Keeping Score: 9 September 2022

Finished typing up the first draft of the new story over the long weekend. Even found time to create a new Ulysses export style based on the Shunn Manuscript Format (the standard for most of the markets I submit to) so I don’t have to manually fix up the margins, etc when exporting to Word (there are existing Styles that claim to be standard format, but are all missing one or more essential pieces).

Not that the story is ready to submit, mind. I typed it dutifully, and edited as I went to make it the best version of this draft I could. But the tonal shifts are still too big to handle in a short story, and the ending doesn’t land with near enough force.

So over the past week I’ve taken a page from literary agent Donald Maass’ workbook, which I’ve used before to edit novels. One of the big points the workbook drives home is the need to look for connections in the story: between plots, between characters, between locations, everything. Strengthening connections can both tighten and deepen the story, making the stakes feel larger because there’s more history — more connection — between the events and characters.

For this story, I had a set of three characters loosely connected. One was the main character, who worked for one of the other characters, and had hired the protagonist to work on a case for the third. There was no prior history, no relationship between the characters other than the business one. As a result, the conflicts were mainly business conflicts: Can the protagonist get the assignment done (extracting a secret from the client)? Will she rebel against it when she finds out what it really entails? Etc. Not bad, but certainly not world-shattering, either.

But what if the three characters were more connected? What if the client was the protagonist’s father? And the person hiring her to dig into his past was her mother?

Now things get more interesting. Why would the mother pit the daughter against the father? What marriage would have that level of conflict? Why would the daughter agree to go along, at least first? And what might possibly change her mind?

This one shift generated a whole new slew of ideas for me, so much that yesterday when I sat down to work on the story, I started writing out — longhand, again — an entirely new draft. New starting scene, new tense, new voice, even (it’s now in first-person).

I’m already happier with the new draft. It feels more assured, like a train engine already running under full steam. I’m looking forward to exploring what the characters do in this new situation, with these new connections between them.

I never could have gotten there, though, without that first draft. And I’m still going to crib plot and structure from it, even if they end up squeezed into new shapes.

What about you? Have you ever done a complete rewrite of a story, and were you glad you did?

Happy Labour Day!

Taking the day off today. Thinking of going down to walk the Government House grounds, which should be open (and lovely).

Not much to report on the immigration side of things. I’m still waiting for my employer to write up a letter of support (and trying not to think about the potential implications of them dragging their feet there).

I also found out that if invited to apply for permanent residence, I’ll need a police report from the FBI (!), which they’ll only give out if you pay for it (of course) and provide them with fingerprints. They only take ink-and-paper for folks not currently living in the US (like me), and it has to be in a certain format, on a certain kind of paper…Oof.

Luckily, Canada has (once again) come through. I found a non-profit with a service for taking FBI-standard fingerprints, precisely for people like me that need them to immigrate. I’ve got an appointment there, but not till later this month, which means…more waiting.

So while I’m waiting (and you’re hopefully getting ready to spend Labour Day with family or friends), here’s some shots I took from the top of Mount Doug on Saturday, after hiking up there for the first time.

View from the east side of Mount Doug, looking south-ish
Another view from the east side, looking north-east over Cordova Bay
View from the west side, of my new home! I live near that white oval in the far-left of the shot.
The author regrets to inform you that he does not know how to take a proper selfie.

Keeping Score: 2 September 2022

Draft is done! Long live the draft!

Finished the first, very messy, draft of the new short story this week. I already kind of hate it, even after writing the last scene like the previous one didn’t happen. Both those scenes, I think, are going to see heavy edits in the next draft.

For now, though, I’m simply typing it up. Yes, typing: I wrote the first draft longhand, in a little notebook, after reading the advice in Chavez’s book on anti-racist workshopping. Her take was that making her students write out the first draft by hand made them more willing to experiment, to scratch things out and rewrite on the fly, without their inner editor getting in the way. And for the most part, I’ve found that to be true; I’ve got scenes that are out of order on the page, with squiggly lines connecting the pieces to each other in the right sequence. And knowing that I would type it all later — and “fix it in post” — made it easier to finish writing the scenes that I knew, even while writing them, that I was going to have to change.

(she also said that writing longhand got her students more in tune with their bodies, but being over-40 myself, I mostly got in tune with how quickly my hand starts to cramp up)

I am making changes as I type. Fixing a phrase here, adding some blocking (e.g., “she sat back and crossed her arms”) there. Discovering I wrote an entire scene in the wrong tense (!), or used the wrong character’s name in places.

But I’m holding off from making any big changes till I’ve finished typing it. I want to go through the whole thing once more, reading and typing, getting a better feel for how it might all fit together. I’m taking notes as I go, on things I want to change (or simply try differently, to see how it reads), so I can come back after this and do a second draft.

My intent — my hope — is to have the characters and basic plot nailed down during the second draft. (oh, you thought I’d have that set by the time I started the first draft? welcome to pantsing) From there, it’ll be much easier to iterate on revisions, including at least one pass where I’ll print it out and then go through it.

Given my current pace, I might have something to show beta readers by the end of the month? Fingers crossed.

Le Canada Sans Voiture

So this week it’ll be five months since I moved to Victoria.

Five months! It’s hard to believe. Most days it feels like I’ve only been here a few weeks.

I attribute that — mostly — to the fact that I’m still exploring. I’ve my routines, sure. Groceries every Sunday from the nearest Save-On Foods, weekend pizza from Panago, tacos from Café Mexico when I need that taste of home.

But I’m still learning about all the holidays, and the politics, and even the weather, out here. And deliberately pushing myself to go out of my normal loops, discovering parts of the island I wouldn’t normally see. Like this past weekend, when I went hiking around Elk Lake (absolutely gorgeous, go if you get a chance, the photo at the top of this post is from Beaver Lake, just south of Elk).

Thankfully, to do all this exploring, I’ve not (yet) needed something that would have been critical back in the States: A car.

True, I’ve got my BC Drivers License. And my apartment allots one parking space (for an extra fee). But I came up without a car, partly as an experiment (nothing pushes you to learn public transport like being vehicleless) and partly out of expedience: The Bolt EV I drove back in San Diego is currently under recall, and you can’t import a recalled car to Canada.

Hence the need for an apartment in downtown Victoria, where I knew I could at least get the essentials on foot. What I didn’t know was how long I could go without getting a car, especially if I wanted to take advantage of being close to so much natural beauty (which I definitely do). Or do normal things like, say, head to the mall, or get to the airport, etc.

Back home in San Diego, for example, there’s only one bus that goes to the airport, and it’s on a very short route with an infrequent schedule. So unless you happen to live basically on Harbor Drive (the road to the airport), it’s useless. And the city has a trolley, but it’s designed mainly for bringing tourists from their hotels north of downtown to the downtown district, and nothing else. My wife and I tried living in San Diego without a car when we first moved there, but it was miserable, and we gave up after a few months.

In contrast, here in Victoria — a city about one-third the size of San Diego — I’ve been getting along just fine. It helps that the city itself is rather compact, so I can reach most parts of it by foot.

Now, “by foot” has expanded in scope a bit since my move. Back in San Diego the twenty-minute walk I take to my local Indigo bookstore would be a non-starter. Getting to any mall like Mayfair in San Diego would involve trying to cross a freeway or two, which is not something you really want to do on foot (and that’s assuming there’s even sidewalks to take you there). But here, the walk’s a twenty-minute stroll along a tree-lined street past smaller shopping centres, apartment buildings, and parks. It’s not a chore. It’s pleasant.

But what about reaching the airport? I’ve had to do this twice since moving here, and there’s multiple options. One is to fly out of Vancouver, which means taking a bus (there’s two routes that go from Victoria to the ferry terminal, running every fifteen minutes or so most days) to the ferry (which is awesome) and then connecting to YVR.

The second is to fly out of Victoria’s own airport, which means taking a bus (again, pick one of several routes) and then walking past some fields to the airport. No car required. (and if you don’t want to bother with changing buses, etc, there’s a reasonably-priced BC Ferries Connector that can take you all the way from downtown Victoria to Vancouver airport).

Getting to Elk Lake, which is a good 13km north of me, was again a matter of just hopping on a bus (there are five routes, at last count, that can get me up there) for a short ride north. I’m looking to hike Mount Doug next, and that’ll again be a direct bus ride out to the park.

Granted, I don’t have children; needing to ferry them around to school and activities might push me to get a car. And I live in the city itself, not one of the suburbs, like Langford.

But still. In the States, no city this small would have even a fraction of this kind of public transportation. No city this small would be this walkable, either. They wouldn’t bother building the sidewalks, to start with, and they wouldn’t be as safe (cities in the States actually get more dangerous, statistically, as they shrink in size).

So I’m happy to be car-free. We’ll see if I can make it the full year, though (because winter is coming).

Keeping Score: 26 August 2022

Ever write a scene, and immediately regret it?

This week I’ve been focusing on finishing one, just one, of the story first draft I’m in the middle of. I carefully plotted out what scenes were left at the start of the week, and spent each day’s writing session chugging along, setting them down.

Only when I got to the second-to-last scene, I made it halfway through before coming to a screeching halt. Despite all my well-laid plans, I was suddenly out of track, for two reasons.

One, I’d decided to have the main character expose her boss as a fake, by flipping open the many file boxes her boss has strewn around and showing them all to be empty. Very dramatic, fun scene, in my head. Only I forgot to come up with a reason why the boxes were empty.

So when I got to the part where she opened them up, and I needed to show her boss’ reaction, I had nothing. No idea. Nothing to see here folks, the muse has gone home for the day.

Two, even once I’d spent some time brainstorming ideas for the boxes, and started back in on the scene, I realized the tone was completely wrong. I’d started the story off as a meditation on memory and purpose, with a protagonist gradually realizing she wants to do something else with her life.

Emphasis on gradually. Not big-d Dramatically, or in some blaze of glory, but over time, like the tide receding from a beach. And here I had this high-volume scene right towards the end of the story. It doesn’t wok, and I knew it wouldn’t work as I was writing it.

But I finished the scene anyway. I’ve been told too many times, by too many authors more experienced and skilled than me, that stopping to edit in the middle of a draft is an excellent way to never get anything finished.

And once again, they’ve turned out to be right! Because in finishing the scene, and chewing it over once I’d done it, I realized moving the scene earlier in the story — with some tweaks — will give it all the things it was missing before: a ticking clock, a purpose behind the boss’ actions, a push for the protagonist to make her life-altering decision.

I’ve got one more scene left to write in this draft, so I’m going to take another page out of their advice, and write it like I’ve already made the change I’m thinking of doing in the next draft. That way, when I actually write that draft, this final scene won’t need as many edits (and I’ll have a completed draft, which is an accomplishment on its own).

What about you? Have you ever had a scene (or a story) that you thought you’d need to throw away, and instead it became the spark that set off something even better?

I Found Canadian Healthcare!

Finally.

After waiting sixty days for my Personal Health Number to arrive (and be valid), then sitting on the BC family physician waitlist for ninety days (and counting), then trying to get into a walk-in clinic (you have to call in for an appointment these days) and failing, I finally, finally, saw a doctor.

Granted, I only saw them virtually. I’m still on the GP waitlist, and I’ve yet to set foot inside a walk-in clinic. But I spoke with a real, BC-licensed doctor, got a real prescription, and had it filled at a local pharmacy.

Thank goodness.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m in general good health (post-Covid). I’ve managed to dodge the family diabetes so far (touch wood), I don’t have any mobility issues, and my asthma has actually gotten better since moving to BC (cleaner air than the States). But I’ve had an issue for the last few months that I wanted to get checked out, because it didn’t seem to be getting better on its own.

Luckily, one of my friends at work (that also lives in BC), recommended I checkout Maple, a tele-health company operating in Canada. I was skeptical, but out of options, so I signed up, and was pleasantly surprised to find out they had BC-licensed doctors, which meant my consultation (their word) would be covered by my provincial health insurance.

Not everything is covered, mind you. They have dermatologists and other specialists available, but those are not covered by provincial health insurance (yet), so they charge for those. And you have to select BC GP (not the normal GP button!) in order to get covered care.

Which is only available certain times of day, of course. And while their estimated wait time is an hour, I spent close to two hours keeping tabs on my laptop’s screen, waiting for a GP to pop in.

But they did, eventually, show up! And one look at the pictures I uploaded (ahead of time, while waiting for the GP) was all they needed to diagnose exactly what was wrong, soothe my worries about it being serious, and issue a prescription to fix it.

I was expecting a video call, but it was just chat at first (I guess that’s simpler to implement, and is why they have you upload pictures). They surprised me by calling me at the end of the text chat, just to see if I had any other questions about the diagnosis or the medicine.

They surprised me again by being…well…very Canadian! That is, professional but not rushed, willing to chat a bit and earnestly interested in my well-being. I know: “They’re a doctor, they’re all interested in your well-being,” but that has not been my experience in the States. So it was nice to once again have the experience of encountering not bureaucracy, but people, in this Canadian system.

After the call, Maple sent my Rx direct to the pharmacy I chose, after a few button clicks online. And that was that!

I know this wasn’t a life-threatening condition, but it was such a relief to finally get access to healthcare after being in limbo for so long. To know that it can be there when I need it, and free.

Hope wherever you are, that you can get the help you need, when you need it, whatever form of help that might be.

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.