Last night I met George Saunders

He remembered me from a brief email correspondence we had a couple years ago, because he's just that kind of person. His sincerity almost makes me weepy. He talked about ghosts, Trump, Huckleberry Finn, elevating the energy of a story, how "imagination" is a technical response to a technical problem, and how important/difficult it is to ensure all the "boxes" you've opened in your story are thoroughly explored, lest your reader notice you haven't explored one and "lose a bit of respect" for you. 

Tolstoy thought well of you

Go figure George Saunders' thoughts on revising are the opposite of boring and unfeeling. Instead he went and made me cry.

But why did I make those changes? On what basis?

On the basis that, if it’s better this new way for me, over here, now, it will be better for you, later, over there, when you read it. When I pull on this rope here, you lurch forward over there.

This is a hopeful notion, because it implies that our minds are built on common architecture – that whatever is present in me might also be present in you. “I” might be a 19th-century Russian count, “you” a part-time Walmart clerk in 2017, in Boise, Idaho, but when you start crying at the end of my (Tolstoy’s) story “Master and Man”, you have proved that we have something in common, communicable across language and miles and time, and despite the fact that one of us is dead.

Another reason you’re crying: you’ve just realised that Tolstoy thought well of you – he believed that his own notions about life here on earth would be discernible to you, and would move you.

Tolstoy imagined you generously, you rose to the occasion.

We often think that the empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation to his characters, but it’s also accomplished via the writer’s relation to his reader. You make a rarefied place (rarefied in language, in form; perfected in many inarticulable beauties – the way two scenes abut; a certain formal device that self-escalates; the perfect place at which a chapter cuts off); and then welcome the reader in. She can’t believe that you believe in her that much; that you are so confident that the subtle nuances of the place will speak to her; she is flattered. And they do speak to her. This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you, and that, to communicate intimately with her, you have to maintain the state, through revision, of generously imagining her. You revise your reader up, in your imagination, with every pass. You keep saying to yourself: “No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose or that easy notion.”

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).


My Lit Pop winning story Perv Jungle - on shelves now!

Perv Jungle was chosen by Sam Lipsyte as this year's winner of the Lit Pop awards (by Matrix Magazine.) I wrote this story as a way of "conversing with" Forever Overhead, a gorgeous coming-of-age story by David Foster Wallace. It took me years to figure out why I couldn't let this little story of mine go, despite draft after draft that just languished. But I think I just figured it out: while I love coming-of-age stories, my unconscious wanted to talk about the double burden felt by girls at this time. We're feeling the shifts in our biology the way boys are, but that same biology puts us at risk. Our bodies start to become the object of male fixation, even grown men. Therefore, our coming-of-age automatically includes an element of danger. I couldn't give up on this story, and I think it's because I needed to say something about this. 

George Saunders, on writing his forthcoming novel

"The truth is, you leap into something and then for (in this case) five years, you keep leaping, making tens of thousands of intuitive choices, but you’re not really sure why you’re making those choices, except that they seem, in the moment, to produce more beauty – and then, at the end, you look up and you’ve made something that is the sum total of all those choices, made over those many years.  The wonderful thing, and the thing that keeps me writing, is the hope that the result is somehow better than you, the writer: more alert, kinder, funnier, more big-hearted, more big-minded, and that working on it has enlarged your view of things – made the world seem wilder and more confusing than before, albeit lovelier."

Lucky Duck

I'm a lucky duck who got to see+hear Zadie Smith in person tonight. She was every bit as charming as I expected. She and Eleanor Wachtel had a great chat, but the part that really stood out to me was the role that Smith said 'found objects' play in her work, whether it's a real person who ends up an influential force in her novel (Jeni LeGon in Swing Time) or a peculiar name, borrowed from a real person. It was liberating to hear her say this, as someone who often feels ashamed by my own hidden stash of "objects", garnered throughout my quest to create "lies that tell a deeper truth".

"The hard is what makes it great."

My babe's out of town this week, and it's hotter than the 9th circle of hell, so I spent tonight eating popsicles every colour of the rainbow and watching A League of Their Own. (I remember watching it as a girl and being in awe of how beautiful Madonna was.)

Anyway, this has also been a week full of revising, which, for me, means the volumes gets turned up on those bitchy inner voices that love to chime in when you haven't asked them a goddamn thing, you're just sitting at your desk, being a good little writer and they just have to diarrhea all over everything.

There's a scene in A League of Their Own, and I sat up as soon as it started. Tom Hanks is the coach and he's trying to convince his MVP (Geena Davis) not to quit the team. She says, "It just got too hard." His response:

It's supposed to be hard.
If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it.
The hard is what makes it great.

Thank you, Tom Hanks. You're a gentleman, and a scholar.


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'm afraid of Zadie Smith

I love Zadie Smith. She is precise and direct and not at all precious about her work, or about being a writer. Which also makes me afraid of her. It's a healthy fear though. The kind of fear I also have for the ocean, or a tiger. There's just so much to respect there. Here's what she said when she was asked about her writing routine:

Any small room with no natural light will do. As for when, I have no particular schedules... afternoons are best, but I'm too lethargic for any real regime. When I'm in the flow of something I can do a regular 9 to 5; when I don't know where I'm going with an idea, I'm lucky if I do two hours of productive work. There is nothing more off-putting to a would-be novelist to hear about how so-and-so wakes up at four in the a.m, walks the dog, drinks three liters of black coffee and then writes 3,000 words a day, or that some other asshole only works half an hour every two weeks, does fifty press-ups and stands on his head before and after the "creative moment." I remember reading that kind of stuff in profiles like this and becoming convinced everything I was doing was wrong. What's the American phrase? If it ain't broke... 

I agree, Zadie Smith. But like usual, I could never have said it better than you. 

George Saunders: What stories are "about"

George Saunders was interviewed by Deborah Treisman about his latest New York short story, Mother's Day. The following paragraph resonated with me, about how important it is to not be bullied by intention when starting out with a story.

It’s funny with stories (or, at least, with mine)—they are, of course, going to be “about” something and appear to present certain views re those things, but if I start out with that sort of intention the story never proves interesting enough to finish. What seems to happen is that, while I’m concentrating on the more mundane technical aspects (working on individual lines and the point-to-point logic and velocity and so on), a certain set of meanings will begin to come forward. So I’m dimly aware of those but trying not to be too aware of those, lest the story become only about those, if you see what I mean. It’s really only when the story is done (like, in this case, within the last week or so) that I can do much direct thinking about what themes it might be taking on, and then—weirdly—the thematic stuff seems to have taken care of itself. The story is about something . . . but hopefully more than I planned or could see at the outset.

"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.

Colum McCann's Letter to a Young Writer

McCann has shared some exquisite writing advice on the official blog of The Story Prize. If this doesn't get your ass in a chair, I'm not sure what would:

Do the things that do not compute. Be earnest. Be devoted. Be subversive of ease. Read aloud. Risk yourself. Do not be afraid of sentiment even when others call it sentimentality. Be ready to get ripped to pieces: It happens. Permit yourself anger. Fail. Take pause. Accept the rejections. Be vivified by collapse. Try resuscitation. Have wonder. Bear your portion of the world. Find a reader you trust. Trust them back. Be a student, not a teacher, even when you teach. Don’t bullshit yourself. If you believe the good reviews, you must believe the bad. Still, don’t hammer yourself. Do not allow your heart to harden. Face it, the cynics have better one-liners than we do. Take heart: they can never finish their stories. Have trust in the staying power of what is good. Enjoy difficulty. Embrace mystery. Find the universal in the local. Put your faith in language—character will follow and plot, too, will eventually emerge. Push yourself further. Do not tread water. It is possible to survive that way, but impossible to write. Transcend the personal. Prove that you are alive. We get our voice from the voices of others. Read promiscuously. Imitate. Become your own voice. Sing. Write about that which you want to know. Better still, write towards that which you don’t know. The best work comes from outside yourself. Only then will it reach within. Restore what has been devalued by others. Write beyond despair. Make justice from reality. Make vision from the dark. The considered grief is so much better than the unconsidered. Be suspicious of that which gives you too much consolation. Hope and belief and faith will fail you often. So what? Share your rage. Resist. Denounce. Have stamina. Have courage. Have perseverance. The quiet lines matter as much as those which make noise. Trust your blue pen, but don’t forget the red one. Allow your fear. Don’t be didactic. Make an argument for the imagined. Begin with doubt. Be an explorer, not a tourist. Go somewhere nobody else has gone, preferably towards beauty, hard beauty. Fight for repair. Believe in detail. Unique your language. A story begins long before its first word. It ends long after its last. Don’t panic. Trust your reader. Reveal a truth that isn’t yet there. At the same time, entertain. Satisfy the appetite for seriousness and joy. Dilate your nostrils. Fill your lungs with language. A lot can be taken from you—even your life—but not your stories about your life. So this, then, is a word, not without love, to a young writer: Write.


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!


"Torch Something Big": Andrew MacDonald on productivity

Andrew stopped writing long enough to take this photo.

Andrew stopped writing long enough to take this photo.

You know how people will cross the street to avoid anything that is even mildly uncomfortable? The stories I like best are the ones where the characters don't cross the street. Where they —due to pride, naiveté, panache, etc. — stay on course, and I get to experience the trouble from the safety of my couch. That's how I felt when I read Four Minutes by Andrew MacDonald. (The story went on to be long-listed for the Journey Prize.)

I became social media friendly with Andrew shortly after reading Four Minutes and was immediately struck by his productivity. He's finishing a novel. He's writing screenplays. Plural. And of course, he's got his short stories. He has so many balls in the air. He even has two homes: Toronto and New England. And he seems to be okay with it all. Enjoying it, even. And since I feel like each of my own story/script/novel ideas are impatient hamsters who won't stop fighting with each other and competing for carrots (resources), I asked Andrew to sprinkle some of his sagacity on the rest of us. And the guy said yes. What follows is a special communique from Andrew to you, dear writer. Enjoy! 


I have a picture of Kiss Me, Deadly, a really masculine pulp novel by Mickey Spillane, that I keep by my desk. The novel’s alright, if you like woman-slapping detectives and hilarious anti-pinko sentiment. But it’s there because I’m in awe of Spillane’s output (just like I’m in awe of the output of Joyce Carol Oates, another hero I admire primarily because of how much she’s able to accomplish). 

Shannon seems to think I’m really productive. I’m not sure I am, but looking at my creative plate, I guess one could construe it as pretty full: I’ve got the novel to get ready for editors, a short screenplay draft for a production company I’m working with, a short story for a journal that reached out to me for a submission, an article on mental illness for The Rumpus, a two-book review for another publication, plus a trashy feature comedy screenplay to hammer out with a pal. Plus I have two cats who won’t stop walking all over my laptop (THE NERVE).

When Shannon asked me to write about how I stay productive, I thought of how a lot of the strategies I use come from my days as a wrestler (and my embarrassing obsession with self-help literature). They've become more habit than anything else. Maybe they’ll be useful to people, maybe they won’t. But crafting a writing practice around routine has made it a lot easier for me to focus on the fun part of writing – the chaos of creation – more effectively.



I’m a big believer in routines and to-do lists. Every night before bed I write a list of things I want to accomplish. In writing terms, I’m usually juggling a number of projects, so I make sure number one on my list is the most important thing, which is usually the thing I least want to do. 

Word Count Goals

I can’t survive without a word count I need to hit. I get it – talking about things like goals takes all the fun out of writing. Besides, you’re not that kind of writer. You heed inspiration. Right? I don’t buy that, and I don’t really buy that some people ‘just aren’t wired to write X number of words a day.’ I remember having a lot of trouble hitting a 250 word count goal. After about six months I got it up to 500 words. It just takes practice, and an ability to shut off what Anne Lamott calls Radio Station KFKD – the part of your brain that can only settle for perfection.

One trick I used to get better at shutting off that voice is writing in ‘white font,’ which meant I couldn’t actually review in real-time what I was writing. I also wrote a lot in hand and on a typewriter so that I couldn’t stop and edit as I went along.

Torch Something Big

One of the best things I ever did was write a novel in two months with the explicit intention to throw it in the garbage. It’s only purpose was to go from blank page to 70,000 words. I divided the word count I was aiming for by the number of days – sixty, in this case – and just puked up the words for the day. I had a vague outline (which I recommend, but I know everyone’s process is different and I hate people who argue for one side of the ‘plan’ versus ‘not plan’ debate). I followed said outline, knowing I was just using it to hit my word count for the day and not much else.

Once I hit ‘the end,’ I closed the file on my computer and never looked at it again. I had never finished a novel before and I wanted to prove to myself that I was actually capable of writing one. 

Sets and Reps

I can’t actually concentrate for a long period of time, so one of the things I need to do is split my writing time up into ‘sets.’ Usually I complete around three writing sessions a day – one big session and a couple smaller session (so three ‘sets’). I like to group these sessions around . . . 

Peak Time / Pocket Time

I’m a morning person, so I know I can get the bulk of my writing for the day done before I become a regular human. It’s my peak time. But I also make sure to identify pocket times every day – briefer free moments when I can pull out my laptop and hammer out a hundred words or so. If I write 500 words during peak time, and have a few brief pocket-time writing sessions (lunch break, before bed, etc), it’s usually easier to hit my 1,000 word count goal.


All of that probably sounds overly pedantic, or too prescriptive, or the opposite of creativity, but I would argue that being disciplined in how you structure your writing life actually enables the mental (and logistical) freedom to write freely. I know that when I sit down during my peak time that it’s my time, or that I’ve already written, and cheerfully trashed, a novel, and over the course of that novel’s writing can feel more comfortable in my process. 

A bit about Andrew: Andrew MacDonald won a Western Magazine Award for Fiction, is currently shortlisted for a National Magazine Award for Fiction, and has been a finalist for the Journey Prize on several occasions. His stories appear on both sides of the border. The Windsor Review selected him for their Best Under 35 issue, while The Masters Review published a story of his in their annual anthology of the best writing to come out of American MFA programs for the year.