Keeping Score: 12 August 2022

Earlier this week I decided to take a survey of what stage my various stories are, since I lost track of them over the course of Covid July.

Here’s what I came up with:

  • Flash pieces needing final revision before submittal: 2
  • Short stories needing significant drafting: 2
  • Stories needing a complete first draft: 3

That’s seven stories in various stages, none of which are ready to go out to beta readers or submitted to markets! My original list only had five stories; I woke up the next morning and realized I’d left two off the list entirely.

I seem to be replicating a pattern from my day-job, where I commonly work on multiple projects at once, pushing each forward until I hit a blocker (or a stopping point) and then switching to the next. I’ve apparently started doing the same thing with my writing, starting a story and then switching to another if I feel any resistance to working on the first one.

So now I’ve got four months of story work, and basically nothing to show for it (to anyone else, anyway). At this point, my inner Paul McCartney is going “We need a system!”

But is that the case? Is it wrong of me to borrow this working pattern from my day job?

I’m not sure. I don’t have any deadlines to meet. No editors or publishers waiting for my words (those these are problems I’d like to have, someday!). I’ve only got myself, and so long as I’m happy working on several things at once, who’s to say I need to stop?

Except. The danger — as I found in July — is that I lose the thread of the story, or many stories, in trying to work on too many at once. Or end up repeating and re-using elements across them, instead of letting each story grow into its own unique self.

Maybe the answer is compromise: Don’t start another first draft until the current one is finished. Always come back and edit the previous story’s draft before doing the next one. And so on. So I can still work on multiple pieces at once, so long as I only have one or two in the revision queue at the same time.

What about you? Do you work on one story at a time, all the way through from draft to final edit? Or do you bounce between multiple pieces at the same time, working on whichever one strikes your Muse as the one for the day?

Back in the CSSR*

After spending just one week in the States, it’s good to be back in Canada.

I literally felt the muscles in my shoulders and neck relax as I passed through the Passport Check in Vancouver. It’d been a smooth border crossing, starting with the ability to fill out my Customs Declaration completely online, before I even got on the flight. So when I landed in YVR, I only had to go to one of the (many, open) kiosks, have my photo taken, and bring the printed receipt plus my passport and work permit over to the nearest Border Services Officer (no line, no waiting this time). Said Officer chatted me up as she checked over my documents, and sent me on my way with a “Good luck!” (in my work).

Contrast the experience of flying into the US, where I had to go through security twice, then fill out a customs declaration on the spot, then get interviewed by a border guard who growled at me while eyeing me suspiciously. Brrr.

I was supposed to catch a connecting flight from Vancouver to Victoria, which left me with three hours to kill in the airport. But when I reached my gate, I noticed an earlier flight (which I didn’t think I’d make, and thus didn’t book) hadn’t boarded yet, and was leaving in half an hour. On a whim, I walked up to the desk and asked if they could get me on that flight. Without rolling her eyes, or sighing, or telling me there’d be fees involved, the agent just said “Sure,” found me a seat, and printed out a new boarding pass right there!

From the Victoria airport, I decided against waiting for the first bus, and instead walked for about 15 minutes through forested parkland and farm-lined roads before coming to the main exchange, where a five minute wait had me on a bus heading directly downtown. The view from the bus stop was so good I had to take a few pictures; the shot at the top of this post is one of them. Forty minutes later, I was back at the apartment, safe and sound.

I’ve spent a lot of time knocking the Canadian Healthcare system here, and it has been the most surprising and frustrating part of the move. But so many things are better here than in San Diego: The roads are better maintained, the buses are cleaner, bigger (they have double-deckers here), and run more frequently. People are friendlier, as the cliché goes, but more than that, they seem genuinely interested in helping. Whether that’s the ICBC clerk giving you your driving exam, or the passenger next to you on the plane whom you solicit advice on local hikes from. That attitude extends into infrastructure — the roads, yes, but also even the water fountains are better designed, having spigots at the top now for easily refilling water bottles — and the way events are run, like the ASL interpreter at the Canada Day celebrations.

In short, I can relax in Canada because I feel I don’t need to do everything on my own, here. There’s help available (for the most part, see healthcare) if I need it. And that makes all the difference.

*Not a political comment, just a play on The Beatles’ “Back in the USSR”

Keeping Score: 29 July 2022

Yesterday was my first time fiction writing since I got sick.

That’s three weeks of not making any progress. Of not being able to make progress, because even once the fever and the chills and the wracking cough subsided, I couldn’t focus long enough to read a story, let alone create a new one.

I confess I worried I might not be able to, even now. I’ve heard so much about a lingering “brain fog” after getting Covid to make me anxious that I would try to write again and fail, that I wouldn’t be able to pick up the stories I’d been working on, or find myself writing only in clichés and bad dialog.

Well. I won’t speak to the quality of the draft I worked on yesterday, but I did work on it, and I did make progress. In fact, the rest of the story is coalescing in my head now, and I can see the path to finishing it.

This draft, anyway. There’ll be edits to do afterward, of course.

But at least I know I can keep working. I still get fatigued more easily than I used to; back-to-back meetings at work leave me not just mentally but physically drained now. And when I tried walking last weekend, I made it just a few kilometers out before turning back for home, where I promptly fell into a nap.

And yet. My brain keeps on ticking, and I can work around the fatigue till it passes. So that’s one worry resolved, for now, at least.

Hope you’re able to write through your own worries, and find ways to make progress no matter what stands in your way.

Canadian Covid

Haven’t posted in the last two weeks, because I finally caught Covid-19 (or it finally caught up with me).

Went to a small D&D session on the 10th. There were just five of us, and we’d all been triple vaccinated (one person had already gotten their second booster, in fact), and we all were homebodies who masked up in public.

And yet we all got sick.

I seem to have gotten hit the earliest and the hardest, which is good because two of the other folks have other medical issues that would make anything more than a mild case potentially life-threatening. We all seem to be pulling through, however, which is about as good as we could hope for.

I learned a few more things about living in Canada, along the way, that I’d like to share:

No Testing

Trying to be a good citizen, I went to the BC CDC site to see about getting an official test. I know that case counts are inaccurate because not as many folks are getting tested in a way that’s reported back to the government, so I wanted to have my infection, at least (if it was Covid), count.

Unfortunately, the official advice for someone like me — triple vaccinated, relatively mild symptoms — is not to get tested.

I didn’t have any home tests, either, so a friend volunteered to look around at local pharmacies and see if any of them would deliver to me. The answer was a resounding: Nope.

So, technically, I don’t know for certain that I had Covid-19. Everyone at the gathering that tested (using a home rapid test) did come back positive, which is fairly compelling. But I wasn’t able to get tested.

No Contact

The BC CDC does recommend self-isolating, even if you don’t get tested. They say five days is all you need, but I’ve also heard ten days, so I decided to wait two weeks, to be safe. That meant not leaving the apartment to check my mail, etc (which meant I had a package stolen from the mailroom downstairs, but that’s a different story). And it meant I needed to find another way to get groceries.

Not just groceries. I was totally unprepared for being sick, it turned out. I didn’t have any Nyquil, no Advil or Tylenol, no cough drops, no extra tissues, nothing. I had some soup, but not nearly enough for two weeks. So I needed food and sick supplies.

Thankfully, there’s a couple of Save On Foods near me, and their delivery program is simply fantastic. Everything I worried about turned out to be easy. I picked out my groceries, set a delivery time, left instructions for the callbox, and that was it. No texting me in the middle of me trying to get some sleep to ask if a substitution was okay (they had me indicate in advance if subs were okay or not, and I said “no” to most of them). No multiple notices about shopping starting, stopping, checking out, etc. Just an emailed final receipt and a single phone call to let me know they were ten minutes out.

My one big worry, though, was the callbox. I’ve had many a Skip delivery go awry because they can’t figure out how to use the callbox so I can buzz them in. If the grocery delivery had the same issue, I wasn’t sure what I’d do. Even if I could physically make it downstairs, how many people would I infect along the way?

Turns out I needn’t have worried. The delivery driver — who I gather works directly for Save-On — had no problem using the callbox, and brought everything up to the apartment door using a little delivery cart. No contact, no issues, just the food and medical supplies I needed.

No Doctors

I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll say it again, because it was the scariest part of being sick: What if I needed to see a doctor? How would I get in to a clinic in time to be of use? If I had to call 911, would anyone answer? Would there be anywhere in the hospital for me to go?

Thankfully it didn’t come to that. Though I monitored by Blood Oxygen levels using my Apple Watch (for however accurate it is), it never fell below 90%, so despite being miserable for most of a week and a lingering cough, I’ve been ok.

Going Forward

So one of the first things I did this weekend — my first time outside the apartment since the 10th — is go pick up a home testing kit.

I was already masking up indoors, which I’m going to continue doing. And I’m going to start testing on a regular basis, before doing things like meeting friends for dinner or getting a haircut (for which I’m also masked).

I know I was lucky enough to get a mild case, but having Covid was miserable. I don’t want to catch it again. I don’t want to give it to anyone else. And I hope wherever you are, that you’re staying as safe as possible.

Keeping Score: 8 July 2022

This week I’ve mostly been focused on typing up the mix of notes, scenes, and outline from my notebook for the now expanded, gender-flipped, sidekick-to-protagonist science fiction story (whew!).

I’m having to do a bit of expansion and interweaving as I go. I didn’t write the scenes in order, to begin with, and then I’ve also been blending it with what I wrote in the second (typed straight to laptop) draft, so that hopefully the whole thing is coherent.

I’m nearing the ending, which I haven’t written yet, but I’ve got such a strong image for that I think I can just type it out when I get there. Also I’ve got to lay the path for it, so to speak, by weaving in elements in these earlier scenes so the final one feels like a proper payoff, rather than an abrupt turn (though there is a turn, I just don’t want it to jolt a reader out of the story).

One thing I want to pay particular attention to, and change if I can’t get it right, is the (now) main character’s ethnicity. In my mental storyboards, she’s a second-generation Asian-American, and that’s how I’ve presented her in terms of name, etc. But in reading books like Craft in the Real World and The Girl at the Baggage Claim, and novels like Earthlings and The Woman in the Purple Skirt, I’m starting to doubt whether I can properly portray such a character. I’ve been thinking I can use my experience as an internal (and now international) immigrant as a bridge to their worldview, but I think now that that’s not enough. There’s the pervasive racism experienced by minorities in the States, and on top of that the misogyny that uniquely harms Asian-American women (I say harms, not harmed, because it keeps happening: witness the one character in “The Boys” who is introduced as completely feral and whose voice is silenced is the one Asian woman in the cast). And that’s before we get into differing family relationships, unique cultural touchstones, etc.

So I’m not sure if I should change the POV character’s ethnicity or not. I think that during these handwritten drafts I’ve found an approach that can be both representative and respectful. And I don’t want to be the kind of white writer that only writes white people (any more than I want to be the kind of male writer that only writes men). The world is diverse, and I want to represent that in my fiction. But I want to do it well, which means more than just changing a character’s name or skin color.

We’ll see how the draft comes out. And what my sensitivity readers say when they review it.

Three Things I Loved About My First Canada Day

As someone who grew up in the States, I’m used to celebrating July 4th, but I’m not used to really enjoying it. The fireworks are often cool, but the sheer volume of jingoism and military parades rub me the wrong way. They always made me feel out of place, like anything less than my-country-or-else patriotism wasn’t welcome. Not to mention the holiday itself is set on the absolute wrong day; the Declaration of Independence has absolutely no legal standing, and nothing to do whatsoever with the way the US is governed or the rights of its citizens (bringing this up at the Fourth, of course, is an easy way to get glared at).

So I was unsure what to expect for Canada Day. I’m also by myself, so no family or friends to go hang with. Thankfully, the City of Victoria threw a celebration downtown, right on the harbor, which turned out to be just about perfect.

Here’s three things I liked about this year’s celebration:

The Community

The first thing was having a community celebration at all. San Diego’s a city three times the size of Victoria, but if you look for their events for the Fourth, they’ve got the fireworks show at night, and a pub crawl, and…that’s it. No concerts, no closing off streets and setting up street vendors, nothing. The Fourth is meant to be celebrated at home, with family, and that’s it.

Which is fine if you’ve got a large family, or network of friends, but for a new immigrant like me, I was incredibly grateful to have the city’s Canada Day celebration to go to. It was completely free, with a central concert stage, bleachers on the hill facing, flanked by an open-air market and a bevy of food trucks. Oh, and a bouncy-castle style playground for the kids. And yes, there were flags, and people were wearing maple leaf shirts (and umbrella hats), but it was all low-key. No military fly-overs, just folks from all over the city out having a good time. I fit right in, and that felt great.

The Inclusivity

Speaking of fitting in, one of the reasons I wanted to go down to the celebration on Friday was to see all the shows they had lined up. They had Native dancers as part of the opening ceremonies, and Ukrainian dancers, and Chinese lion dancers, and…Just a whole host of people and communities that I’d never seen perform before.

In fact, it struck me that I’d never seen Native performers before, in person. Not in forty-three years of living in the United States. There’s never been a Fourth celebration that I’ve heard of or attended where Native Americans participated; they’ve probably never even been asked.

Now I know Canada’s record here is very far from blameless. The residential schools, the Oka Crisis, the conflicts over land and self-government that continue to this day. But one of the things Thomas King remarked on in his The Inconvenient Indian is how often colonial governments want to make native peoples invisible, to make exploiting them all the easier. And in this case, at least, the Lekwungen Traditional Dancers were making themselves more visible, right there on stage.

I confess it moved me, and as I watched them dance, followed by the Ukrainian dancers, the listened to the Ukrainian choir, then watched Chinese lion dancers jump and gambol in front of the stage, I realized they’d turned Canada Day into a celebration of diversity, instead of a suppression of it.

The Scope

That inclusivity was a reflection of another thing I noticed and liked: the breadth of the celebration.

Again, unlike the US, this wasn’t a primarily military holiday. No call-and-response about army figures who “died for our freedom.” Not that the military was absent, mind you — they had a booth in the market where they were recruiting, excuse me, “hiring” (as they put it) — just that they weren’t the focus.

So there was plenty of room for a Ukrainian choir, talking up the deep connections between Ukraine (many Ukrainians settled the Canadian plains) and Canada. And room for a local white blues musician. And for a Guinean-led band. And for a Vancouver-based electronic group. And for every announcement to be interpreted live in ASL by a woman standing prominently on the stage.

And for me.

Keeping Score: 1 July 2022

I think my writing brain is telling me to move on from the short stories.

I’ve kept up with the notebook writing this week, jotting down scenes and brainstorming directions for the plots of both short stories (the shorter mystery and the longer sci-fi one). But on Monday my fingers refused to write anything for either story, instead choosing to talk about the summer weather (which became my last blog post). And yesterday, when I reached for my notebook, I had a spark of an idea that turned into a plot for an entire rom-com novel.

It’s like my subconscious is telling me it’s bored of drafting the short stories, and wants to move on, to something different. Before I can do that, though, I need to actually type up what I’ve written freehand, and try to edit it into a coherent piece.

So that’s what I’ll be working on this weekend and next week. Typing, editing, and revising both stories, till the ideas in my notebook have been fitted into place. Hopefully that’ll be enough to keep my writing brain engaged and happy; it’s different work, after all, from drafting, and uses different muscles.

And then…maybe I’ll give this rom-com a shot? Or maybe it’s a thriller. It really depends on the ending, you see, and…

Well. We’ll see.

Summer Arrives in BC

It’s too damn hot to want to do anything, really.

Just when you think you’ve adjusted, some internal thermostat finally clicking over to “This is Fine,” the humidity kicks up another ten percent or the breeze you were depending on just to be able to breathe drops away or the thermometer slides up another degree or two. And then you’re right back where you started, standing in front of the floor fan with your shirt raised and the blinds shut tight to keep out the traitorous sun. Waiting. Wondering what’ll give up first, you or the heat.

And you think fondly — yes, fondly, now! — on early spring, when buds were just starting to poke shyly out from the trees and the sky was still dark and cold. And wet. God, you remember rain pattering against the windows and wind rattling the panes but you were safe inside, weren’t you? Not breaking out in a sweat just from crossing the room.

You do not, ever, think of winter. Winter was worse.

Keeping Score: 24 June 2022

I’ve been reading Craft in the Real World and The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop, two books that both approach the issue of how the traditional writing workshop in the US — silent author, readers and teacher judging the work, comparison to an all-white literary canon — was constructed less to promote healthy writing communities and more to reinforce white supremacy in the States.

I confess it’s been hard reading, sometimes. Being confronted with the way I’ve been taught — and taught to teach others — about writing and being shown its racist underpinnings does not make for comfortable reading. But I’m pushing past that white fragility of mine, and interrogating it, and each time what I find at the root is simply fear. Fear that I’ll be the one erased, in the kind of workshop these authors describe. Fear that I’ll become the marginalized. Because the one thing all white people know, even when we don’t want to admit it, is that being in the minority in the Western caste system sucks.

When I face that fear, and name it, I’m able to move past it, and see the workshops they’re presenting as what they really are: places where everyone can take center stage for a time, where each author is empowered with the tools and the confidence to better their craft. Those tools are there for me, too, if I’m willing to listen, and use them.

So I’m testing them out, so to speak. I don’t have a formal writing workshop to go to, but I am trying a new approach with the feedback I give to the other writers in my writing circle. I’m aiming my feedback less at “I liked this” or “I don’t like this character” and more towards highlighting the choices I see them making. Like asking how scenes might play out differently if X were changed, or querying about the symbolism behind the repetition of a certain element. I don’t know if I’m succeeding, just yet, but I’m striving for the kind of centering of the author as an actively participating artist that Salesses and Chavez encourage.

I’m also borrowing some of their practices for my own writing. For this new short story I’m writing, I’ve taken to writing out the new draft by hand, in a notebook. Chavez says she insists her students write by hand, as a way to silence the inner editor and let the words flow onto the page. And so far, it’s working; writing it out has helped me get out of my own way, and make progress on the draft, when staring at the computer screen would feel like too much pressure. Chavez is right: Something about using hand and pen and paper is liberating, making me feel less like every word needs to be perfect and more like the story in my head needs to be written down right now.

As a result, the new draft is taking shape. It’s going to be longer and more complicated than I originally thought, with POV shifts and an expanded world. The side character that I had in the first draft and then gender-flipped has now become the protagonist (!) with all the changes that entails. But where I initially approached this new draft with trepidation, now I’m excited to see it come together.

What techniques do you use, to quiet your inner editor and feel free to write the stories you most want to tell?

Going Native

So I’ve decided to apply for permanent residence here in Canada.

I know, many people apply for PR first, before they upend their lives and move thousands of miles. But I went for the work permit to start, since a) It was faster, and b) I didn’t know if I’d like it here.

After my gushing last week about how much I love living in Victoria, that second reason might sound silly. Canada’s safer than the US, with a smaller prison population, more public transit, and (generally) better health outcomes. What’s not to like?

And yet I worried. I’m 43, well past the age most folks immigrate. I worried I’d be unable to adjust to a new system, and end up clueless how to take the bus, or rent a car, or handle my finances. I worried I’d encounter a version of the ice-cold reception I got in Seattle, and never get a chance to meet new people. I worried it would be too cold, or too rainy, or cloudy, for me to ever dream of going outside the apartment.

I worried, in short, that Canada would reject me. Spit me out like a bad piece of gristle, sending me back to San Diego on the next plane.

But — so far, at least — that hasn’t happened. I have had to depend entirely on the kindness of strangers in order to navigate the various bureaucracies here, but so far, that help has been forthcoming. From the ICBC clerk who told me exactly how and where to send over my driving record to lower my insurance premiums, to the librarian who quietly reminded me that my “password” for using the self-checkout was probably the final part of my phone number.

It’s only been two months, and already, I want to stay.

So I’m assembling the pieces I’ll need to apply for Express Entry. The first part was an assessment of my college degree, to see if it meets Canada’s standards for university credit. That’s done (and my degree passed!), so now it’s on to the next piece: Taking an internationally-recognized test of English skills to verify my fluency. I’m not too worried about the test, but I’m going to take some practice exams anyway, just in case.

Once that’s done, all I’ll need is a letter from my current employer that they intend to keep me on for at least a year after I get PR status. I certainly hope they’ll be okay providing such a letter!

At that point, I’ll be able to apply. But I’m going to take one more step: Take an exam for French proficiency.

I studied French for two years in college, and I’ve brushed it up every now and then. It’s been good enough when I’ve needed it, on trips to France, so that I could get by without English. I’ve never kept up with it enough to get fully fluent, though. That’s going to change.

I found out that in 2020 they changed the rules in Canada. If your main language is English, and you test well in French (thus proving you can communicate in both official languages), they’ll give you an extra 50 points on your application. To put that in perspective, the current cutoff for getting invited to apply for permanent residency is just 66 points. So if I do well on this test, I can boost my application up and really increase my chances of getting through.

So that’s what I’m going to do. Submit my initial application as soon as possible, and then study, study, study, for the French exam. I’m hoping to be ready to take it sometime in October, which means I’d be able to update my application with the results before the end of the year.

Wish me luck!