Writing incentives

September 23rd, 2015

Hello, friends! FINALLY, everyone’s settled into school and I’m back in a writing rhythm (until children start to get sick, of course). I’m making good progress on my WIP (huzzah!) and I want to talk today about writing incentives – aka straight-up bribery.

Let me start by saying it’s an enormous and inarguable thrill to get paid for writing fiction. Being a writer involves a huge amount of privilege and a certain amount of luck. But it also takes a ton of discipline – something I didn’t always know I had, or until recently failed to recognize as such.

As a graduate student, I wrote my essays and doctoral dissertation with grit and cold determination. There wasn’t much joy in the process – nearly all the mild thrills of having fresh insights into a subject and working out my argument had long evaporated before time came to Writing the Damn Thing. But I did. Once I’d finished my research and parked myself at the computer, I could crank out about a page an hour. That’s about 350 words an hour, sustainable for a maximum of 5 hours a day before I wanted to throw myself out the window. (Not literally. If academic writing actually makes you want to throw yourself out a window, even a fairly low one, please don’t. Please get help and seriously consider leaving the academy.) What I’m trying to say is, academic writing was hard work.

When I transitioned to writing fiction, I felt incredibly liberated. Here I was, writing WHATEVER I WANTED! No references required! If what I wrote was dull, I could delete, delete, delete. In fact, it was my duty to excise the boring. And yet somehow, I failed to recognize that some days would still be weary, fingers-to-keyboard, no-you-can’t-have-another-snack days. For some reason, I thought fiction would just flow from my tingling fingertips.

Four published novels later, it turns out that fiction-writing still requires grit and cold determination. Sometimes, there is little joy in the process. Sometimes, I have to write the equivalent of an introduction or a critical overview. Fiction, too, is hard work. And in my current quest to become ever more efficient at this writing lark, I’ve decided to turn to writing incentives.

Nearly every writer I’ve asked about this uses them. Erin Bow recommends stickers. It is a truth universally acknowledged that Stephanie Burgis loves chocolate. Graham Greene liked, er, amphetamines. (This last bit is only partly true: Greene wrote his first thriller, The Confidential Agent, in a benzedrine-fuelled six weeks. But he says that was his only foray into speed.)

I’ve never been much for external motivation (for one, I find it hard to suspend disbelief: this is all a fiction of my own devising, why should I obey my own rules?), so call it an experiment. A couple of mornings a week, I’ve begun working at the public library. If I hit my target of 1000 words in 2.5 hours, I get to browse the used book sale. No target, no used books for me. Also, I have strong feelings about the Pilot G-TEC-C4 pen, so I recently bought a package in rainbow colours. Every time I have a perfect work week – defined as a week in which I was diligent and productive and did not fritter away time on the intertubes – I will give myself the gift of a new pen. We’ll see how it goes.

Also! As I was writing this post, I came across this blog post by V. E. Schwab in which she asks 18 authors about their daily writing habits. Fascinating!

How about you, friends? How do you motivate yourselves to work your best?

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Return of the bullet journal

September 16th, 2015

Hello, friends. About eight months ago, I posted about starting a bullet journal. I had known, at the back of my brain, that I needed a new way to plan and organize my days. I just didn’t know what it was, until I heard about the bullet journal, via Stephanie Burgis. I loved the idea of combining dayplanner, to-do lists, mid-term goals, and gratitude in one place. And after I blogged about it, I discovered that SO MANY writers I admire and want to emulate (including Sarah Albee) are bullet journallers!

Anyway, I thought I’d check in and show you how things are going. Here’s my July spread:


As you can see, I stick quite closely to the original bullet journal. I’ve added a list of books read each month (in July we did a lot of travelling, which is why there are so many blank days on the left, and also why I only read one book, J. G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur). And on the Tasks page (on the right), I’ve broken down tasks by category: writing, writer admin (very important not to conflate the two!), blog posts (blogging doesn’t count as writing, for me), yoga, and life admin. I list the dates when I need to do the most important things – writing, yoga and blogging – so that I’m blocking out time.

And here’s eight pages from the month of July, right after school finished:

bullet journal

If you’re reading closely, you’ll see that my son and I had strep throat in early July, so the daily to-do lists were really useful for tracking our antibiotic doses, which differed in quantity and timing. I even write down the names of people I need to email, to make sure it all gets done. I normally have a gratitude list on each page, too, that I add to every couple of days. But between vacation prep, houseguests and strep, it just didn’t happen in the first week of July. And that’s okay, too.

As I think is obvious, I adore my bullet journal. It keeps me on track, it enables me to look ahead, yet functions as a kind of diary, too. Colouring in the little box beside each job, as it gets done, feels like a tiny reward in its own right. I believe I’ve been a lot more productive since I began using it.

In future, I might start embellishing it a little – writing down funny things I’ve overheard, children’s milestones – or I might not. I love that it’s a flexible tool, something with such a strong framework that it can bear a great deal of tinkering. And that might be the highest compliment of all.

How about you, friends? Are you loyal to a particular planning system? Still searching for your ideal? Do you have any suggestions for embellishments?

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Fierce girls

September 9th, 2015

A friend recently said that our four-year-old, H, reminds her of a Yoshitomo Nara character. I’d never heard of Nara but googled him and promptly fell in love with his paintings. I also saw the resemblance straight away.

At home, H is brave and affectionate, funny and confident. What most visitors and strangers see, however, is this face:

Yoshitomo Nara, Sprout the Ambassador

Yoshitomo Nara, Sprout the Ambassador

(No, she’ll never be a Mouseketeer.)

But those who care to make the effort can see what we see: an introvert who takes her time getting to know new people. A child who scrutinizes situations with care, and who will not be rushed into interactions. A person who knows her own mind.

Yoshitomo Nara, Looking for Treasure

Yoshitomo Nara, Looking for Treasure

Parenting a child like this is always interesting, not least because others are so often full of advice: “Don’t be shy!” “Smile, peanut!” “Nobody likes a sulky girl!” They offer this advice in loud, bright voices, usually while trying to touch her. And more often than not, they’re offended when she flinches away.

While this can be awkward, I’m not-so-secretly thrilled. I love the idea of raising a fierce girl. A girl uninterested in pleasing strangers. A girl who trusts her own judgement.

Yoshitomo Nara, Bandage

Yoshitomo Nara, Bandage

(And, in the future, a woman who embraces her RBF.)

That’s why I love Nara’s paintings so. Most images of girls and women still fall into one of three broad categories: pensive/passive, playful/pliant, or faux-fierce. In contrast, Nara’s girls seem completely uninterested in pleasing the viewer – or, often, even acknowledging one.

Yoshitomo Nara, The Complete Works, vol 1 (cover)

Yoshitomo Nara, The Complete Works, vol 1 (cover)

One day, fierce girls will rule the world. I hope ours is one of them.

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A Tyranny of Petticoats

September 2nd, 2015

Hello, friends. This week, I am tremendously excited to share with you the absolutely glorious cover of Jessica Spotswood’s historical anthology, A Tyranny of Petticoats. Behold!


My friend Cat taught me the phrase “on fleek”, and now I just want to walk around now yelling, “It’s SO ON FLEEK!”

Here’s a bit more about the collection, which combines historical realist and historical fantasy stories:

From an impressive sisterhood of YA writers comes an edge-of-your-seat anthology of historical fiction and fantasy featuring a diverse array of daring heroines.

Crisscross America — on dogsleds and ships, stagecoaches and trains — from pirate ships off the coast of the Carolinas to the peace, love, and protests of 1960s Chicago. Join fifteen of today’s most talented writers of young adult literature on a thrill ride through history with American girls charting their own course. They are monsters and mediums, bodyguards and barkeeps, screenwriters and schoolteachers, heiresses and hobos. They’re making their own way in often-hostile lands, using every weapon in their arsenals, facing down murderers and marriage proposals. And they all have a story to tell.

With stories by:

J. Anderson Coats

Andrea Cremer

Y.S. Lee

Katherine Longshore

Marie Lu

Kekla Magoon

Marissa Meyer

Saundra Mitchell

Beth Revis

Caroline Richmond

Lindsay Smith

Jessica Spotswood

Robin Talley

Leslye Walton

Elizabeth Wein

My ARC arrived in the mail just this week, which means that it’s time to proofread my own short story, “The Legendary Garrett Girls”, one last time. As regular blog readers know, I really appreciate this last chance to check the story and catch any clangers. Mostly, though, I’m looking forward to read the other 14 short stories in the anthology. Yes, I could have read them earlier in PDF format, but – call me traditional, if you must – I still find curling up with a print book more satisfying.

I am giddy with delight to be part of this sisterhood, and I owe it all to fellow novelist and worshipper-at-the-altar-of-history Stephanie Burgis: she’s the one who first suggested to editor Jessica Spotswood that I might want to be involved. THANK YOU, Steph!

This was my first time contributing to a fiction anthology and I learned so much. To begin with, the parameters were incredibly open: a story with a girl protagonist at any time in American history. Indeed, it was so liberating that I felt almost frozen with indecision – until I realized that fourteen other writers were simultaneously staking out their own historical and geographical territories. Suddenly, it felt like the start of an open-water swimming race: fast and splashy.

I’ve noticed that in my fiction I lean towards borders and margins, both literal and figurative. Sure enough, I first proposed something along the Great Lakes or in the Thousand Islands area – specifically, a midwinter prison escape from Ontario into New York state, over ice and open water. But Jessica suggested something less marginal and more definitively American, so I began to scan my shelves.

Several years ago, I went on a family holiday to Alaska. True to nerd form, the souvenir I brought back was a reprint of a nineteenth century memoir and travel manual, William B. Haskell’s Two Years in the Klondike and Alaskan Gold Fields, 1896-1898.

Haskell, Two Years in the Klondike and Alaskan Gold Fields, 1896-1898

I’d read bits and scraps of it in Alaska, but when I pulled it from the shelf last summer, it fell open to this quotation: “They now say there are more liars to the square inch in Alaska than any place in the world.” — The Seattle Times, August 1897. Clearly, this was fate: I was going to write a story about con artists in the Gold Rush town of Skagway, Alaska.

That story, “The Legendary Garrett Girls”, is just one of the fifteen in A Tyranny of Petticoats. Gloating over the table of contents, I’m struck by how diverse our geographical choices are: not just Boston and Los Angeles, but Wyoming and Indiana; Washington, DC and Washington State. It reminds me how relatively little I know of American history.

I can’t wait to change that.

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My home landscape

August 26th, 2015

Hello, friends. We were recently in Tofino, B.C., and I took a walk along the beach at sunset. Here are some shots of the landscape I love best; the one I consider “home”.












Kingston is beautiful, too, but today I’m really missing the Pacific Northwest. See you next week, with a more substantial post!

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Late harvest

August 19th, 2015

Hello, friends. Happy August! Know what this is a photo of?


If that photo didn’t make you squint or recoil, CONGRATULATIONS! You are probably a fellow garlic obsessive.

We’ve been travelling, so we’re really late harvesting our garlic this year. We’ve also lost the tiny diagram I made to indicate where we planted the different varieties. Still, the garlic looks pretty good. When I’m pulling the plants, I tend to feel disappointed by how tiny the bulbs appear. Later on, when they’re drying off, they seem to grow in size – at least, to my eyes.

We picked about 150 bulbs this year. We’ll save the biggest and best of them for planting as seeds in the autumn, and either eat or give away most of the rest.

What are you up to, in the waning days of summer?

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First pass pages

August 12th, 2015

Hello, friends. A few weeks ago, I wrote about re-reading; I’m here today to talk about a different kind of re-reading.

Recently, I went through the first pass pages of “The Legendary Garrett Girls”. That’s the title of my short story in Jessica Spotswood’s upcoming A Tyranny of Petticoats – a collection of 15 short stories about girls in American history, to be published by Candlewick Press next year. (Here’s its Goodreads page, if you want to add it to your reading list.)

“First pass pages” (also called “page proofs”) is the stage at which an author sees something resembling the finished book. At this point, the manuscript has already been substantively edited, line-edited, and proofread. It’s then laid out (or “typeset”) using the appropriate number of lines per page, in the font we’ll see in the finished book. It’s a terribly exciting moment because until that point, the manuscript is a Scrivener or Word file (usually with a ton of tracked changes). When you receive the first pass pages, it suddenly looks like a book.

It’s also a pivotal moment because some months have elapsed since you, the author, last fiddled with the book. Seeing it suddenly re-framed (new font, new layout) after a gap like that makes the story seem like a faintly familiar stranger. Previously, depending on your writing process and personality, the story might have been a best frenemy of many years’ standing.

Sometimes, this distancing effect is delightfully liberating: I freely confess to having laughed at my own jokes. At other times, you gasp with horror because you suddenly realize that you’ve omitted something really important. In the case of “The Legendary Garrett Girls”, I had a moment of genuine queasiness when I noticed the omission.

Happily, this is why the various editorial stages exist. (First-pass-pages is NOT the time to add/strike a character or rework the plot, but small emendations – a sentence or two – are usually okay. This varies from publisher to publisher, of course.) I added two sentences to the story and a line to my author’s note, and we’re now good to go.

I’ll have one more chance to check the story for uncaught errors, when the advance reading copy (ARC) is printed. At that stage, though, our book will also be in the hands of reviewers and booksellers, so it’s much better to have corrected my oversight in this round.

I’m so grateful to work with passionate editors and proofreaders who lend me their expertise and make us all look good. And, as you can tell, I’m a big fan of re-reading.

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August 5th, 2015

Hello, friends! I am not presently in North Wales, but our holiday was too lovely not to share with you. This week’s photos are from the Victorian seaside town of Llandudno.

We took an Edwardian tram car up the very steep side of a cliff called the Great Orme (Pen y Gogarth, in Welsh). Here’s the view from the midpoint:


And from the top of the Great Orme:


And then we descended to the seaside, which features one of the longest seaside piers in the UK (not pictured, sadly, as my phone was acting up). But here’s the beach, where bold and overfed seagulls snatch ice creams from the hands of children. (True story.)


Halfway through our ice creams, I was distracted by an extraordinary, piercing, squawking voice. I turned around and saw my first-ever, real-life, Punch & Judy show.


Obviously, I couldn’t just watch the show and move on; I was burning to find out more about this Victorian seaside tradition. As a result, the rest of this week’s post is over at the History Girls and it features, among others, diarist Samuel Pepys, Victorian artist George Cruikshank, and the notorious hangman, Jack Ketch.

Here’s Mr. Punch with Jack Ketch:


“That’s the way to do it!”

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July 29th, 2015

Hello, friends. My whistle-stop internet tour of major tourist destinations in North Wales continues. Today, we’re in Conwy!

Here’s a view from the quay that includes the medieval town walls.


The harbour again, this time with Conwy Castle (Castell Conwy, in Welsh) at the right.


We began our day at the Smallest House in Britain. Here it is, with me standing by the door for scale. I’m about 5′ 2″.


As you can see in the photo above, it’s the end unit in a row of terraced houses. According to the owner/host, there was originally a row of terraced houses to its left, as well, and this smallest house was built to fill the gap between the two rows.

Here’s the main floor.


It’s very cleverly designed: the bench on the left (red cushion on top) has a lid that raises for storage (most recently, it held coal for the fire). A ladder on the right (not pictured) takes you up to the bedroom, which is just wide enough for a narrow single bed and a small table. There are two fireplaces, one in each room, so the home was probably warmer than many a cavernous country house.

The bearded man in the portrait is the home’s last occupant, a 6′ 3″ fisherman. He lived in the house for some 15 years, until 1900, when the Council declared the house unfit for human habitation. On being evicted he travelled around Britain measuring other tiny homes, in order to verify that his was the smallest.

The town has a delightful ice cream parlour, Parisella’s, where we lapped up Welsh honey and honeycomb ice cream. Outside, a twelve-person recorder ensemble played Beatles covers to raise money for charity. (This sounds like I made it up. I promise I didn’t!) Conwy also has a beautifully curated indie bookstore called Hinton’s, with an adorable baby working the register.

We spent quite a long time exploring the thirteenth-century town walls.


View from the town walls!


Sadly, we ran out of time to visit Castell Conwy, or Conwy Castle. (My 7yo took the photo below, hence the inclusion of car and bike.) But having been there since the thirteenth century, I’m hoping the castell will hold up just a little bit longer, until we can come back.


Next week, I’ll report on my first-ever Punch & Judy show by the seaside!




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Summer adventures

July 22nd, 2015

Hello, friends. My family and I are presently revelling in the glory that is North Wales in the sunshine. See what I mean?IMG_20150718_134539368_HDR


Here’s some breaking news from Betws y Coed. You heard it here first.


A view from the town centre of Betws y Coed:


The three soccer hooligans in the foreground (red, white, orange) are cousins, aged 6, 7 and 8. Together, they produce an absolutely astonishing amount of dirt, noise and hilarity. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’ve even been able to slip away to do a little work on many days. (That sounds sick, I know. But I’m really absorbed in this project and it brings me a huge amount of peace and satisfaction to dip into it. I’m not striding ahead, but I’m keeping myself linked to it. It would be hugely stressful if I had to abandon it for the whole holiday.)

And here’s my most recent “office”!


The view from the office:


Another view from the office:IMG_20150719_150325696_HDR

I hope this post doesn’t come off as unbearably gloaty. We’re having a marvellous week and I hope you are, too.

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