Yearly Archives: 2015

Things I learned in November

Writing desk

This November I did NANOWRIMO—50,000 words in 30 days.

Friends have been trying to convince me to do it for years, but I balked at the idea. Writing 1667 words every day for 30 days sounded like hard work. I had other excuses too. I was always in the middle of another project and November is when I usually buy gifts to mail to my family who don’t live in Canada.

But I REALLY wanted to learn to write faster—and Nanowrimo seemed like the perfect mechanism for doing that. So I set aside my current middle grade writing project, delayed the gift buying (sorry family!), and dug out a book I bought with good intentions this time last year (Fast Fiction: A Guide to Outlining and Writing a First-Draft Novel in Thirty Days by Denise Jaden).

Then, on November 1, I sat my butt in the chair and opened a new Scrivener project. I decided not to worry about story structure, to just write a scene or part of a scene every day, in random order if need be. Get to know the characters, I told myself. Scary stuff! No outline, no plot, no conflict. Just a couple of characters and the idea that I would use alternating points of view.

Over the course of the month, I learned:

  1. It takes persistence—a goodly amount of it!
  2. I have to set strict rules for myself: no editing, minimal research, and most importantly, lock my inner critic in the garden shed.
  3. If I have a clear idea of where the scene is going, I can write quicker.
  4. Even though I’m an outliner, I can write by the seat of my pants if I’ve left myself no other option.
  5. First drafts don’t have to be good, they just have to be done.
  6. Making time to write means saying No to other things I want to do.
  7. I don’t enjoy writing words for the sake of meeting a word count goal. I prefer short time goals.
  8. No wine until the final 500 words of the day.
  9. Just write 100 words, and then another 100 words, and another. 100 words at a time adds up to 1667 or more.
  10. Some days are easier than others.
  11. It helps when dinner magically appears in front of you – thank you Patrick!
  12. Knowing friends are doing it too, and watching their daily word counts, is motivating – thanks Karen, Lisa, Annie, Pauline, and Aven for being there with me!

Did I make it to 50,000 in 30 days? YES! That makes me a Nanowrimo 2015 Winner!NaNo-2015-Winner-Badge-Large-Square

Did I learn to write faster? YES!

Would I do Nanowrimo again? Maybe. If I had a solid outline.

Would I recommend it to others? Yes, but only if you have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish. It’s hard work (really!) so it helps if you have a goal that’s more specific than writing 50,000 words. What’s motivating you to do it? Knowing that will help you face the page every day.

Can you read my Nanowrimo story? NO! At least not until I’ve edited it and given it some structure and rounded out the characters and figured out what the central conflict is and learned some of the genre conventions and… yeah, it needs a lot of work. For now I’m putting it aside to finish my middle grade novel.

Have you ever participated in Nanowrimo? What did you learn?

Dealing with public speaking terror

If you’ve been wondering where I’ve been for the last few months, since Christmas really, I’ve been hiding out in my house. You see, when Prove It, Josh was nominated for the Silver Birch Express award as part of the Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading program, I was faced with having to speak in public to thousands of children and adults. And I was afraid. In fact, I was terrified.

You might remember that before the book launch for Prove It, Josh, I joined Toastmasters. I’d like to be able to tell you that I loved every minute of Toastmasters, but the exact opposite is true. I loathed it. That’s not because I didn’t find it valuable, just that having to speak in front of the group, even once I got to know people, freaked me out every week, to the point where it was all I could think about. So after the launch I happily quit.

But you know what people say, something along the lines of, if you don’t learn your lesson the first time, you’re doomed to face that very situation again. And as an author, that’s exactly what happens when it comes to public speaking. Sooner or later you have to face this fear.

So that’s what I’ve just spent the last six months doing, and not doing well.

As a Silver Birch Express nominee, I needed to come up with three different speeches – a 45-60 minute school presentation, a 30 minute presentation with another author, and a 90 second speech to deliver at a microphone in front of thousands. I focused most of my energy on the longest one – the school presentation.

I decided Powerpoint slides would help ground me, and give the kids something to look at other than me. I talked to other authors about what they included and then I made several mindmaps and an outline to narrow down my content. Months went by and I didn’t make a lot of progress because I knew I still had plenty of time and Fear and Resistance were whispering in my ear that I was going to be a complete failure and that everyone would laugh at me.

That was when I realized that the best way to start my presentation would be with something funny, so that the kids would laugh at me. My idea was to get that out of the way, so that my biggest fear would come true, but on my own terms. And the best way I knew to get a laugh with a North American audience was to joke about my Kiwi accent, so I used the Steak/Stick story as a way to introduce the fact that I have an accent and to give the kids permission to ask me questions if they couldn’t understand me.

Once I had the beginning nailed down, I continued on, adding anecdotes and discussing how I became a writer. I told all my writing friends what I was doing, and they all offered advice, support and encouragement. But by the time April rolled around, I was a bundle of nerves and I woke up every night at 3am worrying that I was going to fall flat on my face. It got so bad I lost my appetite and coffee was giving me the shakes.

With three weeks to go, I finally finished my presentation. But then my fear solidified into a not unfounded concern that I wouldn’t be able to remember all this content, even with the slides to prompt me. One thing I learned in Toastmasters is that when I stand up in front of a group, my mind goes completely blank. How on earth was I going to do this?

At two weeks to go, inspiration hit me in the middle of the night. I could print out my notes and put them in clear plastic sleeves in a binder, and that way if my mind went blank, I had it all right there in front of me. Around this time too, I was chatting with another author about the Float House, where you can soak in a tank of Epsom salts for relaxation. Rather than do that, I started having a daily bath in lavender scented Epsom salts–and almost right away I was sleeping through the night again. Lavender essential oil is well known for providing relief from anxiety and Epsom salts contain magnesium, which can help you sleep. Also, the weather improved, so I made sure I sat outside in the sun each day, and I took some Vitamin B Complex on the off chance that I was depleted. And I STOPPED DRINKING COFFEE (yeah, I was that desperate!)

For the last two weeks I practised and practised my presentation, by myself in Ginger (parked at the beach) and in front of my neighbour and friends. With all that practice I realized that I would be okay. I even felt somewhat calm at times.

You might think at this point I had it all under control, and that I’d defeated my public speaking terrors, but you’d be wrong. I still broke out in a sweat, my hands shook, my mouth was dry, and I stumbled over my words. If you looked closely, you might have glimpsed the terror on my face. But, as Toastmasters had shown me before the book launch, I could do it. I could speak at a volume where people could hear me, and I didn’t embarrass myself by falling off the stage or fainting. I COULD do it. I DID do it.

Here’s proof that I did it, although my friend Kathy stopped filming before I started speaking so she could take photos.

(Thanks for this Kathy!)

And the kind folks at the London Public Library snapped this picture of me speaking at the London Festival of Trees ceremony.

London Forest of Reading

I’ve since read a book called Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool by Taylor Clark. The main point I gathered from this book, is that you simply cannot control how your brain reacts to a fearful situation–your brain says fight or flight, or in my case, freeze. All you can do is put yourself in the situation over and over until your brain learns that there’s no real danger. When it comes to public speaking, just prepare your speech and practise it as often as you can. And accept that you will be afraid, but do it anyway.

The best laid holiday plans… (part 2)

If you didn’t read the first part of this post, you might want to do that before reading on.

So, where were we up to? We were in Olympia with Ginger, and the mechanic had suggested that rather than continuing on our trip to San Diego, we drive Ginger home. When you’re on holiday, is there anything worse than turning around and going home?

But that’s what we decided to do. Using the trusty smartphone, I made reservations for the first ferry to Victoria the next morning and the last ferry to Port Angeles later that same day. And then we drove Ginger back to Port Angeles.

Since we were, in theory, still on holiday, I suggested we sleep in the Walmart parking lot for free, just to see what it would be like. Patrick wasn’t convinced we’d get any sleep with the bright lights and cars coming and going at all hours, but we actually slept well – worn out from all that thinking and planning, I guess. We even slept through a visit from the local county sheriff, who left us this note under the wiper.


The next morning, we caught the ferry home. Patrick changed the oil in the car and I did a load of laundry (exciting stuff!), and then we headed back down to the ferry for our second trip across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. To my surprise, at the ferry terminal, there were no 20 questions about arriving in the van and leaving in the car – no one even blinked, not the ferry people or the customs/immigration officials.

That night we hoofed it down to Portland. And the following day, we drove through a snow storm to San Francisco, where, I have to admit, I hyperventilated when the hotel’s front desk person told me there would be an additional charge of $49 a night to park in the hotel parking lot. Patrick sent me “the look”, the one that says “if you have a meltdown, I’m going to pretend I’m not with you”, (actually, he says it was more a “don’t worry, it’ll be fine” look), and so I managed to choke out the required “okay” and hand over my credit card. But it was worth it, to wake up on Christmas morning and wander across the street to Boudin for breakfast.

Coffee and almond croissants

Coffee and almond croissants

We spent a delightful day and a half in San Francisco, soaking up the sunshine, walking for miles and miles, and catching all the different forms of public transit – streetcars, cable cars and buses.

Next stop, San Diego…?

Letter from a reader

Today I received my first ever letter from a student. I know I keep throwing around words like delighted and thrilled and excited, but seriously, how cool that people are reading Josh, enjoying it, and taking something away from it!

I read your book ‘Prove It, Josh’ for my Silver Birch program. The message that I got from your book was that despite obstacles if you work hard you can achieve your goals. I really liked that at the end of the book Josh was able to read.

I play a lot of sports and I am on a rep soccer team. Sometimes I get discouraged when I have trouble learning a new move. Right now I am trying to learn a reverse scissors. Like Josh I will practise until I can do it.

Thank you Jaime! I loved hearing from you!

The best laid holiday plans…

We were really looking forward to getting away over the Christmas holidays this year, not that that’s really any different than any other year, but this year we had A PLAN. We were organized, sort of.

The Plan: Drive down the west coast of the US, camping at various state parks, to San Diego, where we would stay with friends for a few days before heading home.

We started out on a Friday afternoon with a ferry trip to Port Angeles. Once we were through customs, we took a quick detour to the supermarket to buy food, and then we drove off into the dark in search of our first campground – Sequim Bay State Park. The weather was pretty squally, not yet raining, but windy for sure, so Patrick attached our newest van accessory – the Wasserstopper – which is like a tent fly for the pop top. That worked a treat, keeping us dry and warm all night.

The next morning we hit the road heading south. A storm had swept in during the night and the rain was bucketing down, so when we plowed through a particularly deep puddle and Ginger started to misfire, like the engine was going to die any minute, we figured some water must have got into the electrical system somehow.

All the way down highway 101 we talked through the possible causes of the misfiring, keeping our fingers crossed that it would either sort itself out or we’d make it to Olympia where there were mechanics and vanagon parts if we needed them.

By the time we got to Olympia we were pretty hungry, so I navigated to the Trader Joes and picked up some lunch, while Patrick went next door to the Barnes & Noble to use the free wifi. He’d decided that the problem might be with the distributor cap, wires and spark plugs, and thought we could find an automotive shop to see if they had the right parts.

Sadly they didn’t and there were no mechanics open on a Saturday afternoon, so we had to decide what to do next – carry on south and hope for the best, or stay in Olympia until Monday and get a mechanic to check Ginger. We chose the second option and found a hotel in town (yay for smartphones and mobile data plans!).

On Sunday, we had fun exploring downtown Olympia, with a coffee and treats at the delectable Bread Peddler (if you’re passing through Olympia, I highly recommend stopping in here!) We’d been hoping to have plenty of opportunities to get out for a walk, so having a whole day to wander round wasn’t such a bad thing, and anyway, we were ON HOLIDAY, so it was all good!

The Bread Peddler

The Bread Peddler

By Monday morning though, we were ready to hit the road. We got up early and arrived down at the mechanic’s shop at opening time – 8am – and lucky for us, Pete Lea was obliging and took a look. His immediate diagnosis was that the distributor cap needed replacing, as did the rotor underneath it. He said he could order the parts and get them fitted by lunch time. Two thumbs up! So we headed back to the Bread Peddler, of course, for coffee and more treats, and to read our books.

At lunch time, Pete called to say that the parts had arrived and that he’d fitted them, but that Ginger was still running rough. I can’t remember the exact order of what happened next, but by 4:30 he called us back to tell us the sad news that there was nothing more he could do. The thermostat needed to be replaced, but the nuts holding it in place were frozen and even heat couldn’t loosen them, and the oxygen sensor was also not working properly.

“I strongly recommend that you drive the van back to Victoria,” Pete said.

“Hmmm,” we said. “Maybe we’ll just leave Ginger here, rent a car for the rest of our trip to San Diego, and then pick her up on our way home.” Which wasn’t a bad idea, except that there were no cars available to rent until late on Wednesday. “Hmmm.” I’d promised our friends we’d be in San Diego by December 27, so we had to do something. Maybe we should fly?

To be continued…