Yearly Archives: 2012

Breaking the ice

U.S. Ambassador in Antarctica 2010 - Day 3

In September, Daphne Gray-Grant (the Publication Coach) did a series of posts about deliberate practice for writing. In her second post, she gave an example of deliberate practice: copying another writer’s writing. (Her original post on copying is here.) This isn’t copying in the sense of plagiarism. As Daphne says, “When you copy the writing of a writer you respect and admire, you absorb that person’s sentence structure, cadence and rhythm.” And you pay more attention to the words they use.

I’ve toyed with this kind of copying as practice before, but the other day when the weather was particularly bleak and wet and I was in a particularly cranky mood, I decided to try it again. I picked a couple of books, a YA by Maggie Stiefvater and a MG by Michael D. Beil, and set my timer, five minutes of copying from each book. At the end of my ten minutes, in a much better mood, perhaps even a little excited, I opened my current WIP and dived into my revisions, brain engaged and fingers flying across the keyboard.

It worked so well as a way of loosening up, I think I’ll start all my writing sessions this way.

It reminds me of something Diana Gabaldon says about writing (not that I can find a quote of course). She suggests beginning writing by digging where the earth is loosest. I’ve always loved that metaphor. But in Canada, maybe we should rephrase it, chipping where the ice is thinnest.

What’s your strategy for starting a writing session? Can you jump right in or do you follow a pre-writing ritual?


* WIP is work-in-progress, YA is young adult, and MG is middle grade.

** Photo from US Embassy New Zealand on Flickr

A quick peek into the world of wooden boatbuilding

A boatyard is the setting for the book I’m currently working on, so I thought I’d share this video to give you a quick peek into that world.

Long weekend

We went to Seattle this past weekend, and I’d been planning to post a few pictures for you of our walk along Alki Beach, but wouldn’t you know it, the white balance on the camera was set to something weird, and all the photos came out purple, which tells me two things: 1. I need to always leave the white balance set to Auto, and 2. I need to learn to fix these things  in Photoshop!

So I thought I’d share this art from textile artist Lesley Richmond of Vancouver instead. Since it was pouring with rain on Sunday, we decided to see the High Fiber Diet exhibition at the Bellevue Arts Museum. Lesley was one of the exhibiters. I don’t think this is the exact piece we saw at BAM, but it’s from the same series. On her website, Lesley says she takes photos of trees, prints the images on cloth, and then paints over them with metal patinas and pigments. They’re so delicate, but they glow.

Borrowing ideas and setting constraints

I’ve just finished reading Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon and highly recommend it as a thought-provoking read.

Kleon talks about the idea that nothing is original, that all creative work is simply the sum of ideas we’ve pulled from all over the place and combined into a new form (we’re not talking about plagiarism, which is copying a piece of writing without giving any sort of attribution). Even though I take ideas from lots of different sources, this book made me much more aware of how other writers recycle and reuse ideas. It seems so obvious in historical fiction and fiction based on mythology. But now that I’m looking for it, I’m seeing it everywhere.

For example, in The Blinding Knife, Brent Weeks twists the concept of  a golem, an animated being created from inanimate matter, into an animal directed by the will of a person.

Another of Kleon’s principles is that “creativity is subtraction”. By this he means we should place constraints on ourselves, because “limitations mean freedom.” One example he uses to support this principle comes from the work of Dr Seuss:

Dr. Seuss wrote The Cat in the Hat with only 236 words, so his editor bet him he couldn’t write a book with only 50 different words. Dr. Seuss came back and won the bet with Green Eggs and Ham, one of the bestselling children’s books of all time.

I frequently use constraints (yes, I’m an outliner not a pantser!). Sometimes that’s in the form of word count. If I set myself a word count for a chapter, it forces me to get to the point more quickly, or the chapter will be over before anything has happened. I think this is useful for children’s fiction, where chapters often need to be short, snappy, and packed with action.

But I know lots of writers who prefer to write with complete freedom, without any constraints. As with all things writing, there are endless ways of doing the work.

How about you? Do you put constraints on your writing, or do you just write and worry about structure later?

MICE and outlining

This last weekend, I went to the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. There are so many great things to say about this conference it’s hard to know where to start. It’s four days (three days of conference plus a day of pre-conference workshops) surrounded by writers talking about writing. Exhausting and overwhelming, but also exhilarating and inspiring.

For me, one of the best parts is the Presenter Lunch. A presenter (author, editor, agent) sits at each table, but who sits where is a mystery until we all sit down. This year I was lucky enough to be sitting at a table with Mary Robinette Kowal, an author and professional puppeteer. She was so personable and entertaining, I decided to go to her outlining session later that afternoon, which turned out to be the best decision because it was the session I found the most valuable over the weekend. Here are my notes:


  1. Write a list of your plot events in order.
  2. Decide where the story starts – any events that occur before the start are backstory.
  3. Use chapters to control pacing and keep readers reading. Occasionally you can take the first line of one chapter and use it as the last line of the previous chapter so that the reader is forced to turn the page.
  4. Use a series of questions to keep the story moving forward. If a question has a “Yes” or “No” answer, the story stops. If a question has a “Yes, but” or “No, and” answer, the story carries on.
  5. If you’re using multiple points of view (POV), for each scene, decide which character has the most at stake. That character should be your POV character for the scene. (Although later when you look at your entire story, you might need to change scene POVs to adjust the balance if some characters have too many or not enough scenes.)
  6. Consider what type of story you’re telling, using the MICE quotient (from Orson Scott Card’s Characters and Viewpoint).


  • Milieu – a story that starts and ends in a place, often with a journey such as the traditional hero’s journey
  • Idea – a story that starts with a question and ends when the question is answered
  • Character – a story that starts when a character is dissatisfied and ends when the character is satisfied, resigned, or dead
  • Event – a story that starts with an event that disrupts the status quo and ends when the status quo is reinstated

In short stories, you will probably find only one of these story types, but in longer stories, it’s common to see several types nested. The trick when you use more than one is to nest them like you would with code. The first story type to start is the last to finish. The second type to start is the second-to-last to finish.

For further reading, here’s a blogpost by another conference attendee, or you can listen to Mary herself in a Writing Excuses podcast (scroll down to beneath the sharing buttons and click the circle button with the Play icon).

And to finish up, here’s a picture of me with a couple of writing friends at the conference. Maybe I’ll see you there next year!



This last weekend, Thanksgiving weekend in Canada, Patrick and I decided to rent a Westfalia Vanagon camper. We’ve been toying with the idea of buying one, but every time it comes up in conversation, we can’t justify having two cars (we don’t have a lot of parking space, and Patrick bikes to work, so it’s not like we really need two cars). But when we found out that there’s a rental company in Sidney, it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up. We could try it out, and see if it was just something fun to dream about, or something we’d really love.

We picked the camper van up on Friday evening, and were given a quick demonstration of how everything worked – folding down the bed, pulling out the table, lighting the stove, getting water in the sink, pushing open the pop-top, hooking it up to power, filling up the gas tank, and swiveling the front seats. There was so much to learn, I admit I was a bit intimidated. But we hit the road, headed for Saltspring Island.


The ferry trip was uneventful and then we joined the stream of cars heading up the main road to Ganges (note to self, next time just pull over and let everyone else go ahead!). In the dark, we pulled into our campsite, a secluded spot in the trees with a picnic table and an quick walk to the bathrooms. We’d forgotten there’s a light in the back of the van, so we used our headlamps to pull the bed out and get everything organized for sleeping. I can’t imagine what that looked like – two headlamps bobbing up and down as we puzzled out how to make it all work. But we were soon cozy in bed with our own feather duvet from home, propped up reading our books, and grinning at each other like mad things. This was exactly as we imagined it would be!

Next morning I woke up with the birds and Patrick muttered and grumbled at me to go back to sleep, which of course I couldn’t because we were on holiday. Eventually he allowed that it was time to get up. By now, the sun was shining through the trees and I was ready for coffee. Together we figured out how to get water out of the tap, I put it on to boil, and Patrick ground the beans, and then we waited for it to brew. Some days, three minutes seems like a long time. As I poured the coffee, I got my first hint of…something foul. I’m sure my nose twitched. That smell, it couldn’t be the coffee could it? I took a sip, and another. Ewww! Sure enough, it was the water from the tank (second note to self – don’t use the water in the tank for drinking!)

Following a quick breakfast of tuna and salad (yeah, I know we’re strange), we drove into Ganges village to check out the Saturday market and pick up some fresh vegetables. And a decent cup of coffee!


On Saturday afternoon, we drove north, took the ferry back to Crofton, drove north to Nanaimo, and then took the ferry to Gabriola, where we spent the rest of the weekend, following much the same pattern. Waking up early, making coffee (not using water from the tank), eating breakfast, cooking, eating, cooking, eating, making cups of tea and reading, reading, reading, with the odd stroll down to the marina to gaze at the boats.

Memorable moments included walking to the bathrooms in the dark with our headlamps on and seeing several sets of deer eyes peering back at us, picking apples and pears off the trees at the campground (delicious!), and cooking yam fries on the camp stove.


Would we rent a camper again? Yes! Might we buy one? Yes, yes, YES! So if you have one for sale, or know someone with one for sale, please contact me ASAP.