How to write a mystery novel in 10 days

1) Kiss your partner goodbye before they leave town for work for 10 days.

2) Think about how long 10 days is, and how much you'll wish you had accomplished something significant. Fish around for that mystery story you've had kicking around in you for at least a year. The one your brain juices have really been marinating.

3) Ask yourself: Have I watched an acceptable amount of Euro-noir mystery shows on Netflix?
If yes, proceed to 4).

4) Buy so many index cards. No, more than that. Still more than that.
Consider writing an email to Sharpie about why none of their black markers seem to work when you need them to, decide to focus on story instead. Use crappy Sharpie.

5) However strange and broken your protagonist is, make sure you give them an even stranger, even more broken sidekick. Also, put them in the strangest, most broken town imaginable.

6) Drink a lot of coffee. So much so that it feels like you have eleven brains, not one, and they're all speaking at the same time and the same volume.

7) Don't worry if everyone in the story has horrible names like 'Randall' and 'Dickie'. Or if all the roads are "Side Road 7". You just need to name them so the details can be included in your poorly crafted scenes that barely move the plot forward.

8) Write poorly crafted scenes as though it is your specialty. It's okay if you're stage directing too much (e.g.: "He walked across the kitchen floor and looked out the window."). Or if you're running out of non-verbal gestures that convey confusion or discomfort (e.g.: rubbing at chin, twisting hair on finger, furrowing brow, etc.) You will fix all this later. Probably. Maybe.

9) Absolutely have five red herrings— why not 50? 

10) Go ahead, lean too much on coincidence and your protagonist’s uncanny ability to keep poking around when any other reasonable person would have given up.

There you have it! 

Oh - and when you're finished, ensure you give your manuscript as moody a title as possible. For example, mine is currently titled Before the Flooding Dawn. Don't name it after anything too banal or on the nose (e.g.: The Knife Murderer).


This story's got a finger up my nostril and is leading me around

I recently pulled a story out of hibernation (AKA: a folder on my desktop called 'Don't'). I had forced it into a slumber because, like a bad relationship at the very end, everything the story did annoyed the absolute stuffing out of me. (If my relationship with this story had an anthem, it'd be this.) It was crawling around under my skin like some alien insect on The X-Files. I let it go on for far too long, even though I knew better. Even though the healthy part of me was saying, "Drawer this hoser!"

The good news is that when I pulled it out all these months later, I didn't totally hate it. In fact, it started speaking to me, telling me what it needed, and even what it was concerned with trying to say. And me, being the good little minion that I am, got back to work.

Yadda yadda yadda, the story is at it again. Every time I think it's done, it goes and becomes something else. I sent it out to a Dear Writer Friend, whose advice was: "Depopulate!" They used the word 'disoriented'. 

But they also said they like it. A lot. Which gives me those tingles on the top of my head. 

So I'm back to work, where the story's got a finger up my nostril and is leading me around. Even though it's not my favourite thing I've ever written, when it finally settles down, sending it out into the world will actually feel like my biggest achievement yet. 

"I thought of it as espresso"...

I read a great piece in The Atlantic that summarizes a year of writing advice from various writers. Viet Thanh Nguyen shares how he "found a novel with a narrative feel he wanted to emulate". He read a bit of it each morning and this is what happened:

The language itself had some kind of impact on me that was more emotional than intellectual. The book acted as a condensed, compact, extremely powerful substance that woke me up to what I needed to do, each day, as a writer. I thought of it as espresso. It wasn’t coffee—I couldn’t drink it all day long. I could only take small doses, and that was enough. With caffeine, how do you quantify what’s happening with that? You just know you need it. The process was mysterious, and it worked.

What a splendid way to describe reading for influence. I'm doing that right now with Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated

Don't be a competent clone: David Mitchell's writing advice

In a recent interview, Mitchell gave some awesome advice for young writers. He wanted to be a writer in order to "do to other people what [his] favorite authors had done to me."

A few parts really stood out for me:

"Send the thing out and forget it. Quickly get to work on the next thing. Don’t sit by the phone or watch your email. Don’t hope. You’ve done a big thing by finishing something. Spend all the energy on possible despair. Avert that possible despair. Transfer the despair to the next manuscript. Right away, like the next day."
If you don’t want to write a realist novel, that’s not who or what you are. Work out the kind of novel you want to write, that you’re best suited for and do that one instead. It’s likelier to be more interesting. It might be awful but it won’t be a clone. Better to be brilliantly bad with your first novel than competently clone-like.
Things that are your obstacles often turn out not to be. Things you think are stopping you from writing, these distractions, can feed into your work in positive ways. You just may not know it yet. Things you don’t want to discuss—your scars, your shadows, your psychological baggage from childhood. It’s useful. It’s therapeutic to deploy them. You kind of win by using them. You can give them a right to exist but actually give them a job to do as an informant about reality, about language, about the human heart. 

Most Read on Joyland 2015!

I'm dead chuffed that my story 'Swimming through whales' is one of Joyland Magazine's most read stories of 2015! It's also the most read story in Joyland Toronto. 

I was this close to giving up on that story. I felt like it wasn't saying anything.

It had lost its effect on me.

Thankfully I stuck it in a drawer for a couple months, and my brain did that wonderful thing where it hit the reset button on it. When I returned to it, I remembered what I liked about it so much. Particularly her; this distracted, distressed woman. 

I've been so touched by the people who have sought out different ways to tell me how much this story means to them. It makes me so happy I didn't give up on it when my Fuck It energy was at its highest. The story (and me!) just needed some space. To breathe, to ferment.

Thank you, Joyland, for seeing something special in it. I'm so happy it found such a great home.



First, a story should be a conversation a writer has with herself

Lately I've been having great conversations with my students about why we write. There are endless responses to this question, but one that pops up again and again is the idea of "being part of a conversation". The "conversation" meaning any number of things. I think most of the time it's "the conversation about what it means to be human".

But lately I've been wondering if this is something I need to reframe for myself. When you're first starting out, developing your writing practice, doing all that lonely work of trying to find your voice (which is buried underneath clunky dialogue and bad impersonations of George Saunders or Heather O'Neill), if part of you is actively writing to be "part of a conversation", you run the risk of writing for an outer audience, no matter how much you convince yourself you're not. Because your stated end goal involves an audience.

I had this mini revelation while folding laundry last night: I think I want to write to have a conversation with myself. Or, at least I think that's what I've actually done in the stories I love the most, the ones that tug at me the hardest. I was writing to myself. Full stop.

When I write this way, I think it will move me more, which in turn, will move the reader more, if and when the story goes out into the world. 

Once it's out there, then it can be part of "the conversation". It should be part of the conversation. But I think until then, a story needs to be a conversation a writer has with herself.

Don't expect a cathedral, expect a brick: my feature on Sarah Selecky's site!

Hello to anyone crawling around on my site thanks to the wonderful, generous feature Sarah Selecky has up on her site! (You can find it here.)

Sarah gave me the opportunity to talk a bit about my writing process, and share an "open letter" to nervous writers. I also got to share an excerpt of a work-in-progress (or as Sarah likes to call them: Mysterious Middle Drafts). The response so far has been overwhelmingly lovely! I've received dozens of comments from people who have also felt anxious while quietly "collecting their bricks" and felt that my letter was empowering. Many people wrote to tell me how much they enjoy Eileen, the main character in the excerpt I shared. I swear this feedback is like emotional Wheaties: it's packed with so much good stuff, it fuels me!

Deepest thanks to Sarah for being so generous with her virtual space, and thank you to every person who read the feature, and who took the time to write such thoughtful comments. I am feeling the literary love over here!