Muscles Not Tools!

Writing a first book is hard. Writing a second book is also hard but in a different way. When I wrote Shelf Life, my first novel, there were so many challenges. I had to learn all the basics of putting a book together: plot, character, dialogue, style, theme etc. etc. When I started to think about writing my second book last fall, I didn’t expect that I’d have to relearn the basics. I figured that each of those elements were tools that I already had on my writerly tool belt. I thought I had the measuring tape of character hooked on right next to the hammer of dialogue. I looked at those writing skills as static things that I could pull out whenever I needed them. In the past month, I’ve realized that the tool belt metaphor is all wrong. These basic novel-writing skills aren’t static skills that require no further attention once “learned.” Instead, they’re more like kinetic muscles that need to be warmed up and exercised before being used at full strength.

Metaphors aside, how did this affect the writing of my second book?

I had to get back to basics. I had to learn how to write a first draft again. I hadn’t written a first draft for a novel-length project in years. That sounds a bit dramatic, but it’s true. I’d been busy rewriting and revising the first book since 2018. Learning to write freely again (as is needed in a messy first draft) was a huge barrier in getting the second book off the ground.

I started strong in September. I was fortunate enough to be able to take a writing retreat during that lull before the second wave of COVID-19. I stayed at Fells Meadows in Castleton, Ontario for two nights. I ended up having the whole property to myself, which was good for writing and COVID-19 safety. I stayed in a small, off-grid cabin on the top of a hill (see photo above!) and wrote at the table of an old farmhouse at the centre of the property. It felt like a very luxurious way to start writing my second book. The romantic notions surrounding the writer’s life were in full force that week. It was great. I always enjoy those feelings while they last.

I wrote about ten thousand words in my first draft during that retreat and the weeks that followed. Then I hit a bit of a wall. I had the main points of the draft planned out, so it wasn’t a problem of not knowing what to do next. Instead it was a problem of knowing how to do it. I realized the character I had written was not very likeable. Things weren’t coming together the way I had expected.

So the book was put on hold and all of my writing muscles seized up. I went through some (mostly) self-inflicted querying agony for a few months (more on this in a future post…probably) and took a break from writing. Slowly, slowly, I was drawn back to the new book. I had to put aside all my feelings surrounding the ongoing querying of Shelf Life and focus on this new project. I had to write the book simply for the joy of writing it.

Looking for some encouragement, I turned to my shelf of books on writing. I looked at “manuals” from creative writing classes I took in university and read them with new vigor. I started reading Anne Lamott’s classic, Bird by Bird, which I had dipped in and out of but never read in its entirety. It felt like a re-education. I was beginning to stretch those writing muscles again, even though I hadn’t even put fingers to keyboard yet. Feeling warmed up, I started working on book two again last week. I decided to just start fresh and use what I had done in the fall as reference only.

The writing muscles started stretching further as I forced myself to put words down on the page. The process started to be enjoyable again. I was excited to work every day, even if I still had to force myself to get started (I think all successful writers have to do that most days anyway). Writing was becoming familiar again, and my creative muscles knew the motions expected of them.

Each day the muscles get a little looser. Things get a little bit easier, and book two gets written.

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Always Be a Student

I’ve spent a lot of time in school. Almost 15 years of my life. I was a pretty okay student. Early in life, I understood the expectations of the classroom and performed accordingly. Write the papers, read the books, say the things. You know the drill. I certainly did.

I haven’t been a traditional student for a few years, but lately I’ve been thinking about the value of the student mindset. When I was in university, I walked into every classroom with the expectation to learn. It was natural. It was easy. The dynamic in the room was already set up: I was there to listen and the prof was there to share their knowledge. There was nothing to prove. Everyone in the room already knew that I was clueless. That’s why I was in the class, to learn.

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Podcast Recommendations for Writers

I am a big fan of podcasts. I’m sure this comes as a surprise to nobody, considering that I co-host my own podcast, Library LifeI love putting on a podcast while I’m cleaning or doing some other menial task around the house. I’ve also found podcasts to be extremely helpful in my journey to become a better writer. The podcasts that I enjoy the most are the ones that go beyond technique instruction and speak to the challenges of the writing life. I love podcasts that talk about what it means to lead a creative life and tackle some of the head games that we writers play with ourselves. I find it so encouraging to listen to these podcasts, so I wanted to share them with you.

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Let Your Dreams Be Your Goals

IMG_0193-2Over the last few weeks, I’ve been querying my novel to agents and reflecting on how I got to this point in my writing. The querying process feels a bit like yelling into the void. You send a bunch of emails to agents, knowing that they’re landing in over-stuffed inboxes. As you wait (and wait and then wait some more), that self-doubt starts to creep in. Maybe my book isn’t that great? Maybe I need to redo my query letter? Then all of a sudden someone from the void answers and wants to read the manuscript. Hope rushes in again. Anything is possible! It’s such a whirlwind of emotions. You go from despair to heart-racing excitement in the flash of an email notification.

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The Power of Now Waiting

IMG_0782-2In March, I wrote a post expressing the extreme weariness I felt in regards to bringing my book to completion. I committed to finishing strong, but it was one of those statements that I wrote and only half-believed. At that point, I still had some pretty significant revisions to do before the book was finished. The process of finishing seemed to stretch on forever.

Now it’s mid-July, and the book is officially done.

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You’ve Probably Done Enough

IMG_6346-2Another week of isolation passes and the sense of wasted time settles over you. Is it June already?! How is it possible that the last two months have felt like the longest and shortest amount of time ever? What have I even been doing?

Perhaps these thoughts have been running through your head too. It can be easy to get pulled down into the idea that you’ve accomplished nothing during quarantine. The other day on a Zoom meeting for our church community group I caught myself saying that I was “tired of doing nothing.” It was partially a joke and partially an expression of frustration. In my last post, I talked about focusing on consistency instead of pace in the production of your creative work. Let me tell you, it’s easy to write about, harder to put into action.

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You Don’t Have to Become Shakespeare in Quarantine

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By now, most of us have gone into social-distancing or quarantine mode due to the COVID-19 health crisis. Many creatives have seen the order to stay home as a blessing in disguise. It was seen as a time to take up new hobbies and get to that writing that we never seem to have time for. One of my friends compared it to an unexpected writing sabbatical. On Twitter, I saw a number of people talking about how Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the Plague, and that they had aspirations to do the same. When I was working my last shift before the library closed, a colleague asked me what I was going to do with my time off, and I confidently replied, “Finish my book.”

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The Paradox of Wanting Feedback

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Recently, I “finished” writing my book. I say “finished” because in my head it was done, but in reality it was not. Yeah, yeah, I still needed to copy-edit it, but all the major work was done (or so I thought). In January and February, I had send my book out to a number of people in my life who offered to read it, and while I was awaiting their feedback, I was working on doing the copy-edits. Looking back, I don’t know what I thought would happen.

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On Keeping a Personal Archive

IMG_5131-2Ever since I started working in the Local History department at the library, I have had a whole new appreciation for the personal archive. So many things that we have in our collection are things that I would have thrown away or found too mundane to save, if I was living a hundred years ago. All the old receipts, income tax forms, random photos of buildings and other paper paraphernalia tell the story of our city. While processing these things at work, I’ve had a lot of time to think about the stuff that I’m saving and recording in my own life. I’ve been thinking about this for years, but it was brought to mind again this past Christmas when my grandfather gave me something from his personal archive.

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Ravens Roosting

I’ve been away from the blog for a few months, and that’s okay. I’ve been busy working on a number of other projects. My novel’s almost done. I’m just hanging on to the last draft trying to figure out how to say “it’s finished.” That being said, I finally feel like I can relax into some other forms of creativity. I’ve been sewing again, we finished up the first season of our podcast, and I illustrated a Christmas card. I’ve also been taking photos. In a way you could say that I’m roosting for a moment and enjoying all my little hobbies before taking the final plunge with my novel.

Knowing that I have to get back to the writing tomorrow, I wanted to share a few photos that I took near the end of November 2019. Often in the fall hundreds of ravens roost in the trees and fly over our city. I’ve always wanted to capture them in a few photos and that day I grabbed my camera and went for it.

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