Tuesday, December 1, 2009


Tasha Tudor's book, A Time to Keep, has the following quote to introduce the month of November:

No fruit, no flowers, no leaves, no birds, November!
-Thomas Hood

And this year November has meant no blog posts from me as well. Why? In one word, NaNoWriMo.

Okay, maybe that isn't exactly a word. It's an abbreviation of National Novel Writing Month, which is an online program where you sign up to try to write 50,000 words in a month. You get a page with a nifty graph showing you how far you are falling behind the necessary daily word count, and a page where you can keep track of how far your Writing Buddies have gone. You can also post things about your novel, and there are a bunch of discussion forums and events, but I've never actually found time for all that.

Now, the usual advice that is given for people trying NaNoWriMo is not to worry about whether your writing is good or bad, just write, write, write, as fast as you can go. I tried that the first two years I signed up for NaNoWriMo, and it totally did not work for me. I should have known better. One of the few things I learned from the one fiction writing course I took in University (by my own observation of the other students) was that there are some writers who tend to write too copiously and need to cut, and some writers who tend to write too briefly and need to pad. And I am very much the second type of writer. If I just sit down and write without any going back or editing, that just means I am lucky if I have used half as many words as I'm going for before I get to the end of the plot.

My third attempt at NaNoWriMo did get to 50,000 words, but could only very loosely be called a novel. I managed to get a novella out of it afterward, which was less than 20,000 of the 50,000. The other 30,000 included a lot of alternate scenes and background material and things like that, that weren't really part of the actual narrative.

This year, my plan was to come up with an idea with so much plot elements in it that I would have to use 50,000 words to get through it all. I actually reused some ideas from my first two NaNoWriMo attempts, though not any of the exact same incidents or charactors, together with a whole mash of bits and pieces from ideas for novels and short stories that have never quite managed to get written. And it actually all fell in together really well. It was like these were all really meant to be part of one story, I just had not realized it yet.

So I got writing, and found that I was really pretty excited about the story. I liked it enough that I couldn't just leave inconsistencies in it, or not go back and make little changes when I thought of them. So I did. I also found that a good way to keep myself from charging ahead too quickly was to regularly stop and go back to work on earlier parts of the story. When I was down to the last chapter I even went back and read through the whole thing, managing to add a couple hundred words a chapter as I went.

By the end of the month, though, I was starting to get a bit burnt out. Finally on November 29th, having got to the end of my plot and put in every change I had managed to think of so far, I just didn't feel I was up to getting in the 3,000 words that I needed by the following night. So I decided to just write an extra chapter of whatever silly stuff came into my head about my charactors' further adventures in life after the main story. I thought it might be fun, and perhaps I'd even come up with something I could use elsewhere.

I did manage to get the 3,000 words done in a little over two hours. I'm sorry to say that it wasn't all that much fun, and there was absolutely nothing in it that I have any intention of ever looking at again. But it did get me to 50,000 words, so I could finally take a break. I have not done any more writing on the novel since then, but have come up with some more ideas. I found last month that when I was stuck in my writing, the answer to my problem tended to come to me when I was not writing, not when I was at the keyboard stressing over how to come up with another thousand words that day. Breaks are important. Of course, it is also important not to let a break grow by procrastination into simply not getting a thing done. So I'm going to try and get back in there soon, and get my 47,000 words up to the length I think this book really needs to be.

If I don't post again very soon, maybe that will be what I'm up to.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Ghosts and Lost Souls

Well, it's that time of year again. I am going to be back at Spooktacular. Marie Anne is busy promoting her wonderful Storysave CD set (which I highly recommend, especially for the stories about World War Two) but David Haas will be joining me and Jennie, with some backup from Dawn Blue and Laura O'Connor, after they are done telling for the younger set. I am looking forward to hearing his stories. He has a wonderful deep voice, which I am sure will raise more than a few shivers.

I always feel it is a bit of a wasted effort promoting Spooktacular on here, though. Either people are coming to it or they are not; I am sure it makes no difference whether I am there. However, this year I do have another Halloween event, where I am headlining! Sylvia Hertling, Serena Kaba, and I will be telling stories of Ghosts and Lost Souls at the Strathcona County Library at 7pm on Thursday, October 29th. Free passes are available at the Library, which is on the east side of the Sherwood Park Mall.

I am not going to be telling my Spooktacular stories. Instead I'm going to tell a couple old fashioned (well, actually just plain old) ghost stories, which offer melancholy chills rather than all-out horror. I'm brushing up Hoichi the Earless, which is an old favourite of mine to tell, and also working on a new-to-me story about the Legend of the Qu'Appelle Valley. I believe Serena is planning to tell a folktale about death. Sylvia hasn't told me what she will tell yet, so that will be a surprise!

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Yesterday, I attended the launch for Barbara Galler Smith's novel, Druids. It was a very successful event, complete with a bard and a druid. The book seems to be off to a strong start, and has even been nominated for the Alberta Reader's Choice Award already. Check it out on the 'long list' on this website:


I had already picked up a copy at Pure Speculation, and am about half way through. I managed to elbow in ahead of Nicole and Aaron, and was the first person to buy a copy from Barb! So far I am very impressed. I will post a review once I have finished.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Phyllis Gotlieb

After publishing my novel, I applied for membership with the Canadian speculative fiction organization, SF Canada. One of the things I quickly realized after being accepted was that I really had not read very much Canadian SF. I set about sampling work by various authors, and discovered several great books. But there was one author whose work I absolutely fell in love with: Phyllis Gotlieb.

Phyllis had the gift of writing work that awakened the imagination, the feelings, and the intellect. Her stories were always multidimensional. In Sunburst, she did not merely reverse the notion of psychic powers as evolutionary advancements to create the the 'dumplings,' she then proceeded to show these monstrous children not as villains, but as damaged human beings: the sort of violent youth which society all too often seems unable to help or control. The notion of sentient cats might be little more than a conceit in other hands, but Phyllis' Ungrukh are not only delightfully feline, but a race with its own heritage and challenges to face. They are a wonderful example of how very human issues can sometimes be illuminated by taking a perspective on them that is not quite human.

Birthstones, published in 2007, is about an alien society, the Shar, in which only the men are intelligent, while the women are incapable even of caring for themselves. However, this is not the natural state of things, but the result of progressive mutation, and the novel ends with hope that the Shar women will eventually be restored. It seems very fitting considering what a strong woman's voice Phyllis Gotlieb brought to her work over a period of time when women were very much in need of such voices.

Phyllis was active on the SF Canada listserver, and I felt very privileged to have that contact with her, although I think she only directly replied to me once or twice. I never told her how much I admire her work.

Phyllis passed away this Tuesday, at the age of 83. The reaction among the other SF Canada members has been very heartfelt, and a tribute to Phyllis will be in development over the next few days on the SF Canada website:

Tuesday, June 30, 2009


I signed up with Librarything yesterday. It is kind of a neat site where people post books that they own. So far I've put up my own books; a few books by other current Alberta authors, some of whom you might not have heard of; and The Ode Less Travelled, which I have finally finished. (And yes, I did all the assignments. Some of them really really badly, mind you. . .)

I'm a bit worried that I've started on the slippery slope into networking sites and before you know it I'll be on facebook as well, and spend all my time poking people. I hear that's what they do there, anyway. Something like that.

In any case, here are the links to my profile and books:


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Name that Poet

March and April were very busy months for me, and I'm afraid I fell off the writing-every-day wagon. I'm trying to get back on track, though. I did another exercise from Mr. Fry last night. This time the assignment was to write a parody of your favourite poet. I don't believe in favourites, but had just finished reading a book of poetry by a very well known poet, whose style I thought would be fun to play with.

See if you recognize the poet. I'll give away a signed copy of Dominion and of In the Dark to the first person to post the right answer.

Dance, dance, dance,
Like a princess with twinkly toes!
And O for a yard of pink ribbon
To tie up my pigtails in bows.

Half a step, half a step,
Half a step and twirl round
And curtsy so pretty and graceful,
As you sparkle, O musical sound!

Dance, dance, dance,
By the moon or the splendorous day,
While the people all watch me and whisper,
'Tis a fairy princess at play.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Pagan Pathways, March 7-8

I am going to be telling stories and talking about writing next Sunday morning at the Pagan Pathways event. This program runs from 9 to 5 each day at the Ukrainian Centre at 11018 - 97 Street. There is a full line up of workshops and presentations, geared toward Pagans of diverse paths, and centring on the theme 'Care of the Soul.' The cost is $40 for both days.

I will be joined by Sylvia Hertling and Barb Galler-Smith. Sylvia is a wonderful storyteller, whom I have performed with several times in the past. She is working on what sounds like a very interesting story to tell, and will also talk a bit about journalling.

Barb is a writer of fantasy and science fiction. She invited me to join the 'Cult of Pain' writer's group after my novel was published, and has been very helpful to me with her critiques and encouragement. She has a novel coming out this year from Edge, titled Druids. The book will be the first of a trilogy set in the time of the Roman occupation of what is now France and Spain.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sestina (Blame Stephen Fry)

I made a new year's resolution this year to write every day. I've mostly kept it. I can't say I've got a huge amount of work done on my main projects as a result, though. I'm writing more frequently, but not necessarily for very long each day. One thing I have been speeding ahead on, though, is working my way through The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry. This is a great little book for anyone who wants to learn or review the formal side of poetry writing. Well, maybe not anyone. Parts of the book are not suitable for children, thanks to Fry's naughty sense of humour, and the exercises are definitely at an adult level. But for all you mature would-be poets, it manages to make the elements of poetry transparently clear while being entertaining at the same time. It is like a tour through the world of poetry by a knowledgeable and witty guide, except that you aren't allowed to just stand and admire things. There are exercises.

I have found the exercises really valuable, and not too onerous. I have generally taken the view that exercises are not for writing brilliant verse, but for building the skills of writing verse. As a result, I have had fun with the exercises, but have mostly produced insufferable doggerel. This morning, however, I had a surprising experience.

The assignment was to write a sestina. I had read up to the exercise last night, and given a little thought to topics and words to go at the ends of my lines. This morning I thought about it some more as I lay in bed. I came up with a first stanza, which I thought was a little too cute to really use. I couldn't imagine actually getting five more stanzas plus an envoi out of it. But since I hadn't come up with anything better, I started thinking a bit about where I could go with it, and came up with a couple ideas. By the time I got up, I had decided I might as well try it. I wrote down my cutesy first stanza, and fitted the ideas I had so far into my second one. Then, well, it just sort of got going. I was really surprised by the things that came out as I went on. I wrote the whole thing in about an hour.

So, here it is. I suppose if I was a professional poet I would want to do some revision before I considered this poem finished, but I think as it is it makes an interesting example of how ideas can grow organically. Consider it a specimen.

This is the house that someone built
Not on the rock, but on the sand,
Not out of brick, but out of straw.
This is the heart that always fed
Not upon trust, but upon hope,
Not upon truth, but upon dreams.

Some years don't offer much but dreams.
Some years tear down all that is built,
And leave behind only the hope
Of better days. Wait. While the sand
Runs from the glass, the goats are fed
Not upon hay, but upon straw.

At times she said, "It's the last straw.
I'll do no more." But night brought dreams,
And somehow she kept the children fed -
All but one lived. For him she built
A little cross and piled white sand
Over the grave. She tried to hope

He was in heaven. But it was hope
And not belief. She grasped the straw
And lost it thinking of the sand
Above his head. He lived in dreams,
And out of dreams his mother built
A world inside. Her spirit fed

Compulsively on lies. She fed
The growing children. They found hope
In newer lands. Far off they built
Houses of sod with floors of straw
And filled the fields with all their dreams,
Numberless as the grains of sand.

This is the mouth that tastes the sand
Of death even when it is fed
On sweets. These are the lonely dreams
Of an old woman. Still her hope
Is for the child with hair like straw
To come again. What has she built?

It shifts like sand. Her weary hope
Grows thin. She's fed up with the straw
Figures of dreams, torn down, rebuilt.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Canticle for Liebowitz vs. The Chrysalids

At this year's Pure Speculation convention, I attended a panel in which paticipants argued the relative merits of Dune, A Canticle for Liebowitz, and Spin. We were asked to vote for one of the books at the end. At first, the question posed was which book was most worth reading, but few people were prepared to make a judgement. It was then suggested that we vote for which book we most wanted to read after listening to the discussion. I had recently re-read Dune, which put it out of the running, and I decided to vote for Canticle. The idea of post-apocalyptic monks definitely had me intrigued.

I have read Canticle now, and I was not disappointed, though I don't think I would quite put it ahead of Dune on the list of must-read SF books. It happens that I read it right after reading The Chrysalids, which was an interesting contrast. The question of whether, if our civilization destroys itself, we can continue to see human life as worthwhile is at the heart of both books. Chrysalids takes a secular view in which Darwinian competition for survival is the ultimate morality, while Canticle presents the world from the point of view of fervently and uncompromisingly religious monks.

The villains of Chrysalids are bigoted fundamentalists, while those of Canticle are worldly men, bent on gratifying their own pride. It is quite easy to see in the telepathic utopia of Chrysalids exactly the sort of impatience with our own imperfections with which Canticle accuses secular culture. Likewise, the monks of the Order of Liebowitz can be compared to the religious community in Chrysalids: like them, they seek to preserve the past rather than improve on it, and submit unquestioningly to authority and tradition.

Both books ultimately declare humanity, at least in its current form, incapable of overcoming its destructive tendencies. However, they then proceed to opposite conclusions about the value of human life. In Chrysalids, the genocide of all humanity save the evolved few is seen as an act of mercy. Canticle takes the other extreme, arguing against euthanasia even in the case of someone who has nothing to look forward to but a painful death.

My own views fall somewhere between the two extremes, but if I was asked to vote between these two books, Canticle would win hands down. I found the characters and ideas in it human and engaging, though also challenging, whereas those in Chrysalids left me feeling sickened. I'm sure other readers will differ, though. If you have read this far, please post your opinions on the matter, and perhaps cast your own vote as to which of the two is the more worth reading. I think this could make an interesting discussion.