The Artistic Anarchist and NaNoWriMo

[This is not the speech I gave at McGill Library in Burnaby last night. This was my attempt, the day before, to put my thoughts in order. My thoughts, as I spoke them, were distinctly less ordered, which is rather a pity]

It’s NaNoWriMo time, so here’s a shout-out to the intrepid writers attempting it this year. Bravo! You are boldly taking that first step on the proverbial journey of a thousand miles.

There are as many different reasons to write as there are writers writing. Personally, I write because I want to make art, and art is one of the finest, most humane things we can do. It’s also one of the most intimidating, and it comes with a lot of baggage. We’ve all been told that we didn’t have enough “talent,” or been mocked for being sincere or enthusiastic in public, or been asked – sometimes nicely, sometimes not so nicely – to stop singing. The world tells us all no, over and over. The easiest thing is to listen and obey – to give it up – and most of us do.

To quote Carla Speed McNeill: anything worth doing is worth doing badly. Art is abundantly worth doing, whether you have expert skills or not. I’m in two choirs. For years I danced. Am I fabulously talented at either? Nope. But once I figured out that I couldn’t die of looking silly, there was no stopping me.

My favourite thing about NaNoWriMo is that they’re convincing people that it’s ok to try. I applaud them for that. We all have something to say and we are worthy to say it; art is not and should not be exclusively the domain of “experts.” In my dreams, art is a verb, something we all do for the love of it, and for our own sakes.

I’m kind of an artistic anarchist, to be honest, and I’ll tell you a secret: in art, there are no rules.

Now this is something of a paradox, because in fact art has lots of rules. You learned a bunch at school — how many syllables in a haiku and feet in each line of a sonnet; rules of spelling and grammar; musical keys; colour theory; dance steps. Viewed from a certain angle, art is nothing but rules, and this is not a bad thing. If I decided to sing in whatever key I wanted, I’d be kicked out of choir; if I eschewed spelling and grammar, no one but me could read my novel (and I’d be faking it, trust me). We need art to have rules so we can understand it.

What I really mean is “art has no rules that can’t be broken.” We get to choose what rules we’ll follow, understanding that there may be consequences to these choices (like getting kicked out of choir). If any rule is hindering instead of helping, we are absolutely free to let it go. Every rule is voluntary, and has to pull its weight.

I mention this because NaNoWriMo is a month of intensive rule-following. The letter of the law is straightforward: write 1667 words per day for 30 days and end up with a novel-length chunk of text. But what’s the spirit of the law? Why do this at all? I can’t get on board with arbitrary rules unless I understand what they’re for.

The spirit of the law, to my mind, is twofold: one, if everyone’s doing this at the same time — keeping track of word-counts together, having writing parties, egging each other on — then there’s a nice camaraderie there that one doesn’t often get in writing. Misery really does love company, and I think that goes double for writers.

Two: writing quickly, without editing can keep the mean shame-Grendels in your head at bay. They are nothing but the echoes of the world telling you no, telling you you suck too much to do this. Nothing stops writing in its tracks so effectively. We all have them, and we all have to find ways to shut them up. NaNo offers one specific way: work so fast and furiously that you don’t have time to listen to the haters in your head. It’s a clever strategy, and it works for lots of people.

However: if you find these rules don’t work for you, you are not a failure.

This is something I feel really needs to be said, among all the cheer-leading and pep-talking. Not everybody works this way — and that’s good, right? We’re all different; it’s going to be reflected not just in our art but in our processes. If you find you can’t NaNo, it doesn’t mean you’re not a writer.

True confession: I’ve never finished NaNoWriMo. The first time I tried it, I’d already written a novel, so I knew at some level that I could do it. And yet, I couldn’t NaNo: the pace was doable, on a per-day basis, but I require down-time. I couldn’t write that many days in a row without a break. The well ran dry. The pressure of it weighed down on my heart, and I felt like I’d been chained to my keyboard. I was having a miserable time.

I got really depressed. It felt like everyone could do this but me! If I hadn’t already had a novel under my belt, I’d have thought I was no writer at all.

It’s hard when “the rules” are passed down from on high, with testimonials from Published Writers. It’s hard to go against the voice of Authoritah when you’re just starting out and trying to do things right. But let me raise a second, parallel voice, a descant over the main melody — because I’m an Authoritah too, friends — reminding you that all rules are voluntary. None of them are set in stone.

If the strictures of NaNoWriMo help you, huzzah! I’m glad you found something that works. If they don’t, give ’em the finger and kick ’em to the curb. Do not make NaNoWriMo a stick to beat yourself with. I’ve tried it; it hurts.

Now go out there and art!

More morning wisdom

This time from Ursula K. Le Guin, an interview at Interview.

If it’s tl;dr here’s my favourite quote:

There’s always room for another story. There’s always room for another tune, right? Nobody can write too many tunes. So if you have stories to tell and can tell them competently, then somebody will want to hear it if you tell it well at all. To believe that there is somebody who wants to hear that story is the kind of confidence a writer has to have when they’re in the period of learning their craft and not selling stuff and not really knowing what they’re doing. It’s like being adolescent for years and years after your adolescence.

And now I’m back to work!

A good start to a writing morning

Read this: “Writing Begins with Forgiveness” by Daniel José Older. It’s wise and well-said.

It’s kind of a relief to know I’m not the only one who thinks this way. This has long been my complaint about NaNoWriMo, that a word-counting race to the finish too often ends in shame for those of us whose brains don’t work that way. There is never just one way to do things, friends. As I’ve said in this space before: if writers write, then I reckon I’m a thinker, and writing is just a by-product of that.

Of course, I have also suspected I’m really a dancer, or a musician, or I would be if my talents matched up with my inclinations. I think there probably are some writers who compulsively write all the time, because they love the act of writing so much. Me, I’ve got to take time to turn over the mulch in my mind, to delve and cogitate and be present in the world.

Do it your own way. That’s not an indulgence; it’s a necessity. That’s how you find your voice, and how you make it art.

I’m overthinking it all today

First this article about MRAs being furious about the feminist agenda of the new Mad Max movie. TW for proposed abuse of girls and wives at the end (the post gives warning too, and there’s plenty to read before that part). The tl;dr version: the presence of bad-assed women turns the whole movie into feminist propaganda.

If only.

This particular brouhaha, however, reminds me of another article I read some time ago about the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Cold War. It’s a bit meandering (and has an agenda of its own), but I’m intrigued by the knee-jerk tendency to equate a writer’s visible philosophies, beliefs, or worldview with propaganda. The writer was supposed to become as invisible as possible, and I’m wondering to what extent do we still hold this ideal? Does the contempt for genre fiction — especially spec fic, which really is a literature of ideas — grow from this same root stock?

Thirdly, and then I must get back to work: a frustrated writer friend was complaining yesterday about a review of one of her books, where the reviewer essentially called her irresponsible for depicting two characters having unsafe sex. Apparently you shouldn’t write about sex in a book for teens unless you’re depicting best practices. Otherwise what kind of message are you sending? So… it’s bad to have an agenda if you’re making art for adults, but it’s irresponsible not to have an agenda when writing for teens? Am I understanding everything correctly?

If I just leave this here without further comment, can you still discern my agenda?

The ecstatic intellect

So I’m at the stage of writing where my mind is being blown all the time. I don’t know if this is part of most people’s process or if it’s just me. I don’t recall reading about it anywhere, and I don’t think I’ve written about it before, but it always happens. Even with Shadow Scale, though the going was slow, I arrived eventually at this state, where ideas come gushing out of the ground and everything feels connected and meaningful and pertinent.

It’s not my writing that’s amazing me, just so we’re clear. The writing is going fine, but I can tell I’m going to have to re-order a bunch of stuff in ways that aren’t clear to me yet. I actively set that worry aside and try to have faith that it will come. It always does; it always has. My brain is smarter than I am.

No, the mind-blowing comes at me from everywhere else. I walk down the street with my mind open and trawling like a fishnet, snatching remarkable and unexpected fish out of the air. Or else I’m a snowball rolling downhill, picking up glittering and relevant detritus along the way. Or I’m a barometer for ideas, water rising in the storm glass, jittering like a beating heart.

None of those analogies quite capture it. Everything I read, everything I hear and see, everything enters and forms part of the answer, whispers of what my next book is really about. I feel like it’s raining answers, jewel-bright and glorious.

Random book on aging your husband recommends? Relevant. Song you encounter by chance? Vitally important. Conversation with a friend over lunch? Crucial (ye gods, what if it had never happened?)

It an exhilaration very like dancing. The wildest part is that it’s thinking that gets me there. Thinking should not feel like this — how can it feel like anything at all? Maybe I mean intuition. Maybe I’m just a hammer suddenly noticing all the nails.

Either way, this is my favourite place to be, consumed with ideas. Aflame with them.

The wheel will turn, and I’ll be back to banging my head against the table soon enough. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy dancing to the peculiar music of my thoughts.

I’m not one to waste a world

Just to answer a question I’ve been seeing frequently and to provide some reassurance once I’ve answered it:

YES, Shadow Scale is the conclusion to Seraphina’s story. Everything wraps up, perhaps not entirely tidily, but in satisfactory and life-like fashion.

HOWEVER, let this not be a source of sadness for you. Goredd won’t just disappear. Indeed, those who have been with me since my comic book days, before Seraphina, know that Goredd and I have been together a very long time. It’s an enormous world, I love it, and I am going to set more books there. I am already working on the next one (I’m about 85K words into it, in fact).

The world came first, and the world goes on.

The long road back to here

Yesterday I went and spoke at my good friend Susin Nielsen‘s class. I’ve done this before; I go in and she asks me a few questions and I tell the convoluted tale of my road to publication. It was nothing I’d usually be nervous about, but I must have been a little bit worried because I had an anxiety dream the night before.

It began as the most hackneyed of all anxiety dreams: the one where you suddenly realize you have to take the final exam but you haven’t been attending the class. Maybe you forgot. Maybe you hadn’t realized you were enrolled. Whatever the reason, it’s too late now, the final is here and you’re going to flunk it.

In this dream, however, I was able to go talk to the professor beforehand. Lo and behold, the professor was John Oliver! So I thought to myself (in the dream), “Y’know, I’m not completely ignorant of World History. I might be able to fake my way through this exam. And he’s a comedian, so if I write really funny answers, maybe he’ll overlook the lack of facts.”

Then I thought, cheekily, “After grades are in, I wonder if he’d go out with me?”

Alas, the dream ended there, so I never did get to find out whether Professor John Oliver would go out with undergrad me. It’s probably just as well. What really strikes me about the whole thing was that I walked into a classic anxiety dream and then turned it on its ear. I was going to boldly bluff my way through the dreaded exam and then, ye gods, the gall of me.

I sometimes feel like I move in circles. Here I go again, toward another book launch; Brian’s comment on yesterday’s post made me realize that I’m coming toward it from a different mental angle than before. Maybe the dream was about my Shadow Scale tour, and not about Susin’s class at all.

One of her students asked a relevant question, about how to avoid feeling discouraged when a story doesn’t turn out as beautifully on paper as it seemed in your head. I gave her my mother’s analogy, how writing is like portrait painting: you have to compose very generally at first, figure out the basic shapes and where everything goes. Then you add greater detail with each subsequent pass, and only at the very end do you add the finest details, like eyelashes. The key is to be patient, and to remember that you will be going over the whole thing again and again, making it better each time.

Circling back around. This time you see more clearly; this time you understand more about what you’re doing. It’s very Groundhog Day. We get chances to do better all the time.

And so here I am, also, working on the first draft of the next thing, trying to roll with it and not worry. It really is a question of being patient and trusting that it will work the way it has always worked, and even if it doesn’t, that I’m capable and can fake my way out in a pinch.

It’s still hard to be patient, though, even when you see the point.

The Story of Owen: Dragonslayer of Trondheim

Today it is my pleasure and honour both to interview the witty and sagacious E. K. Johnston about her Morris-nominated novel, The Story of Owen: Dragonslayer of Trondheim. As the previous dracographical Morris winner, it seemed logical that I should be the one to interview Ms. Johnston and put her feet to the (dragon) fire, as it were.

In fact, it’s not just dragons that we have in common. Owen, like Seraphina, is the story of a musician swept into a world she never expected to be a part of, it’s chock-a-block full of politics and intrigue, and by-golly if it isn’t the most Canadian thing I’ve read in a long time.

In fact, I have a little proposal to make. The next time you hear the words Canadian Literature, don’t think dismal, taciturn realism. Think dragons, music, and politics. Me and Kate have got a muscular new Canadian aesthetic happening here, a genre of our very own. Canadian Symphonic Draco-Politik. You heard it here first (and probably last).

Anyway, silliness aside (which is hard for me, you realize), here’s Owen‘s author herself, to let you know what’s what.


1) Sing to me of Canadicity! (Canaudacity?) Are you Canadian megafauna yourself, or are you an invasive species like me? I have to admit, I was loving all the Canadian references, and I can imagine it must be even more fun for South Ontario to see its place-names in print. What made you decide to set the novel there? Did you find that mythologizing Ontario has changed your experience of living there, or has it always been peopled by dragonslayers?

I was born in London…Ontario, and have called Canada home for most of my life (despite several escape attempts along the way). I actually attended “Trondheim” Secondary School, though only one of my teachers makes a direct cameo in the book. I decided to set the book in Southwestern Ontario because I wanted to write something as local as possible. I was more than a little scared that any editor who liked OWEN would ask me to move it to Indiana or something, but all Andrew Karre asked for was more hockey jokes and an explanation for how milk bags work. I always knew there were stories in Huron County (actually, a lot of them ended up in the book), but adding dragons to the mix was a lot of fun. It hasn’t really changed my experience of living here, but I’ve had more than a few people tell me that driving through Michigan makes them nervous now.


2) Dragons, as you might expect, are near and dear to my heart. Part of my fascination is their versatility, how they can range from violently animalistic to ancient and wise. Yours definitely fall toward the animalistic end of the spectrum. In fact, you repeatedly refer to them as “mindless,” which makes me think of zombies. What are the challenges, benefits, and allures of these kinds of relentless, “mindless” opponents? How deeply did you delve into the biology and ecology of such creatures, and what were some of the practical challenges (or absolute hilarious fun) of shoehorning them into world history?

To begin with, I made my dragons pure reptile because I wanted to set them apart as much as I could. I have read a lot of dragon books over the years, and one of my very first rule for OWEN was that there would be no riding, taming, training, talking to, etc with any of the dragons. Of course, then they didn’t have motives, so I had make them drug addicts, but that turned out okay in the end.

Putting them into history was a blast. Occasionally I got to use dragons that were already there (like with St. George and with Dracula), but the MOST fun was when I got to “three quarter” them in. My method was to make the first three quarters of any given sentence true (ie. Queen Victoria selected Ottawa’s location to protect our capital from the Americans…), and the last bit was the part I made up (ie. …and because it was far away from a Hatching ground). I stuck closer to history than I did to biology or ecology, because history is my strength.


3) The fact that your dragons are attracted to carbon emissions immediately puts the reader on the alert that this may be some kind of ecological fable, but it isn’t that simple. There’s politics here, as well as fame, the manipulation of perceptions, and the various uses of art. Which parts of the story came first, and how did they come to you? Did it take many drafts to develop the layers, or was it all there from the beginning?

The ecological bent came when my friend Colleen would not accept “Honour?” as the reason dragons could not be slayed with a cruise missile (if I had a nickel…), but the story was always going to be about fame. Originally, Owen was much closer to a garbage man than he was to a nation hero, but once I turned the dragons into flying meth labs, it became a bit more epic. Even so, all of that happened before I wrote anything down, so by the time I sketched out THE STORY OF LOTTIE, I already had environmentalism, fame, perception and story telling, and a healthy dose of politics worked into it. I tried to control myself while writing, because I didn’t think anyone would want to know most of the details I had come up with, but then Andrew asked for all the world-building chapters to be added, and it was like CHRISTMAS. So in a way, it was all there at the beginning. I just didn’t think anyone else would want to know all of it, so I didn’t write it down.


4) What has your journey to publication been like? Epic? Any dragons along the way? Was writing something you always dreamed of doing, or did you come to it by some circuitous route?

I wrote THE STORY OF OWEN for NaNoWriMo in 2011. I sold it to Andrew Karre via fill-in-the-blank query letter the following April, and got an agent at the same time. One time in 2009 I told a job interviewer that I wanted to publish a book by the time I was thirty, but I was kind of lying when I said it, because I was 25 and I always panicked when interviewers said things like “What is your five year goal?” My degrees are in Near Eastern Archaeology and Forensic Archaeology and Crime Scene Management, both of which involve a lot of writing. So I suppose I have always been a writer, I just never had any plans to become a writer (but I once read a book by David Eddings where he said that you just ARE a writer, so it’s possible that I reached a zen state on that matter at the ripe old age of 15.


5) Being a debut novelist must be, in some ways, like being a brand-new dragon slayer. There’s a certain amount of fame that comes with it, especially when you’re nominated for awards. Has it been anything like you imagined it would be? Has working on the sequel been a different experience than writing the first book? Do you ever wish you had your own bard?

Everything has been WAY BETTER than I imagined. Carrie Ryan does this thing at writing retreats where she asks questions in the evenings to promote professional discussion (and tears, if we’re being honest), and one of them is “What is your dream goal?”. I have been on several different writing retreats since OWEN sold, and I have had to make up new dream goalsbecause I have already met the first two. Absolutely nuts. And that’s before we take into account the support I’ve seen from my friends and family.

I was totally prepared to weather sturm und drang while writing Book 2, but I managed pretty well. I’ve always known how it went. I just thought no one would want to read it. 10+ years of writing fic online has given me a pretty thick skin. That said, I am quite pleased to have TWO of my own bards. They’re part time, and they live quite far away now, but they’re really good at making me sound cooler than I am.

6) Lightning round!
a) Favourite writing snack?
b) Star Trek or Star Wars?
c) Silliest thing you do in public?
Probably write. I sort of dance and usually cry while I’m doing it.
d) Vancouver or Montreal?
Saskatoon! (I’m kidding: Ottawa)
e) One book (besides your own) that you’d inflict upon teenagers?
Diana Peterfreund’s ACROSS A STAR SWEPT SEA


Perish perfectionism

I’m sick today, but well enough to write. In fact, I particularly wanted to write to see whether being sick helps keep my occasional ceaseless perfectionism in check. Indeed, it does, although maybe a bit too much. The end result was an exploratory exercise, wherein I write in a slow circle around a subject and learn a lot about it as a result. These aren’t usually suited for inclusion in the book, but they give me a good view of what I might write that would be. It’s like a spyglass fashioned of words; I can see where I need to go, off in the distance.

Anyway, by nice coincidence, today Ellen Kushner’s Twitter feed had a link to a blog post by Terri Windling: When Every Day is Judgment Day. She intersperses her own and others’ thoughts on perfectionism with pictures of a lovely dog. That’s win-win, as far as I’m concerned. And don’t neglect to listen to the song at the end, which is worth the price of admission all on its own.



I know it’s not winter everywhere now. My sister, who spent a couple years in Australia, never fails to chide me for being northern-hemisphere-centric. This song, however, is about summer, and if you could use a little bit of warmth right now, this is for you:

It’s an ancient and famous Irish song, and the title as given means “Summer, Summer.” It is more commonly named after its refrain, “Thugamar Féin An Samhradh Linn,” which means “We bring the summer with us.” The song is traditionally sung upon Lá Bealtaine (Beltaine) in May to mark the beginning of summer, but I actually think it works well as a winter song in this wistful rendition. Summer seems more remembered than present here.

We bring the summer with us. We have to, in wintertime.

I listened to it this morning as I wrote before the sun came up. I half wonder whether this might be my new Iarla song for the next novel. I’ve had go-to Iarla songs for each book — “A Nest of Stars” for Seraphina, “Glistening Fields” and “Foxlight” for Shadow Scale (which was such a perilous book it needed two).

This song is so simple that it’s a particularly good introduction to Iarla’s voice. What amazes me is the control he has, the precision and deliberateness of it. The voice is an instrument, as surely as the piano or fiddle, and there are years of training and practice behind every ornament. It’s very nuanced singing, very controlled, and yet it’s not stiff or obscuring. He’s so skilled that he makes it seem like there’s no artifice at all, only transparent, honest emotion.

I’ve learned a lot about writing voice from listening to him, as unexpected as that sounds. I’ve learned that I have all the tools I need at my disposal; that I can choose which ones to use, depending what I want to create; that there are times to hold back and times to fling everything open; and that you should always know more than you show.

Writers — singers, artists, all — bring the summer with us in full knowledge that somewhere else it’s winter. We don’t forget, but make sure each echoes into the other, wistfulness and warmth all intertwined.