Copious Amounts of Words, Salmon – On Rainforest

It’s called the Rainforest Writers Village, but everyone just calls it Rainforest. I’ve heard about it through friends, but only in the last two years has it changed from something on my radar to something I wanted to do, then finally something I set out to do. When I bought my ticket last year, I still wasn’t sure if I would be able to go. Being able to plan and do things hasn’t been within my grasp until the last few years (and it’s something I naturally mistrust for the stranger that it is to me).

That said, after getting back I understand why Patrick Swenson, the all around spectacular human being that runs this crazy/quiet show, has added a third week due to the overwhelming popularity. Seems fitting to be writing and posting this on the last day of the (inaugural) third session.

Going to Rainforest was like taking a hi-res photograph of my life as it is, and running it through every filter the program has and then ‘shopping the hell out of it. Keep the colors, the trees, the water, and the sky. Remove the buildings, unless they are small and their bones are polished hardwood. This extraction opens up more grey, more blue, more green, and moss-covered limbs and grass and mist raking through the teeth of the forest on the other side of the lake fill in the space. Subtract the traffic, the horns, wheels rolling on asphalt, but leave the birdsong, the water against the shore as they are so that the sound of fingers on keyboard, pens scratching on paper, voices hushed in creative conspiracy, take their rightful places.

Take away the Internet, too. As the elusive elk were to the ubiquitous geese, so was the internet to the writer. Odds were good that if you looked up in the Lounge during one of the silent writing periods, you would see a writer with their hand pressed against the building frame to try can catch the wifi, while in the small parking lot a lone writer would hold their cellphone up to the sky in mute desperation.

Take away all the things in your life that you need to fit your writing around and flip it — now all the rest has to fit in around your writing.

The insecurities that had front-row seats with me when I went to Viable Paradise were still there this time, but their tickets were way in the back, their barbed heckling reduced to formless grumbling. I could worry less about fitting in because I knew people there. I was there to write, not have material critiqued.

But I was still worried — would I work? Would I get as much done as I hoped? And what did I really hope to get done?

That was a legit concern. Right before I abandoned writing for about four years, I had asked for a weekend away for my birthday: no boyfriend, no pets, no making dinner, no laundry. I planned to spend the weekend at a remote bed and breakfast and write my novel. All of it, most of it, I couldn’t tell you now what I thought that goal would actually mean. It was an impossible goal, that’s the takeaway. My crushing lack of words, lack of even one damn word, made me feel like such a fool, and sent me scurrying home to bury all my notebooks for a long time.

Rainforest was different in a lot of ways. I am not the same person as that young woman who stared out the window watching snow melt off the rooftop, her insides twisting tighter and tighter. A lot has, thankfully, changed in thirteen years. (I suppose it was my pupa state.)

We arrived Wednesday in rain, and I picked at the Scrivener file that night after our meal. I started early on the Thursday by editing the remaining 18,000 words of a novel I had started and set aside a year ago. Once that was done, I slotted it all into a couple of spreadsheets, listing characters and locations, major plot events, information revealed, and that took the entire morning of the Friday.

But would I write? Really? I set aside all my expectations — do something — and started. And they came. Nearly 2,000 words on the half Friday, 3,300 words on the full Saturday, and another 2,000 on the Sunday morning. 7,300 words all day. Not bad.

stillbuds

And besides the writing, there was everything else. From Viable Paradise, my year and others, there was Kelly and Janice and Fran and Nicole and Tucker and Casey, and I met other writers, too, some I knew from Twitter like Tracie and Amy, and new people altogether. I walked the road with Deborah, she of soups, and Janka, she of yarn hats, to see the elk that would not be seen. I watched a rainbow appear out of the morning mist, one color at a time, and watched the heron watching us from a trio of logs that floated together just off shore. I ate a lot of salmon, until I discovered the hidden menu. I tasted whisky that was smokey and smooth and wonderful. I saw a man don a set of horns, sing and kill on the Ukulele, the whole group joining in. I did my least squeaky fan-girling ever to Nancy Kress, whose work I love, to tell her how much it meant to me to see her, and other women who wrote science fiction, on the old TVOntario show Prisoners of Gravity.

If you see it, you can imagine it and then, if you work at it, can be it.

I even managed to read a little from books I brought for research, watched half a documentary on James Randi (also research), and journaled. Rainforest was profoundly restful and helped retune my antenna. Life should fit in around the writing, that’s the natural order. Now it’s a matter of pushing the blocks around to make it happen.

At Viable Paradise, Jim MacDonald lead off the lectures explaining that novels are a liminal experience. The workshop, too, was a liminal experience — we were all passing through a door from one place into another. It was worth marking, that boundary, because all stories occur within boundaries. Lives, too.

And yet when I left Viable Paradise, I feared it would not be liminal for me the way it would be for the others. I felt like someone had opened the door to the wardrobe, showed a glimpse of Narnia and then returned me back to my tiny room, the wardrobe forever locked. A lifetime of looking in will do that to you.

Leaving Rainforest, saying my goodbyes, I looked around and for the first time felt — knew — that this wasn’t a one-off, it wasn’t an ending. I even said to Nicole in passing that Rainforest felt like part of a continuum this time, part of a discussion, a calling, a community — a life’s work. It wouldn’t end when I got in the car, or later the train. It only ends when I stop.

I don’t know if I will go to Rainforest next year, and not for lack of wanting to go. It’s wonderful, and I will go again I am sure, but there are lessons of living that I can take and put into practice in my life right now, every day.

While Clarion sounds amazing, six weeks writing short stories wouldn’t suit me. I’m a novel writer. Taos Toolbox changed from being on my radar for years to something I wanted to do about two years ago. I think it’s about time that I make Taos Toolbox something I set out to do.

Despite February

The second month of the year, historically, has never been a good month for me.

Winters in my home town were invariably longest and dreariest in February, regardless of its scant twenty-eight days. Maybe because in February spring was still, practically, months away, even if the calendar was a bit more hopeful. By February, everyone is just so damned tired of the snow and the cold, the shoveling and the layers. Even the happiest (read: insane) winter-lovers out there are ready to get over it by the time mid-February hits.

Bad news and accidents came in on February’s coat tails, too, a double-down on the misery of the month. Fender benders, money shortage, illness. If it was anything from inconvenient to catastrophic, odds were good it arrived in February. It became a running gag for a while. “Oh, it’s February,” I’d say, trying to bounce back. “Of course.”

I hoped to escape my February curse when I left northern Ontario. Living in Vancouver now, where the chance of snow is almost non-existant and I discovered snow drops were an actual flower and not mere myth, I thought the ruse successful. “I made it. February will never find me here!”

Last February, my first here, I managed to dislodge something in my spine and was basically confined to bed for two weeks, the pain worse than anything I’ve every experienced in my life. Any movement was, without exaggeration, agony. I wept trying to manage the smallest tasks. I hadn’t been in Vancouver for even half a year yet, and my misery was complete.

“Found you,” February said.

But before the end of the month, my spine unlocked itself, got better and spring did come. When the calendar said it would, no less.

The calendar, however, also promised me another February, and here it is.

Mid-week I wiped out spectacularly on the way back to work after a lunch out, rolling my ankle pretty bad. Because I walk everywhere, it’s a bit of a concern. But I will be damned if I let this February take me down. I sent off my first agent submission package (ever) on the first of the month. I’m making steady progress on revisions, even though I’ve had to keep my ankle on ice for a few days. There are snow drops growing like mad in this warm weather, more prolific than dandelions on summer lawns back east.

And in two short weeks I head off to the Rainforest Writers Village, a retreat in Lake Quinalt, Washington.

kermitflail

It will be my first trip States-side since I moved here. I will ride in a real train for the first time, visit Seattle. I’ll get to reconnect with my Viable Paradise classmates and meet new people. I will walk in the rainforest of the Northwest. I will eat salmon and look out across the lake. I will listen to the rain and the clacking of thirty keyboards, mine included, and know it to be wonderful and exactly what I need right now.

So, suck it, February. You will be awesome whether or not you want to be.

About Those Books

I read 35 books last year — a dip (as discussed in my prior post) but no less satisfying. It doesn’t take into account any piecemeal reading for research or the one re-read I did, but even if I were to take them into account I wouldn’t have met my target of 50 books for the year. Anthologies of any kind always take me forever and I have no idea why.

Besides setting a benchmark of 50 books, I hoped to read more women in general but didn’t make a point of seeking them out over male authors.

How did the numbers break down? 18 of all the books were written by women, 17 by men. One anthology included both genders. A fifty-fifty split generally works for me.

But what about the kind of books? 19 books were non-fiction, 16 were fiction. That was unexpected; I honestly thought I’d read more fiction. I’m guessing that it felt like I’d read more fiction because they were so good, and so took up more mental headspace. Anyway, onward! Of the non-fiction, it ran the gamut from writing how-tos, a couple of essay collections, and a few specialty topics.

Back to fiction: 13 of the 16 novels were written by women. And considering I didn’t make a systematic effort to do so, that bit of math pleases me greatly. More so, they were amongst my favorite books of the entire year. As for the genre breakdowns of all novels, regardless of gender, there were 7 fantasy, 4 science fiction, 2 historical novels, and 1 contemporary thriller. The anthology and the single-author collection were both mixed genre books.

(Of the unfinished books that will carry over to this year, two are novels, one is a short fiction anthology that’s mostly done, and two are non-fiction. Shame they won’t be included here, as they will always feel like 2014 books even if GoodReads says otherwise. Sad face.)

I had a glut of great books all at once in the second half of the year and waxed poetic about several of them in September. I was blissfully right in my anticipation for Walton’s My Real Children and Hurley’s The Mirror Empire. And if I thought those were great, I was unprepared for Katherine Addison (the pen name of Sarah Monette) and her latest book The Goblin Emperor — sweet and thoughtful and wonderful. Like, seriously, go read it. Right now. And the rest.

Looking back, I can say that Kameron Hurley’s work, as both novelist and essayist, made the biggest impact on me as both a reader and a writer. I’ve started into her Bel Dame Apocrypha series while I wait for Empire Ascendant (SQUEE), with a slight detour into Watt’s Echopraxia, along with all the non-fiction I’m still knee-deep in.

As I said, I didn’t plan to read X number of women this past year, but I did make a point to keep my eyes open. The places I go to online were talking about women writers more than ever before, and about the books they were releasing that year. Reading new releases is something I did work hard on, so doing one informed the other.

Also of note: after a healthy diet of balanced and, better yet, nuanced gender representation in books, I have even less tolerance for novels where that balance doesn’t exist — where female characters are either watery tropes, sexy lamps, or not even present at all.

Did I say less tolerance? That should read zero tolerance.

Needless to say, I am completely ecstatic about the books coming out in 2015. See these grubby little hands? Gimme whatcha got!

2014, You Weird, Wonky and Wonderful Year.

2014 was an interesting year, much in the same vein as that Chinese saying, “May you live in interesting times.”

It felt like a very reactive year. I felt reactive. I spent the first half waiting, for what I couldn’t tell you, then snapped sometime mid-spring and aggressively made changes that paid off. I landed a new job, one with actual benefits and vacation time. In the months following, I moved house and I’m living alone for the first time in a long time (if perhaps ever, if I wanted to be pedantic about it and I suppose I do.) Adjusting to a job that takes more out of me, brain-wise and socially, has been challenging but now I can come home to administer uninterrupted solitude as needed. And I do.

And that’s really okay.

slowweirdtime

What came next (and is still being developed, fine-tuned) was the slow rebuilding of my creative practice.

‘Cause that took a hit this year, let me tell you. Overall quantifiable output for writing, revision and editing were down compared to prior years. I chalked that up partly to the adjustment of moving across country in late 2013 – adjusting financially, socially, and physically. Not being able to quantify revision progress, which the was biggest focus of my efforts, meant that I’d lost the benefit of the gamification of my habits which had been such a successful strategy before. Combined with being too invested in having the novel be perfect kept my creative hands tightly bound. It was only at the very end of the year did I realize that no matter how poor my production was, there have been years where I literally wrote nothing at all. And while I try not to think about those wasted years (teeth-grinding a natural by-product of doing so), it means that as long as I do something I’m already doing better than my worst.

But while production stalled on novel writing and revision, there were other victories.

Despite everything, I still wrote 30,000 words of fiction (some fresh, some for the WIPs), critiqued over 800 pages (of fiction, all lengths) and matched my lifetime submission rate for short stories this year alone (a few close calls but alas no sales.)

A working writer of any stage in their career gets rejections. But this year, due to uncertainty in other parts of my life, those rejections kicked my self-esteem around and dampened productivity. I decided to shutter all short fiction submissions beginning in the last third of the year. The lack of an intense, focused writing group continues to be a problem and my efforts to build one have hit numerous road blocks. Tabled trying to strike out on my own for now, and instead keeping my ears open to a regular, Clarion-style critique group. Fingers crossed.

If I had downs I had some great ups, too. I went to my first local convention, VCON, and my first professional conference, the Surrey International Writers Conference. I delivered my first (inelegant) in-person agent pitches and landed submission requests. What a rush. Seriously. And the first external, impartial validation and encouragement I’d had in years. The first 50 pages are ready to go, and my query and synopsis are in the revision stages. My goal was to get them out for the end of the year, but if it takes until the first or second week of January to get right, I’m okay with that. (Besides, publishing pretty much shuts down for the holidays anyways!)

The year ahead looks real promising. I can wholly commit to my writing and development in ways I have never been able to do before. One novel will be out the door and I’ll be working on a brand new one this spring. After that draft is under my belt, it’ll trade places in the chill-out drawer with a different WIP entirely, one I have enough distance from to assess impartially. The Rainforest Writing Retreat is less than two months away, the launch of Creative Ink comes soon after in April and World Con is just south of the border in August. I won’t be able to go SIWC as an attendee so soon on the heels of World Con, but I want to volunteer. SIWC was the highlight of 2014 by a good margin and I want to help in some way to say thank you.

I feel more centered, secure and hopeful than I have in a long time. Bravery got me this far — pushed me far outside of what I thought I could do — but I think kindness, self-care, and saying yes will be the words and ways that will guide me in 2015.

(All about the parentheticals, baby.)

Edited to edit, because typos!

Indigo Lions

Vancouver is a wild place.

That’s saying something for a gal  from Northern Ontario. I’ve always pride in being from the North. We know cold, I’d say, with wind chills and ice crystals in the air. (Even though there’s a good deal of colder in places above us.) We know snow, I’d say, imprinted by glacial childhoods full of ice-burdened branches and great snow dunes. (Even though what the Prairies get puts it all to shame.) But even failing those exaggerations, Northern Ontario is the land of bears and wolves, wild cats and deer. This I know. This I carry.

Yet nestled in the basin, carved out millennia ago by the meteor that made it worth a nickel in the first place, the wild was still very much on the other side of those black hills. Bound, at bay.

Those boundaries don’t exist here.

Because dogs are on leashes and cats are behind glass, downtown Vancouver is wilder than you’d expect. Grey and black squirrels duke it out, sure, but who hasn’t seen that? Birds everywhere, sparrows and wrens and chickadees no bigger than the leaves they hide behind. Among larger birds, the city is divided into three flocks — pigeon, gull and crow — but you’ll find cormorants along the water, sleek and cautious, and a heron will appear, huge and alien and utterly indifferent to you, then vanish. The raccoon family will cross Davie street under the street lamps, hedge to hedge, or share the sidewalk with you on your morning commute. Skunks, too, go about their business at the base of twenty-story apartments, confident they have the right of way. That grey-coated swimmer slipping in and around the the sea plane landing docks, seal or selkie? Doesn’t matter. She’s gorgeous all the same.

The coyote, though? That’s a surprise.

Halfway to work on a grey morning after a night of rain, passing a green space that’s an offshoot of a well-maintained heritage building, you see it come out of wet holly bushes fifty feet ahead. It’s healthy, trim, and you mistake it for a dog at first, looking very much like one of the ubiquitous husky-types so common to this city. But the coat is streaks of brown, grey and white, and it carries itself with steady calm, no nervous off-leash pet. It assesses you quickly — too small and too far away to be a threat — and looks to the road, all canny judgement, before trotting across and disappearing again.

It’s not a far walk, by foot or paw, to Stanley Park. Twenty minutes, maybe. Thirty? It shouldn’t have been surprising, but it still locked my legs in place and commanded my sight until the coyote was gone silent as it had come.

Surprises like that keep happening, a year in. Buckling under history, flexing to anticipate growth, the geography isn’t completely nailed down. I’ve transitioned from extended visit to this is where I live sometime in the last few months, yet the city keeps bending in unexpected ways.

Like the mountains. They’ll surprise you. Surrounded by the trunks of buildings and trees, you quickly forget the mountains exist until a celestial conjunction of concrete and bark clear a pathway and there they are, grey-indigo, white-wreathed, larger than they have any right to be. The Lions, they call them, have this shifting, mutable nature — sometimes so high and dark, other times far and faint — that pairs so well to the sense that this city is a shifter, too. Magical. Neighbourhoods wear the styles of decades past, transform into a future of glass and neon, every inch of it cradled in the hands of moss-bodied Ents that bloom year-round. I don’t doubt that part of the draw of Vancouver is that people can come here and it can be any city you want it to be.

You start looking for those mountains, though. Make a game of it. And sometimes, when you’ve thought you won, it turns out those mountains aren’t mountains but storm clouds as dark and indigo as the Lions themselves. In fairness, they look awfully similar when they are so far away and when you only catch shards of them in the sky. Hard to know which to prepare for unless you get up close, past the buildings and right to the water’s edge. A storm you can weather, a mountain you have to climb. Best be prepared for both.

Today the sky is cobalt, the winds sharp, and the mountains imposing, stately and sure of themselves. The city is always strange, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Pining for SiWC

Okay.

First? Not dead.

Second? The Surrey International Writers Conference was amazing. Flat out. Full on. Amazing. It was with great sadness that I cut off the (very hospital-like) participant armband when I got home that Sunday night.

The expected post-con stupor hit me at the same time that my synthroid dose went up and my glasses changed prescriptions to progressive lenses.

passThird? Those glasses were the fucking devil. It was like they sold me a car with the warning, “So the turning radius is terrible and the blind spots monstrous, but just drive it for two weeks and you’ll totally get used to it.” Probably, but why would I want to? Why on earth would I want to ruin my peripheral vision, make half the rest of it sharp, and what remains an eye-screwing, blurry wasteland? (Not to mention that they did have my pupil distance miss-measured and the ‘reading glasses’ portion merely bolded everything but in the end wasn’t necessary as I am blind from about six inches onward anyways…)

With a HELLS NO, I brought the glasses back and swapped them out for a regular pair. And boy howdy, what a freakin’ improvement.

So between being jacked up on a zippier dosage and dragged down by the utterly new-to-me experience of my vision being made significantly worse after a new pair of glasses, I was a very tired, tired yo-yo and all that post SiWC excitement bled away and let some of the way-too-familiar fear-induced paralysis back in.

That said, I’m back on the wagon. Bit by bit. ‘Cause I have to be: I landed two requests from agents while at the conference, and nothing has felt that good, that encouraging, in a very long time. When something like that happens to me, I tend to want to hold onto it. Like the expensive notebook I might splurge on, or the fine set of watercolor pencils, my first instinct is to save it because I may not have it in the future. It’s taken me a long time to break that habit when it comes to physical objects; I am still learning how to use the things that nourish the soul.

The fear of scarcity is something I will always wear around my neck, I suppose, but I must learn to stand, walk and run despite that chain.

The VCON before the SIWC

Got the chance to get my feet wet last weekend with a whirlwind, one-day visit to VCON, the local science fiction and fantasy convention and one of the reasons I moved out west — to have a local Con! VCON reminds me so much of Ad Astra, held in Toronto, that it felt both new and familiar, and a much needed break, to boot. A bit of media, a bit of art, and a bit of writing, with a bolstered writing track thanks to Sandra Wickham (who tackled the job with a get-out-of-her-way zest that should be the standard, IMO, of getting shit done). There were pitch sessions, workshops, and a live slush panel!

However:

expecttobeinvisible

Such a GPOY GIF I can’t even. (But boy can I odd…)

I convinced myself, and I think rightly, to avoid the Pitch Sessions. I just don’t have that glib, five minute, novel-nutshell to throw at people like a peppy squirrel. I did have a great conversation with Aviva Bel’Harod, author of Blood Matters among other titles, who gently coached me on how to approach a pitch. (And to mostly not put my own work down. A duh-tip for anyone else in the Universe but me!) I felt a little better about the whole idea of pitching, but still didn’t sign up for any of the open sessions.

But on no account was I allowed to skip the live slush — Sandra had given me marching orders. I dutifully added my (poorly formatted) page one into the basket and wobbled over to my seat in the back. The panel format? Four editors, one reading and the rest all raising their hands when they would come to the point they would stop reading if it were a submission in their slush piles.

They read it. (Last, too. I nearly died.)

They liked it. (They did what?)

Two of them even asked me to submit a synopsis and first three chapters. (Falls over.)

There is not a GIF in the world that describes my feelings. I don’t even have proper words, but let’s try by cutting to the heart of the thing: it’s the first external encouragement I’ve gotten since Viable Paradise. I’ve got great supportive writing friends that offer me critical, useful feedback on my novels and short stories, and I’ve gotten damn close to a few fiction markets, but I have never gotten to see people reading my work and reacting to it, live, outside of the realm of critique, and liking it.

Now, it’s not a sale, it’s not a yes — it’s a “we want to see more.” Well, good. I can get you more. Damn skippy.

So if I didn’t have a fire lit under my ass as I look forward to and prep for the Surrey International Writers Conference, or SIWC, in two weeks time, I sure as hell do now. This month is all about synopsis, query and pitch crafting. I will be signing up for every additional pitch session I can lay claim to for SIWC and look forward to living and breathing this glorious beast called writing for four whole days. I’ve already started on the formative work for STAR DOOR, my (ineptly, inelegantly titled) urban portal fantasy with strong YA appeal, but will try my damnedest to get the same ready for BLOOD OF WOLVES, my AU gothic werewolf novel.

SIWC will be a huge and exciting learning curve for me. I’ll get to practice my pitches, learn what works and doesn’t work, and leave better equipped to throw myself into the next phase. When I get back, I start sending those packages everywhere.