Monday, December 1, 2014

Kubrick and discomfort

The Actual Grady Twins' Dresses From The Shining
or: The Real Reason I'll Never Bear Children

I went to see Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition at TIFF yesterday. Aside from the gentleman whose dandruffy shoulder I was doomed to peer over for the duration of my tour -- (Can you just... If you don't mind scooching just a bit to... Excuse me, sir, but... Outta my way, old man!) -- it was a wonderful experience. Black and white production photographs, profit/loss sheets that read like gossip, threatening/entreating letters from Christian groups, costumes from Spartacus, a model of the War Room from my all-time favourite Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, HAL from 2001... there were more than enough goodies to satisfy even the most fanatical fan.

What Kubrick did better than anyone else, in my opinion, is imminent doom. Every second of every one of his films makes me feel like I'm standing on the lip of a volcano, just waiting for the perfect moment to fall in. If I had to sum up his genius in one sentence, this would be it: Stanley Kubrick makes me want the very bad thing to happen.

His films remind me that good art often makes people quite uncomfortable. And that maybe even the artist him/herself needs to be uncomfortable with it, too. Or at least that's what I chose to take away from this exhibit because I've been feeling very uncomfortable about my idea for my second novel. So uncomfortable, in fact, that I haven't been able to bring myself to begin to write it, or even blog about it here. But now I think I'm finally ready to go there. If Stanley can do what's uncomfortable -- and make it sing -- I think I'll give it a try, too.

Friday, October 17, 2014

They make pills for that

My cool sister eating grapes in Italy

Aside from being one of my personal heroes, my younger sister Kathleen is also an intrepid world traveller, and she just started blogging about her adventures.

This post in particular made me laugh out loud. Italian grandpas can get away with anything, can't they?

I see a travel book deal in Kathleen's future, and a serious inferiority complex in mine. But I'll be okay, really. Apparently they make pills for that?

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Girl With The Mr. Darcy Tattoo

These tattoos are a surefire cure for the "wannabe novelist" blues.

(I tried the brilliant "£10,000 a Year!" tat first, of course, but cocked the bloody thing up.)

Thank you for this gift, Alana. You are worth more than a thousand wet white shirts! 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Will the real Emily Saso please stand up?

My mom emailed me today:

So of course I dropped everything and googled my own name, and here's what popped up:
Harpur Palate would like to congratulate Emily Saso, winner of the Undergraduate Flash Fiction Contest.
Her winning short story is posted up there. It's pretty good, which is a relief because, well, my name is on it. And her bio is there as well:
Emily Saso is currently an undergraduate at Binghamton University majoring in English, with a concentration in Creative Writing, and minoring in Cinema. Emily is originally from New York City, where she lives with her two mothers and her dog.
When I read this the first time, I felt like I was in the shallow end of a deep dream, the kind that midnight cheese brings on, and my brain flooded with questions: Did I arrange myself a double life in NYC/Binghamton and forgot about it? Is NYC Emily Saso the evil one, or am I? WTF is flash fiction anyways? And Why the hell is my mother googling me? 

But then my desperate ego took over, and those questions no longer mattered. Because YIPPPEEE! Emily Saso wrote a story and it won a prize! I don't care that it wasn't me -- Emily Jane Saso of Toronto, Canada, and two heterosexual parents. My name is on a winner, goddammit, and no one can deny me that.

I need to know more about this other Emily Saso, of course, but this URL is all I can find. So I'm putting this call out to the universe: Emily Saso, thee of New York City and two mothers, please get in touch with me if you read this. You're a writer, and I'm a writer, which makes this cheese-dream situation too weird an opportunity to pass up.

Friday, June 13, 2014

i don't deserve capitalization

oh horror of horrors.

i just opened a word document from 2006 -- way back when I first started toying with the idea of writing some sort of novel -- and i found this phrase:

"... like lightning unbound." 

i was planning on using that! in a book! with my name on it!


no offence to Lynn Connolly, of course:

i'm sure it's a fine novel.

Monday, May 26, 2014

An uncomfortable shopping experience

The sun kicked the polar vortex’s ass this weekend — a win I celebrated by rolling my jeans up an extra inch:

 What I've looked like every summer since I turned 13.
(Actress Shailene Woodley playing me.)

Aside from taking in the sunshine, I went to the Toronto Indie Arts Market at the Gladstone Hotel. It was nice to see all kinds of creative folks peddling their wares, but it was also stressful. The weather was too perfect, I think, because shoppers were few and far between. I felt so guilty passing by all the tables of stuff that I would never normally buy. Handmade cards for no particular holiday. Nihilist comics. Poetry books with boobs on the cover. Illustrations that were fantastic but too small to hang on my walls. And did you know that people still made zines? A LOT of people?

To be clear: these artists/writers weren't desperate. They were clearly talented, had glorious tattoos and they didn't seem too bothered by the thin crowds. But I know what it feels like to want an audience for your art. It’s a need, and it's primal and sweaty. And having my own need reflected back at me, no matter how many tattoos it was hidden behind? Well, it made me kind of uncomfortable.

My friend agreed with me, although for her own reasons, and as we took a breather in a room filled with Biggie Smalls photos, we agreed to get the hell outta there and go for smoothies.

The fair wasn't a total bust, though, because I met author Erin Bedford. I first stumbled across Erin while doing one of my standard Google searches — something probably like “giving up novel writing” or  “loser wannabe writer quit” — and this blog post came up:


Erin wrote and self-published a novel called Fathom Lines that I enjoyed as much as anything else I’ve read this year, so I was excited to meet her in person and pick up a few copies. Here she is at the book fair (Note the fries and beer taps behind her. Isn't she just so your kind of person?):

If you like Alice Munro, I highly recommend Fathom Lines. Erin's use of language is downright jealousy-inducing and she's created beautifully realized and relatable characters. If I was a publisher or agent, I'd be kicking myself that I missed out on the chance to work with Erin at the beginning of her career. She deserves as many readers as she can get. You can buy her novel here. (And you can buy a heck of a smoothie here.)

Monday, April 14, 2014

Sorry? Excel is a whatnow?

I came across a blog through my agent’s blog that's full of all sorts of goodies for writers. One of my favourite posts is about the process and — for lack of a better word — technique of revision. Check it out here.

The blogger, author Laurie Halse Anderson, and I have a very similar approach to revising, save for one area: the actual "roadmap" itself. While she prefers using large sheets of paper to outline her roadmap, I find an Excel spreadsheet to be most effective. Aside from being an organizational lifesaver, a digital spreadsheet is portable. Woo hoo! I just email it to my iPhone and I can refer to my roadmap wherever I go. (It came in very handy this morning when I was trapped on the subway for half an hour. The power was off and transit supervisors were searching the tracks for a dead body, but I was revising on the go, so who cares?)

I don’t think I’ve used Excel as it’s meant to be used more than a dozen times. I remember my husband casually mentioning that it's just a big calculator a while back, and I was all “Get the fu%$ out!” And now that I've discovered Excel art (see Mega Man above), it's safe to say that I'm going to be moving farther and father away from the software's raison d'ĂȘtre.

I don't do anything fancy on my spreadsheet roadmap. I just break my book down into scenes, making note of the most important events. I also use colour coding, which helps me with stuff like this:

1. Pacing my story
My book has a bit of a magical realism bent to it, but I don't want to overdo it and annoy my readers. To ensure that doesn't happen, I colour those moments orange. This way, I can easily see if there’s too much "magic" in any particular section.

2. Organizing locations
I like to keep my characters on the move. For example, my main character’s apartment is assigned the colour blue. Too much blue clotted together on the spreadsheet? Scenes will need to be shuffled to keep things interesting.

3. Periphery characters
I want to spread these guys around and colour coding helps me do that. For example, I’ve assigned Steve red and Margaret yellow. That way I have an instant visual map. Too much red in one area? Again, that’s a sign that scenes need to be shuffled. You get the drift. Now here's some more Excel art for you, you clever drift-getter you!


Monday, April 7, 2014

I still want my $100 back, Phil.

I went to a postural cleanse workshop* on the weekend and the guy running the show, Phil, kept talking about mantras. At first I was all like, "I paid you $100 to tell me how to stand up straight, Phil! Can you shut up about mantras already?" When I calmed down I realized there was probably something to all this mantra stuff since Phil has a spine as straight as a rod and could stand in the same position, without fidgeting, for a week if he were so inclined.

Later that night, as I slouched in front of The New York Times, I came upon a book review by Scott Sandage. And get this! I found my mantra! It has jack to do with my dreams of standing tall like a ballet dancer but everything to do with finding a modicum of pride in the ego-burning existence that is a writer's life:
"'Managing the gap between vision and work, which often looks to others like being swallowed by failure, is a lifelong process.' Failure is ever present in the unending drift towards mastery."
- from a review of The Rise (Sarah Lewis)  
All together now: "Failure is ever present in the unending drift towards mastery." Ahummmmm.

It's probably too long to be an actual mantra, but because I'm more crusty than new-agey, it's as close as I'm going to get. So thanks Phil -- you sort of helped me find my sort-of mantra. But I still want my $100 back.


*Some of my crusty takeaways from the workshop include:
1) Don't sit, like ever.
2) Be a nerd and buy a standing-desk.
3) If you have to sit, even though you should never ever ever sit, move your ass every 20 minutes. Also, don't even think about crossing your legs.
4) Move to Taipei for a year and find an old man who will teach you old-school qigong. (Only one move, though.)
5) Get an earthing mat and be prepared to alienate yourself from your electrician father-in-law.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Writerly stuff I like right now (that you may like, too)

WATCH: Authors Anonymous
My writer friend and I rented this movie from iTunes last night and, when we weren't nodding our heads and sighing at how true it rang, we were roaring with laughter. It's not exactly Oscar-worthy stuff, okay, so keep your expectations in check. But if you're an aspiring fiction author -- especially if you've ever been part of a writers' group -- you will enjoy this movie, I promise. (I know; I can't believe it either!)

READ: "Found In Translation"
While I normally abhor any reference to a film made by Sofia Wake-Me-Up-When-It's-Ovah Coppola, this article by Michael Cunningham is an exception. Here's a sample:

"Here’s a secret. Many novelists, if they are pressed and if they are being honest, will admit that the finished book is a rather rough translation of the book they’d intended to write. It’s one of the heartbreaks of writing fiction. You have, for months or years, been walking around with the idea of a novel in your mind, and in your mind it’s transcendent, it’s brilliantly comic and howlingly tragic, it contains everything you know, and everything you can imagine, about human life on the planet earth. It is vast and mysterious and awe-inspiring. It is a cathedral made of fire."

EAT: Chia Pudding
If you're like most writers I know, emotional eating -- especially sugar -- is an issue. Whether you use ice cream to soothe yourself post rejection or reward yourself with Swedish Berries for a completed chapter, too much bad food is happening to good writers. I've recently come across this recipe that has helped me kick my sweet tooth not just to the curb, but down a flight of stairs and through a pane of Venetian glass. I opt out of the sweeteners and add two tablespoons of low-fat coconut milk and some cinnamon for flavour. Writerly bonus!: Its strangely gooey consistency makes it tough to spill, so it's an ideal snack to munch on by your laptop.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Write the words

You know those enormous pieces of paper that primary school teachers and motivational speakers use? Around 25 x 30.5 inches, usually resting on an easel that is perpetually on the verge of being tipped over by an 8-year-old math nerd or a super fan who rushes the stage? I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to respect and obey whatever is written on those large sheets. As though if something is that big, it must be important.

My friend Yvanna, who’s a teacher, sent me a little gem the other day and it was written on one of those all-knowing sheets. She found it in a fellow teacher’s classroom, snapped a photo and sent it my way. I found its wisdom to be so simple and inspiring that I thought you’d like it too.

Then I thought it would be a useful exercise to think like a 1st-grader and apply these tips to my second novel, which is currently in progress.

1) Name
I hate the name of my story. Hate! Hate! I called it “It’s Safer Underground” because I was a stupid-head. But I don’t wanna be a stupid-head and so I will change it.

2) Think
Thinking is the funnest part of writing! I get so excited when I think up new ideas that I almost pee!

3) Picture
I am writing a big-kid book, which means no pictures. But I can still draw the scene inside of my head! And if I take my time, and am real careful, the picture will turn out as handsome as Justin Bieber. xoxoxoxo

4) Write the words
It’s so hard to write the words. It’s the most hardest part. But I have to write them or there will be no story. Duh!

5. Share your story with the teacher
I don’t like sharing, but I will do it. Mostly because I want other people to share back with me.

What about you? Ever get an inspiring writing tip from a surprising place? 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Malus Capillus

I was in one of those moods. You know what I'm talking about. When you're down in the dumps and you walk into the salon and proclaim "I need a change!" The stylist shouts back "Highlights!" because that's what she's always shouting at you. Normally you change your mind and take it back. ("Err... maybe just a trim.") But not this time. This time you say yes to highlights.  "Let's do this!" you cry out -- as though you're on a mission, as though these highlights will change your whole goddam life!

Needless to say, my hair did not live up to my expectations, and now I'm left looking like some asshole at Sbarro baptized me with spaghetti. Not only that, but my 'do is so damaged by the chemicals that it's crispy as cattle hay. It makes a sound, people. Do you understand what I'm saying? Hair should not dispense sound.

But I won’t let bad hair get me down — oh no — because I’m working on novel number two again. 

I have mixed feelings about this, but “happy” is definitely one of them. It’s early stages, just so you know, and I’m still wary of getting back into this whole writing thing. But I’m feeling inspired and thinking creatively, which is nice. It’s kind of fun living life as a writer sometimes. Despite all the rejection and the endless waiting, at least being a writer gives you a reason to look at the minutiae of the world and think that it all matters, that it’s worth noting and developing and investigating — or at least worth pulling out your headphones to pay attention to.

You may think that writers are bitter cynics, but there’s an optimism in the “noticing” part of writing, and hope. Which is great, because you sure as hell can't find either at the hair salon.

What a natural look! 

Straw or hair? Hmm. Tough one.
Maybe ask the opinion of a passing cow?

Friday, March 7, 2014

"I saved Latin. What did you ever do?"

Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel is coming to a theatre near you.
If you aren't excited, then I'm sorry, but we can never be friends.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The literary sausage

It's been 71 days since I've written a word of fiction. I know this to be true because my laptop keeps begging for a backup, ticking down the days with every pop up. "IT'S BEEN 71 DAYS SINCE YOUR LAST BACKUP.... DON'T YOU LOVE ME ANYMORE?"

I haven’t plugged my neglected Mac into my external hard drive because I haven’t had a reason to. Because I haven’t produced any documents worthy of my patented quadruple-save. 

As I’ve blogged about here 117,000 times already, I was burnt out by my first novel, and still am in many ways. And while I miss feeling creative and productive, I’m not sure I want to dive back in to writing yet. I feel like I’m gambling with my sanity by hacking away at my stories. Making up characters and worlds and drama, and facing rejection constantly -- sane people don't do such things. At least not without some sort of positive reinforcement or payoff. And besides that, writing fiction is incredibly hard. Every. Word. Counts. Did you know that? I used to, but during my "time off," I somehow managed to forget. 

This morning, though, something shifted in me and I decided to break the spell I've been under. So I wrote something. And it took me an hour and a half, there or abouts. More, factoring in my lunch-hour revising. And you know what I ended up with? Just a couple little lines. Here, see for yourself:
This is me: sitting pretty like she told me to, my knees locked, ankles crossed. I'm fixing my eyes on where I came from, my mother’s tummy, and then up at the rest of her. She looms over me, scratching her lotto ticket, that silver junk falling on my forehead like rain. Rain is lucky, she says, when I whine and shake it off. Your daddy used to make rain, you know. The wettest, warmest rain there ever was.
Granted that's a better investment of my time than say The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. But it's not just the time that got invested that's the issue; it's the mental and emotional energy.

To give you an example, let's dissect the text above, shall we? Let’s delve deep into my brain and pull out all the uncertainty and work and fretting -- AKA insanity -- that goes into writing something as short as that wee chunk. You ready to see how the sausage gets made? You sure? It’s pretty horrifying. But if you insist…

Should this be in first person or third? Present or past tense? I know all the “experts” say that present tense is more interesting to read, more action-oriented, but I personally prefer past tense. Hmmm… Hmmm…. Back to that later. What about the whole “rain” thing? Kind of a cliche, isn't it? When I read the word I picture every bad movie ever made with some heart-throb experiencing a major life event in the middle of downpour, his arms spread wide, mouth open, drinking it all in, his soul being cleansed. And what is that stuff on scratch and win tickets called anyways? "Latex" is the best description I can find on Google. What did writers do before Google? Am I copping out by using Google all the time for research? What would a real writer do? Call someone at the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation? Does that mean I'm not a real writer? Oh God, and then there's the word "loom." Let’s pretend -- just for a moment -- that that word doesn't suck, okay? Now here's my real problem: a little kid wouldn’t think "loom." Unless…. Maybe she’s a really smart kid? Like, gifted smart? Yeah. Yeah! That’s it! She’s a gifted child with the vocabulary of a graduate student in English and the easy wisdom of Maya Angelou! And what about the word "lotto"? I really want to write "scratch and win" but I can't think of a better word than "scratching" -- which comes directly before -- and that would be so repetitive...
I warned you. You never watch the sausage being made. Even if it's vegan.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

I'm gonna buy all the straws!

I sold my first novel!

Well, not exactly. (Notice how almost all the good news on this blog is fake or some sort of tease for the less-good truth? That is %$*#ing depressing. Why do you read such a depressing blog about writing? If I were you, I'd check out this blog instead: Or this one: Here's what actually happened.

Aside from me and my agent Linda, my younger sister Kathleen is the only other person on the planet who has read my novel in its current form. This is her holding my other sister’s awesome new baby, Quinn:

Doesn’t Kathleen exude coolness and kindness? Standing there with a sideways baby, her soothing thumb in Quinn's gummy mouth? Kathleen is much, much cooler than me. If she had a blog, I’d refer you over there, too.

Because she has a heart of gold and is generally very savvy about how to make people feel good about themselves, she came up with a fabulous idea: she paid me for my novel! The other day, she handed me a book store gift card, telling me that she was my first sale. See? Cool.

With the proceeds of the "sale," I bought these babies:

Designer smoothie straws! And a novel, of course: The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton.

Let me be the first to tell you that a wildly inflated, pretend royalty cheque is a beautiful thing. If I ever get another one, you can bet I'll be buying the rainbow straws, too.

I know this will likely fall pancake flat in today's climate of FREE CONTENT FOR ALL! and STEALING IS FINE! -- but here's a wild idea I'd like to table. To the pleasure readers of unpublished manuscripts, why not take a page from Kathleen Saso's book and offer the author a little gift, a small token to make them feel like a professional, like what they've slaved over is worth something. Only pay the author if you like the manuscript, of course. If you don’t, then never speak to that %$*#ing loser again. 

Now who's with me?

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Word clouds and soup (AKA: neat stuff I found on the Internet)

That up there is a word cloud of chapter one and two of my novel. Kind of cool, huh? A word cloud is a graphical representation of word frequency, which means I used "like" a lot. Oops. Sound the simile alarm! (Or the Valley Girl alarm.)

It's surprising, but just seeing my words presented like this has breathed new life into my exhausted little book and its equally exhausted author. If only a little bit. A puff. 

If you want to make one too, Google "word cloud." There's a few sites that will blip-bleep them together for you. (In case you didn't know, everything in computerland works either in blips or bleeps, or sometimes both simultaneously.) I made mine here.

Also, a friend of mine (hi Alana!) told me about this essay by the author Junot Diaz and I wanted to share. I can relate on a level that makes me very uncomfortable and hopeful at the same time. 

Also #2, if you haven't read the blog Literary Rejections on Display lately, it's worth a revisit. The writer shut it down a year ago but she's back. And get this: she got a book deal! How fantastic is that? So you see, there is hope out there. You just have to spend a lot of time on, like, the Internet to find it.

And here’s another fabulous thing I found on the Internet. I’ve been making this roasted red pepper soup lately and it’s really helped me make it through the polar vortex from hell. I amp up the protein by adding tofu and chickpeas. And because the only thing tastier than fat is more fat, I add in some Daiya cream cheese and cashews. Avocado would be good too. So there you go. Blip-bleep.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Emily, meet Your Worst Nightmare.

I debated about blogging about this because, well, I have good reason not to. I thought about keeping the whole debacle to myself because it was just outright embarrassing and makes me feel extremely vulnerable. Just thinking about it now makes me feel nauseous. In the end, though, I decided to share because I bet this happens more than most writers want to admit. And that’s kind of why I started this blog in the first place. So that other aspiring writers would have a place to come and read and feel a little less alone in the world. So let’s get on with it, shall we?

Something happened the other day and it threw me into an emotional tailspin. I’m talking near-tears to my husband, frantically texting my writer pal and, of course, sending my agent several over-the-top emails begging for advice, solace, peace anything to calm down the tornado of panic that I had spun into. Cutlery, small appliances, side tables, cows (sure, why not?)—all this stuff got caught in my wind tunnel vortex of anxiety.

I was sick at home last week, passing the time with a good but intensely sad novel (Life After Life by Kate Atkinson), Netflix and Googling random stuff. Suddenly, out of nowhere, an idea popped into my head: “I know! I’m going to see if that writer I like has come out with his second novel!” So I merrily clicked my way over to his web page.

That’s when the wind picked up, stirring my hair and billowing through my pajamas. I heard a cow moo mournfully in the distance.

On this author’s homepage was a description for his latest novel… and a major theme in it – hell, a very specific character-related magical realism idea, an idea that I thought was sheer original genius on my part (at least outside of X-Men) – was there on the screen, looking back at me and saying “Beat you to it, bi-atch.”

I could feel my blood heat up, my heart beat increase, could hear that cow’s mooing grow louder and louder. "Was this going to kill me?" I thought. Was this the final stage of my illness? A slow degradation by fever, mucus and sleep deprivation followed by literary redundancy and death by panic tornado and, if that failed to do me in, death by plagiarism conspiratorialists?
When I calmed down and the haze of my horror/respiratory distress subsided, I had a moment of clarity thanks to my infallible support system. My husband listened to me be all crazy, my friend texted me back even though she had better things to do, and my agent e-mailed me back. Here’s what she wrote:
“Just keep breathing and don’t worry. Your book is your book. So big deal! Weather Shmeather. Seriously. Your book isn’t about weather. It’s a metaphor and nobody has a patent on metaphors. Don’t. Worry. Does his book have Jehovah’s Witnesses in it? Or Greek food? Is it about the same people that yours is about?” 
Thank goodness for calmer heads than mine.

There was no malevolence here, (and no flying cow either). It’s a crazy insane what-are-the-chances kind of coincidence. But I immediately got scared that my readers—if I ever get any—will think that I stole this key concept! I mean, shit. I list this author’s* first novel on my blog as one of my all-time favorites! It’s not a totally illogical leap to think I took one look at his second book and stole some ideas. (Of course, I most certainly did not. I began writing my book long before his came out. And I would never do that anyways! That is just freaking mental!) But if you’re looking for a reason to mess with me, and you read my blog, then visit his web site, or you hear about his novel and you think “Hmmm?”

Worst. Nightmare.

I’ve always worried that this would happen. I’ve been working on this book for so long now that every time I walk by a book with a cover or a title that looks like it could be similar to my story or ideas, I panic a bit. It’s been about eight years since I began this process, and I’ve felt a little scared every single day. That’s a lot of fear to deal with. Most of it is irrational, of course, which is the most fortunate kind of fear to have, I suppose—but it’s still fear. And it’s this fear that makes me ask myself the same question over and over again: Is it worth it?

*And no, I'm not going to tell you who the author is. This way, you'll have to check out all of my favourite authors! Ha!