December 11, 2010

First Reader Exception

A first reader is that person you ask to read your story when it is completed, almost finished, or when you are so sick of it you don't see it clearly anymore. A teacher said to me, "Your mother is not the ideal first reader because the goal here is constructive criticism, not praise." My siblings read my stories and say it is difficult to comment because they see me in my characters, or sometimes themselves! And with other stories based on fact, "...that's not how it really happened!" So, other family members can too create conundrums other than the gushing mother syndrome.

My mum is an exeception to the first reader rule. She has a tendency to point out what she doesn't like first. She is also an avid reader (albeit, we have very different tastes), and her grammar and spelling are impeccable. Recently, I went to visit her in the hospital and gave her a story to read that I was close to submitting. I told her to disregard any real life connections she might infer and feel free to scribble on the page.

She let her ward roomie D. read it as well. Mum apologized to D. for the  F words in my story and the roomie replied, "Oh well, she's a modern woman."

Mum gave great comments regarding time line, grammar (I'm still explaining once you know the rules you can break them, regarding sentence fragments) and questioned factual information. Her notes were very professional and it has inspired her to write/journal about her experience in the hospital. Go Mum!

My first readers are the amazing writers I meet bi-monthly to workshop, but I may ask my Mum again.

December 3, 2010

Technology as Time

When writing stories I avoid using references to technology. I think I have only once mentioned a computer and I've never written the words cell, text, blog, i-pod, kindle, facebook etc. in a story.

I don't find technological devices ascetically pleasing in real life or on the page. Then, I stumbled upon this Kurt Vonnegut quote:

'I think that novels that leave out technology misrepresent life as badly as Victorians misrepresented life by leaving out sex.'

I admit, technology is a great way to pinpoint a specific time period, but I think it can also date a piece or exclude certain readers. Wondering if my characters need to get with the times.

November 20, 2010

No More Prizes, No More Contests! by Matthew Firth

In 1996 iconoclast singer/songwriter Nick Cave wrote MTV to ask that his nomination for Best Male Artist be withdrawn from competition. Cave was flattered but also nauseated by the idea of prizes and awards for artists. In his usual purple manner he stated his reasoning thusly:

"I am in competition with no one. My relationship with my muse is a delicate one at the best of times and I feel that it is my duty to protect her from influences that may offend her fragile nature. She comes to me with the gift of song and in return I treat her with the respect I feel she deserves – in this case this means not subjecting her to the indignities of judgement and competition … My muse is not a horse and I am in no horse race and if indeed she was, still I would not harness her to this tumbrel – this bloody cart of severed heads and glittering prizes. My muse may spook! May bolt! May abandon me completely!"

It’s a long quote but worth repeating and remembering. More writers should take Cave’s position.

In recent years, literary prizes and contests have become a cancer infecting all levels – from the glitterati to the humblest rural writing circle and everywhere in between. Literary awards are so ubiquitous that they are meaningless. They remind me of my six-year-old son’s sporting endeavours: everyone must get a trophy or medal in fear of treading a developing ego. Taking part is not enough, there must be some material compensation, some exaggerated recognition of achievement. Literary awards of all stripes aren’t much different – except in this case we’re dealing with adults’ egos, stunted though they may be.

To be blunt, as an editor, I don’t give a rat’s arse when someone submits a story and then boasts in their bio that they are the 2004 recipient of the Dumb-ass Valley Writers Association Short Story Award or what have you. I don’t care. Nobody cares. Wake up: literary awards and contests are a scam.

The big awards are particularly sickening. Longlists and shortlists are compiled. Nominees are trotted out like county fair pigs. Sparkling wine (or more likely real champagne) is supped. Pics of beautiful, clever folk are snapped. The winner is announced. Bland speeches are mumbled. Stickers to smear on the new print run are ordered. And then all the lemmings run out and buy up the award-winning book, eager to be onside with the bunch of nothing-better-to-do writers (i.e., the judges) who selected the big winner (in all likelihood a peer/pal of the judges in the first place). It’s a perpetual circle of self-congratulation more closely resembling a circle jerk than anything else.

Contests run by literary journals and mags must also be resisted or better yet, rejected outright. They are nothing more than unimaginative cash-grabs by editors at lazy, uninspired publications. For a $20 fee they dangle insipid awards before the noses of writers so desperate for attention they shell out the dough faster than you can say Doris Giller. But of course the unknown/na├»ve writer – chequebook at the ready though they are – probably doesn’t win the contest. Instead, he/she is let down gently with a year’s subscription to Cash-grab Review, said subscription the equivalent to the aforementioned six-year-old’s hockey trophy.

What’s the problem here, you ask. Everybody wins, right? The journal boosts their subscriber’s list so they can go cap-in-hand to suck at the Canada Council tit for one more year. The writer thinks he/she is the cat’s pyjamas because he/she is one of 250 runners-up for (insert name of vacuous lit-rag contest here). All winners? No. Nobody wins but nobody loses either – all concerned just drift in an ego-stroking fog of mediocrity.

Writing decent fiction isn’t about yearning for a medal to pin to your chest. And it’s not about compromising or altering your work to comply with silly contest specifications. It’s not about beating down the competition. It’s not about ego. Writing decent fiction is about conviction, not contests and awards. Write what you want, what comes from your heart – the bourgeois awarders and indolent contest-judges be damned. Cave has it right: this isn’t a horse race so we should all stop betting on the muse and get back to writing decent shit rather than ogling odious and hollow awards.

Matthew Firth
Black Bile Press

November 12, 2010

Jeremy Milks

'Five blood splattered stories in the tradition of classic pulp novels, Italian "giallo" films, H.P. Lovecraft, grindhouse horror movies and "creature features" from a bygone era. So grab a beer, put your feet up and prepare to get your face ripped off (in a good, clean, fun way of course!).'

Read Broken Pencil review and order/download book.

Synchronistic Reading

Meager living creates a particular kind of reading continuum. Books present themselves to me with an element of synchronicity attached - at second hand book shops, at the Goodwill or Salvation Army, from friends, or in a pile at the end of someone's lawn. Reading becomes like Gump's box of chocolates.

I've started borrowing from the library again. It's been a while. I go there every week with my little charge but hadn't thought to take books out for myself - silly me! I felt saavy using their electronic catalogue to find Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (excellent). In Kanata, where I grew up, the first library was in a portable. Sometimes you had to wait to get in because it was so small. My mum volunteered at the Kanata and Carp Pulic Libraries for years. She borrows, orders, reserves, and reads stacks of books every week.

October 23, 2010

We Are Who We Are

I believe our individual personalities are formed by age five, often earlier. I have every report card from kindergarten to grade eight. The same adjectives were used over and over by teachers to describe me - quiet, diligent, conscientious, neat, well organized, polite, reliable, and consistent. These are still me, as well as some not so flattering ones. In my family, the kids were good in school, bad at home.

Mrs. Hobbs, my grade two teacher wrote, "In her stories, Julie writes good sentences and expresses interesting ideas." Hope this still applies.

October 20, 2010

Frankenstein and Mary Shelley

'My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy, and when wrenched by misery to vice and hatred, it did not endure the violence of the change without torture such as you cannot even imagine.
-Frankenstein, the creature

'I am sick of myself... My head aches. My heart - my hapless heart - is deluged in bitterness... I strive to survive, I strive to write, but I cannot live without loving and being loved, without sympathy; if this is denied to me, I must die. Would that the hour were come!
-The Journals of Mary Shelley, September 5, 1826

October 5, 2010


"Bukowski wrote about women, drinking, and horses. I write about men, drinking, and cats."

October 3, 2010

Short Story Process

*idea formulating for a month or longer in brain
*longhand scribbling
*1-4 pages
*very crude, little resemblence to final story
*stream of consciousness
*done in quiet place, no distractions
*little dialogue written in
*little to no formatting
*sometimes this draft will sit a long while

*typed onto computer
*bit more detail, added scenes
*length often doubles
*bit more structure, paragraphs
*choose appropriate P.O.V. and tense
*all drafts printed, revised on paper, then typed to computer

*dialogue added
*cutting unimportant characters, scenes
*taking a closer look at structure, time line
*focus on showing, not telling

*cementing time line
*fleshing out character descriptions
*begin to recognize themes, symbols emerging
*begin to read aloud, see how story and dialogue sound
*removing redundant info, words

*usually 8-12 drafts total when fiinished
*story begins to shrink in length
*strengthening of verbs
*amping themes
*thinking about five senses throughout story
*letting someone read/workshop when close to done

*process is a neverending process

September 21, 2010

Ray Bradbury on Perseverance

"You have to feel the editors are idiots or misconceived. We all do that. It's wrong, but it's a way of surviving. I try to teach young writers to say the same thing. You sit down at the typewriter again and do more work and try to get a body of work done so you can look at it and become your own teacher. If you do fifty-two stories it's better than doing three, because you can't judge anything from three stories. It's very hard to write fifty-two stories in a row and have them all be bad. Almost impossible. The psychological benefits from my first sale, which I got no money for, had to last me for a year before I made my next sale. That year I sold two more stories and had a little extra residue of belief."

-Ray Bradbury, Endangered Species: Writers Talk About Their Craft, Their Visions, Their Lives by Lawrence Grobel

September 16, 2010

Ideal View Askew

"Each new person I meet comes with a pair of rose-coloured glasses - for me. I see that person the way I want them to be - for me. It is only over time that these lenses lose their colour, resulting in a clear condition."

September 7, 2010

New Publication

Great news! My story "Hybrid Love" will be published in the next issue of Lies With Occasional Truth. This is an older story that I was thinking about retiring, but alas, was fond of so made some revisions last spring. I signed up for a writing class shortly after I had written this story, and immediately took a dislike to the teacher. He was a condescending braggart. He would give individual workshops instead of an open forum. Instead of withdrawing immediately, I decided to do a one-on-one with "Hybrid Love" the following week. Maybe my shit detector batteries were low. The next week I walked into the empty classroom and sat across from him. He said, 'After reading your story, I actually wondered if you were crazy.' He said this deadpan. I told him I wasn't. He then said readers would have no idea what I was talking about. I told him I gave my readers more credit. I dropped the class, and felt sorry for the kid who said he wrote sci-fi and was told 'you won't be writing any of that in here.' Thank god that guy wasn't my first writing teacher.

Pop Culture Eraser

Lies With Occasional Truth asks writers what piece of pop culture they would erase. Good Answers. Check it out HERE.

July 17, 2010

Hemingway's Top 5 Tips For Writing Well

1. Use short sentences.
Hemingway was famous for a terse minimalist style of writing that dispensed with flowery adjectives and got straight to the point. In short, Hemingway wrote with simple genius.
Perhaps his finest demonstration of short sentence prowess was when he was challenged to tell an entire story in only 6 words:
For sale: baby shoes, never used.

2. Use short first paragraphs.
See opening.

3. Use vigorous English.
Here’s David Garfinkel’s take on this one:
It’s muscular, forceful. Vigorous English comes from passion, focus and intention. It’s the difference between putting in a good effort and TRYING to move a boulder… and actually sweating, grunting, straining your muscles to the point of exhaustion… and MOVING the freaking thing!

4. Be positive, not negative.
Since Hemingway wasn’t the cheeriest guy in the world, what does he mean by be positive? Basically, you should say what something is rather than what it isn’t.
This is what Michel Fortin calls using up words:
By stating what something isn’t can be counterproductive since it is still directing the mind, albeit in the opposite way. If I told you that dental work is painless for example, you’ll still focus on the word “pain” in “painless.”
• Instead of saying “inexpensive,” say “economical.”
• Instead of saying “this procedure is painless,” say “there’s little discomfort” or “it’s relatively comfortable.”
• And instead of saying “this software is error-free” or “foolproof,” say “this software is consistent” or “stable.”

5. Never have only 4 rules.
Actually, Hemingway did only have 4 rules for writing, and they were those he was given as a cub reporter at the Kansas City Star in 1917. But, as any web writer knows, having only 4 rules will never do.
So, in order to have 5, I had to dig a little deeper to get the most important of Hemingway’s writing tips of all:
“I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit,” Hemingway confided to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934. “I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”

-Brian Clark, CoppyBlogger

July 11, 2010

Robertson Davies

Excerpts from Tempest-Tost

'Book lovers are thought by unbookish people to be gentle and unworldly, and perhaps a few of them are so. But there are others who will lie and scheme and steal to get books as wildly and unconscionably as the dope-taker in pursuit of his drug. They may not want the books to read immediately, or at all; they want them to possess, to range on their shelves, to have at command. They want books as a Turk is thought to want concubines--not to be hastily deflowered, but to be kept at their master's call, and enjoyed more often in thought than in reality.'

'Pass the Buck. It's the secret of life. You can't fight every battle and dry every tear. Whenever you're dealing with something that you don't really care about, pass the buck.'

July 2, 2010


I've been drawn to the good, the bad and the ugly of metaphors lately. I admit, I am jealous of those that can write amazing metaphors. In a writing excercise at school, I sat, staring into space for fifteen minutes, unable to come up with a single metaphor from scratch. So, if the odd decent one comes through my pen I am happy.

I read The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. There were often three, four, sometimes five lengthy metaphors on one page. I thought, give me a break, does everything have to sound, look, smell, feel, or taste like something else? Can't some things just be? I did finish the book.

There are metaphors that stand out, not because they are good, but because they sound like the writer was trying to be clever. A good metaphor is seamless. I read Danielle Egan's short story "Strange Attractors". I shook my head and stopped reading at this one. 'You clear your throat and I picture fossils of tiny seahorses dislodged and swallowed.'

Good metaphors stay with you. Anu Jindal's short "Saul and Millie are Sisters" has this gem. 'She could hear voices from the kitchen, though they were muffled by the walls: the bugle call of her mother, the low bassoon of her father, and her grandmother's french horn.'

I worry I will become a writer that has difficulty reading fiction as I am too busy picking away at the construction to enjoy the story.

June 19, 2010

Anton Chekhov

'I am distracted; I am weary to the bottom of my soul; sorrow lies heavy on my heart; and yet I am expected to sit down and write! And this is called "living"!'
-excerpt from "Hush", Selected Stories

I am writing a first draft of a short story. Early drafts often feel masochistic and I want to run away, but alas, I know I would only find other, less satisfying ways to torture myself. I know a few! Thus, I continue and know I will be rewarded with those indescribable glimmers of glee a writer is rewarded with through process.

June 13, 2010

12 or 20 Questions with rob mclennan

Writer/poet/publisher rob mclennan was kind enough to ask me to be part of his 12 or 20 questions series. Check out my interview and other writing news on his amazing blog.

May 22, 2010

Matthew Firth

Spencer Gordon, co-founder and editor of The Puritan did a column/interview with Matthew Firth , editor of Black Bile Press. Check it out on Spencer's blog Dangerous Literature.

April 1, 2010

March 13, 2010

Reading List 2010

For the last couple of years I have kept a record of the books I read. I like to observe the connection of what I am reading to what I am writing. Here is my 2010 list:

Fifth Business - Robertson Davies
The Manticore - Robertson Davies
World of Wonders - Robertson Davies
The Old Man and the Sea - Ernest Hemingway
Joyland - Emily Schultz
The Monkeyface Chronicles - Richard Scarsbrook
Bullet Park - John Cheever
The Wine of Youth - John Fante
Dracula - Bram Stoker
American Stories from the Atlantic Monthly
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Tales - Robert Louis Stevenson
The Happiest Man Alive - a Biography of Henry Miller - Mary V. Dearborn
Birds of America - Lorrie Moore
The Glass Castle - Jeannette Walls
They Shall Inherit the Earth - Morley Callaghan
The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy
Quentin Tarantino Interviews - Edited by Gerald Peary
Tropic of Hockey - Dave Bidini
Tempest-Tost - Robertson Davies
Leaven of Malice - Robertson Davies
The Golden Mean - Annabel Lyon
A Sane Man Vs. The Thing From The Woods And Other Pulp Fictions - Jeremy Milks
Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories - Oscar Wilde
Blindness - Jose Saramago
Heroes and Villians - Angela Carter
Lullabies for Little Criminals - Heather O'Neill
Endangered Species - Lawrence Grobel
Pygmalion - George Bernard Shaw
Laughable Loves - Milan Kundera
Mary Shelley: Her Work, Her Fiction, Her Monsters - Anne K. Mellor
Frankenstein - Mary Shelley
Geek Love - Katherine Dunn
Cockroach - Rawi Hage
Pulpy & Midge - Jessica Westhead
Smoke and Mirrors - Neil Gaiman
The Stories of John Cheever

February 14, 2010

Favourite Bukowski Quotes

"Do you hate people?"
"I don't hate them...I just feel better when they're not around."

"An intellectual is a man who says a simple thing in a difficult way; an artist is a man who says a difficult thing in a simple way."

"That's the problem with drinking, I thought, as I poured myself a drink. If something bad happens you drink in an attempt to forget; if something good happens you drink in order to celebrate; and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen."

"Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead."

More Bukowski Quotes
And More

February 13, 2010

Sheila Heti

"I think it's useful to work on improving yourself, but then to stop. I don't think that that's an occupation one should continue for one's whole life. I think you should give maybe ten years to the pursuit, and then stop. Because you just sort of have to accept yourself, and say this is who I am and these are my limitations. You can't always be trying to make yourself better, because you stop seeing the world--you only see yourself."

-excerpt from interview with Spencer Gordon

January 22, 2010

Robertson Davies

Excerpts from World of Wonders:

"Also he is not inhibited by education, which is the great modern destoyer of truth and originality. Magnus knows no history. Have you ever seen him read a book? He really thinks that whatever has happened to him is unique. It is an enviable characteristic."

"They're all so highy eduacted, you know. Education is a great shield against experience. It offers so much, ready-made and all from the best shops, that there's a temptation to miss your own life in pursuing the lives of your betters. It makes you wise in some ways, but it can make you a blindfolded fool in others."