A Look at Writing Workshops

On May 16th I quit my hemming and hawing and purchased a spot in a writing workshop Kate talked me into attending. It’s called Bait and Hook and is one of the pre-festival workshops in conjunction with When Words Collide, a local readercon. The workshop, run by Faith Hunter, will last one day. The first five pages of participant’s manuscripts are due July 15.

As of today, I have spent 51 days obsessing over my five pages. I have only one (unfinished) manuscript I would even consider sharing with the outside world. Luckily for me, the first chapter of my manuscript works out to five pages. It’s also the same genre that Faith Hunter writes. Her feedback may be truly significant -I’m still not sure right now if that’s a good thing.

Hunter is going to give me feedback on whether those five pages contain enough to bait and hook her into reading the rest of the book. I am terrified.

Although I’ve been working on it for nearly two years, my novel is incomplete because I’ve had to walk away from it for a variety of reasons. I hadn’t read that first chapter in months and was understandably anxious about doing so. After some editing, I’m proud of what I have written. I plan to have another comb-through session with the pages before I submit them but I’m not embarrassed to do so. Nervous, yes. Because sharing any piece of work for the first time is nerve-wracking.

Excitement and trepidation are warring within me the closer July 15 comes. Once the pages are emailed away I’ll be resigned until August 13, where I will be a mess on the inside.

At this point you might be wondering why I’d submit the pages of an unfinished story at all. Why I’d share my work with someone intent on telling me what works and what doesn’t. Are the rewards really worth the stress?

Heck yes!

It’s extremely painful to share creative work with others. I have always compared it to stripping naked in public –something I have never done and will never do. You reveal so much about yourself when you open your shell, especially when you open it up to be analyzed. However, the opportunity for growth is undeniable.

Reading and taking to heart the basic tenants of writing is well and good –don’t use clichés, limit your use of adverbs and adjectives, show don’t tell, etc. But when you get into the zone of writing your brain doesn’t follow the rules. It can’t if it wants to stay creative, especially when it hasn’t had a long time to practice doing so.

Reading another person’s rough draft allows you to actively engage with a piece that hasn’t had the broken elements removed. A lot of writers make the same mistakes in their work so more often than not you can see first-hand why lots of things you do don’t actually work. I.e.: clichés are boring, adjectives remove power from sentences, obscure metaphors are irritating, and so on. Seeing why they don’t work versus simply hearing it over and over lets a writer grow much faster in my opinion.

I survived Patty Briggs reading chapter one of my werewolf novel.

I survived Patty Briggs reading chapter one of my werewolf novel.

Outside of workshops, it’s not very often that writers can get exposure to –and for– their unperfected prose and enter a safe environment to discuss them. There are heavily enforced rules in a workshop because they are designed to be a safe, creative space. Thankfully, nearly all writers are fragile and encouraging creatures. We like to nurture each other.

I’ve had a lot of experience with workshops. I have three and a half years of critique classes from university under my belt and I’ve attended a workshop with WWC before. My skin is thick. Not unpierceable, but thick.

So, I might be biting my nails about submitting my work and reading the feedback afterwards, yet I relish the chance to see what someone else thinks of the trajectory of my story. Besides, having a deadline has never been a bad thing for any writer.

Inspiration

There is nothing a writer loves more than moments of inspiration out of the blue. Not that we sit around and wait for them. Well, not those of us getting any words down.

Horseshoe from above.

Horseshoe from above.

On my birthday, my friends treated me to an afternoon hike in Horseshoe Canyon, Drumheller. It’s a relatively quick drive from where I currently live and it’s a spot good for beginner and intermediate hikers. While I have some experience hiking -I spent much of my youth wandering nature- it’s been a good decade since I pulled on my runners and hit a trail.

I hadn’t realized how much I missed wandering the outdoors.

The day was unseasonably warm for early May, yet it remained cool enough that my t-shirt and jeans didn’t have me overheating. A couple of clouds floated lazily overhead, but for the most part we had clear skies.

There are few views better than clear skies in Alberta. Just saying.

Crocus. Hairbell, I think.

Crocus. Hairbell, I think.

The trail hadn’t yet opened for the season, or so the busload of tourists who first arrived told us. Not a trio for listening to signs (even when we maybe should), we picked the best looking path to descend into the canyon while the crowd milled around the filthy washrooms. We picked a direction at random and started walking wherever the paths took us.

The only other humans we saw was a couple we ran into halfway through our walk. Otherwise, the place might as well have been abandoned. That completely suited me.

Spring flowers bloomed, grass hoppers chirped, bees flew in staggered lines over the ground. I stepped over various forms of scat and prints as we followed the recently dried melt trails further downward.

A mating pair of golden eagles swooped over us at one point, long gone before I remembered I packed binoculars. I found a thrush’s nest at the top of an insanely steep incline we decided to tackle. The last bit of wildlife we met were a male and female Mountain Bluebird arguing in a deadened tree at least a kilometre from us.

Golden beans.

Golden beans.

All of those details made the day special for me. I am a nature nerd if ever there was one. Seriously, I was raised on National Geographic.

Still, the incredible inspiration I derived from the area for one of my back-burner works in progress (WIP) made me giddy.

This particular WIP has been jumbled in my head for years. It’s a series focused on werewolves that I intend to set in Alberta. Originally, I planned to park my pack near Canmore in the relative privacy of the mountains. After walking through Horseshoe, imaging my wolves running, hunting, and playing in the canyon, I’m wavering.

I hadn’t expected to be hit by the writing bug while panting my way up and down precarious, crumbly slopes of dried mud. But there you have it. The writer brain never sleeps and when your characters are all but clambering to the forefront of your mind demanding to be placed in a certain setting, well, how do you ignore them?

Coyote print. Possible wolf chow?

Coyote print. Possible wolf chow?

I can’t. Besides I’m as excited as they are.

Deer print. Definite wolf food.

Deer print. Definite wolf food.

I don’t know if Horseshoe will be a place my pack merely visits –believe me, I will be relaying the images that played out in my head eventually– or whether I’ll move their home to a spot closer to Drumheller. All I know is that this hike fueled my brain into working harder on this particular story. Maybe it will see the light of day sooner than I anticipated. I’ve got to hit the trail more often!

Inside Horseshoe Canyon. I can picture my wolves running those slopes.

Inside Horseshoe Canyon. I can easily picture my wolves running those slopes.

CBC Book Sale 2015

I’m moving away from writing today to talk about a topic that is equally close to my heart: reading!

May 23rd marked my sixth year attending the annual CBC Book Sale. All of the proceeds go towards Calgary Reads, who hosts the book sale in conjunction with the CBC, a local charity that helps young readers. I get to buy books and spread the love of reading each year –what’s not to like?

The past three years I’ve managed to help with the sale by volunteering, I’ve never donated because I have an unnatural attachment to my books. Unfortunately, this year I wasn’t able to share my time. At least I shared my money?

I attended the book sale during the afternoon of the last day as that was all that I was able to manage. Adulthood keeps getting in my way. The tables were picked pretty clean, not that that stopped me from finding some excellent gems. It merely helped my self-control. I only purchased 22 books this year! And only those people who don’t know me very well have either let their mouths swing open or dropped out of their chairs.

CBC 2015Seriously, 22 books is meagre for me. My record comes from 2011 when I attended the sale from start to finish each day and found 61 books. I remember how my legs throbbed after hours spent shuffling sideways, pushing my overflowing box of books across the dusty floor.

That is one of my best memories.

The other years saw me leave with numbers a little too close to the record. What can I say? I’m a collector.

I love reading as much as I love writing, maybe even more. I can’t live without reading and I like to have a hefty supply of the written word around me at all times. And it is one of my life’s aspirations to spread this affection to all. My two best friends can attest that I happily infected them with the reading bug. And I liked it!

Every year I count down the days until the CBC Book Sale when I can combine my need to purchase books and my desire to share the joy of reading with others. Next year I will do better to volunteer and attend on the first day so I have more selection. I just can’t help myself.

I can’t wait.

Do you have an annual event that fills you with similar glee? Or are you a shamelessly addicted bibliophile like me?

Why Did I Get an English Degree? Is it Useful?

For every person who decides to enter the discipline of English there are two questions we loathe to be asked. Why? Because these questions rarely convey curiosity or interest. More often than not they drip with confusion and condescension. Like no one in their right mind would choose to get an English degree or find it useful.

My answers to these questions are all mine. Perhaps there’s overlap with other members of my faculty, but I wouldn’t know. The only people who don’t ask why someone has decided to earn a degree in English are other English majors. Not because we have more couth than most, but because we couldn’t imagine not earning such a degree.

Why did I get an English degree?

Over the course of my life there have been only two unwavering constants: I love to read and I love to write. My attention to either has ebbed and flowed over time, but I always come back to both.

I have a healthy interest in other disciplines, like biology, philosophy, history, and anthropology to name a few. I enjoy spending time -when I make time- on other hobbies, like painting and drawing. I go out and socialize, of course. But I could never devote myself to any of these as I was able to do with English. I was fortunate enough to realize this before entering university. Retrospectively, I’m relieved I knew instinctively from the get-go.

The time and dedication involved in getting a Bachelor of Arts in English is mind-boggling. The amount of reading and research required to complete three papers per course is torturous. Multiply that by roughly three English courses a semester on top of other classes to fill requirements and the stress level is insane. But if you want to do well you figure it out, and you figure it out fast.

I did well. And I was beyond burned out when I handed in my final paper.

Yet, I wouldn’t change a single thing. There’s something alluring about literary criticism. Taking apart minute details and ideas found in some of the best pieces the English language has to offer is exhilarating. For me at least. No matter how tired I was, how short on time I was, I could always find a measure of entertainment while writing essays. That, if nothing else, kept me going.

Is my English degree useful?

My current day job has placed me in the world of finance, a place I never imagined I’d be even during my interview. My degree isn’t explicitly useful there, but I find that all the skills I learned over the course of my four years pop up quite frequently.

However, I find my degree instrumental to my writing. No, I don’t think any writer needs a background in English to succeed. There are too many examples that would refute that claim if I even tried to make it. But my background elucidates a lot of things.

I felt super proud after my convocation.I didn't even trip on the stage!

I felt super proud after my convocation. I didn’t even trip on the stage!

For instance, I have an excellent grasp of the English language. I am not one of those grammar savants, to this day I can’t tell you what a gerund is without using a manual, but I have a good ear. I can listen to how a sentence reads and figure out what’s wrong with it immediately; given the number of essays I’ve written I’ve grown adept at writing relatively clean first drafts because I didn’t have hours to spend editing every single essay; and, I have good line-editing skills because I was my only editor 85% of the time.

I’m also familiar with writing techniques and devices. Similes, metaphors, onomatopoeia, foreshadowing, and the like have been drilled into my head so often that they’re second nature to me. I’m not saying I am perfect at using them, but I know where and when they should be at least during the editing process.

The writing and communication skills I’ve reinforced by earning my degree are invaluable to my fiction writing. So long story short, yeah, it’s useful.

It’s My Birthday! Reflection Time

It’s my birthday on Thursday and while I’ve written a post about it for Anxiety Ink I want to carry my annual tradition on E.V. Writes as well. I’ll try not to repeat myself between the two.

Every year on my birthday, for as long as I can recall, I’ve written a piece reflecting on the last twelve months of my life. Sometimes they’re positive pieces, sometimes not. This year I can tell I’m not as excited about moving forward as I was last year. The post I wrote in 2014 was dripping with excitement. 2015’s rings dully in comparison.

Still, I accomplished a lot this year and pushed myself out of my comfort zone once again. I’m better organized as I face my next year of life even though I think my discipline is still a bit lacking. Acknowledgement is the first step to correction.

Last year's deliciousness.

Last year’s deliciousness. Thanks DQ.

I don’t care that I’m getting older. I’m still too young to worry about grey hair and wrinkles (like those are the only frightening aspects of aging), despite what popular media would like to instill in the minds of others my age. I’m not worried about them being in my future either, although that’s easy to say from where I currently stand. It is the velocity with which time is passing that is starting to make me anxious.

I cannot believe that another birthday is here. It feels too soon. Where did April –heck, where did 2014– go?

Working full-time makes time fly by. My years in school used to drag. Now all I want to do is claw them back.

The anxiety this rapid passage of time is evoking in me is making it difficult for me to look forward happily, but it’s the nature of things. I can’t change it so I might as well meet it with a smile and a plan.

First on my plate is dealing with my lack of routine. There are a few personal and professional things conspiring to make implementing a routine necessary and unavoidable. The next parts of the plan are far more tenuous. To say I want to focus on simply writing is both vague and true. My main goal this year is not to buckle down and complete project after project. I want to write, plain and simple. I want to stop pushing writing aside. I want to get back to the joy of creation and not worry about wrapping things into a neat package before I’m prepared to do so.

I’m not focused on or worried about publishing right now. It’s difficult to make any plans about publishing blank pages. Words have to be put down first, which is a serious problem for me at the moment. Each finished WIP is a step in the right direction and I have a fair amount of editing on my plate at the moment for the short story that will be placed in an anthology this year.

One item at a time. That’s my coming year in a nutshell. I’m nervous and excited to face it head-on.