings and listen while a man shouts through the squalls, delivering a eulogy for the dead man at their feet.

At the centre of the little group is a tall, blonde woman dressed in a military style uniform. Behind her black veil she wears an expression that is hard to read: part grief, part anger, part defiance. A few hundred yards away, men aboard another ship watch through binoculars, supposedly monitoring activities, but in fact looking at the statuesque blond whose name and face are on the front page of newspapers around the world. Despite her fame, however, no one knows much about her. How old she is, where she comes from, her relationship to the dead man. Some say she’s driven around the world and has discovered tribes in the Amazon. Others claim she’s a communist revolutionary, or a Hollywood insider, or that she crossed Africa, scaled mountains, survived jail and kidnapping, escaped civil wars and works as a spy. In fact, she is more than all of this. Her name is Aloha Wanderwell. She is one of the greatest explorers of her age.

During her twenty-odd years Aloha has tackled more change and faced more peril than all of Hollywood’s swashbucklers combined. Adventure has been her way of life, her driving passion. Even now, in the cold wet grey, she understands that a larger world is out there: Brazil’s buzzing jungles, India’s colour-sick streets, the sultry cabarets of Paris, the wild dances of African tribes, the cathedral forests of Vancouver Island. These are real places and they live inside her like friends.

Captain Farris’s voice is booming. He reads a passage from Joseph Conrad and then a bugle rings out the taps. Someone is sobbing. The flag is lifted and the sea grass coffin slides down the plank and into the dark waters. There’s a splash, a wash of bubbles, and then nothing. Just a heavy sea and a life vanished. Aloha chokes down her emotions and wonders about what’s next. She could quit, could just go home – except that she has no home. For the last decade at least, home has been the open road, the idea of what might be just over the horizon. Home as a fixed place has not existed for a very long time, perhaps not since her childhood, 1,100 miles north on Vancouver Island. It was eighteen years earlier, before she’d circled the world. Before she’d become famous. Before the US Government started tracking her. Those carefree days before another man’s death had changed her life forever…


[For more information on this story, please  Contact me.]