The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

2008 Malahat Review Novella Prize

by Andrew Tibbetts

Forgive me for blowing my own horn (insert inappropriate joke here) but I must, I'm too excited. I won the Malahat Review 2008 Novella Prize! I'm over the moon about it and I strive to work my win into every conversation I have and every email I send. So of course, it's going to find it's way into the blog. Pick up a copy in the summer why don't you? I'll probably remind you when it's out. Daily. But you understand, right?

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


by Steve Gajadhar

As promised last post, here’s my review of VALIS by Philip K. Dick.

Parsifal is one of those corkscrew artifacts of culture in which you get the subjective sense you’ve learned something from it, something valuable or even priceless; but on closer inspection you suddenly begin to scratch your head and say, “Wait a minute. This makes no sense.””

Quoted from page 133 of the Vintage version of VALIS. Substitute VALIS for Parsifal and Dick has explained his own novel: it makes no sense.

VALIS – an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System - centers around Horselover Fat and his quest to find out more about a Gnostic epiphany delivered via a pink laser beam. Sounds strange enough on its own, but VALIS is stranger than that, far stranger. VALIS is also the semi-autobiographical partly fictionalized (if James Frey had written it I could call it a memoir) account of Dick’s own pink laser beam Gnostic epiphany received in 1974. Lawrence Sutin, Dick’s actual biographer, attempted to sort the facts from the fiction in VALIS and failed, quoting a statement from Dick himself: “Oddly, the most bizarre of events in it are true (or rather - and this is a crucial difference - I believe they are true).” If it all seems a little too crazy so far, I should point out that Dick was a heavy drug user in the 60s and 70s, had severe phobias (agoraphobia, reluctance to swallow, vertigo), and dealt with several mental health issues throughout his lifetime.

Early on in the book – I can’t bring myself to call it a novel – Dick writes that he created the Horselover Fat character to allow himself much needed objectivity. The narrator (ostensibly Dick) and Fat start out as separate, distinct entities, they then go on to spend most of the book in a schizophrenic dance of blurring together and coming apart that mirrors the dance of fiction and biography inherent in the content. I believe Dick hints and plays on this dual nature with the name he chose for the main character: Horselover Fat is itself a convoluted pseudonym for Philip Dick. Horselover is English for the Greek word philippos meaning “lover of horses”, and Fat is English for the German word “dick”.

Much of VALIS is clearly biography, as in the opening of the book when Fat’s wife, Beth, leaves him and takes their son with her. Fat – and in real life, Dick – attempts suicide. Two of Fat’s friends, David and Kevin, are based on Dick’s real life friends and fellow SF writers Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter. In the novel Fat helps Sherri, a woman dying of cancer; in the real world Dick helped Doris Sauter, also dying of cancer. In the novel Fat has a theophany that consumes and transforms him, marks him in some way as special – almost the antithesis of a Greek Deus ex Machina, in that it is a Gnostic god that visits and causes problems rather than a god in a chariot swooping in to solve all problems and set everything right. In the real world Dick also experiences a theophany, an event he terms 2-3-74 that sets him writing his Exegesis, a journal that documents his religious and visionary experiences and is found at the end of VALIS. The fiction vs. reality comparisons don’t stop there. Eric Lampton, a fictional character who creates a film about VALIS and his cult like groups’ contact episode with it, is meant to be David Bowie. Brent Mini, the composer of the score for the fictional VALIS film, is loosely based on Brian Eno.

As for plot, there really isn’t one. The book is a novel length exposition on the nature of reality and our place in it. Dick’s vision is clearly a Gnostic one, as dual in its revealed (to him) nature as the dual nature of everything else in the novel. Reality is created in the mind of an irrational deity, and it is this irrationality that causes the injustices of the world as we know it. Somewhere beyond this irrational and omnipotent entity is a second, rational entity trying to break through and free us, and VALIS is its instrument, revealed to be some sort of alien communication array that has always existed. Humanity has lost its way, lost its past knowledge (fallen from grace if you prefer a Christian interpretation) and VALIS is attempting to restore us to a state of gnosis or enlightenment using imagery and the subliminal to facilitate the “loss of amnesia.” The sybmology Dick uses, especially the loss of memory and its relationship to computers and advanced intelligences, could be seen as influences to many of our modern sci-fi hits such as The Matrix trilogy of films. Viewed as a philosophical work, VALIS is a definite predecessor and influence to some of the fringe philosophies on simulated and controlled reality as experienced reality.

The end of the book centers on Fat and his friends’ encounter with Lampton and his cohorts at their commune. They meet a supposed enlightened child named Sophia – Sophia means wisdom in Greek – who answers their questions about life, the universe, and everything (couldn’t resist!). Critically, Sophia could be interpreted as the Lampton clan’s – and to a certain extent Fat’s – MacGuffin, in that she serves as the embodiment of their motivations and actions but has little other significance. Sophia seems like far more to me. She is a Christ figure and Christ symbol, right down to her sacrifice at the hands of her captors (the Lamptons basically kept her imprisoned) and her own promise of rebirth. She is also unexplainable in terms of the dual fictional/real sense of Dick’s book, for she continues to influence the characters after her death. Earlier I mentioned that Dick himself claimed that the most outlandish things in VALIS really happened. Did Sophia happen? We’re Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter actually there in a real life visit? Have they corroborated Dick’s version of the events in VALIS? It seems like I need to read more on this.

VALIS is impossible to properly review because it amazingly indefinable. It is also amazingly fun to read and to think about, so go get it! VALIS isn’t science fiction, it’s Borges and Camus mixed with Huxley and Orwell. It’s great literature and great (maybe insane) thought. It’s also the first book in Dick’s final trilogy before he died of a stroke in 1982. I’ve still got two more to read. And to think I used to turn my nose up at Philip Dick.

Monday, April 28, 2008

I Wish...

I wish Elvis and Dean Martin were still alive, even just as old farts, same with John Wayne and Richard Harris. I also want both Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn alive and still together, still making movies. I wish I still had my dog Mick, before he went mad, so I could keep him from going mad. Wish I was in Greece, and it was twenty years ago. I wish I hadn’t started smoking when I was sixteen. I wish I had kept all my comic books from back in the day when I was also collecting hockey cards. I swear I had a couple Bobby Orrs. I wish I’d never played the monkey and twisted my knee all those years ago roller skating at the Palladium. I wish I’d never started writing. I’d be a millionaire today. I wish I’d bought that little cabin in St. Jerome when it was still going for 25, 000 bucks. I coulda got it for twenty. I wish Mel Blanc were still alive. I wish the polar bears well, and Hillary; too bad she’s got Bill on her side. I wish Obama well, and the rest of us, too. We should all give up a limb and call it even, start over. What about you?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Meet Me in Victoria, Victor*

by Tricia Dower

I had just moved into my Victoria home in 2006 when virtual writing buddy Denis Taillefer, far away in Quebec, told me a few spots were still open for the Victoria School of Writing’s summer school beginning the following week. The perfect cure for the I Miss My Friends and My House in Toronto Blues. I got into Charlotte Gill’s fiction workshop and had such a wonderful experience I attended the following year, too. (See Courageous Hearts and Workshopping Sex.)

So, here it is Year Three and, lo and behold, I'm now on the board of the non-profit VSW, and responsible for informing others about this year’s summer session. It begins the evening of July 20th and ends after a celebratory barbecue on the 25th. Tuition of $635 includes five days of workshops, readings, a one-on-one consultation with your instructor, five lunches, and the barbecue. More details and the registration form are here. There. Consider yourself informed.

For the first time ever we’re offering a graphica workshop, to be led by Vancouver artist Sarah Leavitt. Her MFA thesis was the first graphic narrative in the history of UBC’s creative writing program. Her drawings have been published by Modern Dog and Maisonneuve online and appear regularly in Geist. Leavitt also writes a monthly column for Xtra West. Those signing up for “Developing a Graphic Narrative” will do daily cartooning exercises and complete a short graphic narrative by the end of the course.

For us more wordy types, six other workshops are on offer:

  • “Fiction and the Truth,” with Steven Galloway who teaches creative writing at the University of British Columbia. Galloway is the author of three novels, the most recent The Cellist of Sarajevo.
  • “Why Memoir?” with Edmonton’s Curtis Gillespie, author of Crown Shyness and three other books. He has received The Danuta Gleed Award for fiction and three National Magazine Awards for non-fiction.
  • “Writing Deeply,” creative non-fiction with Winlaw, BC, journalist, documentary writer, playwright, and author Rita Moir. Her books have won several awards, including BC’s Hubert Evans Non-fiction Prize. Her most recent book is The Windshift Line: A Father and Daughter’s Story.
  • “The Lovely Hybrid,” a workshop on short fiction with Salt Spring Island’s Kathy Page, author of six novels, including The Story of My Face, which was long-listed for the Orange Prize, and Alphabet, which was nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award. Page teaches part-time at Malaspina University College.
  • “When the Shadows of the Heart Lift,” a poetry workshop with Victoria’s Susan Stenson, teacher and author of three books—the most recent My Mother Agrees with the Dead. Her work rides the buses throughout British Columbia as part of “Poetry in Transit.”
  • “From Idea to Proposal to Manuscript to Book,” with Victoria’s Rosemary Neering, the author of more than forty non-fiction books for adults, teens, and children. Her book, Wild West Women: Travellers, Adventurers and Rebels, won the VanCity book prize for 2002.

Especially satisfying about the two sessions I attended was the feeling of community with writers. You spend each day on the campus of a private girls’ school – a peaceful place with lots of grass and the occasional deer. (Rumours are that those who stayed in the dorms got up to some serious partying at night.) You hear all students read from their work, not just the writers in your workshop. And spending five days with an accomplished faculty is a gift that keeps on giving: I’m still in touch with several instructors who continue to support and encourage me.

So meet me in Victoria this summer. I’ll happily stuff an enrollment kit for you. (I’m learning the meaning of “working board.”)

*Doesn’t have half the cachet of “Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis,” does it?

Photos: Faculty of the 13th Annual Victoria School of Writing Intensive Summer Session. Clockwise, from top left: Kathy Page, Rita Moir (credit Fred Rosenberg), Rosemary Neering, Sarah Leavitt, Steven Galloway, Curtis Gillespie, and Susan Stenson.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Quintet (Part Two) and Some Other Good Books

By Andrew Tibbetts

I’m not reading as much as I used to do. I still read every night in bed, but I drop off much sooner than in my youth. In fact if I was writing this in bed I’d already be asleep by now. Recently however, four books have pushed through the sleeplust to grab and hold my attention:

Quintet by Douglas Arthur Brown. This book is a communication journal among identical triplets. They each keep it for a season and then pass it along. One lives in the Maritimes, one in Toronto and one in Denmark. One’s gay. One has substance abuse issues. One’s an artist. It’s really a fascinating way to structure a story. They write to each other about their different takes on their parents and strange older brother, and also share the events of their adult lives. The book couldn’t be more ‘character-driven’ and yet, it manages to be a ‘page-turner’. How does he do it? Not sure, but I’m insanely jealous.

The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross. This book is a history of twentieth century ‘classical’ music. From Richard Strauss’s innovations to opera through the shock of Stravinksy and Schoenberg into the attempts to reconnect with the pop and jazz world up to today’s most interesting electronic and symphonic composers. I’ve read hundreds of books on this period in music (it’s my favourite) and yet almost all these anecdotes were new to me. Ross’s scholarship is fresh. His opinions are sturdy but unique. His prose is lively. I’ve loved his columns in the New Yorker, and his first full length tome doesn’t disappoint. I’d vote it ‘book-of-the-year’ if there were such a thing and anyone asked me.

Huckleberry Fin by Mark Twain. This classic holds up. Like “A Christmas Carol” though, it’s hard to read something you’ve seen adapted, abridged, parodied, referenced, etc… so often with any kind of innocence. But the humour holds up and the power of the narrative’s drive is unmistakable. Escape. We all want to.

Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham. This book manages to be a wonderful mix of the two writing styles I’ve been enjoying- lush, lyrical writing that takes it’s time and searches for fresh ways to see things and convey things, and tight, driven prose that gets out of the way of the tale. How can anyone (other than Anne Carson) do both at the same time? Genre suits spiritual writing. This book is comparable to David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” another book that attempts to map the human spirit across time and space and utilizes genre to ground the philosophical insight. This book sets a ghost story in the past, a thriller in the present and a sci-fi adventure in the future, all of New York City. It’s smart and has deep feeling to it. It’s not just a show piece for style and innovation. It’s about humanness. Walt Whitman’s spirit animates the entire piece. His ecstasy and his language are honoured beautifully.

I'll heart Adorno if you make me

I’d give you a list of my favourite writers, if only I knew their names. These are humble folk: the people behind Arts and Letters Daily. Do you know this site? I didn’t, until my friend Adriana linked to it from her blog. ALDaily is a crazy complete index of everything worth reading in the online Anglo world. But I don’t love it because of the articles. I love it because of the teasers. Who writes these things? And how can I reach them? I feel a fan letter coming on.

They have 25 words to hook us (i.e., get us to click on the link to any given piece.) Sometimes, they don’t even use them all. That’s how cavalierly talented these bashful no-names are.

Consider this example from the top of today’s page:

Crazy English. Li Yang’s cosmology ties the ability to speak English to personal strength – and national power... more»

It’s only 17 words long. I wasn’t sure that it was going to work for me—what did I care about Li Yang’s cosmology? It was the final two words that did it: “national power.” As soon as I read that, I had to know more»!

I believe that this technique is called “scoring the winning goal in the last minute of play.” (For those who don’t already know, there is a Montreal-wide amnesty in place today for bad sports metaphors. Go Habs go!)

Quick, all you editors, someone give me an assignment. I want a lead to write, so that I can refer back to ALDaily for a free lesson in openers.

Pictured: my new shoes for spring.

Monday, April 21, 2008

I am the Master of my own Destiny

Ah, shoot! You think our readers are noticing the recurring themes in our writing? Not so bad if you have plenty of readers, but I can remember a time my only reader was mom, and the only stories I wrote involved moms with thunder thighs and nipples that were constantly going like this: psst! Hey! Over here. Look here. Shoot! I’m still doing that, but at least I mix things up a bit now by inserting a father figure into the stories. Oof! That didn’t sound right. But you know what I mean.

I couldn’t help but write those stories, which were more about wanting to crawl back inside the womb than any Oedipus complex. Oy! Maybe it was a combination of wanting to crawl back inside the womb and protect my mom from my dad. Whoa! Not so much protecting my mom from my dad, I just thought I could do a better job than him. Yikes!

Thankfully, I have five or six readers now, so I can keep the more embarrassing stories from my mom, say… four out of every five.

But should I be finding this recurring theme in my writing embarrassing? I get angry sometimes by my own response to my own writing. Oh, no. I’m doing it again. Is that right? Maybe not. If the writing seems to be continually about a certain theme or subject matter, maybe it's best to just keep on writing until you get it out of your system. Is there a choice? I can write stuff that has little to do with a boy growing into manhood, or the man wondering how he got to where he is, but I can promise you that it will be lifeless and mechanical. Besides, I think these recurring themes might make us better writers because we force ourselves to examine more closely our subjects, from different angles every time, thus improving our ability to get at the psyche of our characters. Hopefully, this years-long exercise in fleshing out a character(ourselves) will serve as training for fleshing out other characters outside the box(prison of our skin). There’s nothing wrong with a writer coming into his own in his fifties, after all. Some of us must resign ourselves to the simple fact that our childhoods left us like a pack animal, a huge, skyward load strapped to our backs. The term wunderkind does not apply to us. We were tired before our time.

Here, I have to give thanks to flash writing, because it makes revisiting easy as heck – a hit and run type of situation, where you don’t get time enough to wallow -- there’s always the next flash, hopefully bringing you closer to the end of the saga(yawn!). That’s the novel in flashes we talk about, too obsessive and unrelenting, exhausting to write, and I can’t imagine how tiring it must be as a read -- my story, anyway.

The challenge, if you come out on the other side, is to take what you learn and apply it to characters you don’t necessarily know anything about, your head full of insights into the human condition, believing you've grown into the type of person who isn't afraid to shine a light as you dig a little deeper than need be, a treasure chest crammed with riches(details that sting as you write them) as your reward.

Who needs a Masters when there’s life -- your own life.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Pigs R Us

by Tricia Dower

'Tis I, wearing a plastic snout – your roving reporter at the Corporate Golden Piggy Awards in Victoria last Sunday. The 11th annual, but my first. An afternoon of skits and songs dedicated to award-winning examples of “Let them eat cake” behaviour by big business. The show had the feel of what I imagine the common folk would have enjoyed in “merry old” in the 1500s. It opened with the performers marching down one aisle and up another in an incongruous setting: the stained-glassed auditorium of St. Anne’s Academy. As they marched, the cast sang, “Assholes on Parade.” During the five skits that followed, the audience snorted like pigs and called out “sooey” and “shame.”

The first skit roasted Private Public Pork Partnerships nominees Coca-Cola, Apple Computers, Sprott-Shaw, Kodak, and Halliburton for “expanding market share at the expense of public education.”

The second took us to a Taserware Party and a demonstration of “personal protectors” like a leopard skin taser with an MP3 player as it presented the nominees for the Paranoid Pig Award: Taser International, Texas Instruments, and Sony Entertainment.

The third had law officials entering a house after a family’s Christmas dinner and impounding everything that had been recalled by manufacturers: the kids’ toys, grandma’s pacemaker, the turkey, the tree, the dog’s food, and even the adopted twins. Nominees for the Total Recall Award were Mattel, Menu Foods, and Merck-Frosst.

The Great Panther Silver Company, a Canadian company that operates in Mexico, was the only genuine nominee for the Hu-Mine-itarian Award and was taken to task for a number of things, including allegedly violating Mexican law by not paying pensions to their workers and polluting the land with mercury-laden tailings.

My favourite skit was the Green with Envy Award in which a man and woman visited a travel agency to book a trip to Bora Bora, hoping there wouldn't be a carbon tax on the trip. The travel agent had horns and a tail and, at some point, God’s voice told this metaphorical Adam and Eve they were banished from the good earth to dwell in environmental jeopardy the rest of their days. Exxon was nominated “for destroying Alberta,” but the winner was Air Canada for its carbon offset program that seeks to ease your guilt about taking a flight by letting you buy trees.

The Piggy Awards aren’t run by any particular organization. The performers are the same folks you see advocating on behalf of the homeless, sitting in trees to protest deforestation, protesting Canada’s military presence in Afghanistan, and speaking out about any number of other social issues. It’s work that never ends and sees little positive result. The “Piggies” are a rare opportunity for them to have fun by skewering the big business interests they see at the bottom of those issues. As a part of our collective conscience, they’re skewering us, as well. Schools rely on corporate dollars because we’re not funding public education sufficiently. Other corporate “crimes” are committed because we allow them to happen. We’re the Assholes on Parade.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Quintet, by Douglas Arthur Brown (part one)

by Andrew Tibbetts

I have two or three pages to go in Quintet by Douglas Arthur Brown so do you mind if I keep my review short? Here it is: A character-driven page-turner you MUST read. And now I can get back to doing just that. Forgive me. I love books more than blogging about books. But when I’m done I’ll pop back in for an update. ‘Kay? ‘Kay.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

No More Dick-ing Around

by Steve Gajadhar

It’s time for me to give Dick his due. He’s been getting it from others for a long time now, yet for some reason I could never bring myself to read much Philip K. Dick. In fact, until recently I had only one short story collection out of which I’d read 10 or so, including Minority Report, the short story that the movie of the same name was loosely based on. I wasn’t impressed or even intrigued enough to bother getting into his novels. Sure his ideas were countless and creative, but most SF writers are creative and there’s countless SF writers to read. Dick hadn’t hooked me.

Boy has that changed.

I’m a Lost fan. Lost junkie really. One of my favorite aspects of the show is how the writers and producers like to do book cameos in some episodes. The books relate to the episode they appear in, or to the philosophy, ideas, and themes of the series as a whole. I’m always pleasantly surprised whenever a book pops up that I've read, let’s me give myself a mental pat on the back so to speak. This was not the case when VALIS by Philp K. Dick popped up this season. What!? Dick? Hmmm, maybe I need to give him another shot, I thought. I picked up VALIS on my next trip to Borders in Kona.

VALIS is unlike anything I have ever read and after a life spent reading, it’s rare to be able to say that. Rare and exciting. I’m not quite through it yet, and I know I don’t understand what’s going on - and there’s 2 more books in Dick’s semi-autobiographical final trilogy, and it looks like Dick might have gone totally off the deep end before he died in 1982, and Hollywood seems to love him, and he was the first SF writer to get a Library of America series - but I think I’m going to review VALIS once I’m done reading it (and maybe reading it one more time for good measure), and the review is going to appear in the CWC 2 weeks from today.

So stay tuned to the CWC for my upcoming review of VALIS and its impact on my own mental health. Maybe VALIS will even help me figure out what is going on in Lost?

Yah, right.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

CanLit Weekend Update

According to the CBC, Canadian poets are still fighting and American-born Leon Rooke is ordered to be Canadian (or Canadian on order) or some other order, along with Alistair MacLeod, and 41 others.

In other news, book-readin' is good for your sex life.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Alive and Caught in the ’Net

by Tricia Dower

“You gotta have a website, Mom,” Katie said.

I didn't know where to begin. She talked me through the process of registering domains, both of us on the phone, on opposite North American coasts, looking at the same computer screens.

I wondered what I had to say that could take up a whole website. I was uncomfortable putting forth nothing more than a picture of Silent Girl and the message “Buy!” I wanted some value-added content, something to make it worthwhile for people to visit.

That was in December. Since then I've developed discussion guides for the collection—my “value-add”—and worked with a developer Katie knows to put together a site fitting both me and my book. A friend declared it to be “a visual equivalent of your prose.” I hope that’s a good thing.

I can’t say enough about the developer, Aaron Wrixon, and his company Azalea. Aaron was professional, efficient, and infinitely patient. (The older I get, the more I rely on not only the “kindness of strangers,” but their patience, too.*) He turned my brief description of what I wanted into a design that both surprised and delighted me. The colours he chose are my favourites and the site is easy to navigate. I know from nothing when it comes to HTML and all that technical jazz. I didn’t need to. I simply said what I wanted and he made it happen. Sometimes he told me that what I wanted wasn’t such a hot idea, and I appreciated that. All this took place within 74 e-mails in virtual space: he’s in Toronto, I’m in Victoria, and we’ve never met. I couldn’t believe how many decisions there were to make. I have a new appreciation for what goes into “going live.”

So here’s the finished product, called oddly enough I love everything about it, but I’m proudest of the Discussion Guides. I had fun developing the questions for “If you’re into Shakespeare” and “If you’re not.” It brought me back to student teaching days when my aspiration was to guide sleepy-eyed sixteen-year-olds into the blinding light of literary enlightenment. Life sent me down a different path, but never mind. Maybe another teacher can use my guides with her sleepy-eyed charges. Maybe book clubs members will find a question or two to stimulate discussion.

I’m a little nervous about “Silent Girl Speaks”—a blog with a focus. You can reach it through the site. Once the book is out and a few people have read it, I’d like it if they stopped by the blog to engage in a discussion about the issues highlighted in the collection: forced marriage, sexual slavery, domestic abuse, racism and so forth. You know—fluffy, escapist things. I suspect I’ll be discussing them with myself for a while, and that’s okay, but I hope it isn’t forever. I’ll still be here at the CWC every week, talking about one thing or another, but please visit my second virtual home, too. It’s easy to find, and you don’t need a car, bus, plane or train to get there. How 'bout I give you that address again:

*I was having trouble understanding how something would work at the launch, and the caterer sent me an e-mail with big bolded type. Her frustration was barely contained in those heavy, black letters. Get used to it, I told myself. Soon, they'll be speaking loudly and calling you"dear." (Come to think of it, they already do.)

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Dream Blog

by Andrew Tibbetts

Last night I dreamed about my blog. How weird is that?

I dreamed there was a gang of artistic pranksters at work in the city. They would break into your home at night and rearrange things in provocative ways while you slept. In the morning, you’d have a surprise work of art made from the ordinary objects of your own life. In my dream, I was hesitating to write about these pranksters in my blog because of my suspicion that my friend, Pasha Malla, was the ringleader. It felt like a conflict of interest. But more than that, it felt like I might say the wrong thing and spoil it, and I didn’t want that! I was a major fan of these art pranks.

Anyway, in my dream I woke up to find my own apartment had been redecorated. The only thing I can remember was that there were candle stubs everywhere which was a comment on my habit of ‘burning the candle at both ends’- something I had dream-blogged about. In fact, almost all the redecorations in my apartment had to do with comments that I’d made on my dream-blog. I was delighted! 1) The art-pranksters had deemed me worthy of one their creations, and 2) Now I had a valid reason to write about them in my blog.

I woke up in such a splendid mood. I made it all the way to brushing my teeth before I realized that the whole thing was a dream and that I actually couldn’t write about this because it didn’t really happen.

Later, of course, it occurred to me that I could blog about the dream itself, a consolation prize. And here we all are. What does it mean, Herr Doktor?

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Workshop notes: V - Novel approaches

By Tamara Lee

(This is the fifth of a series of posts reflecting upon a writing workshop I'm taking with Nancy Lee. Part IV can be found here.)

A while ago, I wrote about my novel-in-a-month (NaNoWriMo) exploit that resulted in a solid 30,000 words of mediocrity.

In preparing for the challenge, I researched how to best approach such an intensive writing session; bought the co-creator’s book and studied it; and sought out others' suggestions for completing NaNoWriMo's recommended 50,000 words. Using a semi-structured outline, including revolving word count goals, I sporadically referred to to my 'map' throughout the month.

But falling short of the ultimate goal by 20, 000 words obviously meant something was sacrificed. And the other day, when I looked over the manuscript (MS), I noticed that the thread of the story I had essentially set out to write, the part of the story I spent the month getting to, was never written. What was supposed to be the ‘best part’ of the novel was meant to happen at its end, but the getting there got in the way.

I’d spent 30, 000 words, a full month, in pursuit of the Master’s Cup, only to give up and go home 20k from the finish line.

Obviously, I'm not alone in this, worrying about daily writing quotas and abandoned projects. Several others in the workshop have expressed their own frustrations. So last week, Nancy offered a few suggestions for getting the first draft of a novel done.

The finish line and the numbers game

The first suggestion’s rather straight-forward: Set a goal for when you want the MS to be done, and look at how much writing each day you need to do in order to meet the goal.

The important thing is, you don’t want to get stuck in the first draft because there will be more drafts to write. In setting a word count, it’s important to be concrete (i.e., words or pages, not hours at the desk).

If you impose an outside limit in terms of word count (say, a breezy 250-350/day), it can be increased every week or so. But better to set a goal closer to the max you can conceivably do, and be careful not to go past your word count, as there is a danger of being complacent the next day (“Oh, I wrote twice my quota yesterday, I can take a day off”), and inconsistency is a first draft’s death-knell. Also, by setting word counts this way, it dissuades you from going back and rewriting the same scenes, which only keeps you from generating new material.

But here’s the part that really perked up the group: The success, if this approach is followed, is marked by the completion of the goal, not by how good you think the quality of the writing. (And we writers are so inspired by the little successes, aren’t we?)

The outline and all the necessary parts
Throughout the workshop, we’ve discussed some of the more common approaches to writing a novel, such as just writing until it ends, or writing from a general outline. A process I’ve not used for any of my stories, a process I understand John Updike recommends, is what I’m calling the “ass-backwards approach.”

The ass-backwards approach goes a little something like this (and forgive me; I’m basing this on class notes and cannot find the original Updike source): Focusing on the last moment you want the reader to experience—the final emotional moment—imagine the feeling you want the reader to have as s/he closes the book. What is the event before that moment?

Then consider the same for each major emotional moment, working backwards, creating an inherent causality between the events and the emotions evoked. The outline, then, forces the writer to focus on the necessary parts of the story (“In order for the end to happen, such-and-such has to happen first.”)

After writing the first draft, consider the bits you wanted to happen that aren’t there, then incorporate them.

Success, with all the boring bits removed

The suggestion I loved hearing most, though, is perhaps the most obvious. And the most naughty of all the suggestions for getting the novel done. A suggestion so simple, yet so freeing, that following it might’ve meant I would’ve reached that ‘best part’ of my MS in the first draft.

The advice? Don’t write the parts people are going to skip.

When you get to a part that feels like it’s going to be drudgery to write—the part where you feel you need an explanation of where the idea is coming from—don’t write it. Because if it’s boring to you, it’s going to be boring to the reader.

So, by concentrating only on the energy, the joy and the thrill of the telling, crossing the finish line should be inevitable. No?

Monday, April 07, 2008

You are Never Alone

My decision to read Nicolas Dickner’s Nikolski in its original French wasn’t at all noble. It was motivated by greed. I happened to be in a French-language bookstore when I saw it and I wanted it too badly to wait. This is a highly emotional state that my children refer to as “the gimmies.” I had read about the novel, here and here, and was somehow convinced that everyone else in French and English Canada had already read it. (I’ve since learned that this was probably not the case. According to the author’s site, these mentions were amongst the first to appear on the English blogosphere. That I read them both says less about the book than it does about me. I really need to cut down on my surfing.)

Not only did I buy Nikolski in French, I bought it from a man I should probably avoid. One night last summer, there was a stage set up outside of his bookstore. The streets were closed off for a neighbourhood bash. I was excited. I felt like a thirty-something debutante, announcing her entry into the adult social scene, after years of Friday nights at home with the kids. I was convinced that our newfound teenage babysitter was a miracle worker in pedal-pushers and ballerina flats, capable of granting my husband and I a second chance at youth. If I wanted to dance in the streets, there was no one to stop me anymore. Except.

I was overwhelmed by the party, the crowds. I couldn’t bring myself to dance, not even to sway my hips, not even to every second or third or fourth beat. Worse, I’d forgotten how to small talk. Part of the problem was the difficulty of finding mutually acceptable topics. I was surrounded that night by pregnant women, excited to embark on a stage my husband and I couldn’t wait to forget. We had just emerged from the baby and toddler years to find everyone around us diving in. At one point, we would have been so happy to have had them as companions. Now, we selfishly worried that we might have to talk about diapers forever.

I sat on the bookstore stoop to drink my beer, while the pregnant women sipped on bottles of water and discussed hospital procedures. The men ignored us. They were talking about dead bodies. One of them worked in a morgue. I was disgusted, with the conversation and the evening, which perhaps explains why I didn’t react right away when the man from the bookstore cuddled up beside me. He didn’t seem aggressive or flirtatious, just kind of human, i.e., lonely.

I didn’t know what to do. This sort of thing never happened to me when the kids were around. And it was his stoop. There wasn’t a whole lot of room. We had to share with one of the big bellies. I resolved to ignore it until the woman with the biggest belly asked, “Why is that man hugging you?” and I had to jump up as though I’d only just realized it.

If the bookstore man remembered that night, he made no sign last week. Our Nikolski transaction was entirely decorous. I gave him the money. He gave me the change. End of story.

Within a few days, I found myself inside another bookstore, this time a big chain, downtown. There were English Nikolskis everywhere, but I didn’t need one. I had my French copy on me. I’d brought it to be signed, if I had the courage. I still find small talk difficult.

I needn’t have worried. The author took charge of our conversation, asking me questions about myself. Where was I from? What did I do for a living? It was going well. I felt good. It reminded me of an interview I’d once had for a job where I was the only applicant. What I said didn't matter as much the fact that I was there to say it.

But then I made a mistake. I asked the author if he always asked so many questions of his readers, which seemed to throw him into a small panic. He turned to a woman at his side – his publicist? – and asked her in a suddenly high-pitched voice, “Don’t you do that, in English?” I tried to interrupt, to reassure him, but she shook her head no, as though to say that he’d made some huge cultural gaffe by chatting with me, and then, it was too late. He turned all of his attention to my copy of his book.

“Oh, well,” I thought. “He’s concentrating really hard. Whatever he’s writing is sure to be super interesting.”

I waited until I was home to read his inscription. I laughed when I did.

Pour Anne, it said, Hope you enjoy your reading!

No worries, I will.

My favourite performance from that street party last summer, Socalled's "You Are Never Alone."

Friday, April 04, 2008

Printer Paper

By Antonios Maltezos

Somewhere buried in the massive archives of the CWC, I’d mentioned completing my novel by X-mas 2007. I failed miserably. That’s my update on that. No struggles to report. I had two reams of printer paper in the cabinet under the Canon, and I allowed my youngest to use it all up drawing monkeys and fish. “Look daddy! I wrote my name!” That’s why all the monkeys and fish, so she could practice signing her name. We went to our local Staples (they’re everywhere, aren’t they?) for more paper this week. “Where we going, daddy,” she asked. “To the store that sells paper,” I said. Her eyes lit up. For years, it was my eyes lighting up, as if the blindingly white sheets of paper had been pressed from a pulpy mixture of two parts water, one part star dust, not dead trees. And I say failed miserably because it wasn’t a fight to the death type of situation. I simply ignored the couple months of work I’d put into re-igniting the flame beneath my book. I walked away, the flame, inevitably, catching as in a roaring fire, my so-called book well… up in flames.

Btw, I re-stocked the printer paper because my eldest was running through the house the other night, looking through the various piles of monkey/fish drawings scattered about, for any unused sheets of paper. I felt bad; the assignment she handed in the next day had the appearance of having been tossed, as in a salad. I certainly didn’t buy the paper because I was considering getting back to the novel, and my Journal of a Wannabe Novelist posts here at the ole CWC, though I did have visions picking up the bricks of paper that seemed very natural and thoughtless, of a time when I’d print as a measure of utmost security, print as in preparing a document for the ages. Here, read this, mom. Tell me what you think. In a state of self-kidding so powerful I had the people around me eager and willing to sip some of the kool-aid with me -- I’d print, the individual sheets laid down across a couple strands so delicate, that flimsy bridge would have sent a normal person into the bottomless ravine had I not been such a dreamer, so light-headed I could have skipped overtop the clouds in the sky if I wanted. At that time, no one would have dared sneak a sheet for drawing monkeys and fish.

Anyway, I’ve hidden one of the reams from my youngest, just in case.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

In Praise of Bill Gaston

by Tricia Dower

He’s been writing for years, but I discovered Victoria writer Bill Gaston only a few months ago at a reading at Bolen Books. His short story collection, Gargoyles, had just won the Butler Prize, and I bought a copy. I read a story or two every night and when I was finished, I read every story all over again. I had never done that before, not even with my beloved, secret mentor, Alice Munro. Oh, I’ve read a number of her individual stories more than once, but never a whole collection twice.

If I were a proper reviewer, I could tell you why the collection captured me so. All I can say is that the characters and the settings were unique and familiar at the same time. The male protagonists didn’t feel at all Mars to my Venus. I enjoyed experiencing how similar their emotions were to my own. The endings were both surprising and inevitable. A few stories had great impact on me: “Kite Trick” is devastating; “The Green House” brought me back to my insensitive childhood with remembered shame; “The Night Window” made me wonder how many times I had unwittingly wounded my children’s hearts.

You probably discovered Bill Gaston years ago. He’s been nominated for the Giller and the Governor General’s Award. He has published five novels, five collections of short fiction, a poetry collection, and a play, and he was the editor of The Fiddlehead once upon a time. He’s a professor of fiction at UVic now. A few days ago I finished his 2004 novel Sointula which will be made into a feature-length film by Victoria’s own Gumboot Productions.

CFUV had screenwriter Brian Paisley as a guest on this week’s Monday afternoon arts show (newly named “Wild Orphans” after an Allen Ginsberg poem). Paisley is best known for founding the Edmonton Fringe Theatre Event in 1982. He was interviewed by arts collective member Kimberly Croswell and he described his script of Sointula as a “road movie in a kayak.”

That could sum up the book, too, except it misses the depth to which the novel plumbs the protagonist Evelyn and the empathy with which Gaston portrays her fellow traveller, Peter, and her son, Tom. All three characters are deeply flawed yet worthy. One reviewer described the story as “zany,” a word I would not use. While the characters do things that make you laugh (especially the pitifully ill-prepared Peter), they’re too fragile to be comic and all too real. I’m sure Gaston was a woman in a past life and I suspect he’s a feminist in this one. He drops a load of pain on Evelyn then sets her free with the courage and confidence to know she’ll find her own way.

The book presents a gritty reality of life in the rough. Nothing romantic about it, except for maybe the whales that heave themselves on a rocky beach to scratch, but even they're a little scary. I’ve lived on Vancouver Island just over two years and have explored only small pieces of it. Colin and I are thinking of heading off this summer to do the Inside Passage: from Port Hardy on the island to Prince Rupert in northern BC. Along the way, we’d like to “pop over” to the Haida Gwai archipelago (“islands of the people”) —also known by its colonial name, the Queen Charlotte Islands. (Here’s a telling aside: spellchecker doesn’t recognize the words Haida and Gwai.) Before I read the book, we were considering checking out Malcolm Island’s Sointula, too, a small community founded by hapless Finns. I’m giving it another think, now. For sure, I’m not going by kayak.

Photos: Top, author Bill Gaston (credit ClownBog Studios) and, lower right, screenwriter Brian Paisley who’s on the third draft of his screen adaptation of Gaston’s novel, Sointula.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Pleasures of a Good Book

By Andrew Tibbetts

1. Portability. You don’t need any kind of a machine to interface with the data except your own head, so you can take these suckers anywhere. Even War and Peace can fit in a brief case or a knapsack. I have a pair of painter pants with pockets on the legs big enough for a paperback. If I put one in each leg I walk a little Frankenstein-y, but even bank lines or subway stops because opportunities to get back on the raft with Huck and Jim.

2. Interactiveness. These suckers are so easy to pause. You don’t have to go looking for the remote under the potato chip bag, or find that for some reason when you re-engage it’s gone right back to the beginning FBI warnings. Stop and start willy-nilly and it’ll be right where you left off. It will even pause while your mind wanders (although you may need to place a finger on the spot on the page if you don’t want to have to reread a sentence or two.) For longer pauses, an old receipt or gum wrapper will mark your spot and you can close the thing right up! I’m reading The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross currently and my book mark is the little paper case an earl grey tea bag came in. It’s purple and smells of bergamot.

3. Flexibility of Pacing. Unlike soap operas which can crawl or kinetic art movies which whiplash your brain, these suckers move at your pace. You can even modify your pace, rushing through when the action has grabbed you, or lingering when the language is baskworthy! (Shhh, it’s even possible to skim, if you need to. My colleague, V., skims fiction and never non-fiction, and I’m just the opposite.)

4. Hurlability. These suckers are hard to break. They hurl nicely and don’t really damage. I was once reading Underground to Canada by Barbara Smucker out loud to my kids and became enraged during a harrowing description of the treatment of slaves. I spontaneously hurled the book across the room smack into the bedroom wall to the shock of my 9-year old. After I stopped sobbing, we retrieved the book and it was fine. You cannot do this with DVDs or MP3players.

5. The Smell. Books smell of dust, finger-sweat and glue. You wouldn’t think that would be a good smell. But it is. It is. It is. It is.

6. Variety. There are more kinds of novels than anything else really. Big fat epics, hilarious comic romps, taut psychological thrillers, sci-fi mindbenders, lyrical literary treasures, swooning romances, you name it! They get as old as Genji Monogatari by Lady Murasaki Shikibu from the eleventh century right up to something published yesterday (Infected: A Novel by Scott Sigler). And never mind novels, there’s also collections of poetry, collections of short stories, and non-fiction books on any topic you can think up from aphids to zoophilia. They come in different colours, sizes, languages. Gosh. The mind boggles at the immensity of choice. Sometimes I find myself in a public library completely unable to think of a book. Paralyzed by possibility. I have taken to keeping a list.

7. Substantialness of Content. Unlike much of the stuff you find on the internet, books have been taken time over and tend to have some meat to them. It’s a little too easy to blog, isn’t it? Everybody blogs now. If I have a chat with somebody I rush home to read their blog about it. Because of the filtering aspect of the time it takes to write and publish a book, the ephemeral often falls by the wayside. But, hey, if you want ephemeral, there’s a biography of the pop star of the moment right out front in the nearest bookstore.

8. Inevitability of Focus. Unlike the TV or the Stereo, you can’t have a book on in the background. If you just plop one on the coffee table while you do your nails it won’t do a thing for you. You create the experience with your concentration. The book needs you to participate. If your mind wanders, the story stops. Unlike a movie that keeps going even when you spill a glass of red wine on your pants and need to scoot around swearing for a minute. Sure, sometimes, your mind can do a couple of things at once, but not well. So you find yourself having read a page but not taken anything in. Unlike other time-bound art experiences, the words sit there calmly on the page waiting for you to notice, click in, and go back up to the last line you remember.

9. Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson

10. The books of the future. For example, coming soon to a bookstore near you!

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

10 signs that your marriage might not survive the next snowstorm

10. You decide that it’s time to test his love, by giving him an assignment he’s sure to fail: find a babysitter for Thursday at 6:00.

9. You are disappointed, when with five minutes to spare, he succeeds, flying off into the snow, with the children flapping behind him.

8. You can’t help but feel smug when, in his hurry to prove you wrong, he parks the car in an unyielding bed of ice. The Mazda is the only thing of any value you own, with the exception of the iPods, which didn’t cost nearly as much, but are treasured just the same.

7. The next morning, the car still can’t be budged.

6. Before noon, it is hit by a UPS truck in a crash so dramatic as to incite passers-by to redefine themselves as “witnesses.” “I saw what happened!” says the note you find tucked into the driver’s window. It’s written in all caps.

5. You’d like to share this detail with your husband, but at the sight of the car detached from its bumper, he is overcome with a desire to walk in the other direction.

4. The rest of the neighbourhood men quickly gather in his place to give you conflicting advice on your new situation. You’ve never had a moment of car trouble where this has not happened. You wish they’d go away so that you can do what you’d really like, which is cry. Instead, you stoically put the car into neutral and then into drive, you gun it and you go gentle — to no avail. It’s as stuck as it was the night before, when it had a passenger rear-view mirror and a smooth, untroubled right profile.

3. It is a week before you or your husband is able to address the issue of your broken car in any meaningful way.

2. You are disappointed when his understanding of meaningful turns out to involve lots and lots of duct tape.

1. To get back at him — for what, you’re not sure, lack of technical aptitude? too high of a tolerance for imperfection? — you steal his iPod, knowing full well that this will cause him confusion and worry. You have it with you in the car the day it finally comes home, two-thousand insurance dollars later, shiny and rejuvenated, from Claremont Chevrolet. You play only one song, in repeat: “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” It’s the only song on his playlist that you recognize from your own. It’s the only overlap between the two of you right now.


(my review of Ibi Kaslik's The Angel Riots here)